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50th at Bay – The Years of Defeat: A History of the 50th Northumbrian Division 1939 to September 1942

50th at Bay

The book begins when war is declared, and the territorials of the 50th (Northumbrian) Division are mobilized before their move to France. In May 1940, the war began and the 50th were in the forefront of the fighting as they tried to stem the Blitzkrieg. When the situation became untenable, the British army found themselves outflanked and in full retreat to the French coast. The 50th reached the Great War Memorial at Ypres, the Menin Gate, and fought a delaying action here but soon found themselves retreating again; by now they had lost many casualties. By 19th and 20th May, 1940, the whole British Army was in headlong retreat, and heading towards Dunkirk with the panzers close on their heels; it was decided that a delaying action was to be launched by the 50th Division at Arras with British and French armored units in support. It was here at Arras that the 50th would meet their future nemesis in the form of Erwin Rommel and his Ghost Division.

On 20th May, the 50th prepared themselves for battle on and around the Canadian Great War Memorial on Vimy Ridge. On 21st May, the attack was launched into some very surprised German formations that were just about to move around Arras. The attack was led by tanks of the Royal Armored Corps and the Troops of the 151st Durham Brigade, 150th Brigade was in Arras itself along the River Scarpe. The shock of the British assault caught the Germans by surprise and the British tanks caused great slaughter among the German units, especially among the ranks of the SS Totenkopft Division which fled the field in terror.

The retreat continued in a mad dash to the coast. At the town of Dunkirk and along the beaches, the whole British Army waited patiently to be taken home, under constant air attack and artillery fire. By 2nd June, the last troops had been evacuated and a very badly beaten army was brought home.

In 1941, the newly reconstructed 50th Division was sent to the Middle East, spending a miserable winter moving about from camp to muddy camp. Finally, the 50th was sent to the Gazala Line in May 1942. Rommel needed to break through here and in May began to make his plans. The British forces were positioned in defensive boxes, each one was supposed to be able to support the other in the event of the expected attack, but most were so far apart that mutual support was out of the question. The panzers smashed into British armored units behind the front line, and still it was not believed by the high command that this was happening, desperate messages came over the air-waves warning of the German assault.

Rommel's forces were now in the rear of the 50th Division, which could hear the thunder of battle all around them. The British commanders threw their armor in piecemeal fashion at the Germans and suffered horrendous losses. Rommel now turned his attention to the 50th Division and realized that to get the supplies he so badly needed, he needed to destroy the 150th Brigade. Day after day, the battle raged but the 150th Brigade would not yield. After fighting an unsupported defense for five days, the situation became serious for the badly depleted 150th. Rommel was so concerned regarding his supplies situation that he personally led one final desperate assault on 1st June 1942; after a morning of the most vicious close-quarter fighting, the panzers rolled over this doomed position. Rommel's now-replenished troops burst out of their bridgehead and put the British to flight. The troops in the Gazala Line got away as best they could with many close calls and near misses. The 50th Northumbrian Division had suffered grievously in the Western Desert, and in May and June 1942, had taken 9,000 casualties.

This study adds comprehensively to our knowledge of WWII in a number of ways. Firstly, the views of the men involved throw a bright light on what it was really like to fight in an elite infantry division. Secondly, it covers events that have not been studied in detail before, and shows in no uncertain way the horrors men endured for years if they survived. Thirdly, the testimony of the men describes scenes they would not tell their families, from the deaths of friends in action to the terrible things they personally had to do to survive, to men who returned home and had to tell their parents, who knew nothing, what had happened to their brother. Fourthly, the text, illustrations and period maps come together to form a clear view of what the 50th Division really did in those terrible times as seen through the eyes of the survivors.

245mm x 170mm
276 pages
82 black-and-white photos
10 black-and-white maps
1 black-and-white illustration

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Text edited by Personal logo Editor Dianna The Editor of TMP
Graphics edited by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian
Scheduled by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian