A History of the 66th (2nd East Lancashire) Division During the Great War
8 June 1917 – The 2/5 Manchester Raid
Another important factor of the BEF’s approach to trench warfare was the constant stress on taking the offensive, and in the trenchlock conditions that prevailed on the Western Front that meant raids. Raids were carried out by any number of men from just 2 or 3 up to an entire battalion. They were conducted mainly for four reasons:
1) To reconnoitre enemy positions and take prisoners for identification and interrogation purposes.
2) To destroy specific enemy strongpoints.
3) To maintain the ‘offensive spirit’ and counter the stagnation of trench warfare.
4) To act as a diversion in order to fix enemy troops whilst operations took place elsewhere.
In fact GHQ were so obsessed with raiding that they issued a pamphlet to all officers called ‘Are you offensive enough?’ The response to this I’ll leave to your imagination!
On 8 June the 66th carried out its first major raid –Operation TABASCO - with the honour falling to 2/5 Manchester Regiment (199 Brigade) under Lt.-Col. Hewlett, though the raid itself was carried out by ‘A’ and ‘B’ Companies under Capt. Walmesley Cotham.
Conducting a raid of this magnitude is not a simple case of hopping the parapet, throwing some grenades, and grabbing some prisoners, but is in fact a highly complex ‘miniaturised’ operation containing the same elements and requiring the same skills as any large operation. Planning for this particular raid began in earnest 8 days before the due date and required co-operation with Engineers, Machine Gunners, Artillery, other infantry units, signals, casualty evacuation, and trench mortars. Specialised equipment had to be prepared and distributed, attack lanes through our own wire had to be cut, and trenches allocated and policed for assembly and attack. The artillery barrage alone consisted of a creeping barrage, howitzer fire, enfilade and flanking fire, counter-battery fire aimed at German mortars, specific fire on trenches and communication routes, a general box barrage to enclose the area, and the cutting of German wire. All of this was co-ordinated with equally complex barrages delivered by light and heavy trench mortars, with Vickers machine guns laying down barrages on the German support and reserve lines as well as enfilade fire on German communication trenches.
Lt-Col. Wilson of 2/6th Manchesters also provided 5 Lewis guns for immediate support. Finally No.4 Special Company RE were to put down a smoke cloud at Zero hour and at Zero + 40 to cover the attack and withdrawal. Split second timing for the operation given the complexity of the artillery arrangements was crucial. The 2/5 Manchesters had to be in position by Zero minus 40.
The German lines consisted of:
1) FRONT LINE – 1st objective
2) FIRST LINE – 3rd objective
3) SECOND LINE – 2nd objective
By attacking in this order the FIRST line (the strongest line) could be isolated
The operation began at 8:25 p.m. when the guns opened fire bang on time and with excellent accuracy.
At 8:30 the first wave moved off covered by the RE’s smoke screen.
At 8:31 the guns moved off the German FRONT line whilst the first wave rushed the trenches leaving behind moppers up. The first wave and moppers up accounted for 7 Germans amongst the shattered trenches.
At 8:33 the barrage crept up to the German FIRST line where it remained for 4 minutes. At this point 7 members of a German MG team attempted to surrender. 5 were shot whilst 2 managed to escape into the confusion. Prisoners were a low priority.
At 8:38 the barrage moved on, as did the first wave once more leaving moppers up to deal with the Germans. And deal with them they did! 1 German officer and 5 men emerged from a dug out. The officer was instantly killed, as were 3 of his men, the other 2 escaping down a tunnel complex. The tunnels were blocked and guarded whilst the troops awaited the arrival of 5 sappers of 432 Field Company under the command of Cpl. Perkins all of whom carried mobile demolition charges.
At 8:48 the troops arrived at their final objective exactly on time.
Between 8:38 and 8:48 the 2nd and 3rd wave of troops swarmed over the German system creating havoc and destruction as dazed Germans emerged from their dug outs. 14 prisoners were taken “9 of whom showed fight on the way back and were bayoneted.” 5 prisoners in total were brought back, 4 of them wounded. One them attempted to throw a concealed bomb at their captors but was promptly shot.
By this time the sappers had arrived and had more work to do than they could possibly cope with. Sappers Huddart, Knight, Hollerton, Ashworth, and Partington, together with L/Cpl. Sharpe and Cpl. Perkins damaged or destroyed 12 dugouts and tunnels between them before running out of charges. Sapper Ashworth was unfortunate in that one of his charges failed to explode, despite firing 4 shots into it. Having failed to ignite his charge he also found that his escort riflemen had disappeared leaving him completely alone! Luckily he found Partington who had also lost his escort and the 2 of them continued their destructive work before helping the infantry repel a German counter-attack.
The infantry withdrew under cover of smoke 7 minutes before time quite simply because without more mobile charges all that could be done had been done.
A moderate estimate of the number of German casualties overall would be between 125-150. Casualties amongst the 66th amounted to 5 dead, 46 wounded (mostly slight) and 4 missing.
The operation was a total success, almost a textbook case that earned the praise of the Divisional Commander, Lawrence and Lt.-Gen. Haking of XI Corps. It was also important because it was the Division’s first taste of operational co-ordination and co-operation, even if only on a small scale.