The Battle at Ryton Woods 1938
Kenneth Kirkup’s body hadn’t had time to cool before the Chopwell Communists were in action again. After long and protracted negotiations with the Soviet Attaché in London, it was agreed that the Russians would supply their British brothers with an assortment of weapons, ammunition and other essentials. This illicit cargo was to be hidden on a Russian flagged coal ship which would sail to the Tyne. From there the precious cargo would be handed over to the fighters of Little Moscow. Not that the plan was fraught with danger. The Fascists had their informants everywhere and should the source of the weapons be discovered the diplomatic ramifications could be dire.
An informant has information which is very interesting. While working on Dunston Staithes he noticed that a Russian ship arrived with a number of boxes on board which appear to be under armed guard. These are treacherous times and we must assume they contain weapons for the Chopwell communists. After the debacle at Hartford Bridge is had been decided that we will handle this problem ourselves as the army cannot be relied upon.
The cargo cannot be unloaded at the staithes so we must assume it will be transported up river. The plan is we will keep the vessel under observation and when the cargo is moved it will be followed by a small team in a motor launch. Since in all likelihood this will be at night we shall have to take great care we do not lose contact with our prey.
We have identified 9 possible landing areas where the cargo can be unloaded. Each of these will be allocated to a squad who shall wait in their transport vehicle. The shipment will be followed by a small team in a motor launch. When the cargo is landed the shadowing team will send up two different coloured flares to indicate the landing site and all units must converge in this area to affect the arrest and seizure of the contraband.
After delicate negotiations the Dumas has secured a supply of weapons and ammunition from the Glorious Soviet Nation. Tonight a launch will carry the shipment from the coal steamer Star of Russia, which is moored at the East Dunston staiths, to the riverside farm in Chopwell Woods. You are to secure the farm and it's occupants, unload the shipment and transport it back to base. To assist you in your task you have a platoon of 30+ men and three vehicles, one of which is our new armoured truck.
Do not fail, the glorious revolution rests in your hands.
Battle Report – BUF
After the shameful neglection of duty by the Warden of the Northern Marches, which led to the death of a very important prisoner, it was decided that the BUF must sort out the ensuing mess...
The boat arrived at a small landing near Ryton Church in the dead of night. A squad of 'blackshirts' were the first on the scene.
They split into two groups, one group advancing to the East of the road (with an LMG)...
...and the other advancing on the church, where some of the dispicable commies rats were holed up!
To the East of the road, the BUF came under heavy fire from the communists advancing up the road, and the situation was becoming rather desperate...when...
...reinforcements arrived in the form of another squad who arrived on the eastern edge.
Meanwhile, the gunfire at the church prompted a brave farmers wife to come out to see what was going on.
Whilst both sides suffered a hail whithering fire, the communists, fearful of the advancing reinforcements, and of a newly arrived launch, which had opened fire on the Russian boat, decided to leg it up the road with what they had.
The reinforcements managed to shoot the driver of the last truck, causing it to crash!
Whilst the motor launch was destroyed by the launch...
Though we took heavy casualties, we saw the battle as a victory, as we managed to destroy all bar three of the crates...surely all they managed to secure were a few properganda leaflets...!
Battle Report – Communists
Following on from the partial success in the attempt to rescue Ken Kirkup the Communists are now looking for more supplies. With the army taking an interest we suspect we’ll need them!!
With our clear briefing in place for this battle we set about the actual plan, splitting the force into two sections.
The first was tasked with loading the goods from the boat to the trucks and getting them away, and was personally commanded by ‘Mike Spencer’ (the force leader).
The second spread out across the road to the church, ready to clear the way. A small unit was stationed in the church yard itself to try and lay down cross fire on any trouble coming along the road.
The plan was simple, the first group load and protect the trucks while the second group keep the road clear. Group two would be picked up on the way out.
As the early game started, the off-loading was slow-going and inefficient as we waited for the inevitable attack. If fact we probably could have set up some sort of human chain thing here but didn’t think of it!
As flares went up over the river the first attack came from the beyond the church as a good number of BUF emerged. A protracted gunfight ensued with our guard line. Despite the difficulties imposed by the woodland and darkness, our valiant Communist forces managed to lay down an effective field of fire, forcing the BUF to hit the dirt. This didn’t help them and despite taking a few losses in return the Communists whittled the BUF away in the exchange.
As the battle progressed and events got heated down by the river over by the church wall, the Few BUF remaining were assaulted by the Communists and taken out with rifle butts.
Overall the action here went very well and cleared the exit road successfully.
At the riverside, loading progress was slow. As a new section of BUF emerged from down river loading is abandoned completely in favour of establishing a gun line and manning the vehicles to at least get away with the few crates we’d already unloaded.
As the bullets started flying here, the BUF took casualties and also decided to hit the dirt.
This prompted us to try for a few more crates as the BUF seemed to be getting the worst of the shooting exchange and showed little inclination to advance on us.
However, at that moment (off-table) a BUF launch turned up on the river and shredded our smuggler’s boat with HMG-fire. The surviving pilot headed below to set a charge that would destroy the boat and any evidence of Russian involvement. Before this brave chap could make it off the boat he too was ripped to bits by Vickers fire, his body consumed as the charge went up destroying the boat and the evidence.
At this point we changed to simply trying to get away with what we had. With the BUF pinned down downstream and over by the church we sprinted to the truck and sped off along the road.
As a final act the BUF did manage to shoot the driver of the last truck, which crashed into a tree. The surviving passengers sprinted to their freedom on the other trucks though.
The last BUF force turned up too late to affect the battle.
All told a hard fought battle that ended mostly in success for the Communists. Only a few fighters were lost and many BUF were killed or wounded, and although we only managed to get a few crates away, crucially one of those contained the necessary engine parts to get our little tank repaired.
For the battle we used the Legends of the Old West rules with a few additions from the Alamo and Showdown supplements to move it towards the ‘massed battle’ and ‘modern’ rules. They worked fine, and I think I’ll be writing them up for our future games.
With the board covered in light woodland and the battle being fought at night it was a struggle to inflict any damage. In most cases a shot needed to succeed spotting, hitting, cover ‘in the way’ and wound tests (all mostly ad 4+ / 5+) in order to take an opponent out. This may sound excessive but actually flowed surprisingly well. Typically 1 in 8 shots got through.
Despite this the BUF particularly took to dropping prone halting their advance on our positions. This I think aided the Communist success as we were able to maintain our mobility and eventually escape before the BUF could get to us.
Raise the scarlet standard high, beneath its folds we’ll live and die!!!
The National Archives
Sound Archive [Voices from the past]
File ref: NE1939-233175-Tr (Transcript)
Subject: Interview with Phillip (Phil) Sergeant concerning The Battle at Ryton Church 1939
Interviewer (INT): So Phil, tell me about the night of the Battle at Ryton Church.
Phillip Sergeant (PS): Is that what they call it nowadays? The Battle of Ryton Church? I don’t recall it being much of a battle, not compared to what was happening down at Liverpool.
INT: But you were there?
PS: Yes. I’d joined the cause at Chopwell a few months earlier. I was a good rider so they put me in the Cossacks. We mostly did a bit of scouting, foraging, border patrolling, that sort of thing. I think the propaganda chaps made more of what we did really. Occasionally we saw a bit of action. Some of us had been tasked with rescuing Red Ken from the peelers a little bit before that. I didn’t go on that raid but after the army shot him, we needed a bit of a morale boost.
INT: This is Kenneth Kirkup?
PS: Yeah, Red Ked we called him. Right firebrand. Real Communist you know? Most of us were Socialist, or just anti-Fascist, but I don’t really think we got the whole Communist thing. Not really.
INT: But don’t the official records show Mr Kirkup was killed in a car crash?
PS: Yeah? Well, that’s not what we heard. Word was the army shot him right there in front of the police. Anyway, that was certainly a trigger for what happened later I think. Many of the Comrade Commanders never forgot that one.
INT: So Ryton Church?
PS: Yes, a smuggler shipment had been arranged to come up the river and a large party was told to take three trucks over to pick up the goods. I was assigned to ride with them and carry the Chopwell banner. I don’t think they expected any trouble and they wanted anyone we ran into to know where we were from. Daft really. I mean it was night-time; who did they think we’d run into?
So we got to the river there, uh, not sure when. It must have been after midnight I think. I never did own a watch. Back then I couldn’t really afford one, but in later years I just didn’t want to know the time. It was dark, but the moon was full so there was a surprising amount of light. You could even see through the woodland a little bit.
Anyway, the party was led by a chap called Spencer, I think. Mike Spencer, yes. The trucks had parked up near the wharf and a bunch of chaps were set to loading the crates from the boat, you know, onto our trucks. The boat was already there when we arrived you see.
There was a house by the wharf I remember, and the chap there got a bit upset being woken so late. Spencer gave him some bottles of wine and vodka I think. Soon shut him up. With the war on it was hard to get good drink back then so full bottles were as good as money.
INT: The boat was already there?
PS: Yeah. They’d come up from the coast, but it was a small river boat so not sure…Charlie Uqhart was there and he said the chaps on the boat were Russians but I stayed on the road so I don’t know.
Anyway, Spence had put out some of the Comrades back along the road as a sort of cordon, and a few of them were dropped off at the church. Apparently there was a bit of a scuffle up there. I learned later that Arty Fellows, who was a right Red one, wanted to break in to the church, they were all locked back then see, to replace all the bibles with Marx’s little book.
PS: Yeah. [Chuckles] There was a lot of that went on during the war.
But anyway, the crates were unloaded slowly and carried to the trucks. Seemed to be taking an age I remember, and it was cold. That’s when things took a bit of a turn.
INT: A turn?
PS: Yeah, down the river, two flares when up. We all stopped to watch them and Spencer got a bit upset with everyone! He was trying to get the trucks loaded but we were all laughing. Didn’t realise what was happening you see; some of them though it was fireworks. Then through the woods up by the church we heard it. I remember being surprised and confused at the time, but I became familiar with the sound later on. It was the dull crackle of gunfire.
Everyone stopped laughing then. I wanted to go and check out what was happening but Spencer was very clear in his orders and we formed a defensive ring while the vans were loaded with the first haul of crates.
I think if we’d known the Fascists would attack us we’d have been a lot quicker, but at the time we thought we all the time in the world.
INT: The Fascists? What was happening?
PS: Well, we didn’t know and I remember there was a lot of indecision and confusion. Some of the chaps got in the trucks with the first crates. A few others went back the boat for more. Spencer ordered the defensive cordon as he got up on the Lewis gun. We had an armoured truck you see and there was a Lewis gun welded on it.
INT: How did you know they were Fascists?
PS: I’m coming to that. We didn’t. Not at that time. All we could here was a lot of gunfire, and I mean a LOT coming from up by the church. Then some of the chaps shouted that they could see a truck rumbling up from down river. That’s when we saw the BUF Blackshirts [Note: British Union of Fascists] pile out into the woods.
INT: And they attacked you then?
PS: Yeah. The newsreels at the time said it was us that started it but it was the BUF that started fired first. Didn’t even give us a warning, just opened fire on us. The first volleys didn’t seem to do much but it was the first time I’d been fired at. Not very nice I can tell you. They make a sort of ripping sound as they go by. You don’t hear the gunshot until after that. Scary.
Anyway, after the Cartington Farm incident a few weeks before we were all armed and the chaps shot back, and we heard a scream so I think they got one. That seemed to stop the Blackshirts as they never really got anywhere near us from then on, not until we were nearly away, but we were still panicking its fair to say.
I remember Spencer fell over at one point. I think he was trying to climb over a hedge by the house there. He made a right funny noise too! Sounded a bit like a rutting pig, you know?
Anyway, that’s when it happened.
PS: The boat blew up! You wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it. It was just like in those Hollywood war movies. A big ball of orange flame! It shook the ground too. Made my horse jolt, which nearly threw me and I could feel the heat even from where I was over by the trucks. Then there was a lot of black smoke, and I think the windows of the house broke too.
Jimmy Rawlings who was down by the boat at the time told me after that there was a big boat on the river that shot a machinegun and caused the Russian boat to blow up, but I didn’t see that.
Anyway, Spencer shouted at everyone to get on the trucks, which they did. Couldn’t get on fast enough really and one of the truck drivers panicked a bit, driving off without his passengers. I flagged him to stop and let them on and we sped away up the track.
INT: Towards the church?
INT: Are you OK Phil?
INT: You got up to the church?
PS: Yeah. There was bodies everywhere. Mostly BUF on the ground which is something at least, but poor Jocelyn Linnemaker had been shot and a couple of the chaps I didn’t know. Even one of the Duma Greencoats was down. You could hear him groaning…and then he wasn’t.
When I got there, a mob of our chaps were over by the church wall giving it to a couple of BUF with their rifle butts.
Nasty but no better than they deserved I suppose. At that stage of the war, I wasn’t much of a radical but towards the end I’m ashamed to say I hated them Blackshirts. Some of the things they done…
INT: Its OK Phil, we can stop if you like?
PS: No, no it’s fine.
There were still a couple of BUF shooting at us by the church. They had an SMG too and killed a couple of our chaps as they tried to climb aboard the armoured truck. I was over behind the other truck but you could hear the bullets pinging off the armoured truck. Now that ain’t like the movies…all that silly ‘peeoww!’ noise.
Anyway, there was a lot of shouting and commotion until Spencer shot them with the Lewis gun I think and everyone climbed on.
Looking back I saw our trailing truck veer off the road and hit a tree. Apparently the driver was killed. The rest of the chaps bailed out and came legging it down the track. We sped away as they desperately climbed aboard. I took a last look back before spurring my horse on and there were loads of BUF there chasing us on foot.
So that was the Battle of Ryton Church.
[Sound of clinking china (tea being poured?)]
PS: I’m told it was good though. A real success the Duma said! We’d managed to get away with some fresh rifles and a good stock of ammunition. Most importantly, apparently, a crate containing engine parts.
INT: Why were they important particularly?
PS: Well, most of us knew the lads who’d deserted from Catterick because they helped out with the training of the militia. I got quite friendly with one, chap names Collins I think. Anyway they’d brought a little tank with them. We all knew about it although only a few knew where it actually was. There were lots of rumours of course but we learned later that its engine had failed or something and they needed these parts to fix it.
So yes we were heroes for a while.
INT: Well that’s good isn’t it?
INT: Being a hero.
PS: Is it?
- Steve Hardy, Malcolm Gordon and Graeme Carroll.