The Middle East
Prelude And Act One For The 169th (Queen's) Brigade
As has already been mentioned, in April 1939 TA battalions were ordered to recruit sufficient personnel to be able to duplicate themselves. Some regiments, with country battalions organised around a number of drill halls, were able to split territorially and allocate separate numbers, but with the 131st (Queen’s) Brigade (TA) it was decided to raise second battalions of the existing battalions, and therefore the duplicate battalions were all given the prefix ‘2nd’ before the battalion number. Although 5th Queen’s reached its double strength almost at once, it did not split into two battalions for some time. However, the other two Queen’s TA battalions split in May. All three battalions were embodied between the 24th August-14th September. By the end of October they were all short in numbers because they were sending many of their mature men to the first-line battalions as reinforcements, and they were also required to find instructors and administrative staff for the Queen’s Infantry Training Centre and for the Officer Cadet Training Units at Aldershot. By January 1940 each battalion had received about 200 militiamen straight from civilian life, and were at a reasonable strength again.
In October the 12th Division had been formed as a second-line division to the 44th (Home Counties) Division, and the three second-line Queen’s battalions were organised as the 35th Infantry Brigade in that Division. Towards the end of March 1940 the infantry component of 12th Division were warned that they would be sent to France as a labour force for lines of communication duties, and substantial drafts raised the strength of each battalion to about 600 men. On the 22nd April 35 Brigade sailed from Southampton to Le Havre, and were deployed as pioneers and on airfield guard duties. Each week they carried out three days on labouring duties and three days training.
Initially the German blitzkrieg did not affect 35 Brigade’s deployment, but on the 18th May it was ordered, amidst considerable confusion, to move to Abbeville. Here on the evening of the 20th the first contact was made with German panzer divisional units, resulting in a somewhat precipitate withdrawal across the Somme in small parties. Eventually most of these parties concentrated in Rouen with the remains of other units of the 12th Division, entrained for Cherbourg on the 6th June, and were evacuated in the SS Vienna next day, arriving at Southampton at 7pm without incident. Although the 2/6th Queen’s managed to remain a formed body, with only one platoon captured during the retreat, the greater part of ‘A’ Company was detached as a bridge guard, and eventually shared in the last stand of the 51st (Highland) Division at St Valery en Caux. Casualties were heavy in the 2/5th and 2/7th. The 2/5th lost 387 all ranks, and the 2/7th eleven officers and 271 other ranks, mostly captured.
After reforming in Newcastle, 35 Brigade was sent to north Kent to form part of the 1st (London) Division on the 2nd July, and in September the Brigade was renumbered and redesignated as the 169th (Queen’s) Brigade at the same time that 1st Division was renumbered as the 56th (London) Division. 56th Division remained in Kent until November 1941, either manning coastal defences or training hard at the behest of their new Corps Commander, Lieut-General B.L. Montgomery. Unfortunately for the 2/7th Queen’s a tragedy occurred at Hythe on the 24th February when three mines exploded as a working party, led by a RE sergeant, was crossing a minefield. Ten men were killed outright and five injured, of which two subsequently died.
On the 17th November 56th Division moved to East Anglia, mainly located in the Ipswich area. This was a popular move, since it brought many of the reinforcements who had joined after France closer to their homes in Essex and Suffolk. The 2/5th had a counter-attack role for Martlesham airfield, and the 2/7th had a similar role in respect of Wattisham airfield, but the main task of the Brigade was to give advanced training to the numerous drafts which were sent from the Training Centres. When the weather improved in the spring large scale exercises were organised, which became increasingly strenuous and demanding with as close a simulation to active service as could be attained. Drafts were sent to both the 1st and 2nd Battalions periodically.
In March 1942 Lt Col Allen Block, Commanding Officer of 2/7th Queen’s, and generally recognised as being a superb organiser of military training, introduced an innovation in the form of a ‘Night Week’, during which the Battalion slept in the daytime and worked at night! Soldiers were free to leave camp during the day and many began the week by spending too much time in Ipswich and too little in bed. However, even the most optimistic found that a nocturnal life style was not an easy option, and carrying through a normal training programme was far more difficult during darkness than in daylight. Opportunities for ‘dodging the column’ were few and far between, but the officers and NCOs also had to be on their toes, since the blackout precluded the use of lights out-of-doors, and they needed X-ray eyes to ensure that orders were being carried out in the rear ranks as well as the front. The experiment was remarkably successful as a training
exercise, except, perhaps, for the eating of breakfast at supper-time and stew at 7am!
During May the Brigade took over the Southend area from a brigade of another division for a month, and shortly after returning to Suffolk they received orders to prepare for service overseas. Embarkation leave began at once, with a quarter of each battalion at a time being given 14 days leave.