On the night of 9 May 1940, Lieutenant John Warner did not reach his bed until 2.00 a.m. Along with the other officers of the Royal West Kents deployed along the Belgian frontier with the British Expeditionary Force, he had been celebrating in the mess amid the traditional rituals of the British army, with the regimental bands beating retreat in the little town square of Bailleul. It was unusual for all three battalions of a regiment to be campaigning – if the ‘bore war’ in France could be dignified as such – alongside each other, and their party did justice to the occasion.
They were asleep a few hours afterwards when they were forced to take notice of ‘some enormous banging all over the place’.1 The German offensive in the west had begun. As the West Kents hastily prepared to march that morning of 10 May (caching the band instruments which they would never see again) it is a measure of the British army’s collective delusion that they were ordered to advance to the Scheldt and to expect to remain there for some months.
In reality, they occupied their positions on the river for just four days before a trickle, and then a stream, of Allied soldiers began to pass through them towards the rear. Rumours drifted back also that ‘the French had packed it in down south’. Their colonel, Arthur Chitty, hated the enemy with all the fervour of a regular soldier who had been captured in the first weeks of war in 1914 and spent four years behind the wire. Now, he organized the pathetic deployment of their Boyes anti-tank rifles in an antiaircraft role. Shortly afterwards, the Germans arrived.
The 4th West Kents were deployed along the river bank. For reasons best known to itself, the battalion on their right chose to take up positions some way back from the waterline. As a result, the enemy was quickly able to seize a bridgehead on the British side, threatening the flank of the 4th. John Warner, a 23-year-old solicitor from Canterbury with a Territorial Army commission, claimed that, ‘as a lawyer, I was a cautious chap who always liked to look round corners before turning them’. Yet he found himself leading a succession of headlong charges against the Germans with his bren-gun carrier platoon which resulted in what he later called ‘a very interesting little battle’, and won him the Military Cross. The West Kents held their ground, but they were outflanked and soon forced to withdraw, their rear covered by the Belgians. In the days that followed, driving and marching north-westwards along the dusty roads, they fought one more significant action against the Germans in the forest of Nieppe, but found themselves chiefly confounded by the appalling traffic jams clogging the retreat, refugees and British vehicles entangled upon roads endlessly strafed by the Luftwaffe. Warner and his carrier platoon struck off across country to escape the chaos, which was fortunate, because shortly afterwards the Germans struck the main column, capturing the entire headquarters of the 1st West Kents, just ahead of the 4th. The young officer was dismayed by a brief visit to divisional headquarters, where ‘control had broken down completely’. Morale among his own men remained surprisingly high, but the enemy had achieved absolute psychological dominance of the battlefield. ‘We thought the Germans were very good. In fact, we overestimated them,’ said Warner. Like so many others, the West Kents bitterly cursed the absence of the Royal Air Force, and became practised at leaping into ditches at the first glimpse of an aircraft.
When they reached the Dunkirk perimeter, Warner was ordered to abandon his vehicles. But having brought them intact every yard of the way from the Scheldt, he stubbornly drove into the British line, and handed over the carriers to one of the defending battalions. For the next three days, he sat in the sand dunes waiting for rescue, with a motley group of some 60 men who had gathered around him. He thought miserably: ‘Here I am with an MC in the field, and now I’m going in the bag.’ On the third day, he wearied of hanging about where he had been told to, and marched his men determinedly onto the Dunkirk mole, where he parlayed them a passage on an Isle of Man pleasure steamer. Thus, sleeping the sleep of utter exhaustion on the sunlit decks, they sailed home to England.
Curiously enough, while senior officers and statesmen were vividly aware that Britain had suffered catastrophe, once the young men of the BEF were home, very few saw their misfortunes in such absolute terms. It is the nature of soldiers to take life as it finds them from day to day. In the months and years that followed Dunkirk, John Warner shared the British army’s dramas and anti-climaxes, abrupt moves and lengthy stagnations, leaves and exercises, promotions and changes of equipment. He spent some months defending Romney Marshes, ‘prepared to do or die’. A keen young soldier, he wrote to the legendary apostle of armoured warfare, Captain Basil Liddell Hart, explaining that he had mislaid his copy of the author’s The Future of Infantry during the goings-on in France. Liddell Hart sent him a new one.
Warner never consciously considered the prospect of going back to fight against the German army in France until one day in 1942, when he attended an officers’ conference in Doncaster addressed by his corps commander, Lieutenant-General Frederick Morgan. Morgan astonished them by expounding upon future landings across the Channel, ‘talking of how we were going to stream across north-west Europe with huge tank power. For the first time, we did start to think seriously about going back.’ The conference addressed itself to some tactical problems. An officer inquired how advancing forces would indicate their progress. ‘They can set fire to the villages they pass through,’ said Morgan unanswerably. Not only new armies, new equipment, would be critical to a landing in Europe: so also would a new spirit.
The chance of war dictated that John Warner did not remain with the 4th West Kents, which was fortunate for him, because the battalion was sent to Burma. If he had gone with it, he would probably have died, like so many others, on the tennis court at Kohima. Instead, he was posted to become second-in-command of 3rd Reconnaissance Regiment, earmarked with its division for north-west Europe. It was with 3rd Recce that in June 1944, Major Warner returned to the battlefield from which he and his comrades had been so ruthlessly ejected four years earlier. Along with a million and a half other Allied soldiers, he went to Normandy.