Today I want to have a look at a battle fought during the Blitzkrieg against France in 1940. This particular battle isn't that well known, and yet one of the roads at the location is named after the unit involved, in honor of the stiff resistance the troops put up. So here's the story of F Troop, K Battery, 5th Royal Horse Artillery.
5 RHA was moving towards Cassel on 24th of May 1940, during the German invasion of France. F Troop, with a small HQ from the battery was dispatched to Hondeghem to guard the flank of the force. A scratch infantry unit of 75 men, with 12 Bren guns, from the 2nd Searchlight regiment was sent with them to provide infantry support.
The four 18 Pounders of F Troop were in position later that afternoon, along with the infantry. the 18 Pounders had first served in World War One, but had remained effective as field guns. After most were lost in France they were almost entirely replaced by 25 Pounders. Two guns were outside the village, with a screen of infantry and two more stationed beside the Church.
The following morning a Bren gun carrier roared up and issued a warning to the forward most gun, that a large force of Germans was approaching. The Germans in question where two companies of Panzers and an infantry Regiment from the 6th Panzer Division. The carrier was sent to report to the Troop's HQ.
After a short while a Panzer was seen moving along the road towards Hondeghem. The first gun, commanded by Troop Sergeant Major Opie, waited until the Panzer was fully exposed and less than 80 yards away. At that point TSM Opie ordered the 18 Pounder to fire, knocking the tank out. A line of several more Panzers and infantry then followed the first, attacking towards the gun pit. Both guns opened fire disabling another German tank. The rear most gun was then targeted by a storm of mortar shells and knocked out of action, leaving the Opie's gun alone.
The German's advance now enveloped the 18 Pounder on two sides, with small arms hammering the position when a Panzer charged up to it spraying it with machine gun fire, then the tank fired an armour piercing shell into the gun. This barrage killed all the crew, except two men. One of the two not killed was mortally wounded three times. The other was TSM Opie who suffered head injuries.
Both men refused to leave their positions and got ready to continue to fight their gun. However when inspecting the gun TSM Opie found the AP shell from the German tank had smashed the guns sights and rendered it useless. Before they could do anything else the position was over run by German infantry and both men were captured. The German officer on the scene immediately ordered them evacuated to receive medical treatment and provided a staff car for that purpose.
With the outer line of defence now destroyed the Germans moved forward to attack the village proper. One of the surviving 18 Pounders was looking directly down the main line of attack by the Germans and began to put up a furious barrage of shells.
The second gun had no targets, realizing this, the crew man handled the gun down the street to engage the Germans attacking the other gun. As they did so they spotted a column of German trucks carrying infantry, moving up to flank the position. Quickly they took those under fire forcing the Germans back.
Savage close range and hand to hand fighting carried on for the next 8 hours. With the men of the searchlight regiment and K Battery putting up stiff resistance. The 18 Pounders were wheeled about being used to blast German occupied houses, and prevent the German from pushing up the streets. Most of the fighting was at under a 100 yards range, with Germans trying to knock out the guns with hand grenades.
At one point, due to the pace of the fighting one of the guns fired a smoke shell by mistake. Spotting the danger both guns immediately increased their rate of fire. The concussion of the guns and their HE shells dispersed the smoke before the Germans could rush the Battery.
By 1530 both the infantry and the two remaining guns where almost depleted of ammunition and the Germans looked ready to carry the position, when a detachment of infantry from the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry appeared and stiffed the defence.
At this point a lull descended on the battle field as the Germans retired from the battle to regroup and prepare for another assault. On the British side, with all most no ammunition available, and many wounded the decision was taken to abandon the village. The Troop commander made sure all wounded were accounted for and evacuated. He was also the last man to leave.
Retreating towards the village of Saint Sylvestre Chapel the remnants of F Troop met up with about 20 men from the Royal Army Service Corp, and learnt that the Germans held the cross roads there, and that F Troop was cut off.
The Troop commander immediately ordered a bayonet charge. Splitting his forces into two, he ordered that one group charge one side of the graveyards, and led the charge against the other. The German troops holding the graveyard dropped their weapons and ran in fear. Allowing F Troop to deploy its two 18 Pounders. The Germans soon came back and both guns fired their last rounds holding the Germans at bay. As the first gun ran out of ammunition the battery tried to evacuate it. However as they limbered it up to its Quad an unseen German weapon smashed both with several shells.
This picture might be the gun F Troop tried to evacuate.
Utterly out of ammo, after being in action for nearly the entire day, with German reinforcements approaching and with night falling the decision was taken to retreat again. Unable to get the last 18 Pounder out the gun was put beyond use, and the remaining soldiers clambered aboard the last trucks.
However the only way to retreat was Through the German half of the village.
Setting off as fast as they could F Troop's column raced across the square and turned left to drive north along the main road. Only to find a number of Panzers blocking their way. they immediately took a right hand road that led out of the Village. Only to find the Germans had emplaced a Machine gun nest on one of the houses. With this machine gun hammering at them they made a dash for safety.
One truck took a corner to fast and plowed into a ditch, despite the Machine gun still shooting at them a second truck stopped and picked up all the passengers. A short distance further on they met up with another truck that had gone out of control and plowed through a fence and escaped across a field.
F troop had one last narrow escape. Upon reaching friendly forces they were surprised and alarmed to find out the road they had retreated down had actually been mined!
On the 24th of May F Troop had a strength of 63 personnel and 4 Guns. After the fighting only 18 remained.