Dursley to France, 2nd March 1940

Requisitioned school halls and church buildings were used for initial training at the Clapham and Woolwich bases.  Further training took place at an un-named ‘Hertfordshire village‘, then live firing at Salisbury Plain and finally the Regiment moved to a disused factory complex in Dursley, Gloucestershire during the winter months of 1939-40 to join 3rd Corps.

Dursley

The Cotswolds terrain was considered suitable for large scale artillery manoeuvres, and other RA regiments were posted nearby, including the 5th Royal Horse Artillery Unit (RHA) that fought alongside 367 Battery at Cassel and the Lewisham-based 139 Regiment. Dursley was also used in 1943-44 as a base for American forces prior to D-Day.   The winter of 1939-40 was severe, and the Regiment had trouble with transport due to snow on the steep Cotswold hills.

 

Part of 367 Battery in Dursley, 1939. Gunner Eric Johnson is standing 3rd row from bottom, 5th from left. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Blake. 

 

My father remembered Dursley and visited in the 1980’s but was unable to locate the factory.   It was the disused Champion’s carpet factory in Boulton Lane, near the A4135 main road. The factory has now been demolished and replaced by new housing.   The drill hall that the Regiment used was opposite the factory complex in Boulton Lane and has also been demolished.

 

The site of the Champions Factory in Boulton Lane, Dursley, now demolished and replaced by a housing complex known as Champions Court. The old Drill hall was also demolished, it was in the allotment gardens in the foreground to the left in this image. 

 

Dursley, Gloucestershire taken from Drake Road in 2019

 

Christmas at Dursley, 1939

The Regiment’s recruits spent their first Christmas away from home at Dursley and celebrated with a tree inside one of the warehouses, presents, crackers, cigarettes and beer. On Boxing Day 1939, Lt Col Brooks was presented with Alice, a goose with a fondness for alcohol.  Alice was adopted as a mascot and accompanied the Regiment to France smuggled in a gun tractor, but unfortunately went missing in Bolbec, never to return- a source of great sadness to the men.  Another Regimental mascot, a dog named Nan that belonged to the Regiment’s Quartermaster, died of pneumonia in France.

 

 

Royal Visit to Dursley, 1940

In late January 1940, the Regiment (along with four other R.A. Regiments in training nearby) was inspected on an icy cold day by King George VIth.  During that inspection, Serjeant Johnson of 366 Battery was singled out by Queen Elizabeth because of his unusual Mercantile Marine medal from the Great War.

 

140th Regiment joins the B.E.F. in France

The Regiment received secret orders to leave Dursley and to join the British Expeditionary Force in France on 2nd March 1940.  The War Diary describes the logistics of the journey from Southampton to Le Havre on board the City of Florence and Ben Macrae.  Nearly two hundred vehicles were used: – 3-ton lorries, 30-cwt lorries, 8 and 15-cwt trucks, gun tractors (delivered to Dursley by ATS female volunteers) armoured carriers, ammunition, machine guns and other equipment- all camouflage-painted with 140th Regiment identification logos (the Figure 20).  The column was described as an ‘inspiring sight‘, nearly six miles long.

Unfortunately for the 139 (4th London) Field Regiment, which was also stationed in Gloucestershire, much of their equipment had to be requisitioned and repainted in 140 Regiment logos.

Excerpt from 139 Regimental War Diary recording the transfer of equipment prior to 140 Rgt.’s relocation to France. Courtesy of  ‘Packrat’ WW2talk.

A week later on the 8th March, the rest of the Regiment’s Officers left Dursley by train, waved off by their loved ones.  Although ‘Grand Party’ describes their pride it also mentions a sense of foreboding that they may not see their men again, ‘as alas it proved’.

The Phoney War

On arrival in France, the junior ranks were billeted at the Normandy town of Bolbec.  The War diary records periods of preparation and training in Northern France during the months of March, April and early May 1940 that comprised part of the ‘Phoney War‘.  There are accounts of extensive military and firing exercises taking place virtually every week, although care seems to have been taken not to damage French civilian property, upon which there is much emphasis.

Despite the lessons learnt during the final months of World War One, when the British Imperial Army had learnt to break the deadlock of trench warfare by combining artillery with infantry, tanks and air support, there is little evidence within the War Diary that the Regiment was so co-ordinated.  The only liaison with the RAF were a few joint exercises using slow-flying and unarmed Lysanders as spotter planes.  Lt Col Brooks laments this lack of air co-ordination at some length in his analysis of the British defeat in ‘Grand Party‘.

Although the German attack was predicted to be through Belgium, that country’s neutrality meant that no reconnaissance into Belgium was permitted, and so most of the training and familiarity with landscape had to take place across the plains of Northern France.  The Regiment remained in this state of operational readiness and training in France until Belgium’s neutrality was voided by the German invasion on 10th May 1940.

 

Sketch map of France & Belgium showing 140th Regiment’s approximate movements through France and Belgium between March and May 1940.

 

The War Diary outlining the embarkation at Southampton on the 2-3rd March 1940, the cross-channel crossing in City of Florence and Ben McCray and the Regiment’s arrival at Le Havre and Bolbec.

 

War diary dated 20th March 1940, documenting ‘General Instructions for Exercise’.  Note list of restrictions including: ‘greatest care must be taken to avoid damage to crops’ and ‘claims for compensation will be rendered as quickly as possible’.