Battle of Boulogne, 22-25 May 1940
When the German offensive in the west began on 10 May 1940, nobody on the Allied side thought that the channel ports were in any immediate danger. That all changed after the German breakthrough at Sedan on 14 May, and the dash to the coast that followed. When Guderian’s Panzers reached the mouth of the Somme at Abbeville, German tanks were less than forty miles south of Boulogne. The nearest strong Allied formations were sixty miles to the east, still trying to hold the line east of Lille and preparing for a counterattack, which it was hoped would break through the German lines and restore the situation (Battle of Arras, 21 May 1940).
Luckily for the Allies, the Germans had advanced much faster than they had believed possible, and Guderian’s tanks remained static throughout 21 May, while the High Command decided whether to send them north to capture the channel ports, or south to attack the new French line forming on the Somme. The British used this time well. On the morning of 22 May the 20th Guards Brigade (one battalion each from the Irish and Welsh Guards) was taken to Boulogne by sea, escorted by the destroyers HMS Whitshed and HMS Vimiera. This force was placed under the direct command of General Edmund Ironside, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, partly because communications between the coast and Lord Gort, the commander of the BEF, were now unreliable. The British found two battalions of French infantry in the town, under the command of General Lanquetot, as well as a number of other troops who had been employed on labour duties behind the front lines and had found their way to the coast. Together the British and French had between 8,000-9,000 men in Boulogne, but the town had not been prepared for defence, and the troops lacked anti-tank weapons – the British had part of one anti-tank battery, the French had a small number of tanks.
On the same day the Germans finally began to move north. II Panzer Division had been given the job of capturing Boulogne. During 22 May they reached the southern part of Boulogne, where they encountered unexpectedly determined resistance. General Walther K. Nehring, Guderian’s chief of staff, rather unfairly believed this to be due to British leadership. The performance of the French garrison over the next few days would suggest that this was not true, but this was certainly the first serious clash between Guderian’s men and the British.
On 23 May II Panzer Division began a much more determined attack on Boulogne. The British had already begun to plan for a possible evacuation and that morning 200 seaman and marines were sent over on the destroyer HMS Vimy, to organise the port. This was a particularly dangerous task, for German troops had reached within small arms range of the harbour area. The danger was clearly illustrated later in the day – the destroyers HMS Keith and HMS Whitshed were sent into the harbour, where Captain D. J. R. Simson of the Keith was killed and the captain of the Vimy mortally wounded. Later on the afternoon of 23 May the British finally decided to evacuate their troops from Boulogne. Three more destroyers (HMS Vimiera, HMS Venomous and HMS Venetia) were sent over to take part in the operation, with HMS Wild Swan following close behind.
They arrived at Boulogne at 6.30pm, just after a heavy German air raid that General Nehring claimed disabled three destroyers. The new ships were met by HMS Whitshed outside the harbour. Her commander, E. Conder, was now the senior naval officer present. He sent a message to Admiral Ramsey, the overall commander of the evacuations, reporting that he would not risk entering the port without air support. Fifty minutes later, at 7.20pm, with RAF fighters overhead the British flotilla began to enter the port.
Whitshed and Vimy went in first. They were each able to take on around 1,000 men, before withdrawing at 8.20pm. They were then followed in by the Wild Swan, Venomous and Venetia. HMS Venetia soon became the only British destroyer to be seriously damaged. Her captain was wounded and she was forced to back out of the port. All three ships became involved in a close range ship-to-shore battle, attacking German tanks with their quick firing naval guns, aiming over open sights at enemies only a few hundred yards away. The situation was made worse when the Germans captured the French coastal gun batteries largely intact, and turned them on the British ships. Despite this, at 9.30 the Wild Swan and the Venomous left port with 900 men on board between them.
By this point 2,900 men had been evacuated, but there were still 2,200 British soldiers in Boulogne. At 10.30pm an eighth destroyer, HMS Windsor reached the port, and was able to evacuate 600 men, amongst them many of the wounded and a naval demolition party that had first been sent in on 22 May. Finally, in the early hours of 24 May HMS Vimiera made the final trip into Boulogne. By now the fighting had died down for the night, and by 2.45 she had been able to take 1,300 men on board. A total of 4,360 men were rescued. Unfortunately a second destroyer, HMS Wessex, had failed to arrive, and so 300 men of the Welsh guard had to be left behind.
On the morning of 24 May the French garrison still held the old citadel, and was determined to fight on, protected by the 30 foot walls of the citadel. The Germans carried out a head-on attack. Using siege ladders, and supported by concentrated artillery fire, flame throwers and close range fire from anti-aircraft guns, by the end of the day the Germans had captured the citadel. On the next day (25 May) the remaining garrison finally surrendered. The Germans captured two generals and 5,000 Allied troops, most of them French. While not as famous as the defence of Calais, which was being conducted at almost the same time, the three day defence of Boulogne played a part in delayed the German advance towards Dunkirk, and gave the British and French time to consolidate their defensive positions west of Dunkirk.
Battle of Arras (1940)
The Battle of Arras took place on 21 May 1940, during the Battle of France in the Second World War. Following the German invasion of the Low Countries on 10 May, French and British forces advanced into Belgium. The German campaign plan Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) had evolved into a decoy operation in the Netherlands and Belgium, with the main effort through the Ardennes. German units crossed the Meuse without waiting for reinforcements at the Battle of Sedan. Instead of consolidating bridgeheads on the west bank of the Meuse, the Germans began an advance down the Somme river valley towards the English Channel.
The Allies were thrown into confusion and their attempts to cut off the panzer spearheads degenerated into sporadic, un-coordinated counter-attacks which never achieved sufficient concentration to succeed as the main Allied armies were in Belgium. The offensive at Arras was planned by the British and French to relieve the pressure on the British garrison in the town of Arras and was not coordinated with an attack by the French from the south of the German panzer corridor.
Constrained by the limited forces available to them, the Anglo-French offensive was carried out by a small mixed force of British and French tanks and infantry who advanced south from Arras. The Allies made some early gains and panicked a number of German units but after an advance of up to 6.2 mi (10 km), they were forced to withdraw after dark to avoid encirclement. The attack was a failure but had a disproportionate effect on Hitler and Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, German armed forces high command).
Concern about more Anglo-French counter-attacks against the panzer corridor before non-motorised German infantry divisions caught up, led Hitler to order the panzer advance to stop until the situation at Arras had been restored. The Allies used the pause to reinforce the Channel Ports, prevent their rapid capture and fortify the western approaches to Dunkirk before the Germans arrived, making the evacuation of the British and French forces in Operation Dynamo possible.
Battle of Boulogne, 22-25 May 1940 - History
The German operations launched on 10th May 1940 enable to encircle 13 French infantry divisions, 3 French armoured divisions (DLM), 13 Belgian and 9 British divisions in the north on 23rd May. On 27th May the British evacuation plan is ready and the War Office tells Lord Gort that "his single duty is now to evacuate to Great Britain as much troops as possible". On 28th May morning the Belgian army surrenders.
On 23rd May the 2.PzD reaches Boulogne, the 1.PzD reaches Calais, the 6.PzD is near Saint-Omer and the 7.PzD is in the suburbs of Béthune. Nonetheless, the German operations against the allied pocket are not easy. The German troops are opposed to the best allied troops : the 1st French Army, the French cavalry corps and the BEF. The ground defense of the pocket of Dunkirk itself is mostly in French hands while British had the primary order to evacuate. Nonetheless, until 1st June there are still very small British elements on the south-eastern part of the pocket. This resistance played a significant role in the success of the evacuation. If on the ground the defense was mostly French, in the skies over Dunkirk the allied aircrafts were mostly from the RAF but several French fighters took part to the battle. Most of the French air force was engaged more south over the Somme River.
BATTLE OF BOULOGNE (22nd – 25th May 1940)
Boulogne is commanded by general Lanquetot, commander of the 21e DI. The city is not prepared to defend itself and the first German tanks are only 55 km away. The allied troops on 22nd May are composed of :
• 2 infantry battalions of the 48e RI (21e DI), which have fought in the Saar and in Belgium with the 7th Army
• Many French sailors based in the harbor and the ground installations, fighting as marine infantry
• Motorized elements of the 3e DLM, including about 5 Panhard 178 armored cars (12e Régiment de Cuirassiers) and 2 Hotchkiss H39 tanks.
• Elements of the 35e RA with a few 75mm Mle1897 field guns
• Elements of the 181e RALT with 7 155mm GPF guns but no ammunition. The gunners increase the defense by only 30 carbines.
• French coastal artillery : a battery of 3x 194mm guns at La Crèche and a battery of 3x 138mm guns on the Mont-de-Couple. These batteries are able to fire against the Germans.
• 3 air-fleet bases from the French Navy are located at Boulogne-casino, Alprech and Berck. Several air force troops will also take part to the combats.
• 2 infantry battalions of the 65e RI (21e DI), which are not in Boulogne but will delay the German advance in the close surrounding area.
In Boulogne there are also British elements led by general Griffin :
• 2 infantry battalions of the 20th Guards Brigade (which was only on training a few days before) :
--o 2nd Battalion Irish Guards
--o 2nd Battalion Welch Guards
• Few AT guns from the reduced 275th battery (69th AT Regiment)
• Elements of the 262nd engineer company (12th Infantry Division)
One photo shows also the presence of 1 Belgian T13 tank in Boulogne.
The French navy supports the city with :
• 10 torpedo and counter-torpedo ships
• 1 minesweeper sloop
• 2 destroyers
• 2 fast attack boats
• 7 armed auxiliary ships
The French fleet-air arm tries also to provide air cover and bombing support.
The Royal Navy provides also a fleet of 7 British destroyers and torpedo boats next to Boulogne.
The German troops attack Boulogne mainly with the 2.PzD, which advances along the coast on the left flank. The 1.PzD with the attached "Grossdeutschland" regiment in the center and the 10.PzD on the right flank are also implicated.
On 22nd May at 12h30, the 2.PzD clashes with elements of the 48e RI in Neufchâtel and Nesles next to Boulogne. The battle lasts until 16h00 and the guns of the 35e RA manage to destroy 9 German tanks. The French coastal artillery fires several salvo at 14,000m, against the German troops advancing on the Neufchâtel – Boulogne road. 4 German tanks are destroyed. At the end of the afternoon a German counter-battery fire destroys one of the 138mm guns as well as the command post of the Mont-de-Couple battery. The French troops moves back to Boulogne at 22h00.
A second column of the 2.PzD is blocked by the 3rd battalion of the 65e RI at Questrecques and Wiwignies. During this time the 1.PzD is blocked at Desvres by the 1st battalion of the 65e RI. Several German tanks are destroyed, with 25mm AT guns but also with Molotov cocktails.
On 23rd May, the 2.PzD completes the encirclement of Boulogne. The 1.PzD is again blocked by the 1st battalion of the 65e RI at Alincthun, east of Boulogne and cannot move on until 22h00.
At 2h00, the Germans assault the fort of La Crèche, which falls at 9h45 despite the intervention of 3 French torpedo-boats at 7h45 (Siroco, Mistral and Cyclone). After the German success, 5 French ships (Cyclone, Siroco, Mistral, Léopard and Chacal) and HMS Vimy fire on the fort.
The German troops try to seize the harbor to prevent any reinforcement or evacuation but they are defeated.
The situation is nonetheless critical with the numeric superiority of the Germans. The situation is even worsening more because the British troops are withdrawing at the end of the morning and prepare to be evacuated. The evacuation operation involves only British troops and ships while the French troops continue to fight. 4,368 British soldiers are evacuated between 23rd May afternoon and 24th May at 2h45. 6 out of 7 British destroyers are damaged by the Luftwaffe and the German artillery. The losses are important and the commander of the British destroyer fleet is KIA.
4 extra French torpedo boats arrive to support the defenses : Bourrasque, Frondeur, Orage and Fougueux.
The French fleet air arm T2 and T3 squadrons (based at Cherbourg) attack the German troops with 10 Latécoère 298 seaplanes. 4 aircrafts are shot down. Beside the coastal and anti-submarine patrols, the Latécoère 298 seaplanes were used to harass the German motorized units with their MGs and their 500kg bombload.
The French navy in the air, on the sea and on the ground is largely responsible for the resistance in Boulogne. The German advance is delayed on 23rd May. Only the 2.PzD can advance very slowly. The torpedo boat Orage is sunk by the Luftwaffe.
On 24th May, the situation is critical. The citadel of Boulogne is still strongly held by the French troops but in areas only several groups more or less isolated are still fighting. These groups include 300 remaining British soldiers (Welsh Guards battalion) and 200 French sailors.
The 2.PzD is unable to take the citadel of the city despite 2 assaults at 18h00 and 20h00. Several German tanks are burning.
The torpedo boat Fougueux is damaged by the Luftwaffe. The destroyer Chacal is damaged by the Luftwaffe and sunk by the German artillery. The French navy support is reduced because the ships are too much endangered. During the night, 100 French soldiers try to break the encirclement and to reach Dunkirk but it proves quickly impossible. Only several men hidden in a garage during the night manage to escape from the city on 25th May.
On 25th May, at dawn, the Germans assault the citadel (and its 10 meters thick walls) with ladders, a bit like during the Middle-Age. But the German assault troops are supported by 8.8cm FlaK from 8.FlaK Batterie, a strong artillery support and they are using grenades and flamethrowers.
At 8h30, general Lanquetot is unable to continue the fight and surrenders. Colonel von Vaerts, commander of the 2.Schützen Brigade granted him the honors of war. General Lanquetot meets General Guderian, who tells him that his troops around Boulogne have blocked the whole 2.PzD during 4 days, hampering his plans.
BATTLE OF CALAIS (23th – 27th May)
The French garrison of Calais is commanded by battalion commander Raymond Le tellier and is composed of :
• 202e compagnie de mitrailleuses de position (MG company) (capitaine Chassaigne)
• 1 reduced battalion of the 265e RI (272e demi-brigade), 3 platoons are in Berck and Boulogne
• 2 platoons of the 2e compagnie de DCA (4 twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss Mle1930 AAMGs) (capitaine Herreman)
• The 7th battery of the 402e RADCA (4 "autocanons de 75mm Mle1913/34" - 75mm self-propelled AA guns) (lieutenant Bugnot)
• Various remnants of French units including 200 men from the 187e RALH (heavy horse-drawn artillery regiment), who are probably only armed with carbines and handguns, motorized elements of the 32e GRDI (including motorcycle platoons and 4 Panhard 178 armored cars) and probably a few AMR35 light tanks from the 1e DLM (according to photographic evidences).
• French Navy coastal units in several strongpoints and forts (Bastion 1, Bastion 2, Bastion 11, Bastion 12, Fort Lapin) but the coastal guns are useless since they are directed towards the Channel.
The weak garrison cannot defend the whole area. The defense is mainly anchored in the northern part of Calais (the citadel and the harbor), in the forts and on the Boulogne-Calais road (western part of Calais).
Fort Nieulay is an old abandoned fort on the Coquelles-Calais road. It is initially defended by about 50 French soldiers and the AA platoon of lieutenant Pierru with 2 twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss Mle1930 AAMGs.
One MG platoon (sergent-chef Pruvost) of the "202e compagnie de mitrailleuses de position" is positioned in Bastion 11. The 4 Hotchkiss Mle1914 MGs have the task to control the Sangatte-Calais road and the area between Fort Nieulay and the Channel.
One MG group (2 MGs, sergent Henneton) of the "202e compagnie de mitrailleuses de position" is deployed on the Boulogne-Calais road, about 200m in front of Fort Nieulay.
The 4 75mm self-propelled AA guns are deployed in AT role on the Coquelles-Calais road, about 50m in front of Fort Nieulay.
One platoon of the 265e RI (sous-lieutenant Duez) is deployed in Coquelles in reinforcement of the rifle platoon of lieutenant Hivert. The town is defended by 2 25mm AT guns.
On 22nd and 23rd May, British troops arrive in reinforcement in Calais and general Nicholson takes the command :
• 3rd battalion Royal Tank Regiment (21 Vickers MkVI light tanks and 27 A9/A10/A13 Cruisers = 48 tanks)
• 30th Guards Brigade
--o 2nd battalion the King's Royal Rifle Corps
--o 1st battalion the rifle brigade
--o 1st battalion Queen Victoria's rifles
• Few AT guns from the reduced 299th battery (58th AT Regiment)
• AA elements including 2 batteries of the 1st searchlight regiment and the 6th heavy AA battery
General Nicholson is nonetheless already preparing the evacuation of several auxiliary British troops. The 30th Guards Brigade should have been directed to Boulogne but the city is already encircled and partly occupied by the enemy. The unit remains to defend Calais.
On 23rd May, a squadron of the 3rd RTR is sent in reconnaissance towards Saint Omer but is destroyed around Guînes by the 6.PzD. Other British tanks are destroyed by the 1.PzD around Les Attaques (between Guînes and Calais). An other squadron of the 3rd RTR is sent towards Dunkirk but only 3 Cruiser tanks are not destroyed and will join the French troops at Gravelines on the Aa canal. Just after its landing, the 3rd RTR has only about 20 tanks left. Most of these remaining tanks will simply be scuttled in the harbor of Calais.
The MG group of sergent Henneton is pulling back in Fort Nieulay at 22h00. Captain Tim Munby (with 55 men of the 1st battalion Queen Victoria's rifle and 3 men of the 1st searchlight regiment) is at first deployed on the Boulogne-Calais road but moves back to Fort Nieulay. These men reinforce Fort Nieulay with 6 Bren LMGs and 1 Boys AT rifle. Fort Nieulay is then defended by about 150 French and 75 British soldiers. The main armament consists in 2 twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss AAMGs, 2 8mm Mle1914 HMGs, several Bren and FM 24/29 LMGs and 1 Boys AT rifle.
On 24th May early morning, the 4 75mm self-propelled AA guns are firing on German advanced elements. To avoid the capture the guns are moved back and will not anymore defend Fort Nieulay.
A patrol of 3 British Bren carrriers (second-lieutenant R. Scott) is ambushed by a German anti-tank gun just after Coquelles. Two carriers are destroyed and the third carrier (rifleman Wilson) is damaged and moves back to Fort Nieulay with several WIA. After having crawled during one hour, second-lieutenant R. Scott and one other survivor manage to reach the allied lines.
On the road between Boulogne and Calais, the 2.PzD has to reduce a strongpoint of the French navy reinforced by infantry elements at cap Gris-Nez (capitaine de corvette Ducuing). The strongpoint is armed with 2x 37mm guns, 2x 25mm AT guns and 4x 95mm coastal guns. Unfortunately the 95mm guns are out of ammunition at the arrival of the German troops. Several German attacks are defeated and 2 armored cars are destroyed. The battle lasts all the day. On 25th May, all the guns are out of ammunition and the position is abandoned. The French troops try to join Calais. The capitaine de corvette Ducuing is KIA at 9h00.
The 10.PzD is attacking Calais by the south-west. The Schützen Regiment 86 (rifle regiment) supported by Panzer Aufklärung Abteilung 90 (reconnaissance regiment) and several tanks is in charge of taking Coquelles and Fort Nieulay. After an artillery preparation, the German attack is launched. Under the increasing pressure and the numerous opponents, the platoon of lieutenant Hivert moves back to the cemetery of Coquelles and later to Fort Lapin. The platoon of sous-lieutenant Duez retreats to Fort Nieulay but has to scuttle 1 25mm AT gun. Fort Nieulay is therefore reinforced by several soldiers and 1 25mm AT gun.
From Coquelles, the German troops move north to the coast. The 2 13.2mm Hotchkiss AAMGs at Fort Nieulay open fire on them at 1500m. The fort is then heavily shelled by the German artillery and mortars. The allied troops are at first supported by the Royal Navy but the ships are dispersed by the Luftwaffe and the HMS Wessex is sunk. A first German assault against the fort is defeated. A second German assault, involving this time 50 tanks is launched at 14h00. The German artillery support is very important. The 25mm AT fires all its shells and the heavy AAMGs are destroyed by direct fire. Fort Nieulay falls around 16h00 but the German losses are significant. The Boulogne-Calais road has been blocked during several hours, enabling the preparation of the rear defenses in Calais itself.
At the same time, the Schützen Regiment 86 supported by 3 platoons of the Panzerpionier Battalion 49, 2 medium tanks and several light tanks is engaged in the area between Fort Nieulay and the coast. They assault Fort Lapin and Bastion 12. At 13h00, unable to supply the fort anymore, the commander of Fort-Lapin orders to scuttle its useless guns and to withdraw to Bastion 12. In Bastion 12 the crews are also scuttling their guns which are directed towards the Channel.
Calais is encircled and Bastion 2 on the eastern part of the city fights until the arrival of the Germans at close range. The useless guns are then scuttled and the garrison tries to reach Dunkirk. The 2 commanders of the garrison (enseigne de vaisseau Roulet and lieutenant de vaisseau Lavier) are captured and executed by British troops, who think they would be spies. Enseigne de vaisseau Roulet is hit by 3 bullets but nonetheless survives and manages to escape.
The 10.PzD launches an attack against Calais itself but it is not very successful in front of the stiff resistance of the allied troops. During the night the southern part of Calais is seized, but the northern part, the harbor and the citadel are still strongly held. Guderian wants Calais taken for the 25th May but it will not be the case despite bombings of the Luftwaffe.
On 25th May 4 British destroyers are supporting the allies in Calais. They control only the citadel, the harbor as well as Bastion 11 and 12. At 16h00 a German heavy artillery preparation begins and is followed at 18h00 by an attack of Ju87 dive bombers. The thick and old walls of the citadel resist well but inside the citadel the HQ, the food dump and the ammunition dump are on fire. The water supplies are cut and the hospital is also burning. Nonetheless, the German infantry is once again defeated. The German artillery fires on the citadel all night long.
On 26th May 3 British destroyers and 1 cruiser (HMS Galatea) provide fire support. At 11h30, after strong Gemran artillery preparation, Bastion 11 and 12 are submerged by German infantry and are taken at the beginning of the afternoon.
At 14h30 the citadel is encircled by the 10.PzD. At 15h15 the southern gate is destroyed. The garrison surrenders at 16h00. The harbor will resist in a last stand until 27th May at 1h00, when the patrol boat HMS Gulzar leaves Calais.
BATTLE OF THE AA CANAL (24th – 28th May)
On 24th May, the 1.PzD, LSSAH regiment and the "Grossdeutschland" regiment (attached to the 1.PzD) assault the allied troops on the Aa canal between Petit-Fort-Philippe and Gravelines (close to the coast) and Watten.
Petit-Fort-Philippe is defended by 78 French sailors manning 2x 95mm coastal guns, 2x 75mm guns and 2 MGs. They are supported by 1 British infantry company.
The other defending elements on the Aa canal from the coast to Watten are roughly all French :
• elements of the 272e demi-brigade (a battalion of the 310e RI)
• elements of the 68e DI
• elements of the 21e DI
South of Watten and especially after Cassel the first line units are mainly British but will not be very concerned by the German attack on the Aa canal.
Gravelines is an old citadel (Vauban style) defended by :
• the 4th battalion of the 310e RI (21st, 22nd and 23rd companies) from the 272e demi-brigade
• the 1st battalion of the 48e RI (21e DI)
• elements of the 18e GRCA (including one 25mm AT gun)
• 1 battery of 155mm L Mle1932 Schneider guns from the French Navy (with 3 Somua MCG 4 halftracks for each gun)
• 3 British cruiser tanks from the 3rd RTR
From Gravelines to Holque (north of Watten) there are :
• the 18e GRCA which has organized many blockades on the bridges.
• 3 battalions of the 137e RI (21e DI)
• the 402e RADCA with its autocanons de 75mm Mle1913/34 (75mm self-propelled AA guns)
In Watten and Watten hill (72m high, good observation post) :
• 1 British engineer detachment (probably from 48th ID) in charge of blowing the bridges
• 1 cavalry platoon from 27e GRDI
• motorized elements of the 59e GRDI (capitaine Lemaire) (including a weapons platoon on the hill)
• 3x 25mm SA34/37 AT guns from the divisional AT company of the 21e DI, on Watten hill
• 2 companies of the 14e RTT (Régiment Territorial de Travailleurs - a worker regiment)
• north of Watten there are some elements of the 248e RI defending the lock on the Aa canal
• south of Watten in the Ham woods there is the 3rd company of the instruction battalion of the 110e RI (21/110) (commandant Ancelot)
More on the east and south-east, behind the Ham woods there are :
• Other companies of the 21/110 and elements of the 59e GRDI in the woods and in the town of Lederzeele
• 2 companies of the 21/119 (instruction battalion of the 119e RI - commandant Laplane) in the towns of Mengat, Noordpeene, and Wemaerscappel
The Aa sector is supported by French artillery, elements of the 35e RA (6 batteries) and 235e RA (5 batteries) deployed around Bourbourg. There are also 2 mobile batteries from the French Navy with 8x 155mm L Mle1932 Schneider guns.
The Aa sector is supported by French artillery, elements of the 35e RA (6 batteries) and 235e RA (5 batteries) deployed around Bourbourg. There are also 2 mobile batteries from the French Navy with 8x 155mm L Mle1932 Schneider guns.
Further south, between Watten and Cassel the day is rather quite. There are only skirmishes between the 2.PzD and the position of Watten. The BEF is deployed rougly from Cassel and further south.
On 25th May there is a French counter-attack launched at 09h00 in the Saint-Georges area (north of Watten). It is led by commandant Miquel with the II/137e RI supported by 5 Hotchkiss H35 tanks. Despite the German artillery barrage and the attack of about 40 German aircrafts, the French troops advance, proceeded by the bombardment of the 5th battery of the 35e RA. At 12h00 the German troops of the "Grossdeutschland" regiment in Saint-Georges are forced to retreat and the town is taken. A new defensive line is deployed on the heights (on the railway) with communications with French troops on the left (I/137e RI in Bourbourg) and on the right (I/48e RI).
After the failure in front of Gravelines, the Germans attack now the area of Watten. The hill, the town itself and the woods south of Watten are heavily bombarded by the German artillery. At 16h00 the assault is led by the LSSAH regiment towards the south and the east of Watten, infiltrating in the Ham woods (south of Watten). The allies are encircled in Watten and fight for each house. Only the elements of the 59e GRDI, which are motorized, manage to break the encirclement but Capitaine Lemaire is heavily wounded.
The 21/110 in the woods of Ham is pulled back in the woods. Supported by reinforcements from the 59e GRDI coming from Lederzeele and thanks to the French artillery, the German advance is stopped. At the night the Germans have established a bridgehead east of the Aa canal and control Watten hill.
Two French counter-attacks are planned for the 26th May :
• One led by commandant Ancelot, the objective is Watten hill.
• The other on the Rubrouck-Volkerinkove-Wulverdinghe-Watten axis led by lieutenant-colonel Lefèvre with the II/65e RI (commandant Alkermann) reinforced by 1 Somua S35 tank and a two 105mm guns from the 115e RA.
The first counter-attack is launched at 5h00. Proceeded by 3 motorcyclists of the 59e GRDI, elements of the 21/110 advance rapidly towards Watten hill, the German hidden in the Ham woods react intensively. Watten hill is shortly taken except the tower on the top but the situation is not secure enough with German troops in the woods. The French troops are too isolated and move back to the area of Lederzeele.
The 2nd company of the 21/110, which is still in Saint-Momelin, is heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. At 16h00 this company is assaulted by German troops and resists until 20h00 before retreating to Lederzeele.
The second counter-attack can be launched only at 16h45 because the troops had first to move to the area under German air attacks. The II/65e RI advances rapidly towards Watten. The Somua tank moves continuously forth and back, firing on every German troops appearing. The tank destroys even a German aircraft which has made an emergency landing east of Watten. In the woods of Watten the Germans are pulled back and the French battalion seized many German equipments and weapons but they don't manage to take Watten hill. Outflanking the hill by the south, the French battalion moves towards the Aa canal, but it is blocked by intense fire coming from the Eperlecques forest. At the night the attack is stopped and new defensive positions are organized.
On 27th May 1940 the German offensive goes on. The whole artillery of the XIX.Armee-Korps (mot.) enters in action. Around 12h00 the French position in Saint-Georges (II/137e RI) and Bourbourg (I/137e RI) are attacked by German infantry and tanks. At Saint-Georges the II/137e RI resists well, counter-attacks and takes some POWs. During the afternoon the 2 towns are massively bombarded.
The main German attack is directed south of Bourbourg. At 10h00, after a violent artillery preparation the "Grossdeutschland" regiment, supported by tanks of the 1.PzD, assaults the III/137e RI (commandant Guilloz) deployed around Cappellebrouck and Pont-l'Abesse. The French troops resist and stay on their positions. At the beginning of the afternoon the German attack is renewed at the junction of the I/137e RI and the III/137e RI, between Bourbourg and Cappellebrouck. The German tanks break through the French lines then join the Cassel road and head south, reaching the Haute-Colme canal at Looberghe.
At 15h00 Cappellebrouck is encircled and is taken, at 15h15 commandant Guilloz with its III/137e RI moves back to the canal in difficult conditions, having to fight while retreating but 3 German tanks are destroyed by a 25mm AT gun. Having reached the canal the French troops cross a wooden bridge and blow it.
The III/137e RI continues to retreat, still attacked by infiltrated German troops. At 18h30, south of Drincham, they are attacked on their rears by German units with tanks coming from Looberghe on the Cassel road. The last survivors of the III/137e RI are captured after a last and desperate stand.
The offensive is also intense more south : the XIV.AK (mot.) (with the 20.ID (mot.)), the LSSAH and the 6.PzD attack Cassel and Bergues on a 18km wide front, after a heavy artillery preparation. This sector is defended by colonel Compagnon (HQ in Zeggzescappel) with :
1) on the right flank lieutenant-colonel Perinel commanding :
• I/48e RI (chef d'escadron Bailly) defending Bollezeele
• III/310e RI (just arrived in the area after a forced march of 35km) (3 companies, north east of Bollezeele)
• CID/21e DI (Centre d'Instruction Divisionnaire = instruction center of the 21st infantry division)
• II/65e RI (in the woods east of Watten)
2) on the left flank lieutenant-colonel Lefèvre commanding :
• 21/129 in Nordpeene
• 21/110 in Lederzeele
The artillery in this area consists in :
• two 75mm Mle1897 guns from the 4th battery of the 35e RA
• the 1/115e RA (105mm guns)
• Groupement Lavergne (3/35e RA and 6/235e RA).
The sector is also supported by 2 Somua S35 tanks and 3 "light tanks" (probably Hotchkiss tanks).
The 59e GRDI is retreating from its previous position and elements are deploying in Lederzeele.
On the right flank, the II/65e RI is attacked at 6h30 on its front and flanks. Supported by the two Somua tanks the battalion resists well but later, to avoid being encircled, it moves back in Merckeghem and the surrounding woods.
Behind the II/65e RI, the I/48e RI improvises a new defensive line in Bollezeele beside the 6th company of the II/65e RI and 3 companies of VI/ 310e RI. The French units resist very well, blocking important German means during several hours. But at 17h00 they have to retreat towards Eringhem and Zeggerscappel.
In the centre, the 21/110 receives the main shock at 6h30 at Lederzeele but resists very well thanks to the two 75mm guns of the 35e RA and elements of the 59e GRDI (one motorcyclists platoon and one MG platoon). To avoid the encirclement, the battalion moves methodically back on the Saint-Omer - Dunkirk axis. At 12h00 it is at Broxeele and after several rearguards combats they reach Zegerscappel in the afternoon.
On the left flank, the 21/129 and elements of the British 44th ID, which are still more on the east are attacked by numerous German tanks at 7h30. The allied lines are pierced in many areas. The battalion retreats in Herzeele after high losses.
At the end of the afternoon the general retreat on the second defensive line from Drincham to Herzeele is achieved. The battle of the Aa is finished. The stiff resistance allowed the 68e DI to install good defensive positions on the rear. At 18h00 the SFF (Secteur Fortifié des Flandres) which is in command of all the allied units in the area receives the order to break all the engagements in the line of the towns and to move all the units north of the Basse-Colme canal. This retreat is achieved during 27th - 28th May night, under the protection of the 137e RI.
BATTLE OF LILLE (28th May – 1st June)
The successful evacuation of the BEF would probably not have been possible without the stiff French resistance around Lille, which blocked 7 German divisions. From 28th May to 1st June, about 40,000 French troops led by general Molinié (also commander of the 25e DIM) held about 800 German tanks and 110,000 soldiers from the 4.PzD, 5.PzD, 7.PzD, 7.ID, 217.ID, 253.ID and 267.ID. The French troops are composed of various more or less complete units :
• Secteur Fortifié de l'Escaut and Secteur Fortifié de Maubeuge with the I/54e RIF and elements of the 84e RIF and 87e RIF
• 12e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 106e RI
--o 3e GRDI
• 1e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 1e RI except 400 men, who are in Dunkirk
--o 2 battalions of the 110e RI
--o 150 men of the 43e RI
• 4e DI (infantry division)
--o II/72e RI, III/72e RI and 1 company of the I/72e RI
--o III/124e RI and 1 company of the I/124e RI
--o 29e RAD
--o VI/229e RALD
--o Engineer elements
• 15e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 4e RI
--o 27e RI except a part of the I/27e RI which is in Dunkirk
--o 134e RI
--o 4e GRDI except the 1st motorized squadron which is in Dunkirk
--o 1e RAD
--o 201e RAD
--o Engineer elements
• 25e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 38e RI except some element which are in Dunkirk
--o III/92e RI and half of the I/92e RI, the rest of the regiment is in Dunkirk
--o 121e RI
--o Elements of the 5e GRDI
--o II/16e RAD and III/16e RAD, the I/16e RAD is in Dunkirk
--o V/216e RALD
--o Engineer elements
• 2e DINA (North-African infantry division)
--o 13e RTA
--o II/22e RTA (the 2 other battalions are in Dunkirk)
--o 11e RZ
--o Horse-mounted squadron of the 92e GRDI
--o 40e RAD
--o V/240e RALD
• 5e DINA (North-African infantry division)
--o 14e RZ
--o I/24e RTT and II/24e RTT
--o Elements of the 95e GRDI
--o 22e RACD
--o Engineer elements
• 1e DM (Moroccan division)
--o 1 battalion of the 1e RTM, the rest of the regiment is in Dunkirk
--o 1 battalion of the 2e RTM
--o 1 battalion of the 7e RTM
--o Horse-mounted elements of the 80e GRDI
--o Elements of the 64e RAD
--o Engineer elements
These French troops fought encircled until all their ammunition was used and led several counter-attacks, the commander of 253.ID, general Kühne, was even captured. The Germans let the defenders parade in the streets after the battle granted them the honors of war to salute their fierce resistance. Even Churchill in his memories recognized the role of the troops in Lille.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE ALLIED POCKET AROUND DUNKIRK (27th May – 4th June)
On 25th May, Lord Gort decided unilaterally to retreat all the British troops to Dunkirk. Initially the Belgian army is defending the eastern part of the pocket but it surrenders on 28th May and the size of the pocket is reduced. The eastern part is then defended by the French 12e DIM and British troops.
The British evacuation begins on 27th May but on 30th May the British troops are still playing a role in the defense of the pocket on the eastern part with the French 12e DIM. This role will nonetheless very quickly decrease each day, the troops having the main task to retreat. Nonetheless, until 1st June there are still very small British elements on the south-eastern part of the pocket.
On 30th May the main troops defending the Dunkirk pocket are 100,000 French troops commanded by general Fagalde and admiral Abrial. These men are from various units, often very reduced units :
• Organic elements of various armies and corps (1st Army, 7th Army, Ist, IIIrd, IVth and Vth Army corps), including the 18e GRCA and 4 tank battalions attached to the 1st and 7th Armies.
• Divisions :
--o 1e, 5e, 9e, 12e, 15e and 25e DIM
--o 4e, 32e and 43e DI
--o 1e DM
--o 1e, 2e and 5e DINA
• French cavalry corps with the remnants of the 1e DLM, 2e DLM and 3e DLM. The 39 last operational tanks (21 Somua S35 and 18 Hotchkiss H35/39 tanks) are grouped under the command of squadron commander Marchal. They will play a decent role in the defense of the allied pocket. Many times their intervention even in small numbers of 1-5 tanks allowed to defeat German attacks on the pocket and to delay the fate of the trapped troops. The last Somua S35 tanks are out of fuel and scuttled beginning June.
• Territorial units :
--o Secteur Fortifié de l'Escaut (SFE)
--o Secteur Fortifié de Maubeuge (SFM)
--o 11th regional infantry regiment
--o Cavalry depot of the 1st region
• Various French Navy ground troops (including 2 mobile batteries of 155mm L Mle1932 guns – 8 guns)
• Main AA defenses
--o 8 groups of 75mm self-propelled guns (96 guns)
--o 4 groups of towed 75mm AA guns (48 guns)
--o 12 batteries of 25mm AA guns (45 guns)
--o at least 1 battery of 90mm AA guns (4 guns) from the French Navy
--o AA elements of the 1st region (DAT)
There are also about 20,000 British troops, elements from the 1st, 5th and 42nd divisions for a total of 120,000 men.
Beginning June 1940, about 30,000-40,000 French troops constitute the very last barrier to cover the evacuation of the BEF against about 130,000 German troops. The main elements involved in this last stand are from these main units :
• The 12e DIM (general Janssen) reduced to about 8,000 men
• The 68e DI (general Beaufrère)
• The tank group Marchal with the last tanks of the cavalry corps
• Reconnaissance groups (92e GRDI, 7e GRDI and 18e GRCA)
• Engineer battalion of the 60e DI
• Elements of the 32e DI
• Various units and remnants of units attached to the Secteur Fortifié des Flandres (SFF)
During 9 days (27th May to 4th June) these forces will prevent the German troops to stop the evacuation and to reduce the allied pocket. The priority of the British HQ will quickly be to evacuate as fast and as much as possible. The French HQ priority is to fight as long as possible to gain time for the troops, which will face all the German troops after Dunkirk. This resistance played an important role in the success of the evacuation of the BEF. A total of 123,095 French troops and 338,095 British troops are evacuated from Dunkirk. The French Navy (300 French military and civilian ships are engaged and 60 lost) alone evacuated 68,999 soldiers (20,525 French and 48,474 British soldiers). The success of the evacuation in the air and on the sea is widely due to British means. In Dunkirk the BEF abandoned 76,000 tons of ammunition 600,000 tons of supplies and fuel 1,200 field guns 1,250 anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns 6,400 anti-tank rifles 11,000 machineguns and 75,000 vehicles. On 9th June 52,669 of the evacuated French troops are back in France and about half of them will continue to fight until the end of the 1940 western campaign.
To defend the 500 km of the so-called "Weygand Line", from the North Sea to the Rhine, there remains only 63 divisions (59 French, 2 Polish depending from the French army and 2 British divisions) to stop 136 German ones, including 10 Panzerdivisionen, 6 motorized infantry divisions and 1 cavalry division. With such means only a frontline on the Somme and Aisne Rivers can be defended. Mathematically the campaign is lost, but the French troops will offer a fierce resistance during June 1940, inflicting heavy losses to the Germans and later to the Italians, who declared war to an already beaten opponent.
World War II: Defending Calais
When the English Channel port of Boulogne fell to the Germans on May 25, 1940, the troops defending Calais a little to the north were the only line of defense between the German panzers and the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), desperately hoping for evacuation from Dunkirk.
At 9 p.m. that evening, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent the following communiqué to the British commander at Calais, Brigadier Claude Nicholson: ‘Every hour you continue to exist is of the greatest help to the BEF. Government has therefore decided you must continue to fight. Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for above purpose are to return to Dover…. Churchill wrote later, One has to eat and drink in war, but I could not help feeling physically sick as we afterwards sat silently at the table. As he did so, the defenders clung grimly to their positions, fighting until the following evening when their heroic resistance finally petered out. If one episode might be said to have permitted the miracle of Dunkirk to succeed, then it is probably the defense of Calais.
The German forces that crossed the frontiers of the Netherlands, Belgium and France on May 10, 1940, so completely succeeded in their aim of cutting through the Allies’ defenses that within 10 days they had reached the Channel coast and cut the BEF and a French army off from the rest of France. On May 19, the commander in chief of the BEF, General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, warned the British War Office that it might have to consider evacuating the BEF. The same day, discussions began between the War Office and the Admiralty under the code name Dynamo about the possible but unlikely evacuation of a very large force in hazardous circumstances.
Following an enforced day of rest, the panzers were on the move again on May 22. Having reached the coast near St. Valéry two days earlier, they were now instructed to swing northeast toward the Channel ports. Resistance was patchy and disorganized, and by the evening they had reached the gates of both Boulogne and Calais. The next day, the 1st Panzer Division was moved from the gates of Calais to attack the British toward the line of the Aa Canal to the east, and the 10th Panzer Division was brought in to mop up the defenders of the famous old port. The 20th (Guards) Brigade was holed up in Boulogne, where the medieval ramparts proved more formidable than expected, while in Calais a defense was being hurriedly prepared.
Calais had been used extensively throughout the so-called Phoney War period as a transit camp for men on compassionate leave. On May 20, Colonel R.T. Holland was appointed base commandant and ordered to arrange for the evacuation of useless mouths. At the same time, the anti-aircraft defenses were to be greatly improved and the 6th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery (RA), the 172nd Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA, and the 1st and 2nd Searchlight batteries were moved up from Arras and deployed in a semicircle around the town. Over the next four days, Holland began the process of evacuation on steamers from the Gare Maritime, while combat troops arrived on incoming vessels. In the meantime, he located some 150 noncombatants in the town, and a platoon of Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders was detailed to guard a Royal Air Force (RAF) radar station. There were also 1 1/2 French infantry companies based at Fort Risban, to the west, with two field guns at the citadel and a number of other French troops manning the coastal defenses.
There was considerable confusion throughout the next few days, with contradictory orders and a lack of firm control, so that it was not clear to anybody if the Channel ports were even to be defended. At 10 p.m. on May 21, Lt. Col. Reginald Keller was taking his wife to dinner on the eve of his expected departure for France when he was called to the telephone. He was ordered to return immediately to his unit, the 3rd Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), for embarkation. After putting out calls in local cinemas and pubs, only one officer and 25 men were missing when the unit entrained for Dover at midnight. The tanks, however, were buried in the hold of the ship City of Christchurch in Southampton when the men left aboard Maid of Orleans at 11 the next morning. Arriving at the Gare Maritime at 1:15 p.m., they had no knowledge of their vehicles until they appeared out of the mist at 4 p.m. Had either ship been hit in the meantime, the battalion would have been useless.
Amid a mass of confusion and panic as refugees and noncombatants struggled to make good their escapes, Keller managed to locate Holland, who told him to get unloaded as soon as possible. At that point, Lt. Gen. Sir Douglas Brownrigg, adjutant general of the BEF, appeared on his way to be evacuated. He ordered Keller to move into harbor at the Forêt de Boulogne and get in touch with 20th (Guards) Brigade. Fortunately for Keller, he would be unable to comply with that order. Some three hours after the conversation, elements of the 1st Panzer Division were occupying the Forêt de Boulogne.
The unloading went slowly. Visits from the Luftwaffe were compounded by the discovery that all the weapons were packed in mineral jelly, and that many parts for weapons, vehicles and radios were missing. During the night, contradictory orders were received from Gort’s headquarters and from Brownrigg (now safely ensconced in Dover). A patrol of light tanks was sent out at 6:30 a.m., May 23, but ran into trouble, and the unloading was still incomplete when Keller decided that he must try his best to follow Gort’s instructions and move toward St. Omer in the opposite direction from Boulogne. At 2:15 p.m., his column moved out through a dense swarm of refugees. After a mile, they saw an armored column halted under some trees. Major Quentin Carpendale described what happened: I moved my troop across country to investigate and thought they must be French because I had never been led to believe that there was any chance of meeting Germans in force. We came upon the column which was stationary and resting and they were as surprised to see us as we them–there was only 20 yards between us when I realized they were Germans. An officer fired a revolver at my head as I was looking out of the turret.
Keller was forced to retire to the village of Coquelles. There he was told that Brigadier Claude Nicholson wanted to meet him. Get off the air, he replied. I’m trying to fight a battle! Around 5 p.m., the two met at the village, and Keller learned that Nicholson had been appointed commander of the Calais garrison, which included Keller’s command. Known collectively as the 30th Brigade, formed the previous April for service in Norway, the infantry component was comprised of the 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), and the 1st Battalion, The Rifle Brigade (RB), both of which were regular motor battalions, and the 1st Battalion, Queen Victoria’s Rifles (QVR), which was a Territorial Army motorcycle battalion.
The latter was equipped and trained to act as divisional cavalry for the 1st London Motor Division, a home-defense formation. The commanding officer, Lt. Col. J.A.M. Ellison-McCartney, was the bursar of Queen Mary College of the University of London. Many of his best men were away attending officer training courses or had returned to industry. In their place, he had 200 militiamen, but the unit was hopelessly ill-equipped, even to undertake its intended role. A third of the men were armed only with pistols, for which they had received no training. Having received orders to move overseas, they were then told that they could not take their transport and arrived on the quayside at Calais in circumstances very similar to those of the 3rd Battalion, RTR, on the afternoon of May 23. Colonel Holland was astonished to find that a motorcycle battalion had been ordered to leave its transport in England nevertheless, he directed them to block the six main roads into town, an enormous perimeter for less than 600 men with no transport.
The Green Jackets of the 1st Battalion, RB, under Lt. Col. Chandos Hoskyns, and the 2nd Battalion, KRRC, commanded by Lt. Col. Euan Miller, were much stronger and better equipped, as well as being prewar Regulars from regiments with outstanding traditions. The first to arrive on May 23 were the men of the 2nd Battalion. They had made a long and difficult journey from East Anglia via Southampton and were fortunate to be short only a few scout cars. Embarkation was a complete muddle as overzealous staff officers took over the proceedings, and the regimental officers were pushed to one side. Consequently, disembarkation was equally chaotic as men were separated from their units. Accompanying the battalions were the 229th Anti-Tank Battery, RA, and Brigadier Nicholson and his headquarters staff. However, nobody in either battalion was at all clear as to what was expected of them.
During the crossing, as they were subjected to air attacks and the sound of gunfire ashore grew louder and more distinct, Nicholson directed the first unit off to take the right side of the town. Thus, the 2nd Battalion, KRRC, marched by companies along the south edge of the Bassin des Chasses de l’Est, arriving at 2:30 p.m. to await their transport. The 1st Battalion, RB, took a position in the sandhills to the north. Major Alexander Allan wrote an account of their arrival: Broken glass from the station and hotel buildings littered the quay and platforms in which many bomb craters were visible besides overturned and bombed trucks on the lines. Troops were being loaded for the return journey to England. These troops were in the main non-combatant personnel, RAF ground staff, HQ clerks, etc., who suffered a severe battering from the Luftwaffe on their way to the coast, Allan wrote. They bore every sign of this and made a far from cheerful welcome to the theater of war.
With the personnel ashore only an hour before the vehicle ships arrived, Nicholson received an order from the War Office which could only be carried out with motor transport. The Rifle Brigade was to accompany a column of 10-ton trucks carrrying rations to Dunkirk for the BEF, which had been on half rations since the retreat to the coast began. The task was to be given priority over all other considerations. The only chance of success was to move immediately, but that was impossible.
While the 30th Brigade was disembarking and trying to get organized, the battle for Calais was commencing in earnest in the countryside beyond. Assault Group Krüger of the 1st Panzer Division was moving eastward, outside the southern perimeter, when it encountered the 3rd Battalion, RTR. After a brief fight, German light tanks advanced on the St. Omer canal, where they were held up for half an hour by C Troop of the 1st Searchlight Battery under 2nd Lt. R.J. Barr. Even when assaulted by heavier German tanks, the troop held on for three more hours before surrendering. The defense of Orphanage Farm, site of Air Defence Calais’ headquarters, under Lt. Col. R.M. Goldney, became the focal point of the battle for the next five hours. Between 2 and 7 p.m., the defending force was subjected to fierce shelling and bombing until Goldney decided that the position was no longer tenable. With the farm in flames, the defenders retired into the town.
The panzers’ remorseless advance had been hampered on its left flank by tanks and searchlights. The 1st Panzer Division’s war diary for May 23 stated: Assault Group Krüger…stood at the gates of Calais when darkness fell. It was reported that the town was strongly held by the enemy and that a surprise attack was out of the question. The capture of Calais was handed over to 10th Panzer Division while 1st Panzer Division was ordered to push on towards Gravelines and Dunkirk. Had Calais fallen on the 23rd, there would have been nothing to stop the panzers from reaching Dunkirk before the defenses were organized. At the same time, the day’s fight had bought a breathing space for Nicholson to organize his own defense.
Nicholson had received orders from Brownrigg to advance from Calais and attempt to relieve Boulogne. Had he made such a move with the 3rd Battalion, RTR, and his motor battalions, he would have been quickly overwhelmed, lacking any artillery support as he did. But Nicholson was a cool-headed professional and soon realized that Brownrigg’s orders were impossible. He appreciated that the defense of Calais itself was the urgent task.
While the engagement of the afternoon was in progress, the 10th Panzer Division was ordered by General Heinz Guderian to take the town as soon as possible. The divisional commander, Maj. Gen. Ferdinand Schaal, initially planned a coup de main but was to be disappointed. His men had been in continuous and fast-moving action for almost two weeks and were exhausted and suffering from casualties, most recently from sustained RAF air attack. Throughout May 23 and 24, Schaal demanded heavy anti-aircraft protection, and Guderian was concerned himself. At 5 p.m. on May 24, some hours after the attack on the town had been launched, Guderian told Schaal: If there are heavy losses during the attack on Calais, it should only be continued with support from dive bombers and when heavy artillery can be brought up after the surrender of Boulogne. There must be no unnecessary losses.
As Schaal pondered his plan of attack, Nicholson was in Holland’s cellar headquarters on the Boulevard Léon Gambetta. He had problems of his own, stemming from his large perimeter and limited resources. A senior French army officer had arrived from Dunkirk and was placed under Nicholson’s command by the French Corps at Dunkirk. A number of coastal artillery emplacements were also taken over, although most were designed to fire out to sea and were of limited value. The fixed defenses of Calais had a long history and were begun in the 16th century when it was an English town. The remaining ramparts and bastions, even where they had been improved since the FrancoPrussian War of 1870, could not stop a determined force with modern artillery and air support, however. Nicholson knew it was pointless to put his regular troops in front of those ramparts, and after careful study of the street plan, he decided that the best hope lay in the canal lines within the town. He therefore issued orders that the outer perimeter was to be held and all roads, railroads and other approaches were to be blocked. As the battalion commanders left to organize their areas, the sound of firing could be heard drawing closer.
Throughout the night of May 23-24, it remained unclear whether the brigade would be evacuated. Conflicting reports were received, and by the early morning of the 24th, around 2,000 of the defenders of Boulogne had been evacuated. At 3 a.m., a message was received that the 30th Brigade would also be evacuated. The message arrived while Nicholson was with Hoskyns on the Dunkirk road preparing to escort the BEF rations. He duly ordered his staff to prepare an operation order to that effect, to be implemented the following night. The attempted ration run ended inevitably in failure, with tanks lost and the riflemen returning to Calais. It was now obvious that the town was surrounded.
By 7:30 a.m., it was widely known that the plan was to evacuate and, consequently, unloading at the Gare Maritime stopped, although only half of the 1st Battalion’s transport had been brought ashore. With shells falling and her decks already covered with wounded, City of Canterbury departed at 8:30 a.m., taking the other half of the vital transport. Throughout the morning of the 24th, nonfighting men were released to join those aboard Kohistan, which left at noon. Nobody knew at the time that Kohistan was the last ship to do so.
After the incident on the Dunkirk road, Nicholson returned to the Boulevard Léon Gambetta, and the real battle for the town began. The Germans attacked at dawn, under cover of heavy and accurate mortar and artillery fire, moving against the south and southwest of the town and the advanced positions held by the 1st Battalion, QVR, who were pulled back to strengthen the 2nd Battalion, KRRC. The 10th Panzer Division was surprised by the strength of the resistance, but by 10:15 a.m. it had driven back Rifle Regiment 69 from Guines, captured the Pont de Coulogne and breached the outer perimeter. On the western side, Rifle Regiment 86 took Coquelles and directed shellfire onto the harbor, Oyez farm and Fort Nieulay–the latter a critical position in the next few hours.
Many French and Belgian soldiers were sheltering in cellars and other havens and took no part in the fighting. Others were to play important roles, particularly manning the fixed defenses. French naval tugs were operating, and many personnel had already embarked when Capitaine de Frégate Carlos de Lambertye asked for volunteers to man his forts. Those Volunteers of Calais marched back to occupy the crucial Bastion 11. That evening, about 100 more occupied Bastion 12, and in all, some 800 played a part in defending the honor of France–while the remainder waited in the cellars for the town to fall.
Captain A.N.L. Munby of 1st Battalion, QVR, was ordered to block the road to Boulogne, now open after the retirement of 3rd Battalion, RTR. His 59 men joined a French contingent of around 40 in Fort Nieulay, which they held under heavy fire until 4:30 p.m. on May 24. The Germans bypassed the fort and launched fierce attacks against the Allied center all day. There, the line was held by 2nd Battalion, KRRC, which destroyed two light tanks and drove the others off.
With the departure of Kohistan, Colonel Holland attempted to get as much support together as possible from the ranks of the largely unarmed rabble crowding the docks. Second Lieutenant Airey Neave from a searchlight unit was sent to support B Company, 2nd Battalion, KRRC. The commanding officer, Major J.S. Poole, was a veteran of World War I. I am afraid they may break through, said Poole, surprising Neave with the anxiety in his voice. Get your people in the houses either side of the bridge. You must fight like bloody hell.
Nicholson’s plans for withdrawal to the inner perimeter of Calais involved the 2nd Battalion, KRRC, the 1st Battalion, QVR, and the searchlight units that were most heavily engaged that day. He knew he must hold out as long as possible but still expected to be evacuated. He hoped to keep 1st Battalion, RB, in reserve to cover evacuation from the Gare Maritime. By 6 p.m., he had completed his plans, and 1st Battalion, QVR, was pulled back to a cellulose factory to act as a reserve for 2nd Battalion, KRRC. The Germans did not interfere. That evening, Nicholson retired his own headquarters to the Gare Maritime and later to the citadel to form a combined headquarters with the senior French officer, a Commandant Le Tellier. During the night, Nicholson received incorrect reports of relief, which raised false hopes.
Schaal had limited his attacks during the 24th to probing the outer perimeter. Before commencing major attacks the following morning, he sent his panzers to join those of the 1st Panzer Division east of the town, now halted at Gravelines to prevent the escape of any troops from Calais while preparing for a major assault with his infantry. He was confident of a speedy conclusion but did not follow up the British retirement during the night.
Throughout the 25th, the Germans mounted sustained attacks supported by artillery and dive bombers. They made little headway, however, and Nicholson twice refused to surrender. British patrols in the area of Boulevard Léon Gambetta engaged the approaching Germans, but by 8 a.m. the swastika was flying above the Hôtel de Ville. Land-line communications with London were cut, and Nicholson now had to rely on wireless. Some of the Germans thought the battle over, which slowed the attack.
The Germans sent the mayor of the town as a delegate to request surrender. Surrender? said Nicholson. If the Germans want Calais, they will have to fight for it. When the mayor failed to return, Schaal sent another envoy. The reply was recorded in the German war diary. The answer is no as it is the British Army’s duty to fight as well as the German’s. After a lull, Schaal ordered the battle renewed and the citadel destroyed. That was easier said than done. Built to withstand the most devastating bombardments, it still stands today despite the worst attentions of the RAF in 1944.
At 2 p.m., with the battle intensifying, Nicholson received a message from British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Defense of Calais to the utmost is of the highest importance to our country as symbolizing our continued co-operation with France. That was the first indication that evacuation might not actually happen. As the bitter street fighting continued, British casualties were mounting inexorably. Unfortunately, a plan to launch a counterattack, using some tanks of the 3rd Battalion, RTR, moving to the southeast, disorganized the 1st Battalion, RB, as the pressure mounted. At 3:30 p.m., Colonel Hoskyns was mortally wounded. The defenders never managed to recover their balance, although they continued to fight on doggedly.
After a renewed bombardment, the Germans began to advance again at 7 p.m., this time closely supported by tanks recalled from Guines to the east. Despite severe casualties, the 2nd Battalion, KRRC, managed to stem the advance. As darkness approached, the bitter fighting died down. The staff of the 1st Panzer Division announced, The attack on the Old Town has been held back. The enemy fights in a most tough and ferocious manner. Schaal decided to call off the attack at 9:45 that evening and asked Guderian for further fire support. The Germans were unaware that the defenders were exhausted and desperately short of ammunition. By midnight, except for the fires burning around the Place des Armes, all was quiet. The battalions faced the morning with about 250 men each, with no tank, anti-tank or artillery support, but still undefeated.
On the morning of May 26, supported by Junkers Ju-87 Stuka dive bombers and precise mortar fire, the Germans came on once more. Steadily the British were driven back, and the French at Fort Risban finally raised a white flag. The defense clung tenaciously to some positions, fighting to the last man. Finally, at 11 a.m., Bastion 11 was forced to surrender with barely a man unwounded. The defense at last began to collapse. Soldiers were rounded up in small groups, and the citadel finally succumbed at 3 p.m. The final surrender came at Oyez farm where B Company, 1st Battalion, QVR, had held out since the beginning.
For most of the defenders, it was the beginning of five years in captivity. Nicholson died in 1943. Airey Neave became the first man to escape from the notorious Colditz Castle in 1942. He later served as a member of Parliament until his assassination by the Irish National Liberation Army in a bomb attack in 1979.
The defense of Calais is a story of determination against enormous odds that, according to important German sources, contributed to the successful evacuation at Dunkirk. Three hours after the fall of the citadel, the Admiralty announced that Operation Dynamo, the Dunkirk miracle, was about to begin.
This article was written by Jon Latimer and originally appeared in the July 1998 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
World War II Today: May 25
TheGermans take Boulogne, France.
The British Expeditionary Force is ordered to retreat to Dunkirk.
The British garrison of Calais rejects a German call for surrender.
15 French generals relieved of their commands.
Trade Union executives accept Nye Bevan’s manpower mobilization plan, setting up Labour Supply Board and Production Council.
Bismarck escapes the Royal Navy’s pursuit and separates from the Prinz Eugen and makes her way towards Brest.
German Navy Chief, Admiral Raeder warns that US convoying of British war supplies would be considered an act of war.
The Germans decide to go on the offensive having now received substantial reinforcement through Maleme airfield on Crete.
Andrew Higgins’s landing craft competes with Navy landing craft at Norfolk, VA the Higgins boat defeats Navy boat in all categories and will be produced as the LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle or Personnel).
RAF Coastal Command refuses permission for their aircraft to take part in operation ‘Millennium’, which means that a shortfall of 250 aircraft is expected. However, by scraping up all the resources within Bomber Command, he manages to find the required 1000 bombers.
Perth police arrest four Australians for planning to set up an ‘Australia First’ Nazi-style government.
US VI Corps from Anzio joins US II Corps from Gustav Line near Littoria, Italy, tacking Cisterna in the process.
German paratroopers attack Tito’s Partisan HQ at Drvar in Bosnia on Tito’s 52nd birthday. Tito and Churchill’s son Randolph, both manage to escape in to the mountains.
The U.S. Joint Chiefs complete the plan for Operation ‘Olympic’, which sets the date to invade the Japanese mainland as no later that the 1st November 1945.
The last major US B-29 fire raid on Tokyo. In the campaign, 50% of city has been burned. Imperial Palace is hit in the B-29 raid, and Emperor Hirohito and his family are nearly killed.
Scenario: The Battle of Boulogne 1940 by Mark Barber
The skies were still a little darkened as the small convoy, led by the 1500 tonne destroyer HMS Whitshed, crawled through the near still waters on their approach to Boulogne harbour. With the dawn sun just peering over the horizon and the ships’ engines rumbling at low power, the nervous chat of British soldiers onboard the 2500 tonne turbine steamer Biarritz and the smaller SS Queen of the Channel intensified at the sight of pillars of black smoke drifting up into the skies ahead. Just offshore, a French oil tanker was still ablaze from being bombed by German aircraft as the ships came alongside it was also evident that the docks themselves and the surrounding buildings were shattered by relentless attacks from Stukas. Crowds of panicked French civilians and wounded British soldiers barged and bustled along the entire length of the harbour.
The convoy was ferrying men of the 20th Guards Brigade to secure the vital port of Boulogne as the German XIX Army Corps was sweeping its way westward across northern France. The British Expeditionary Force was in retreat and the soldiers of the Irish and Welsh Guards had been tasked with the vital mission of securing Boulogne to keep the supply lines open and, should German forces continue to gain the upper hand, maintain a safe passage for a full withdrawal from France.
Whilst the Guardsmen had within their ranks many pre-war professional soldiers, there was also a large number of barely experienced men who had joined up after the outbreak of the war the only real experience of fighting in a modern theatre came from the handful of men who had been part of Harpoon Force in the Netherlands only two weeks before. The British force consisted of the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards and the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards, made up of 972 and 720 soldiers respectively. These augmented a substantial force of French soldiers and were further assisted by some 1500 ranks of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps, although though the latter force was made up to a large extent of middle aged and elderly reservists or volunteers with very little military training and an unenviable reputation for poor discipline. Equipment was also lacking none of the heavier 3” mortars had been brought with the force and only a single unit of four 37mm anti-tank guns had arrived with the Guards’ first wave the main anti-armour capability lay in the hands of the underpowered Boys anti-tank rifles.
It was not long after disembarking that the Guardsmen realized the situation was critical and that there job was not to keep the supply lines open they were there to cover an evacuation. Surrounded by dead and wounded, using fixed bayonets to hold back panicking crowds of civilians from overwhelming them, the town around them already devastated by enemy bombing, morale was tested before German forces even arrived at Boulogne. The Guards suffered their first casualty when a young infantryman panicked at the overwhelming chaos which surrounded him and placed his thumb over the muzzle of his rifle before pulling the trigger to blow the appendage off and guarantee his own medical evacuation.
Orders came through from the force commander, Brigadier William Fox-Pitt: the Guards were to establish a defensive perimeter around the city and hold until the evacuation was complete. Streams of British and allied wounded and refugees continued to arrive as the Welsh and Irishmen moved to take up positions a city fight was considered far from desirable and the threat of tanks against infantry in open country was also to be avoided – Fox-Pitt made the decision to dig his men in just outside the suburbs of Boulogne, with good fields of fire but options to fall back quickly if necessary. The Welsh Guards took position to the east of the town in a ‘V’ of four Companies, whilst the Irish dug in in a northwest to southeast line to the southwest of Boulogne. Road blocks were set up at as many junctions, cross roads and choke points as possible to slow German armour.
Meanwhile, the columns of XIX Army Corps’ 2nd Panzer Division were already approaching the area rapidly. The force was under the command of the legendary General Heinz Guderian one of the chief visionaries responsible for the pioneering Blitzkrieg method of warfare, this strategic genius had already seen his theories proved to be outstandingly successful in Poland and the early rounds of the Battle of France. The Division swept towards Boulogne, harried along its route by regular attacks from the light bombers of the RAF which were operating from French airstrips. Scout units were sighted by the British defenders by mid afternoon on May 22nd and soon after the first engagements erupted.
Panzer IIIs were soon locked in combat with British and French anti-tank guns dug in to the suburbs the well camouflaged allied guns blunted the advance of the German armour, inflicting heavy casualties. However, supporting German motorcycle troops were quickly able to outflank, isolate and then eliminate the vital gun emplacements. Isolated fighting continued throughout the evening until after sunset the experienced German soldiers continued probing attacks along the allied lines throughout the night, not with any intentions of a breakthrough but instead successfully revealing the majority of allied units by virtue of their return fire. By dawn, the soldiers of the 2nd Panzer Division had a good idea about exactly what they faced, and where.
Shortly after first light, the Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs rushed forwards to assault the Guardsmen. The isolated, few anti-tank guns and Boys rifles attempted to slow the enemy tanks as Bren teams and riflemen poured fire into advancing motorcycle troops makeshift road blocks made up out of debris and furniture proved to be surprisingly effective against German armour but this could only halt their advance the Boys rifles were proving to be tragically ineffective – Welsh Guardsman Doug Davies later recalled seeing one German tank commander laughing at the completely ineffectual British fire from his position to the east of Boulogne. Return fire from the Panzers was causing significant casualties and it was quickly apparent that a British retreat into Boulogne was inevitable. As the Welsh fell back into the town, German soldiers moved up and sniper fire from a church tower in St Martin caused real problems for the men of 4 Company.
To the south, the Irish Guards were having problems of their own as they rapidly found themselves to be outnumbered and spread out far too thinly, with large gaps in their defense. The forward platoons of 1 and 4 Companies sustained heavy losses and by 0900 an ordered withdrawal was underway. By 1030 the Irish, too, had fallen back to the town.
Meanwhile, at 1000 hours, German artillery opened fire on the 19th Century Fort de la Creche which protected the harbour itself. The fort, manned by French troops, endured withering bombardment as German motorcycle troops moved into position to assault the fortification. Surrounded, outnumbered and crippled by accurate artillery fire, the French fort surrendered to the advancing German forces. Some time after 1100, Fox-Pitt received orders to evacuate all personnel of no military value, but to continue to hold his defensive line. The withdrawal was now beginning in earnest. By early afternoon, British defensive positions had fallen back to within a kilometer of the harbour itself. Still, the tenacity of the defenders impressed the Germans, as recorded in XIX Corps’ War Diary:
“…in and around Boulogne the enemy is fighting tenaciously for every inch of ground in order to prevent the harbour falling into German hands… 2nd Armoured Division’s attack therefore only progresses slowly.”
Hampered by snipers as the fighting moved from street to street, the Guardsmen made an orderly and disciplined retreat to the quayside, barricading and blocking as many roads as possible as they did so with barrels, furniture and abandoned vehicles. Now the defensive perimeter was almost impossible to differentiate from the hundreds of BEF wounded, civilians and other non combatants which crowded the dock area.
Now the warships and civilian vessels alike began steaming in to evacuate personnel by the hundred. Wounded and civilians were frantically ushered aboard the first destroyers with firefights between the Guardsmen and Panzer troops not only within earshot but now well within visual distance. The situation was beyond desperate one Royal Naval Midshipman proceeded ashore to establish communications with the shore party and on rounding a corner found himself face to face with a German tank. With allied forces now occupying a tight perimeter, offshore French destroyers began to bombard German forces approaching the outskirts of Boulogne.
By 1800, armed with constant updates of the situation in Boulogne, the Prime Minister himself ordered the complete evacuation. French soldiers were still tenaciously defending the medieval fortifications at Boulogne’s Haute Ville, and their CO, General Lanquetot was neither consulted nor notified of British intentions. As the evacuation continued, German bombers filled the skies above the harbour and rained down in deadly dive bombing runs before RAF Spitfires appeared in their midst. So close was the fighting by now that the Captains of the destroyers HMS Keith and HMS Vimy were both killed by sniper fire as they stood in the bridges of their own warships. German soldiers had also captured French coastal guns at Fort de la Creche and one of these opened fire on the British ships. The final confirmation of German victory was a line of Panzer IVs which stood along the waterfront, ferociously bombarding the destroyer HMS Venetia as she navigated the narrow channel. The old warship was wracked with shell fire, losing a turret and sustaining damage to the bridge as well as being set ablaze. However, the return fire from the Royal Navy destroyers was cataclysmic – several tanks were destroyed by direct hits from the warships’ 4.7 inch main guns and the captured coastal guns were silenced forever.
The Welsh and Irish Guards, based on all accounts of the battle from both British and German sources, gave a tremendous account of themselves. Whilst a German victory was inevitable the disciplined and orderly fighting retreat bought as much time as possible to save as many people as possible. Of Lieutenant Colonel Stanier’s Welsh Guards, 623 arrived back in Britain Lieutenant Colonel Haydon’s Irishmen saw 201 killed or missing – both forces had lost some 1/3 of their numbers, with many men still in hiding in Boulogne after being unable to reach the quayside, or still fighting on the outskirts after orders of the withdrawal never reached them. Their brave sacrifice was not in vain – over 4300 British, French and Belgian troops and civilians were successfully evacuated.
Battle of Boulogne Scenario
It is late morning, May 23rd. German forces have attacked the line of Guardsmen to the south and the east of Boulogne, and the retreat has begun. British forces have now fallen back to the city but their orders are to delay for as long as possible. German units are attempting to punch a way through the defenders to take key objectives in Boulogne.
German forces receive a 20% points bonus due to their numerical superiority in the area. Forces may be selected using the ‘1940 – The Battle of France’ reinforced platoon selector from ‘Armies of Germany’ (although Waffen-SS units are not permitted) or in accordance with the Armoured Platoon Selector as described in ‘Tank War’. British forces are taken from the force selector in ‘Armies of Great Britain’s’ ‘1940 – Fall of France’ list. If a light anti-tank gun is taken, it is most likely that the guns used were Bofors 37mm this counts as a light AT gun with a wheeled carriage, gun shield and crew of 3.
However, the following units may not be selected: Forward Observer, Medium Mortar, Field Artillery, Anti-Aircraft Gun, or ANY armoured cars, tanks, tank destroyers, self-propelled artillery or anti-aircraft vehicles. 1-2 of the 2 Regular Infantry sections (early war) which are taken as mandatory force selections in the reinforced platoon may be replaced by Inexperienced Infantry sections (early war) if desired. Britain’s free Forward Artillery Observer cannot be included.
Special Unit – Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps
Up to 2 sections from the British 0-4 Infantry Sections may be made up of AMPC units.
|Cost:||Inexperienced Infantry 20 pts|
|Composition:||1 NCO and 4 men|
|– Add up to 5 additional unarmed soldiers at +4pts each.|
|– Up to half of the unit may be armed with rifles at +3pts each.|
|– The entire squad may have anti-tank grenades/Molotov cocktails for +2pts per model.|
|– Tank hunters (if anti-tank grenades/Molotov cocktails taken).|
|– Barricade Builders: If the unit spends two consecutive turns within 1” of a building and surrenders their order dice on both turns, a morale check may then be made. If successful, a new road block is immediately constructed within 1” of any model in the unit.|
The table should be set up (available scenery permitting) to represent an urban area, with road routes allowing armoured vehicles to transit from the German table edge to the British edge. The British defenders pick a table side and must set up all forces in ‘Zone 1’ in accordance with the diagram below:
German Table Edge
Each Zone must take up 1/3 of the table on a standard 6’ x 4’ table, each Zone should be 6’ x 16”. If limited urban scenery is available then this should be set up in Zone 2 to represent the British digging in just outside the town.
Road blocks may be placed by the British player to span any road in Zone 1 or Zone 2. Only one road block may be placed for every route allowing German armour to cross the board and exit along Zone 2’s edge.
If available scenery does not allow for an urban map, British forces begin the game as ‘dug in’. A dug in unit counts as ‘down’ when shot at even if its not down (an additional -1 to hit and the number of HE hits halved), If the unit goes ‘down’ while dug in the benefits of being ‘down’ are doubled. Units count as Dug In until they move. If possible mark the locations of the vacated foxholes so they can be reoccupied or captured by the enemy later. Any British units may start the game in ‘ambush’. Due to German scouting attacks during the previous night, British units may not use the Hidden Set-up rule.
The German attackers are not on the table to start with. The German player must nominate at least half of their force as a first wave. This can be the entire force if the player wishes. Any units not included in the first wave are left in reserve. Outflanking is not allowed as the table represents just one segment of the front line similar engagements are happening simultaneously to the left and right.
The British player must carry out a controlled withdrawal before exiting the board. British units cannot exit the board before turn 6. The German player must advance across the table to leave the board via the British edge, whilst eliminating enemy opposition.
The battle begins. During turn 1, the German must move all of their first wave onto the table. These units can enter the table from any point on the attacker’s table edge, and must be given either a run or advance order. No order test is required for first wave units.
Special Rules – Road Blocks
British forces have placed road blocks at key points along the routes across the table. Vehicles may only attempt to cross these road blocks on an ‘advance’ or ‘run’ order. Only vehicles with a damage value of 7+ or greater may attempt to overrun road blocks. For any vehicle attempting to cross, roll a D6:
1: The vehicle has becoming stuck in place, thrown a track or snapped an axel. The vehicle is immobilized for the rest of the game.
2-3: The vehicle is slowed by the road block. Another ‘advance’ order must be given next turn and another D6 thrown to consult this table however, a repeat throw of 2-3 results in the road block being successfully traversed.
4-6: The road block is crushed by the vehicle and removed from play.
Road blocks can be destroyed by gunfire. They count as having a damage value of 6+ and can only be destroyed by HE other weapons simply punch holes in the road block.
The game lasts for 7 turns.
The British score 1 victory point for each British unit occupying Zone 1 at the end of Turn 4. 2 Victory Points are scored for each British unit which exits the board from the British table edge during Turn 7. The Germans score 2 point for each British unit destroyed. 3 victory points are scored for each German unit which leaves the table from the British edge. A clear victory is won by scoring 2 or more victory points more than the adversary. A 0-1 point spread is considered to be a draw.
Why Did the French Air Force Fail in 1940?
Wrecked Morane-Saulnier MS.406s and an RAF Bristol Blenheim Mk. I litter a captured French airfield as German soldiers inspect the damage and a Messerschmitt Me-109E comes in for a landing.
Mary Evans Picture Library/Sueddeutsche Zeitung
Shortages of aircraft and pilots are often cited, but a lack of leadership and misunderstanding of how best to employ air power were the root causes.
The German attack on France, Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940 has gone down as the classic example of Blitzkrieg (lightning war). The ignominious collapse of the French army in June occurred despite the fact that it possessed more tanks and better anti-tank guns than the Wehrmacht. Where the French were weak was in combat aircraft, though the deficiency in numbers was perhaps less significant than sometimes claimed. Yet many histories cite the poor performance of the French air force, the Armée de l’air, as a major reason for France’s defeat. Was it as bad as we’ve been led to believe?
For their western campaign the Germans had available about 1,000 Messerschmitt Me-109E single-engine and 250 Me-110C twin-engine fighters, compared to a total of fewer than 800 modern French, British, Belgian and Dutch single-engine and 120 Dutch and (mainly) French twin-engine fighters. During the first few days, in the expectation of a very rapid conquest of the Netherlands, the Luftwaffe concentrated 180 Me-109Es and 62 Me-110Cs against 29 Fokker D.XXIs and 23 Fokker G.Is of the Dutch army aviation brigade. With reinforcements of British Hawker Hurricanes arriving within hours of the opening of the German offensive and the Me-110 proving less effective than expected, the Germans had almost no numerical advantage in fighters on the French and Belgian fronts.
These MS.406s sport the national emblem of their Polish refugee pilots in March 1940. The most numerous French fighter of the short war, the MS.406 was by then regarded as obsolescent. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
All the Allied fighters were slower than the Me-109E, but they were also more maneuverable. The most numerous fighter type on the French side was the Morane-Saulnier MS.406. It was regarded as obsolescent and three groupes de chasse (fighter groups) were in the process of changing over to newer types during the May-June campaign. Nevertheless, the MS.406 was by no means ineffective in combat. Robert Williame of GC I/2 was flying one when he shot down three Me-109Es on the morning of June 8 and followed up by shooting down three Junkers Ju-87B dive bombers that afternoon.
The Luftwaffe did have an overwhelming superiority in bombers: nearly 1,200 Heinkel He-111, Dornier Do-17 and Do-215 and Junkers Ju-88 twin-engine bombers and 340 Ju-87 Stukas against about 400 Allied bombers, including 38 Vought V-156F and Loire-Nieuport LN.411 dive bombers of the French navy. French bombardment groups were even more behind in introducing new types than were the fighter groups. Units equipped with the new Lioré et Olivier LeO.451 still had problems with its overly complex hydraulic, electrical and pneumatic systems, exacerbated by a shortage of spares. Units re-equipping with American Martin 167 and Douglas DB-7 bombers could not be deployed in action until May 22 and 31, respectively, due to delays in fitting their armament. And the Amiot 351 and 354 (single- and twin-fin version of the same design), which were superior to Germany’s Ju-88, were only just beginning to come off the production line and did not see action until June 4, and then only at night. Most of the British bombers in France were single-engine Fairey Battles with a bombload of just 1,000 pounds.
It is doubtful, however, whether the Germans obtained much benefit from their numerical superiority in bombers. Their employment on May 10, the first day of the battle, to attack Allied aerodromes yielded disappointing results typical of their performance during the campaign as a whole. Thirteen of the Belgian air force’s 49 fighters were destroyed on the ground but only 31 first-line French airfields out of 91 were attacked (along with 16 aerodromes without combat aircraft) and just two army observation units and a squadron of V-156Fs were put completely out of action. The destroyed aircraft were quickly replaced from reserves, as were the few fighters lost by various units. A number of attacking aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and during the afternoon of May 10 German bombers that were supposed to strike the airfield at Dijon-Longvic mistakenly dropped their bombloads on Freiburg in southwest Germany 140 miles away, killing 57 civilians and injuring 101 more.
German Dornier Do-17Zs attack French positions on June 4. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
Heavy bombing of French positions at the Meuse River crossing in the Sedan sector on May 13 gave little practical assistance to German troops forcing the river crossing, and at Dinant, farther north, Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division crossed without any help from the Luftwaffe. Most subsequent German bomber activity was dispersed, desultory and in small formations.
The Luftwaffe’s biggest single raid in the May-June campaign was on aerodromes, railway stations and factories in the Paris region on June 3. Up to 300 bombers sortied, destroying 16 French aircraft on the ground (plus 17 shot down by escorting Me-109Es), damaging several railway stations that were quickly repaired but causing a major fire in the Citroën automobile plant. The raid killed 32 military personnel and 195 civilians.
It is generally supposed that the Germans also had a major advantage in anti-aircraft guns. The figures given by Alistair Horne in his book To Lose a Battle: France 1940 are often quoted: 2,600 88mm heavy anti-aircraft guns and 6,700 37mm and 20mm light automatics. This is a ludicrous exaggeration. According to German sources, the real figure is about 300 88s, fewer than 100 37mm guns and about 1,000 20mm guns operated by Luftwaffe flak troops, plus a dozen 20mm guns with army crews assigned to each of the invading army’s 10 armored divisions. On the Allied side the British Expeditionary Force alone had more than 250 heavy anti-aircraft guns and 300 40mm Bofors. The Belgians and Dutch had an additional 100 or so Bofors and the French 1,152 25mm guns. The French, Belgian and Dutch also had between them more than 50 heavy anti-aircraft guns and nearly 800 75mm anti-aircraft guns. In other words the Allies had about the same number of 20–25mm anti-aircraft guns, at least four times as many in the 37–40mm class and nearly four times as many heavy anti-aircraft guns as the Germans.
During the first week of their offensive the Germans assembled impressive concentrations of flak at the Meuse River crossings at Maastricht and west of Sedan, but that was because they knew where to expect Allied aerial activity. Later on, as German spearheads moved deeper into France and Belgium, the Luftwaffe flak units proved better at getting in the German army’s way than at being in the right place to defend it, and showed themselves to be as keen to shoot at things on the ground as in the air. Figures vary, but from 152 to 331 French and British tanks were claimed as destroyed by Luftwaffe flak. At the same time the Luftwaffe attributed about 14 percent of its own aircraft losses to Allied anti-aircraft gunners, who also seemed quite adept at shooting down aircraft on their own side: French anti-aircraft guns allegedly downed five British planes on the first day of the German attack alone.
French ground crewmen bomb up an American-supplied Martin 167 Maryland. (Popperfoto via Getty Images)
As with the armored formations in the ground fighting, overall numbers were evidently less important than the use made of what was available. Though brand-new Breguet Br.693 assault bombers were sent into action within hours of being fitted with their bomb-release gear, most French bomber units were held back in expectation of a drawn-out campaign. The major Allied effort to destroy the Meuse crossings west of Sedan on May 14 consisted of 109 sorties by the British Royal Air Force and 29 by Armée de l’air bombers. On May 17 French air force bombers carried out six sorties and French navy dive bombers 20. On the 23rd the air force managed just two bombing sorties and the surviving navy dive bombers six, with Latécoère 298 floatplanes based at Cherbourg carrying out a further 18 bombing missions south of Boulogne.
Quite early in the campaign a British intelligence officer in France remarked, “It is felt here that with 500 more aircraft at our disposal the German advance would have been utterly smashed as a result of our bombing of the immense and recklessly vulnerable targets offered to our aircraft in the form of close columns on the many routes of the enemy’s advance.” That is a very questionable assertion. Allied ground units on the move suffered in most cases little disruption from enemy bombing (“noisy but comparatively inaccurate,” as one British officer noted) despite the Germans’ superior numbers. Perhaps the only time a decisive deployment of France’s admittedly inadequate resources might have made a difference was during what has been described as “the hitherto biggest known traffic jam in Europe,” a line of military traffic, headlights full on, stretching back for 60 miles through the Ardennes and into Germany during the night of May 12-13. The jammed-up German advance had been reported in good time by the crew of an Amiot 143 night bomber, but the French were unable to respond on short notice. In the end the peak French bomber effort in the campaign was 126 sorties against various targets on June 5.
The small number of French bombers and their somewhat desultory employment might have tended to lay a greater burden on the French fighters. As there was no radar network covering France’s eastern frontier, it was impractical for French fighters to respond to individual incursions by small Luftwaffe formations. The French could either ignore the Luftwaffe altogether and concentrate on direct intervention in the ground fighting, or find some other means of engaging the Germans above the battlefield. Although some French fighters had been equipped for ground attack, it was not until June 5 and 8 that they struck German tanks in any strength, suffering heavy losses from flak.
Trying to find the Luftwaffe in the air by patrolling was almost useless. With a long border and 16 hours of summer daylight flying time, one or two patrols a day were unlikely to encounter the Germans. Thus GC I/5 flew seven patrols on May 17 involving 45 Curtiss H75 Hawks, only one of which encountered German aircraft, and on June 12 seven patrols by 21 Hawks resulted in the destruction of a Henschel Hs-126 observation plane whose rear gunner caused so much damage to two of the three attacking Hawks that they had to make forced landings. Both GC I/5 and GC II/5 reported instances of group attacks on single unescorted Do-215 bombers that were able to escape when the French fighters used up all their ammunition.
New Zealander Edgar “Cobber” Kain (left) and Frenchman Edmond Marin la Meslée were among the fighter pilots who participated in the battle. (Left: IWM C1148 Right: Musée de l'Air Archives)
As more fighter units were belatedly brought into action, the tempo of French fighter activity increased. From May 10 to 21, 2,675 fighter sorties were flown (an average of 223 a day), while from June 4 to 10 more than 2,000 were flown (say 286 a day). Nevertheless, some units were evidently carrying out more than one mission a day while others were flying none. Later it was reported that though 20mm ammunition for the French cannon-armed fighters had been coming from factories at the rate of a million rounds per month, only 80,000 rounds had been fired off in the whole six-week campaign. Meanwhile the RAF was running out of machine gun ammunition for its Hurricanes in France.
New Zealander Edgar Kain, the leading Allied ace up till the French capitulation despite being killed in a flying accident on June 7, was credited with unassistedly shooting down 16 German aircraft. Meanwhile, the leading French ace, Edmond Marin la Meslée, though also officially credited with 16 victories, had actually shot down only four on his own, the other 12 being shared with colleagues but, in accordance with French practice dating to World War I, counted each as a single victory for each of the participants.
By early June a flood of replacement aircraft was reaching French frontline units, though most of them were lacking vital equipment and could not be flown. Many Potez 63.11 reconnaissance aircraft even lacked propellers, and there was also a shortage of replacement aircrews for them. The 63.11 nevertheless achieved the distinction of being shot down in greater numbers than any other French type. That it was not employed in greater numbers (suffering even more losses) was due to the astonishing confusion that prevailed in the French air force administration. On May 17, for example, 30 63.11s were made available from training schools for use by combat units, and though the crews were stationed nearby, the order for these aircraft to be handed over still had not been issued a month later. And the delay in deploying imported American bombers was due in part to holdups in the delivery of machine guns, bomb racks, radios and intercom gear from French factories.
Confusion in administrative arrangements was paralleled by lack of clear thinking with regard to how best to employ air power. The official French strategy for deployment of tactical air units, issued on March 31, 1937, spoke grandly of the Armée de l’air’s ability to choose whether to attack the enemy air force, army or navy, and whether to do so either with or without the cooperation of other arms, and referred to attacks on enemy centers of production and communication, and on military units on the move, including armored formations. The French air force did in fact possess useful 1:25,000 maps of the Ruhr industries (which it did not use), but its maps of the German railway and Autobahn systems were on too small a scale to be of assistance in attacks on communications.
In any case, the French army, in the person of General Maurice Gamelin, overall commander of the French armed forces, insisted, “There is no such thing as air battle, only battle on land.” General Joseph Vuillemin, head of the Armée de l’air, probably agreed with him and toyed only briefly with a scheme to detach aviation units from a zonal organization linked to the army’s defensive zones and to establish a unified strategic command structure.
The French air force’s subordination to the army command was actually cited by British critics of what they regarded as the excessive autonomy of the RAF, but in practice nobody had quite figured out what that subordination was to consist of. General François d’Astier de la Vigerie, commanding aviation in the northern army zone, later claimed that “almost every evening” during the May-June campaign he had to telephone the northern zone army commanders to remind them of the availability of air support and to ask, “Have you got a job for them?” The invariable response: “Thanks very much but we haven’t any work for them.”
General Lucien Girier, placed on May 26 in command of a combined fighter/assault bomber force to assist the Seventh Army, never received a single request for aid even when his responsibility was extended to cover the Tenth Army area in June. Girier had to send out attack missions on his own responsibility and on the basis of intelligence supplied only by personnel under his direct command. It was later discovered that Vuillemin’s headquarters did in fact receive at least one request for assistance from the Seventh and Tenth armies but did not pass it on. On June 4, when the Tenth Army launched an attack on the German bridgehead at Abbeville, Astier de la Vigerie proposed a preliminary aerial bombardment at dawn, but the army staff had already scheduled the attack for 4 a.m. and refused to make the slight postponement a dawn attack would have required. When Astier de la Vigerie raised the matter with Tenth Army commander General Robert Altmayer, he responded: “What shall I do with all this aviation? I already have such an abundance of artillery I can hardly deploy it.” Of course after the battle the army generals were not slow to attribute the completeness of their defeat to the “inferiority of our aviation.”
A Luftwaffe officer examines a crash-landed RAF Hawker Hurricane. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
Astier de la Vigerie later complained of Vuillemin’s “vainglorious orders, orders for posterity.” The air force commander also made would-be morale-boosting visits to French air bases to shake hands with everyone and tell them, “You’ve met the Boche, it’s been very tough, very tough, I thank you. I’m proud of you.” That sort of thing did not impress senior British officers who had to deal with him. Less than three weeks into the German offensive, Air Commodore Douglas Colyer, the British air attaché in Paris, reported: “There are few officers in the French Air Force of really first class mental calibre….On the other hand, there are many general officers who, while undoubtedly very brave pilots in the last war, are not sufficiently educated to make commanders of important formations. Among these, I fear, must be classed General Vuillemin.” Later Maj. Gen. E.L. Spears, the British liaison officer to the French government, described Vuillemin as “a pilot of the last war who had gone to seed….Rather fat, rather pasty, bursting out of a uniform several sizes too small….He never contributed or said anything, but just looked on with the bewildered washed-out eyes of an ancient celluloid doll floating on the opaque waters of the bath….”
In the opinion of Pierre Cot, who had been the French aviation minister in 1933–34 and 1936–38, “Armée de l’air command bears the shame of having lost the battle without having fought it.” That judgment is probably too harsh. It may be that with fewer resources the French air force had proportionately even less influence than the Luftwaffe on the ground fighting, but it was on the ground that the campaign was won and lost. The failures of the Armée de l’air were a symptom, not a cause, of the French military collapse.
Perhaps the chief result of the air combat in May and June 1940 was to persuade the Luftwaffe that it had won an air superiority campaign when it hadn’t: The level of French (and British) air activity actually increased as the campaign progressed. Barely a month after the French capitulation, the Luftwaffe, emboldened by its largely illusory success against weaker opponents, embarked on a new air superiority campaign over southern England, and this time the weaker side prevailed.
A.D. Harvey taught at the Universities of Cambridge, Salerno, La Réunion and Leipzig before becoming a full-time writer. Further reading: The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West, by Karl-Heinz Frieser with John T. Greenwood.
This feature originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here!
Germans break through to English Channel at Abbeville, France
On May 20, 1940, the German army in northern France reaches the English Channel.
In reaching Abbeville, German armored columns, led by General Heinz Guderian (a tank expert), severed all communication between the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the north and the main French army in the south. He also cut off the Force from its supplies in the west. The Germans now faced the sea, England in sight. Winston Churchill was prepared for such a pass, having already made plans for the withdrawal of the BEF (the BEF was a home-based army force that went to northern France at the start of both World Wars in order to support the French armies) and having called on the British Admiralty to prepare 𠇊 large number of vessels” to cross over to France if necessary.
With German tanks at the Channel, Churchill prepared for a possible invasion of England itself, approving a plan to put into place gun posts and barbed wire roadblocks to protect government offices in Whitehall as well as the prime minister’s dwelling, 10 Downing Street.
Dunkirk: Everything You Need To Know Before You See The Movie
Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk inspired new attention to the famous evacuation by sea, in 1940, of four hundred thousand British troops under harrowing air attack. Had that evacuation failed, the United Kingdom would have been deprived of a land army to oppose Nazi Germany. But before Dunkirk, British and French troops fought desperate last stands in the channel ports of Calais and Boulogne that bought vital time for the evacuation in the Belgian Port. The situation grew so desperate at Boulogne that Allied destroyers were forced to blast their way into and back out of the harbor, using naval guns to duel with tanks, field guns and even snipers while evacuating panicky mobs of British soldiers.
How did the British Expeditionary Force fall into such dire circumstances in the first place?
Twelve days earlier on May 10, 1940, the German tanks and paratroopers of Army Group B smashed through Holland and Belgium in an apparent effort to bypass the Maginot Line’s fortifications on the Franco-German border. The British and French were expecting exactly such a flanking maneuver, and their own elite units surged north to tackle the Germans in Belgium, while French second-line infantry divisions continued to man the Maginot Line defenses.
At the hinge of the Allied mobile response force to the north and the static Maginot Line to the south lay the Ardennes Forest, which the French considered impassable to tanks and artillery due to the combination of defense wooded terrain with the natural barrier of the Meuse River. But the French had underestimated German combat engineers’ efficiency at building bridges and roads, as well as the mobility of tanks and the ability of Luftwaffe bombers to substitute for artillery support.
On May 12, the Panzer divisions of Army Group A smashed through the lone French infantry division defending the Ardennes in the Battle of Sedan, aided by overwhelming air support. The French had no reserves to counter the armored spearhead of the XIX Panzer Corps, led by the brilliant Heinz Guderian. Guderian reached the French coast on May 20, and was poised to turn north to crush British and French elite forces in a pincer.
It did not take long for Allied commanders to grasp the disastrous nature of their situation. The BEF and elite French divisions were cut off from their lines of supply in France. They could now only receive supplies—or attempt to retreat—through the ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. You can see the disposition of the trapped Allied forces and the vital ports in this map.
At Boulogne, the main defenses consisted of two nearby nineteenth-century forts manned by gunners of the French Navy: Fort de la Crèche on the northernmost tip of Boulogne, with its three huge 194-millimeter guns, and Mont-de-Couple, southwest of Calais, with a similar number of 138-millimeter pieces. Despite being capable of firing inland at the advancing Germans, the garrisons’ troops seemed largely preoccupied with order to spike their heavy guns—a course of action ordered by a French commandant who fled the scene shortly thereafter.
In Boulogne itself, the British could contribute only two antiaircraft regiments, though one of them was equipped with eight deadly 3.7-inch flak guns. There were also 1,500 lightly trained logistical troops of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps that were not supposed to engage in combat at all. To these ground units, the French could only contribute seamen working at naval installations, and a handful of artillery and reconnaissance units. The latter between them boasted just four antitank guns, a few Panhard 78 armored cars and two H-39 light tanks, one of them immobilized.
On May 22, Guderian was ready to advance on all three ports, delegating the Second Panzer Division to seize Boulogne. The forces opposing it in the two French ports were so weak that it might conceivably have overwhelmed them at little cost in time or men.
However, an unsuccessful British counterattack at Arras to the east afflicted the German high command with a bout of second-guessing, delaying Guderian’s planned attack on May 22 by five hours. That seemingly minor deferral bought the Allies vital time.
Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation.Wikimedia Commons
One day earlier, the Twentieth Guards Brigade had been pulled from training maneuvers in England on orders from London. By 6:30 a.m. the following morning, its Second Irish Guards and Second Welsh Guards infantry battalions had been ferried to Boulogne with orders to defend the port city, along with a battery of two-pound antitank guns and a company of field engineers.
Boulogne lies on low ground at the mouth of the Liane River. Wishing to at least start on the high ground, Brigadier General Fox-Pitt deployed the Welsh Guards to hold the hilly northeastern approach to the town, while the Irish Guards covered the southwestern flank. The six-mile perimeter gave the British a little room to fall back before hitting the urban center. The British infantry successfully repelled the first probes of the Second Panzer Division that afternoon.
Meanwhile, the much larger French Twenty-First Infantry Division began deploying to assume additional defensive positions to the south of Boulogne. Indeed, the division’s forty-eighth regiment managed to knock out nine tanks with their trusty old seventy-five-millimeter Model 1897 field guns at Nesles and Neufchatels before being forced to withdraw to Boulogne. But the bulk of the division was still on the way.
Meanwhile, the French Admiral Leclerc finally convinced the fortress troops to stop trying to blow up their own guns, and instead shoot them at the enemy. By the end of the day, the heavy pieces at La Creche had knocked out four German tanks from a range of eight miles. The French and British also flung their own airpower into the melee, with dozens of Blenheim bombers and two squadrons of French Navy Latécoère 298 float planes bombing and strafing the encroaching German columns.
But the evening swiftly brought grim news to Boulogne’s defenders. German artillery blew away much of the Mont-de-Couple fortress. Marauding Panzers fell upon elements of the twenty-first division transiting by rail, causing the bulk of the unit to scatter and evaporate. Then at 2 o’clock the following morning, the Germans assaulted Fort de la Crèche. Three French destroyers sallied forth to the fort’s defense, but could not prevent its capture after a sharp, seven-hour battle. To top it off, the Twentieth Guards lost radio contact with the British, as their superior headquarters evacuated to the UK without notifying them. Further directions could only be sent by ship.
Realizing the twenty-first division could no longer come to the rescue, Fox-Pitt hastily armed a thousand of the auxiliary troops and inserted them to hold the gap between his two infantry battalion—their courage, if not their discipline, heavily fortified by alcohol! By then the Second Panzer Division’s armored noose was closing on the defenders. Panzers forced the Irish Guards to the south of Boulogne to withdraw to the outskirts of town at 10 a.m., though two attached 3.7-inch flak guns of the Second Anti-Aircraft Regiment managed to brew a couple tanks before being knocked out in turn.
Soon, five French destroyers had assembled outside of Calais, pouring shell fire into the hordes of German tanks and infantry swarming down upon Calais. At noon, the Royal Navy destroyer Vimy sailed into the harbor to evacuate the auxiliaries and the wounded—and delivering orders to hold at all costs. By mid-afternoon, German tanks and infantry had forced their way deep into town, cutting off the French and British troops from each other. According to the war diary of the twentieth brigade, the chaos was worsened by German infiltrators and saboteurs in Boulogne disguised as priests or Allied officers, directing German artillery fire or attempting to plant bombs on Allied ships!
British prisoners of war with a German tank, May 1940.Wikimedia Commons
The onslaught cooled off in the later afternoon, as additional destroyers began approaching the harbor to help evacuate civilians and support troops. They also brought with them demolition parties to begin destroying the valuable port facilities, and two platoons of Royal Marines to police the evacuation effort.
Finally, at 6 p.m. the destroyer HMS Keith sailed in harbor to join the Vimy with orders to begin evacuating the British troops—just thirty-six hours after the Twentieth Guards had landed! But by then, German tanks, artillery and even infantry were positioned close enough to shoot at the destroyers in the harbor. Mortars and machine guns raked the Keith, killing its captain, David Simson. Shortly afterwards, the captain of the Vimy was shot in the head by a sniper—and his second in command killed moments later by the same shooter.
It was at that moment that a swarm of sixty Luftwaffe bombers pounced upon beleaguered city. Sam Lombard Hobson, a first lieutenant aboard the destroyerWhitshed, described it in his book A Sailor’s War: “Every ship opened fire as the Stukas screamed down, with their angry hornet-like noise, to drop their bombs which sent up huge fountains of mud and water alongside the destroyers, drenching everyone on deck.”
Bombs and mortar shells blasted sailors on board the Keith. It and the Vimy, both captainless, began fleeing from port—the Vimy pausing only to use its main gun to obliterate a hotel a hundred meters away that the crew believed to be harboring the sniper that had shot their captain. The dive bombers hit two French destroyers, disabling one and causing the Orage to erupt in a cloud of fire and smoke.
The remaining British destroyers refused to attempt an evacuation while the German bombers roamed overhead—until twelve Spitfire fighters of the RAF’s 92 Squadron came to the rescue. The squadron had just seen its first action earlier that day when it shot down several Messerschmitt Bf.109 fighters. In the chaotic dogfight that followed, four Spitfires were lost in exchange for seven twin-engine Bf-110C fighter bombers confirmed shot down.
With air support overhead, the other British destroyers assembling near the harbor made their move. The destroyers Whitshed and Vimiera were the first to run the gauntlet. Mobs of desperate auxiliaries, soldiers and civilians swarmed the vessels when they arrived at the quay, trampling the dead and wounded underfoot. It was decided to embark the Welsh Guards first, while the Irish Guards continued to defend the perimeter around the harbor. In his account, Lombard-Hobson recalls witnessing one soldier who broke out of his place in line to dash for the gangway. An officer shot him dead.
The two destroyers managed to each pack about 550 troops on deck and make their getaway at 8:25 p.m.—with the Whitshed pausing to blast two Panzers to oblivions on its way out.
Ten minutes later, the destroyers Venomous, Wild Swan and Venetia charged into the harbor to pull out additional troops. The Germans held their fire until the last ship came, planning to cripple it at the mouth of the harbor and thereby trap the other two inside. For this task, they assigned two Panzer IV tanks armed with short-barrel seventy-five-millimeter guns from the Third Panzer Regiment.
German tanker Frank Steinzer described what happened next in the book Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man:
We heard the commander’s voice. It is almost jolly: ‘Half right, distance 500 meters, destroyer!’ Then the gunner says: ‘Target is in my sights.’ The first shell is fired. Fifty meters too far. I look through the binoculars and see that the destroyer is ready to land. I can see troops clearly on the deck. There is loads of activity. The gunner moves the guns and the second shot hits the ship. Within seconds, a bright yellow flame shoots up five meters into the air as bits of the ships are blown up. . . . The destroyer tries to escape from the shells . . . and at the same time it shoots back. The ground vibrates. Everything is shaking. Then there is a loud wailing sound, and our tank is hit. . . .
The Venetia, a V-class destroyer dating back to World War I. was struck by seven shells in all, setting its aft section on fire, knocking out a gun turret and smashing the bridge—the last putting much of its command crew out of action, causing it to run aground.
The Wild Swan and Venomous retaliated with their 4.7-inch naval guns, blasting two tanks apart, one of them cartwheeling on its side from the impact. Then the crew of the Venomous realized that shellfire was coming from captured French fortification at Fort de la Crèche! The destroyer swiveled its 4.7-inch guns, and managed to blow open the side of the fortification and the ledge it stood upon, sending the captured coastal guns tumbling down the hillside.
Venetia, its navigator dead and commanding officer seriously wounded, managed to limp backwards out of the harbor thanks to the steering of Sub-Lieutenant Denis Jones. Wild Swan and Venomous made it to the docks and picked up nine hundred men between them. By then, sniper fire had grown so intense that evacuating troops had to sprint across the piers in twos or three—causing some to splash into the water after missing their jumps to board the rescue vessels.
The last Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Windsor, safely completed a sixth evacuation run near midnight. Its captain reported that there were still a thousand men trapped in the doomed port. The Vimiera was dispatched run the terrifying gauntlet a second time under the cover of night.
The old destroyer glided silently into the harbor at 1:30 a.m., and in seventy-five minutes its crew somehow packed 1,400 British, French and Belgian troops and civilians onto her ninety-one-meter-long deck. The overloaded ship set off from the quay at a heavy list, barely dodging a deadly artillery bombardment. It made it over to Dover by 4 a.m..
This daring evacuation still left behind three hundred Welsh Guardsmen and thousands of French troops from the Twenty-First Division under General Lanquetot, who held out in the fortified medieval walls of the citadel in uptown Boulogne. British forces had no way of communicating with the French commander, who was cut off from their position by German troops.
Lanquetot’s men held the citadel against repeated German attacks throughout all of May 24, destroying several more panzers. Separately, several hundred British and French stragglers and auxiliaries led by Major J. C. Windsor of the Welsh Guards also occupied a makeshift sandbag barricade at the harbor railways station and held out against tank and infantry attacks. French destroyers continued to bombard the German attackers from outside the harbor, even though the Chacal and Fougueux were hit hard by Luftwaffe bombers, leading to the sinking of the former.
British troops escaping from Dunkirk (France, 1940). Screenshot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on, news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.Wikimedia Commons
At dawn on May 25, the Germans launched their final assault. Powerful eighty-eight-millimeter flak guns blew apart the citadel’s ancient stone walls, siege ladders were deployed to allow assault troops to scale up them as if reenacting a medieval siege and combat engineers flushed out defenders with flamethrowers. Lanquetot finally surrendered at 8:30 in the morning, and Windsor hours later.
The Allies had paid a heavy price in the Battle of Boulogne: five thousand captured, not counting those fallen in action. In the Siege of Calais, which would last until May 26, the losses were even greater, with nearly twenty thousand British and French troops captured and only a few hundred evacuated.
But May 26 also marked another important milestone: the beginning of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. Heinz Guderian’s elite XIX Panzer Corps had spent nearly a week tied down in the fight for the two French channel ports—and in the meanwhile, Field Marshals von Rundstedt and Kluge agreed on May 24 to halt his corps’ advance and let the Luftwaffe handle the British at Dunkirk—a mission the German flying branch failed to accomplish. Germans troops did not capture the critical port until far too late on June 4.
The factors behind the Wehrmacht’s decision not to execute a swifter ground assault on Dunkirk remain complicated and highly controversial, and include interservice rivalry in the German military and anxiety over a renewed counterattack at Arras. But if the ragtag defenders of Boulogne and Calais hadn’t put up such a fight, Guderian’s panzers might have swept towards Dunkirk that much faster and could have persuaded von Rundstedt to crush the evacuation point from the ground.
The French and British sailors, aviators and soldiers that fought in Boulogne and Calais put their lives on the line fighting what they soon must have known to be a hopeless battle. But in slowing down the Guderian’s northward advance, their seemingly quixotic last stand—and chaotic last-minute evacuation—may have made all the difference.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
2.ww:campaign in the west (battle of France) 1940: heavy french coast battery at Boulogne after take over by the germans. End of may 1940
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May 10th 1940 – The End of the Phoney War
Welcome to the first post of the Battle of Britain Blog. For the next nine weeks updates will be weekly. The daily blog will begin on July 10th, the start of the Battle of Britain.
May 10th 1940 was the day the real war started and the Phoney War ended. It was today that Hitler’s armoured divisions launched their Blitzkrieg attack in the West, that in a matter of days would break through at Sedan and successfully cross the River Meuse. The same day, in the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and was succeeded by Winston Churchill and a new Coalition Government. (70 years on, spookily, something similar may be happening!) For Britain, these events brought about a complete change of attitude to the War.
Events were to move fast. Within a week, Hitler’s Panzer divisions were streaking for the Channel coast. However, there were many, in England, who still thought France would survive this attack, as she had survived in the First World War. Churchill, a strong admirer of the French Army, very much held this view. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, was for his part aware that the new Prime Minister had every faith in the French. Dowding’s worry was that they would soon be asking for support, in particular in the air. He could foresee that sending such reinforcements to France would be a worrying temptation. There were, after all, dozens of squadrons of fighters sitting idly on airfields in England.
The trouble was that Britain had another strategy up its sleeve. Since he had been appointed leader of the new Fighter Command back in 1936, Dowding had seen his job as safeguarding the British homeland. He had built up his fighter force for this purpose, not to send it to France. As he saw it, he was in charge of the country’s ultimate insurance policy. He had no intention of losing it in a failed campaign in France. Moreover, the whole idea of sending the British Expeditionary Force to France had only been decided in the previous spring, as a gesture of solidarity with our Allies. When war had seemed inevitable, Dowding’s view was that we wished them luck, but he still had to keep his powder dry for the ultimate test when it came. The way the campaign in France was shaping, it looked increasingly likely that come it would.
The French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, and General Gamelin, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, unsurprisingly, requested that extra RAF fighter squadrons be sent to France. On May 15th, Churchill asked for Dowding’s views. Dowding urged the War Cabinet not to send any more aircraft it was imperative that they were available for the defence of Britain. He set out his views, in no uncertain terms, in the now famous 10 Point Memorandum. The next day, Churchill flew to Paris, where he was again pressed for an extra 10 squadrons. Churchill was conscious that history might judge Britain poorly if France fell due to a lack of RAF fighter support, and he asked the War Cabinet to send 6 squadrons to France. The request was met with some horrified reactions and it was eventually decided to use 6 squadrons, based in Britain, working in rotation to provide cover in France. Thus, 3 squadrons worked a ‘morning’ shift, and 3 different squadrons an ‘afternoon’ shift.
Whilst Churchill was in France, he was to see for himself the completely defeated attitude of the French. In their view, they had already lost the War. Indeed, Reynaud had said as much, in a telephone conversation with Churchill, on 15th May. Churchill had reluctantly, but finally, seen the writing on the wall. Britain was soon to be on her own.