In May 1940, a battalion of largely-untrained, British soldiers broke camp at Rosay, in northern France, and boarded a train which was intended to take them forward, as part of the Allied Forces’ effort to defend France against Hitler’s invading armies. These were the men of the ill-fated, 7th Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment.
About 3pm on a warm Saturday 18th May, 1940, the sun was shining through breaks in the clouds, as the train braked for a signal check near to Amiens, St. Roch station. The men were looking forward to lunch, which was being prepared in the rear wagons and, during the 15-minute stop, some got down from the train and passed the time picking flowers at the trackside. As the signal cleared and the train started to move, they jumped back on, still clutching the flowers which they had gathered, with no idea of the destruction which was about to come upon them!
As the train moved into the station yard, enemy planes appeared from between the clouds and dive-bombed the train, destroying the locomotive and the officers’ coach with the first salvo. As the bombing and strafing continued, the men took cover wherever they could - including beneath the wagons of a nearby ammunition train! As a result of this bombardment, many were either killed or wounded.
During the course of the next two days, those that were left, regrouped and made their way to the nearest high ground, alongside the Poix road, to await orders from HQ. The orders never came. Instead, with only small arms, limited ammunition and a few anti-tank rifles, they found themselves facing a German Panzer Division!
Around lunchtime on Monday 20th May, 1940, the first shots were fired and the Battalion deployed to face the enemy. Somehow, they managed to put one of the enemy tanks out of action and this made the Germans very cautious. All through that afternoon, the Germans pounded the British positions, advancing only very slowly, in the apparent belief that they were dealing with a highly-trained and fully-equipped force. This misconception, once created, was certainly effective in slowing the Germans’ advance but the cost in terms of lives lost and injuries suffered on the British side was colossal!
Over the course of these 3 days, 18th-20th May, literally hundreds of men lost their lives. Many others were injured and the Battalion was destroyed. Of those that survived, most spent years in German POW camps and only a very few escaped, by various means, back to England.
To what extent did these events affect the course of the war? What might have happened, had the German advance not been delayed in this way? Could it be that these men were, in some way, at least partially responsible for the miracle of the Dunkirk Evacuation? We may never know the answers to these questions but we honour those who died for their country, in the defence of liberty and justice, and we affirm that their sacrifice was not in vain!