Battle of France
Len’s passing out parade took place opposite the prison at Albany Barracks on the Isle of Wight. At the end of the training he was moved to the 5th Battalion (Cinque Port) of the Royal Sussex Regiment, Transport Section. Just before Christmas 1939 Len was surprised to be preparing for a move with the Battalion to France.
When they arrived in France at Cherbourg railway station he was dispatched by train to a small village called Conteville (There are about 6 Conteville’s in France, Len could not confirm which one, although the nearest to Cherbourg is close to Honfleur and the Seine estuary).
At Conteville he was billeted on a farm and slept in a large warm hay loft for 3 weeks. The French owner of the farm gave them food to supplement their army rations. He was posted on guard duties in the surrounding fields; many cows got shot in the evenings, as suspect Germans.
During this ‘Phoney’ war the Germans dropped many propaganda leaflets. The only British aircraft that he saw flying overhead at this time were Lysanders flying reconnaissance missions, Len wasn’t very impressed with the lack of air cover.
He was later moved on to the town of Lille near the Belgium border, where he had duties around the big hospital at Lille and did more military training. They moved from Lille further into the Ardennes forest where they were billeted, sleeping on ground sheets. He felt they were poorly trained and that the Germans could have walked over them. They spent months training in the Ardennes area.
Allies fall back
As the British moved further into Belgium, eventually they were ordered back to Lille by the Belgium authorities. The Belgium police monitored and organised the withdrawal.
Parts of the 51st Highland Division were with Len and the scene was one of chaos.
Len drove trucks to supply ammunition and food to 51st Highland Division artillery positions. The artillery would often be located in woods and copses, which offered good camouflage to the men and guns. Sometimes he would exchange food with French troops whilst on these supply runs.
Having been pushed back by the German advance to Lille, Len rested at the hospital on the outskirts of the city, sleeping on the hospital floor for about 2 days and 1 night.
At Lille, Brigadier Viner gave them directions to De Panne, which was the British GHQ. They were broken up into small units of about 5 to 12 men and given maps, then told to make their way to De Panne, approx 40 miles away on the French coast. Although he had a Bren Gun Carrier (a lightly armoured tracked vehicle sometimes used for reconnaissance) Len could not use it because the Luftwaffe were strafing anything on the roads. So they destroyed the vehicles and took to walking cross country, they cursed the RAF for not supporting them.
Whilst finding their way to De Panne, French farmers would often help them to avoid German troops and give them directions across the fields. They would also find serviceable civilian vehicles and drive them as far as possible towards De Panne; Len would often be the driver.
On the way to De Panne they passed by Dixmude. They were distraught and hungry. They prayed, were afraid to touch any food and they believed the wells had been poisoned. At the time they thought that 5th columnist French might have poisoned the wells, so they drank water from ponds and similar sources.
There were many stories circulated around the Allied troops about 5th columnists, including Germans dressed as monks or nuns, most of the stories were rumours and probably untrue. Ref ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’ by Walter Lord.
When they reached De Panne, they took the coastal route to Dunkirk. The roads to Dunkirk were extremely busy, full of civilians, prams and children. The Luftwaffe would come along and strafe the fleeing French and Belgian civilians, killing and wounding large numbers. The allied troops kept to the fields to avoid the attacks.
By this time Len had acquired the nickname ‘Hector’ after a cartoon strip dog in a newspaper that was famous for smelling out trouble! He kept the name until 1945.