50th at Bay - The Years of Defeat: A History of the 50th Northumbrian Division 1939 to September 1942, B.S. Barnes

50th at Bay - The Years of Defeat: A History of the 50th Northumbrian Division 1939 to September 1942, B.S. Barnes

This book is a prequel to the same author’s The Sign of the Double T, which told the story of the 50th Northumbrian Division during the victorious years of 1943-44, and looks at the division’s rather unfortunate start to the Second World War,

The 50th comes across as a rather unlucky unit. Having been caught up in the retreat to Dunkirk, it arrived in North Africa after the end of the victorious Operation Crusader and just in time to take part in the battle of Gazala, where one of its brigades (150th Brigade) ended up under siege, trapped between most of the Afrika Korps and the British minefields and was virtually destroyed, never to be reformed. Admittedly this rather reflects the overall British experience of 1940-42, but other units did at least have some experience of victories, especially in North Africa.

The heart of this book is the eyewitness accounts from members of the division. The author spent many years interviewing veterans, producing an impressive collection of reminiscences. These give us a really good idea of how these battles impacted on the individual soldiers involved. However they do also provide the odd example of some of the problems with memoirs, in particular the tendancy for the odd detail to slip – in this case several of the men who fought in 1940 talk about the failings of their PIATs, a weapon that didn’t enter service until 1943. However the details of their own experiences are clear and convincing. 

For me the most interesting of these come from the fighting in 1940, where the division took part in the counterattack at Arras, the retreat to Dunkirk and the famous evacuation. The accounts of the retreat make it very clear that this was a major defeat, with large parts of the British army streaming towards Dunkirk in a state of chaos (close to a rout), with much of their equipment abandoned. However all of the accounts are fascinating, and give us an impressive feel for what it was like to for the men who took part in this monumental events.

1 – Formation of the Territorials
2 – Mobilisation
3 – All Quiet on the Western Front
4 – The Nightmare begins, 10 May 1940
5 – The Battle of Arras, 21 to 23 May 1940
6 – 150 Brigade, 21 to 23 May 1940
7 – ‘Come on lads it’s Empire Day’
8 – The Road to Dunkirk
9 – The 50th at Bay
10 – The Western Desert. 150 Brigade, December 1941 to March 1942
11 – Operation Full Size: 20, 21 and 22 March 1942
12 – Disaster at Sidi Muftah: The destruction of 150 Brigade, 26 May to 1 June 1942
13 – Aftermath
14 – The Gazala Gallop
15 – Mersa Matruh, 26 to 29 June 1942

Author: B.S. Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 276
Publisher: Helion
Year: 2018

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