Saturday, 6 November 2010

16th August to 15th September 1944 - Flers and Hacqueville

We watched August drift slowly into September near Flers, but soon after we had orders to move forward again. During this period British and American armoured formations were rolling across France, traversing stupendous distances each day.

In no time at all, the Battalion found itself two hundred miles behind the front line. Members of NAAFI and the ATS were further forward than ourselves.

Consequently we were glad on September 3rd to move to Hacqueville, a little village some eight miles East of Les Andelys-sur--Seine. The distance was about 150 miles and the journey was, for most people, an uncomfortable one.

All available transport had been centralized by Second Army to supply the forward and follow up Divisions, so that, being in reserve, we could only procure three tonners and not Troop Carrying Vehicles.

Additionally there was a scarcity of these, and the men, seated on Compo-Ration boxes, were bundled tightly together. The necessity for this was, however, fully understood by all ranks, and some of the hardship was mitigated by long halts and frequent libations of tea.

We were in Hacqueville by 1850 hrs having left Flers at 0400 hrs, and we were glad to find at the end of the journey an hospitable village in which all companies were able to live under cover.

The journey had been an interesting one, and we passed through many historical towns like Laigle, Verneuil, Breteuil, Louviers and Les Andelys itself, in all of which the convoy received a great welcome from the civilians.

We were also glad to see at first, hand the extent of the damage inflicted on the Boche in the recent advance, for, although we bypassed the principle scene of destruction, the Falaise Gap, German equipment was liberally spread about our route and it was exhilarating to see these fruits of success.

Once settled in Hacqueville, the Battalion resumed training. Many reinforcements had been absorbed since the days of Caen and Troarn, and section, platoon and company training was badly needed to restore that standard of controlled teamwork that had been achieved by D Day, and had proved itself in the initial battles.

An NCOs Cadre Course was begun, and some excellent counter mortar training, organised by the CRA, was carried out by our Intelligence Section and some NCOs from companies. We also had great pleasure in welcoming Brigadier C. H. L. Mole, DSO, MC, an old friend of the Battalion, who gave a lecture to our officers and the officers of the Lincolns on the assault crossing of the Seine, which had been carried out at VERNON.

This was particularly valuable to the Battalion, because our specialised role within the Division was assault river crossing and much valuable experience and advice was gained from this lecture.

Brigadier Mole had himself commanded the Assault Brigade and he brought with him his supporting gunner, Lt/Colonel Bishel, since killed in Holland, and Lt/Colonel Lipscombe, who commanded 4th Bn The Somerset Light Infantry, the left hand forward Battalion, so that we were given the whole story at first hand. This is a good opportunity to thank these officers for the trouble they took to give us the benefit of their experiences.

Apart from training, life in Les Andelys had its lighter sides. Five Pipers under Pipe Major Doyle from Kings Liverpool Irish had joined the Battalion at Flers, and now in Hacqueville we found ample occasion to use them.

On 5th September, for the first time in the history of the Battalion, the pipers played while the Adjutant mounted the Guard. Later they performed at a football match between the local team and our own men, and they gave many exhibitions up and down the main street.

The people were delighted and turned out in great numbers to watch and applaud. Subsequently they played with spirit when the Commander of our Brigade, Brigadier G. D. Browne, inspected the Battalion and took the salute at a march past.

Recreation was abundant in this area, in spite of severe petrol restrictions, imposed by the necessity of supplying the forward troops. Parties went to ENSA and Cinema shows in Gisors, to the Divisional Club, beautifully sited on the banks of the Seine in Les Andelys, and some even to Rouen.

Later trips to Paris were officially blessed and a small percentage of the Battalion was able to make one visit to this gay city before it was found necessary to discontinue them.

Such was the background to the crossing of the Escaut Canal towards which the Battalion began to move from Hacqueville on 16th September.

We had been out of contact for nearly six weeks and although the prolonged rest at Flers and Les Andelys was most welcome, we were all glad to move again to new lands and fresh contacts.

A period of static training in a theatre of war is a paradoxical state of affairs and most people found it an unsatisfactory one; so we started on 16th September well rested, looking forward to the future and glad to be able to close down on the past.

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