Three Kent territorial army units were destroyed 80 years ago today, in what has since been described as a massacre of the innocents.
Kent journalist Ron Green, whose father was one of them, tells their tragic story.
More than 1,000 men were killed or captured in 14 hours of horror as they battled to hold back overwhelming Nazi forces, on May 20, 1940.
They were under-trained and under-equipped soldiers who had never heard a shot fired in anger.
And they were pitched against German tanks and battle-hardened troops in the Battle of France.
They weren’t trained to fight. Kent’s Territorials went to France as “digging divisions”, manual labourers who hacked out trenches, built airfields and railway sidings and strung barbed wire.
Many of them joined up during the “phoney war” after Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3. Nothing much seemed to happen that winter. It didn’t stay like that.
A few weeks after arriving in France in April 1940, the untrained Territorials were on the front line fighting for their lives. Some had never fired a rifle before. Getting on for 2,000 soldiers went out, fewer than 400 got back. The others were missing – either killed or captured.
Who were the Kent Territorials?
Three battalions from two famous Kent regiments – the 6th and 7th battalions of the Royal West Kents and the 5th battalion of the Royal East Kents, known as The Buffs.
The West Kents, based in Invicta Park Barracks, Maidstone, proudly wore the white horse of Kent as their badge. The Buffs, based in Howe Barracks, Canterbury, had the Anglo-Saxon dragon as their badge.
As Territorials they were reserve troops to do the behind-the-lines labouring so the regular soldiers could get on with the fighting. The officers were reservists or young subalterns. An assurance was given that they would not be called on to fight before they were properly trained and equipped. But there was no time for training before that promise had to be broken.
So what went wrong?
Blitzkrieg happened, the German word for “lightning war”. Nazi Germany launched stop-at-nothing lightning strikes involving tanks, called panzers, highly mobile, well-trained troops with powerful Luftwaffe air support.
They swept into Poland in September 1939 and triggered what became the Second World War. By the time Kent’s Territorials were shipped to France the invasion of Norway was under way and Denmark over-run.
The British Expeditionary Force, which included regular soldiers from both the West Kents and the Buffs, joined the fight to stop the Germans.
But there was no stopping them.
The Nazi invasion of the Low Lands began on May 10. Neutral Holland and Luxembourg were quickly over-run. There were days of bitter fighting to save Belgium but the outnumbered Allies were slowly forced back towards the French border. Things were about to go from bad to worse.
A daring surprise attack was launched in the Ardennes, a forested region straddling Germany and the north-west corner of France. The French believed the terrain was impassable. About 1,000 German tanks, strongly backed by infantry, proved that wrong.
As the Nazis swept into France the British military leaders realised that their expeditionary force faced being cut off. On May 17, they called on what forces they had in reserve - the three Kent Territorial battalions. Four days later those battalions no longer existed.
The killing grounds
The French towns of Albert and Doullens in the Somme saw some of the worst battles of the First World War and they were about to be written into the history of the Second World War.
On May 17, the 5th Buffs and 6th West Kents were ordered to go by road to Doullens, about 60 miles from the Belgian border. The 100-mile journey was slow. The road was choked with refugees and fleeing French forces, all heading in the opposite direction – away from the approaching Germans.
The panzers were on their way to Doullens too. The Territorials arrived there on the afternoon of May 18 and began building defensive positions around the town.
They worked through the night. As they did so secret talks between the War Office and the Admiralty concluded the only hope of rescue for the British forces was evacuation from a French port called Dunkerque.
A rear-guard action was essential to buy time. That evening new orders arrived for the troops in Doullens. The West Kents were to hold the town and the Buffs were to defend a six-mile section of the road and railway leading from Doullens to Arras, a direct route to the Belgian border.
A few miles south, the 7th West Kents were already in action. Although they were “ill-trained and ill-armed” they were part of a force sent to hold back the Germans. Their heavy fire stopped an advance force crossing a canal.
The Germans fell back and waited for the rest of their division.
That night the 7th battalion was ordered to withdraw to a town called Albert, a few miles away, and hold it. Their 6th battalion comrades were strengthening their defences in Doullens. The Buffs were creating defensive positions in ditches and buildings along the Arras road.
It was another sleepless night for all of them. And the scene was set for the massacre of the innocents on Monday, May 20, 1940.
Battle of Albert
A vicious air raid welcomed the 7th West Kents to Albert at about 6am. They were repeatedly attacked as they struggled to find shelter and as they set up defensive positions the first Panzers and German infantry arrived. Most men only had their rifles. There were some Bren guns (light machine guns) and anti-tank rifles but few of the men had ever used them. Nevertheless, the fighting was heavy, and so was the casualty rate.
A Lieutenant seriously wounded dragging ammunition from a blazing lorry was rescued and carried on organising his men in the cellar of a building being pounded by shell fire. Tanks – about 50 - kept arriving from different directions.
Some Territorials were forced into the town centre and pinned down by “all enveloping” fire from close range. Others tried to battle their way through the narrow streets. After two hours of desperate fighting the brave West Kents were overwhelmed.
Approximately 600 went to Albert. Only about 250 got out. They split into small groups and set off for the coast through countryside over-run by the enemy. About 70 eventually reached Boulogne and helped defend the port. Only 25 got back to Maidstone. The rest were reported missing – killed or captured.
Battle of Doullens
The Buffs strung thinly along the road to Arras heard the enemy before they saw them – the chilling sound of panzers getting closer. The three front-line companies each had three Bren guns and anti-tank rifles. Most men had not been trained to use them. There was no ammunition for the one small calibre mortar and no hand grenades. Each man had a rifle.
The approaching tanks were seen and heard at about 11.30am. They opened fire at about midday. Panzers, closely followed by infantry, quickly crossed the railway line and sliced through the Buffs. At 1pm battalion HQ decided the Buffs were so heavily outnumbered they must withdraw.
A dispatch rider sent with the order was wounded and never delivered the message. Then it was too late. The Buffs were surrounded. At 2pm a patrol told HQ that all front-line companies were cut off and it was assumed all men would be killed or captured.
The battalion’s war diary says that from that point 5th Buffs ceased to exist.
But Doullens was still held by the 6th West Kents. The troops came under shelling and machine gun fire soon after noon but forced some of the attackers back.
The Luftwaffe bombed Doullens. Panzers pulverised the defences. Buildings blazed. A Corporal rescued three seriously wounded men while under machine gun fire. Road blocks were overrun.
By 2pm the Kent lads began to withdraw to the town centre to make a desperate last stand. The shelling was described as “merciless” but they held on until 8pm when they surrendered. That was 14 hours after their 7th battalion colleagues began fighting for their lives in Albert.
Some of the 6th battalion did escape under cover of darkness and a few eventually reached Cherbourg. It is thought that only 75 got back to Kent.
Was it worth it?
Approximately 1,000 of the West Kent Territorials and 500 of the 5th Buffs were reported missing, either killed or captured. They were sacrificed by generals who knew they didn’t have a chance. But rear-guard troops were desperately needed to slow the German advance.
And they did - it was estimated that the German advance was delayed for up to eight hours and every hour was valuable. Lord Gort, the expeditionary force commander, said that despite inexperience and lack of equipment the Territorials proved they could hold their own against a “better-found and more numerous enemy”.
The Nazi’s war diary said they only made ground slowly “with continual fighting against an enemy who defended himself stubbornly” - a tribute to the courage of untrained soldiers pitched into a battle already lost.
Why I wrote this story – and the sources
My dad, Ron Green (I was given the same name), was a private in the 5th Buffs and captured as he tried to defend the Arras road outside Doullens with what he thought was a First World War rifle. Two of his company officers and some of his platoon were shot down around him. He thought he was going to die too but was one of the many who became a prisoner of war. VE day was five years away.
Dad, who was 22, endured shocking conditions as a prisoner in Poland. He was made to work in coal and lead mines, harvest sugar beet from frozen fields and forced at gunpoint to dig up bodies and remove gold teeth from the remains.
In January 1945 he was one of 30,000 Allied prisoners forced to flee the approaching Russians. Some of the unfit and poorly clothed PoWs died of exposure, exhaustion and hunger in the bitter Polish winter. Somehow my dad got to Salzburg in Austria.
He was repatriated by the Americans and sent home in May 1945. Back in Kent he discovered that bombing had flattened his family home in Station Road, Strood, and he had a new sister. He also had TB and a few years later lost the best part of a lung in a life-saving operation.
"In his 60s he told me the nightmares were triggered by talking about the war or war films - that was after 40 years."
For my lovely dad the war never really ended. He had terrible nightmares. As a boy I became accustomed to being woken by his cries. In his 60s he told me the nightmares were triggered by talking about the war or war films - that was after 40 years.
He was only 66 when he died in 1984 soon after retiring as a wholesale newsagent.
Bits of this story are based on what little he told me. The rest comes from war diaries, the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Museum in Maidstone, internet forums and two books.
Retreat and Rearguard, Dunkirk 1940, by Jerry Murland, says the plight of the Territorials was a “massacre of the innocents”.
The War in France 1939-40 by Major LF Ellis describes them as “pawns set out on a board”.