A Few Days in May 1940
Since the 15th, refugees had been passing through the town, coming from the north and from Belgium, going west. At St Roch Station, trains were running at a rate of 190 every 24 hours, in both directions. There was everything: refugees, wounded troops, etc.
On May 18th, amongst all this activity, there was a train of English Army Troops, which was due to pass at 3.30pm through the St Roch fork, coming from the west and leaving towards the north. It carried the number w4310 in the railway operating schedule.
It was at 3.00pm that the town and its suburbs suffered its first aerial attack.
During this time, the w4310 was progressing towards Amiens and was in sight of the outer signals for St Roch Station.
In the carriages and wagons, the soldiers unaware of the danger which threatened them, talked and joked.
The w4310 encountered a warning signal at danger and the driver according to regulations, reduced his speed so as to be able to halt at the following stop signal, if that was at danger.
At signal box 2, the signalman was busy on his telephone, he had not received notification that the track was clear and he could not release his signal for the passage of w4310.
The train stopped and it was at that moment that the drama commenced, linking St Roch Station and the 7th Battalion from Sussex.
It was 3.30pm when a formation of bombers surged in and attacked the w4310, as well as everything else in the area between signal box 2 and signal box 3, MVK train 6900, shunting engines, goods wagons. It was a deluge of bombs and the action lasted for 25 minutes.
There were dead and wounded amongst the ranks of the railway workers and amongst the English soldiers and considerable damage to equipment, installations and wagons.
So who were they, these English soldiers whose memory we honour?
On 21st April 1940, the 6th and 7th Battalions belonging to the 36th Brigade (Northern district - General Beauman) disembarked in France. Their intended mission was maintenance and guarding of the lines of communication behind the front held by British troops.
These Battalions were comprised of soldiers who were neither experienced nor trained, they were young recruits. The Commander in Chief of British troops, General Gort, had committed not to use them in an operational role, for as long as their training was not completed. But, lo and behold, on 10th May 1940, the Germans invaded Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, when most of the British troops had advanced through northern France.
General Gort, to protect the southern flank threatened by the German attack in the Ardennes, called on the three pioneer corps Divisions, which included the 6th and 7th Sussex Battalions. That was why, coming from the west where they were stationed alongside Rosay, to move themselves to the north, they had boarded the w4310 on the morning of 18th May 1940. Bad luck dictated that this train, stopped at St Roch station signals, would become the target of German bombers.
In the course of the attack, a bomb fell between the tender of the train engine and the first coach, where the officers were. There were dead and wounded, which included Colonel R Gethen. There were also some in the train and particularly towards the rear part. In the immediate aftermath, the survivors pulled out the dead and assisted the wounded, who were taken and treated at the Hotel Dieu by a doctor, Captain Lemoine, assisted by nurses, Miss Migeot and Miss Delattre.
According to the report from the station master, there were 25 dead from the military and, according to another source from that period, out of the 500 members of the regiment on the train, there were about 100 dead and wounded.
This awful moment having passed and to conceal themselves from observation by the aircraft which were likely to return, the survivors under the orders of Colonel Gethen even though he was wounded, withdrew to a small wood not very far from the site of the bombardment, where they reorganised themselves. The Colonel moved the Battalion into a defensive position, ready to resist, even though they had insufficient supplies of arms and ammunition. From their position, they witnessed on 19th May the awful bombardment of Amiens and the uninterrupted stream of refugees along the Poix road.
On the morning of the 20th, the flow of refugees dwindled and in questioning the last few they learned that the Germans were in Amiens in large numbers. From that, it was clear to them that the Royal Sussex would soon have to be facing up to the fearsome German war machine.
The Colonel assembled the Company Commanders and explained to them that since he had received no orders, it was his intention to hold the position up to the limit of his ability to do so. He therefore deployed the Battalion along the Amiens-Rouen road, on a quarter-mile front.
At lunchtime, the enemy made contact and the soldiers of the 7th Battalion replied with some success, by putting an opposing tank out of action, which made them cautious. The assailants called up their air force, which came to bomb the area where the English were entrenched. About 3pm, the adversary launched a violent attack against the centre positions of the 7th Battalion, with tanks and infantry, heavy mortar and artillery fire. The fusillade was awful but, despite the unequal odds, the men stood firm.
To relieve the threat to his centre, the Colonel called on the reserve Company and the one on the right of his position. He then made a tour of his positions and measured the losses in men and the depletion of his supplies in the grip of the enemy armour. He saw that he had reached the end of his options and concluded that he should end the battle.
In the evening, led by their chief, those who were left of the 7th Battalion surrendered to the crack troops of the Panzer Division. What an astonishment it was for the Germans to see this handful of men who had, by their courage and their determination, held off for several hours an armoured formation belonging to a prestigious Division, General Rommel’s.
General Rommel made known his admiration to the Commander of the Royal Sussex, via the intermediary of Oberleutnant Richter, during an inspection of Spangenburg Prisoner of War Camp in Germany. The Oberleutnant was at Rommel’s side on May 20th.
As we pay homage to the English soldiers who so valiantly distinguished themselves on the land of our Picardy, I ask you to think in the same way of what we owe to the men of the 51st Picardy Regiment, part of the 3rd DIM, which during the period 10th to 25th May, pushed back the violent assaults of Guderian’s 10th Panzers and the Grossdeutschland Regiment, who wanted to force a passage through the Ardennes around the village of Stonne. The village was taken and retaken seven times and eventually destroyed.
On the monument erected at Grandes Armoises, home of the 51st Regiment, are listed 475 dead, 805 wounded and 110 missing.