The 10th Royal Hussars in France, 1940
At the outbreak of the second Wold War in September, 1939, the 10th Hussars were stationed at Aliwal Barracks Tidworth (where the King’s Royal Hussars are stationed today), as part of the 2nd Armoured Brigade of the 1st Armoured Division, In the brigade, the Tenth served alongside the Queen’s Bays and the 9th Royal Lancers.
Having returned from India in late 1936, the Tenth had only exchanged their horses for lorries and obsolete tanks in 1937, and even by 1940 were still equipped with a mixture of obsolete light tanks (equipped only with a machine gun) and more modern Cruiser tanks. The Cruisers (the A13, as it was known) were more effective and armed with a 2-pounder gun, but were still no real match for the latest German tanks. By 1940, each squadron had a mix of half Light and half Cruiser tanks.
Early 1940 found the division on the south coast, preparing to join the British Expeditionary Force un France. Tanks and other equipment were still in extremely short supply, but when the German invasion happened, and the Allied Front began to collapse, the 1st Armoured Division was rapidly prepared to cross the Channel.
Sailing from Southampton on 21st May, the regiment sailed for Le Havre. This destination was changed to Cherbourg in mid-Channel, as the Germans were already threatening the original destination – it did not take the men on board ship long to realise the chaos that lay ahead.
Many of the Cruiser tanks had their guns lashed to the hull, rather than fitted in the turret: these had o be fitted to the tanks as soon as they landed. From there, a train journey to the area of the River Seine, north of Rouen, where the tanks were unloaded and proceeded by road to an area where the division was to assemble.
However, the situation was far worse than feared or expected, and a message arrived that German forces were already across the Somme; from there the next move was slightly north to join French forces preparing a counter-attack against German bridgeheads over the Somme, south of Abbeville. By now it was 26th May – the day the evacuation from Dunkirk was begun.
The counter attack started at 5.00 a.m. on the 27th (the day Belgium surrendered), near the village of Huppy, roughly three miles south of the Somme at Abbeville. The regiment set off as planned, unaware (there was no wireless communication, and a despatch rider had been killed) that the French weren’t ready – the attack had been postponed. As a result, the Queen’s Bays and French artillery waited an hour; the 10th Hussars set off alone.
They quickly ran into strong German artillery and anti-tank fire. The Light Tanks (Mark VIB) were completely ineffective, and before long most of B and C Squadrons had been knocked out. The Bays, too, suffered heavily and the Brigade had to withdraw. The Germans positions were too deep and too well-entrenched to be beaten. Only 10 out of 30 tanks remained, and most of those badly damaged. Three officers and six men were killed, with two officers and nine men captured.
Following the action at Huppy, the remainder of the regiment were used as infantry until, on 7th June, orders were received to retire to the Seine. This was accomplished amidst scenes of chaos and disruption – civilians fleeing the German advance, and French troops trying to reach the Seine were harried by German aircraft, and all order had broken down.
Men of the Tenth were used to delay the German advance and were also sent to destroy bridges behind the retiring British force. Several men were lost in this work. Soon the Germans had crossed the Seine and the retreat continued to Le Mans and then west into Brittany. Eventually, on 15th June, with the French government seeking terms for an armistice, the order was given for 2nd Armoured Brigade to proceed to Brest for return to the UK.
The final 250 miles to Brest was undertaken between 0100 and 1800 on the 15th, and on the 16th the survivors embarked on the “Manxmaid”. Only 2 light anti-aircraft guns could be brought – every tank, every truck and every piece of heavy equipment was lost. On 17th June, they docked at Plymouth.
Fortunately, loss of life had been relatively low: five officers and 17 men had been killed, with three officers and 33 men captured. It was to be 15 months before the Tenth Hussars left England again – bound for North Africa and victory at El Alamein.
You can use our interactive screen at HorsePower Museum to learn more about the tanks the 10th Hussars used in France in 1940 and find out more about the rest of the regiment’s service in the Second World War.