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Ten Days in Oxford: How Canadian Troops Defended Britain in 1940 – Part 2

Part one can be found here.

Having completed his briefing at what was now dubbed his Advanced Headquarters; McNaughton began an inspection of the area under his command. He first went to Turl Street in the heart of the city and the headquarters of 44 (Home Counties) Division, which had only recently returned from France. Next, he went to Eynsham Hall which had become the divisional transport depot, and by mid-afternoon, he had reached Blenheim Park to inspect the brigade located there and met the officers at their Hensington Gate base. For the men of the 3rd Infantry Brigade living conditions were already improving; 1500 gallon collapsible tanks had initially provided washing, but they were now able to use the Kidlington Maternity Hospital. As his diary notes, before he left there was time for the general to call on the Duke of Marlborough. Finally, he visited 2nd Infantry Brigade and addressed the battalion commanders at Wotton House.

Everywhere he went he found men busily preparing for the worst. With one battalion in each brigade kept at one hour’s notice all of the remaining troops were focussed on positioning anti-aircraft defences, digging slit trenches and making the best of their tented accommodation. Their officers were pleased with the work that had been done and confident that the locations were concealed adequately from potential threats from the air. Their confidence was increased by a series of flights that were arranged from the Abingdon and Kidlington aerodromes which flew the senior officers over their new camps; all they could see were a few white tents, and it was ordered that these should be painted over.

At the same time, small groups were being sent out from Oxford as far as Ludlow on the Welsh border and across to the North Sea coast to map routes and report back on the state of the defences they encountered. For 3rd Infantry Brigade, this meant an initial reconnaissance from Grantham in Lincolnshire to Shrewsbury while a later study included an area running from Kidderminster to Wolverhampton which was to be examined ‘from [the] point of view of possible parachute and air landings.’ Back in Oxfordshire plans were also made to locate a squadron of Canadian observer aircraft to provide close support and a proposed landing strip in Blenheim Park was identified as being the easiest to protect. Meanwhile, as work continued to prepare a two-mile long fixed defensive position around the city, in an unnamed quarry, presumably Headington, experiments were conducted over two days under the guidance of academics from the University’s Chemical Laboratories to develop the perfect Molotov cocktail. Ten different mixtures were thrown against the rock face, and the following day the same was done with 16 more. The best option, in terms both of effect and cost, was found to be a 60:40 split using petrol and coal tar launched by a rope sling which offered more accuracy and had a greater range than thrown bottles. With the trial completed the defenders started making arrangements to prepare 30-ton lorries which could carry a maximum of 840-pint bottles loaded with the potentially deadly mix.

Gunners of the 1st Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Canadian Artillery, with a 2-pdr anti-tank gun in a sandbagged position, Aldershot, December 1939. (Source: © IWM (H 948))

This intense activity was not misplaced – the truth was that the Canadian division was effectively the only one in the entire country still equipped to fight as a single formation and with enough transport to reach any threatened point. Even so, this was no more than ‘the strongest element in a very weak fabric’, and at the end of the first week of June, their listed strength was recorded as just 4500 men who had significant gaps in their equipment. Most obviously they continued to lack heavier equipment, the second brigade’s anti-tank company having no guns and the recce group having only a few of the motorcycles it needed to map the huge defensive area. Despite these limitations, the troops remained enthusiastic as they conducted active patrols of the Oxfordshire area; during one of these they pursued a suspect German agent who had dropped by parachute although in confusion ‘he apparently escaped, if he existed at all.’ For entertainment men of the 2nd Brigade were given permission to visit Oxford and in Aylesbury, there were organised bathing parades to use the open air swimming pool. Dominion Day, 1 July 1940, which was a celebration across the British Empire, was marked by more swimming for those troops, not on duty along with softball and various other games.

The officers did, however, worry that with little to occupy the troops they showed signs of restlessness and noted that ‘the pleasant peaceful conditions under which we are working, makes it difficult for the troops to realise the dynamite possibilities of the immediate future.’ There were also reports of considerable drinking taking place as the men, not on duty took advantage of the four-hour passes that were distributed for a limited period and allowed them to enjoy Oxford’s entertainments. One journalist who was in the city at the time found his visit badly disturbed and recorded that ‘there were hundreds of them around in the streets last evening, and without exaggeration half of them were drunk. They were yelling like redskins, breaking a certain amount of glass etc., and grabbing hold of women.’ As Malcolm Graham has noted in his excellent ‘Oxfordshire at War’, the Chief Constable of the city also linked the Canadians presence to an increase in general drunkenness as well as the theft of bicycles and the ‘borrowing’ of cars.

Despite the French government having surrendered and anxiety in Britain growing about what Germany would do next, the people of Oxford were reportedly “counting the days” to their only recently arrived defenders leaving again. With additional British forces being equipped more rapidly than had previously been thought possible this wish was soon fulfilled. McNaughton left Oxford on the morning of 29 June to visit Canada House in London for official meetings and inspect Canadian Engineers at Chatham. He never returned because the decision had been taken to establish two new small Corps formations and his troops were once again to head south. In case they needed to return all of the tents, telephone lines and other facilities were ordered to be left behind which it was hoped would ‘mystify the enemy’ and 30 men under the command of a single officer would ‘garrison’ each of the main sites.

The Canadians had been brief visitors to Oxfordshire, but the mission that they had been prepared to carry out could well have helped determine the outcome of the battle as a whole. It was also perhaps fortunate that there was no requirement to test how this enthusiastic but largely untried and poorly equipped reserve could respond against a battle-hardened opponent. The focus instead turned rapidly to the skies as the Royal Air Force took on its German Luftwaffe counterparts in the final phase of the battle that would decide whether 1940 would see Britain invaded or not. Its outcome is well known but the role played by the troops on the ground, and those members of the Commonwealth who prepared for the worst in Oxfordshire should also be remembered.

This post first appeared as a post on the website of The Second World War Military Operations Research Group.

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