Many stories have been told, and accounts published, recording the activities and experiences of 7th Battalion The Royal Sussex Regiment between their formation in 1939 and demise in 1940. Within those accounts there are many gaps and conflicting details. Given the chaos that existed at the time, the loss of the original Battalion Diaries and the waning memories over the years this is hardly surprising.
Whilst this may be unfortunate from a historical perspective, and frustrating to those who would prefer certainty, there is no doubt that a largely untrained and ill-equipped infantry unit of the British Army held up the highly organised, well-trained and motorised spearhead of the swiftly advancing German Army for a number of hours.
The following notes make no attempt to resolve the discrepancies in
the story, but to record the various versions of the details.
Battalion formed in late 1939. Based at Dyke Road Barracks
Battalion strength at about March 1940: ‘A’ Co. 54, ‘B’ Co. 45, ‘C’ Co. 54, ‘D’ Co. 49, ‘HQ’ Co. 174 - Total 376
Advance party departed for France from Brighton 6th April 1940 - embarked Southampton 8th April 1940, on Clan MacAlister - arrived Le Havre 9th April 1940.
Battalion strength increased by the arrival of reinforcements drafted from the Dorsetshire Regiment on 18th April 1940.
Battalion left Brighton 21st April 1940 - embarked Southampton on Ben-my-Cree - arrived Le Havre on 22nd April 1940.
‘A’ Co. detrain at Buchy Station to guard ammunition. dump at Argueil. Remainder detrain at St. Saens then to Rosay, 25 miles NNE of Rouen.
Battalion strength at 28th April 1940: 620. 131 reinforcements requested.
Reinforcements arrive from Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry.
Departed Rosay at midnight on 17th/18th May 1940. Entrained 01.00 2 trucks of RE’s attached to train. Move off at 04.30 (dawn). Orders to travel to Abbeville but changed to Lens, then Amiens
Arrived railway sidings near St Roch station 18th May 1940. Bombing commenced at 15.15. Casualties = 60 or 80 [about 25 killed] of 541, or 100 of 500, according to 1940 newspaper article.
On seeing the bombing ahead, the 6th Battalion train, which was following, halted in a cutting 15.30-21.30, before making way on to Paris. 7th Battalion moved to a nearby wood where they camped overnight.
The following day, 19th May, at about 10.00 they marched via the Station and WW1 war memorial, up the Amiens/Poix road to Chateau Blanc. The men spent the day cleaning up and resting. Colonel Gethen tried unsuccessfully to get orders. Two other trains are bombed in the station and goods yard 12.00-14.00.
The German attack started at about 14.00 on 20th May 1940 with shells overhead and then machine gun and mortar fire. 7th R.S. were equipped with rifles with 50 rounds per man, 2-3 Brens, one antitank gun with 10 rounds and 2x2” mortars equipped with smoke bombs. In the evening the men were told to retreat and at 19.15 the order to surrender was given.
The attacking force was Motorcycle Battalion of 1st Panzer Division under Major von Wietershiem, or Oberlieutenant Watjen who ‘pushed forward into the Salouel area’ or Oberlieutenant Richter.
There were many casualties. The number of known deaths is 132: Abbeville 45, Beauvais 2, Berlin 1, Kracow 3, Dunkirk 31, Hastings 1, Isleworth 1, Liverpool 1, London 1, Lydd 1, Morvillers 1, Neufchatel 6, Nottingham 1, Pont-de-Metz 12, Poznan 1, Rodmell 1, Rouen 2, Salouel 18, Seaford 1, Viroflay(Paris) 1, Wandsworth 1.
Number of known POWs is 165. Of those who escaped the battlefield the majority made for Rouen. From there to Blain, near Nantes, and then to Cherbourg where, on about 7th June 1940, they boarded the Duke of York for Southampton. They then went to Northumberland.
109 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery (Royal Sussex Regiment [TA]) was formed by the conversion to artillery of 7th Battalion Royal Sussex (HQ Brighton) and served in the UK until 1944. As part of 106th Brigade they returned to France (D+4). They were stood down in 1946 and disbanded in 1947.
Survivors from the battalion have made commemorative trips to France in 1980, 1985, 1986, May 1990, November 1990, 1997, 1999 and 2000.
A memorial to the men was erected by the City of Amiens authorities at the site of the battle, following the first commemorative trip in 1980 and before 1985. The memorial was relocated to an adjacent site in 1999.
A further memorial was erected by the SNCF in 1990, in the waiting
hall of St Roch Station.
Brief Version of the Battle
In May 1940, 7th Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment broke camp at Rosay, in northern France, and boarded a train which was intended to take them forward, as part of the Allied Forces’ effort to defend France against Hitler’s invading armies.
About 3pm on a warm Saturday 18th May, 1940, the sun was shining through breaks in the clouds, as the train braked for a signal check near to Amiens, St. Roch station. The men were looking forward to lunch, which was being prepared in the rear wagons and, during the 15-minute stop, some got down from the train and passed the time picking flowers at the trackside. As the signal cleared and the train started to move, they jumped back on, still clutching the flowers which they had gathered, with no idea of the destruction which was about to come upon them!
As the train moved into the station yard, enemy planes appeared from between the clouds and dive-bombed the train, destroying the locomotive and the officers’ coach with the first salvo. As the bombing and strafing continued, the men took cover wherever they could - including beneath the wagons of a nearby ammunition train! As a result of this bombardment, many were either killed or wounded.
During the course of the next two days, those that were left, regrouped and made their way to the nearest high ground, alongside the Poix road, to await orders from HQ. The orders never came. Instead, with only small arms, limited ammunition and a few anti-tank rifles, they found themselves facing a German Panzer Division!
Around lunchtime on Monday 20th May, 1940, the first shots were fired and the Battalion deployed to face the enemy. Somehow, they managed to put one of the enemy tanks out of action and this made the Germans very cautious. All through that afternoon, the Germans pounded the British positions, advancing only very slowly, in the apparent belief that they were dealing with a highly-trained and fully-equipped force. This misconception, once created, was certainly effective in slowing the Germans’ advance but the cost in terms of lives lost and injuries suffered on the British side was colossal!
Over the course of these 3 days, 18th-20th May, literally hundreds of men lost their lives. Many others were injured and the Battalion was destroyed. Of those that survived, most spent years in German POW camps and only a very few escaped, by various means, back to England.
Sources of Information:
- Company photos
- Regimental diary in PRO
- Personal and published accounts
- Summary of War Diary in PRO signed Col. Gethen
- Letter of 15th October 1975 from Bundesarchiv Militarachiv to D Swift
- Suggested addition to War diary in PRO made by Captain G H Cook
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission letter of 8th May 1997
- Royal Artillery Historical Trust letter of 7th October 1975