These were the 48 hours which defined many families’ futures. The hours in which men from the pits and farms of south west Durham endured probably the most terrifying moments of their lives thus far. This article aims to take us through these hours and is an appeal for information – was your father or grandfather in the 6th or 10th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry? Was he involved? Was he taken a prisoner of war? Do you have any details which might add to this research?
An example of life in pre-war Evenwood is typified by the following photograph. It shows Evenwood Band. It was taken prior to the outbreak of war, probably in 1938.
c.1938 EVENWOOD BAND
T. Green; J. Robson; C. Charlton; ? Robson; George C. Walton; behind in the shade, unknown; J. Baister at the back wearing the white cap; Frank Heaviside;
J. Thorburn; G. Allison; F. Bracher wearing glasses; G. Blackett above; John W. Walton.
? Thomas; Unknown; G.W. Hodgson; F. Crooks; A. Walling.
Unknown; Matthew Walton Unknown; S. Fryer.
Pictured are John Walton, standing on the far right – he was a Randolph pitman, Great War veteran and holder of the Military Medal. Behind him, wearing the glasses, is his son-in-law who married his daughter Elsie, the finely named Francis Henry Holleyoake Bracher from Staindrop. Two of John’s sons were also band members – George, middle row 5th from the left and Matthew, front 2nd left. Matthew was probably still at school when the photo was taken. Next to George Walton is Frank Heaviside, both Randolph men. At this time, these men lived at the Oaks, Evenwood and were probably blissfully unaware of the changes to their lives which would take place over the next few years.
In early 1939, as the threat of war loomed, the government appealed for increased recruitment into the Armed Forces and the army territorial battalions were asked to double numbers to provide second line units. The existing territorial soldiers from south west Durham served with the 6th Battalion, The Durham Light Infantry [6/DLI] and the new recruits made up the 10th Battalion [10/DLI]. Men from the area answered the appeal including the aforementioned Frank Heaviside and George Walton. George’s brother John joined up together with Raymond Brown and Russell Bell, all from Evenwood.
3 SEPTEMBER 1939: WAR DECLARED
The fateful date was 3 September 1939. 6/DLI was mobilized and came under the orders of 151st Infantry Brigade, 50th Division. The Division joined the British Expeditionary Force in France in January 1940. Three new DLI battalions were the 10th, the 11th and the 1st Battalion, the Tyneside Scottish, all came under the orders of the 70th Brigade, 23rd Division. It was intended that the 23rd Division would remain in the UK to complete training and preparation before being deployed overseas. Little time was spent on training as the soldiers were dispersed and used to guard strategically important and vulnerable sites across NE England. However, “needs must” and the 23rd Division was brought out to France 25th and 26th April 1940, as a “labour Division” to meet the pressing need of constructing airfields and other installations. The Division was under strength, sketchily equipped and only half trained. The 70th Brigade had no artillery or heavy weapons, administration and logistics units were left behind, it did not have a Signals complement other than a number of Despatch Riders, the 187th Field Ambulance did not leave the UK with them and of the 2000 men, 1400 had not fired a Bren gun and 400 had not completed their war course with a rifle. Units were sent to aerodromes in northern France in the St. Pol – Abberville – Doullens area, west of Arras. It was never intended for the 23rd Division to be a front line unit.
10 MAY 1940: THE INVASION OF FRANCE
The German mass attack on neutral Belgium and the Netherlands swept through and into northern France at a rapid rate. Known as, “The Blitzkreig”, the advance seemed unstoppable. A second thrust to the south captured the Belgian town of Dinant on the 12/13 May then Philippeville. The Germans entered France by taking Avesnes on the 16th and Le Cateau on the 17th. It was spearheaded by the 7th Panzer Division led by a then largely unknown General, called Ervin Rommel. The invasion force consisted of 5 armoured divisions [1st, 2nd, 6th, 8th and 7th Panzer Divisions] with 2 in close support, [5th and 10th Panzer Divisions]. The SS Division Totenkopf consisting of another 6,500 troops, was positioned between the 7th and 8th Panzer Divisions. A Panzer Division was 11,800 men strong, had 324 tanks and was armed with 220 machine guns, 50 mortars, 50 37mm Pak guns, 28 howitzers and cannons, 12 20mm Flak guns, 100 armoured scout cars, 1400 trucks, 1300 motorcycles.
In all, some 89,100 troops supported by 2268 tanks and tons of military hardware was heading towards Arras, en-route to the French Atlantic and Channel ports. A decision was made to send the 23rd Division which included the 2,000 or so men from County Durham and Tyneside to assist in the defence of France.
The renowned historian and author, Hugh Sebag-Montefiore described the situation as, “Lambs to the slaughter”, a term more commonly used to describe actions of the First World War rather than the second.
17 – 19 MAY 1940: THE 23RD DIVISION AT THE CANAL DU NORD
The poorly equipped and largely untrained labour divisions were ordered to take up defensive positions to the west of the Canal du Nord, between Arras and Cambrai. The canal was hardly a defensive position since it was almost empty of water and bridges crossing it were still intact. 70th Brigade consisting of 10/DLI, 11/DLI and 1/TS arrived during the early hours of 18 May having passed through streams of refugees heading westwards and being attacked by Stuka dive bombers. The German advance was heading rapidly towards the Canal du Nord at Cambrai but its exact position was unknown to the British forces. 19 May, 70th Brigade received fresh orders to withdraw to Thelus, north of Arras. By this time, the enemy was closing in. By 1800 hours, 8th and 9th Panzer Divisions were only 5km (about 3 miles) east of Cambrai.
Later in the day, 70th Brigade were given new orders to make for Saulty to the west of Arras. Having arrived at Guemappe, the battalions were ordered to re-route through the villages of Neuville Vitasse, Mercatel, Ficheux and Beaumetz.
20 MAY 1940: AMBUSHED BY UNITS OF 7TH PANZER DIVISION
Some British troops were being transported by lorries, others were marching. The battalion war diaries record that 10/DLI B & C Companies were hit to the east of Ficheux, 1/TS HQ & B Companies were hit to the west of Mercatel, 1/TS A Company fought at Mercatel and the remainder of 1/TS, C & D Companies were caught at Neuville Vitasse. Initial analysis of 70th Brigade’s casualties for this action suggests that at least 171 men were killed in action or died of wounds and at least 868 men were captured to spend the rest of their war as POWs. Information on those wounded is not to hand. Battalion details are: 
10/DLI: 37 men, 2 officers and 35 other ranks were killed or died of wounds. At least 268 men including 14 officers were captured. Private Raymond Brown aged 19 from Copeland Row, Evenwood was killed in action on the 20th May. Corporal J.R. Bell from Manor Street and Corporal G.C. Walton from the Oaks were wounded and captured. Private F. Heaviside, also from the Oaks, was captured on the 21st May.
11/DLI: 26 men [no officers] were killed in action or died of wounds and at least 209 men were captured, including 13 officers.
1/Tyneside Scottish: 108 men were killed in action or died of wounds. At least 391 men including 14 officers were captured. Privates A.W Fryer from Copley, J. Mooney from West Auckland, A.J. Martin from Tindale Crescent and Lance Corporal J.T. Saunders from Bishop Auckland were captured. Private J. Mooney died whilst in captivity 16 April 1945 and L/C J.T. Saunders was murdered by a guard 21 July 1944.
More action involving County Durham Territorials was to follow.
21 MAY 1940: THE BATTLE OF ARRAS
The next day, units of the 5th and 50th Divisions and 1st Army Tank Brigade was involved in a counterattack, now known as the Battle of Arras. 6/DLI and 8/DLI were heavily involved in this action which resulted in 6/DLI suffering over 200 casualties, including 4456613 Private James R. Crampton, from Barnard Castle, initially recorded as missing and later as a POW. 8/DLI had over 100 killed, wounded and missing. Between 10 May and 1 June 1940, 6/DLI lost 23 men killed in action or died of wounds, including 9 deaths 21/22 May. The military cross was awarded to 3 officers and 6 military medals were awarded to NCOs and other ranks.
With regard to German casualties, the full picture has not been researched but it is known that this 2 days of action cost 7/Panzer Division a total of 618 casualties including 140 killed in action, 253 wounded and 225 missing. This was by far the fiercest 2 days fighting the division had experienced during the Battle of France. British sources reported that there were over 400 German prisoners, the additional number may have come from other units such as the SS Division Totenkopf. A German estimate is that 7/PD took 600 British prisoners 20 and 21 May.
Back to 20 May, and the remnants of the 70th Brigade assembled at Houdain. It is reported that only 14 officers and 219 other ranks were present out of about 2000 men. They made their way northwards to the English Channel ports. 6 & 10/DLI were evacuated from Dunkirk, 1 June. The last evacuations took place on the night of the 3 – 4 June. The Germans entered Dunkirk and Bray-Dunes between 7 and 8 am, 4 June. Private John Walton, 10/DLI was captured at Dunkirk, 5 June thus he must have been detached from his unit. How he got to Dunkirk and his final hours of freedom remain an untold story.
Much has been written about the Battle of Arras, less so about the action on the previous day. Winston Churchill in his work. “The Second World War” noted that the enemy recorded at the time, “heavy British counter-attacks with armour caused them considerable anxiety.” Others paid tribute to the fact that the action caused some delay to the advancing German forces which together with the defence of Calais, gave valuable additional time for the withdrawal of troops from Dunkirk.
The brave men of south west Durham, may not have been especially equipped for this fighting, some paid the ultimate price, others spent the rest of their war in POW Camps which no doubt, would have had an effect on the rest of their lives. For some, they had to endure the Long March of the winter months of 1945 before being liberated but that is another epic and painful story.
LEST WE FORGET
If anyone can help with adding any information, then please contact Kevin Richardson at:
Tel: 01388 834361
The late Mrs. Nancy Horsman, sister of Raymond Brown
The late Mrs. Hilda Bell and her extended family, relatives of Russell Bell
Mr. John and Mrs. Maria Walton, son and daughter–in-law of George Walton, nephew of John Walton
Mrs. Susan Hutchinson, niece of George and John Walton
Mrs. Iris Hutchinson and Mr. Thomas Hudson, niece and nephew of Frank Heaviside
Mr. Robert Crampton, son of James Crampton
The late Mr. Harry Moses for assistance with 6/DLI and 9/DLI.
Mr. John Dixon for assistance with 70th Brigade.
The International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva
Christophe Selame & Andre Coilliot, Arras, France
 Randolph refers to Randolph Colliery, Evenwood
 “Dunkirk Fight to the Last Man” Hugh Sebag-Montefiore 2006 p.125
 Analysis of John Dixon’s information included on his 70th Brigade website and Commonwealth War Grave Commission [CWGC] details
 Corporal Bell was shot dead while trying to escape from a POW camp in Poland 24 July 1943.
 Including 4457026 L/Cpl Piper F.J. Laider who was KIA 20/5/40. He is buried at Bucquoy Road, Cemetery, Ficheux. The musician, Mark Knopfler is his nephew and his song, “Piper to the End” is dedicated to his memory.
 UK British POW 1939-45, WO392 POW Lists 1943-45 & WO417/18 Casualty List No.265 & 317
 “The Arras Counter-Attack” Major Ian English article in the Durham Bugle Spring 2001 p.9-11
 “The Faithful Sixth” Harry Moses 1995 p.349 Harry’s 2 books contain full accounts of this action.
 Moses P.346
 “A Bias for Action: the German 7th Panzer Division in France & Russia 1940-41” Russel H.S. Stolfi p.8 & 22 Note: During this campaign, the next worst days for 7/Pz.D were – 486 casualties 13 & 14 May; 300 casualties 5 & 6 June and 71 casualties 17 & 18 May 1940.
 https://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/UN/UK/UK-NWE-Flanders/UK-NWE-Flanders-6.html Ellis Chapter 6 p.94
 Stolfi p.23