Queen's in the Middle East
Enter The Territorials
On the 21st December 1936 the 131st (Queen’s) Brigade (TA) was formed as part of the 44th (Home Counties) Division. Initially it consisted of four battalions, 4th Queen’s, 5th Queen’s, 22nd London and 24th London. In June 1937, just before the annual brigade camp at Falmer, near Brighton, the titles of the two London Regiment battalions were changed to the 6th (Bermondsey) Battalion, The Queen’s Royal Regiment and the 7th (Southwark) Battalion, The Queen’s Royal Regiment respectively. These changes coincided with a great re-awakening of interest in the Territorial Army, and recruiting improved significantly throughout the new Brigade. Unfortunately at the end of 1938 the 4th Queen’s was selected for anti-aircraft duties and reequipped as a Searchlight Regiment, and so left the Brigade.
Since the 4th Queen’s had recruited around the Croydon area, including the North Downs at the eastern end of Surrey, this left 5th Queen’s as the only country TA battalion of the Regiment, with great scope for recruiting the right sort of men into the unit. When, on the 6th April 1939, all TA battalions were ordered to raise their strengths to the war establishment of 31 officers and 630 other ranks, 5th Queen’s needed only one more recruit to achieve this, and this one man was enlisted on the 18th April! At the same time TA battalions were ordered to begin duplicating themselves and again it was the 5th Queen’s which was the first battalion in the whole army to reach its double establishment.
All TA battalions were ordered to mobilise on the 28th August, and the three first-line battalions (now all given the prefix ‘1st’ before the battalion number) received their orders to embody at their respective headquarters on the evening of the 1st September. During October the whole of the 44th Division moved to Training Area in North Dorset. When the CIGS, General Sir William Ironside, visited the Division he made the statement that the Director of Training had informed him that in the 44th Division was the best trained infantry battalion in the Home Forces. Subsequently it became known that General Ironside was alluding to the 1/5th Queen’s as that battalion.
After spending the winter in Dorset 131 Brigade embarked for France on the 2nd April 1940 and reached Cherbourg next morning. They eventually took over on the 5th May a sector between Armentieres and Bailleul facing the Belgian frontier, from units of the 51st (Highland) Division. In accordance with the policy of intermingling regular and territorial units, 1/7th Queen’s left the Brigade to join 25th Infantry Brigade of the 5th Division, whilst their place was taken by 2nd Buffs.
On the 10th May the Germans launched their invasions of Holland and Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force initially advanced into Belgium, but soon found itself retreating back into France, with the Belgian Army between the British left flank and the sea. On the night of the 27th/28th May the Belgian Army capitulated, leaving a 20 mile gap in the line, whilst the anticipated counter-attack from the south-east by the French main army failed to materialise. A withdrawal to the Dunkirk beach-head became inevitable.
Most of the 1/6th Queen’s were evacuated from the Dunkirk Mole during the early morning of the 30th May in the destroyer HMS Malcolm. The remainder rowed themselves out to the transports standing offshore. Unfortunately 1/6th Queen’s had taken very heavy casualties during the battle on the line of the Escaut Canal, when the Germans’ main attack had found the gap between 1/6th Queen’s and 2nd Buffs. Nine officers and over 400 other ranks had been lost, of which 3 officers and about 130 men were taken prisoner. About 150 men of 1/7th Queen’s, which had by this time come under command of the 2nd Division, were evacuated the same day at about 9am, and the rest of the Battalion followed in small parties during the next few days. 1/7th Queen’s casualties were surprisingly light, numbering two officers and 91 men killed, wounded or missing. The main body of the 1/5th Queen’s embarked later during the evening of the 30th May and reached Dover at 6am next morning. The strength of the Battalion on that morning was 23 officers and 604 other ranks, after suffering 125 casualties during a retreat involving some heavy fighting. Two years later a senior naval officer was to write “......The bearing, good order and discipline of the Queen’s Royal Regiment on its return from Dunkirk was an example and inspiration to us in the Royal Navy.” It is understood that this tribute was inspired through witnessing the disembarkation of the main party of the 1/5th Queen’s under Major L.C. East, (Author’s note - This tribute was written by Admiral Sir George H. D’Oyly Lyon, C-in-C The Nore).
131 Brigade reorganised at the 44th Division assembly area around Oxford, but in late June was sent to the east coast defences in Lincolnshire as part of the 1st Division. 1/7th Queen’s reassembly was complicated by their many changes of division during the retreat in France, but ultimately the Battalion was posted back to 44th Division and made part of 132 Brigade stationed in the Doncaster area. In October 131 Brigade left 1st Division in Lincolnshire, moving to Kent in early February 1941 as part of 44th Division’s responsibility for the south coast defences. 132 Brigade also moved to Kent. In July the 1/7th Queen’s at last returned to 131 Brigade, taking over the defence of Manston airfield from 2nd Buffs, and 131 Brigade reassumed the title of a Queen’s brigade.
In October 131 Brigade moved into winter quarters in Dover as part of the Dover garrison. With the threat of imminent invasion removed, the atmosphere was almost that of peace-time soldiering, apart from intermittent bombing and shelling, which caused few casualties despite the Dover area’s nickname of ‘Hell Fire Corner’. The 1/7th Queen’s were stationed in the Grand Shaft, and the most inconsiderate gesture of the enemy was to drop a large bomb between the Officers’ and the Sergeants’ Messes, rendering both uninhabitable.
In March 1942 the 44th Division received a warning order that the Division was to be mobilised for overseas service by the 15th May. HM The King visited the Division on the 14th May and on the 24th May 131 Brigade embarked at Gourock in the Clyde Estuary near Glasgow.