The British Expeditionary Force were now surrounded in a pocket in northern France and it seemed very clear that most would be lost. The most urgent arrangements were being made to evacuate them from the French ports but it was estimated that it would only be possible to get, at most, a few tens of thousands of men away.
Then on 24th May Hitler intervened, issuing his ‘Halt’ order to the Panzers that were poised to go in for the kill. It was an order that the German commanders found difficult to understand at the time, and strategists and historians have found difficult to understand ever since.
There seems little doubt that elements in the German High Command were reconsidering the wisdom of rapid Panzer thrusts that might leave the tanks too far out in advance without supporting artillery and infantry. Rommel in particular had embraced this approach – but even he had had a few anxious moments where he personally was involved in directing the supporting arms to keep up with the Panzers. The British counter-attack at Arras had also given them pause for thought.
Another reason was that he did’t want his tanks to get bogged down, which recent research has given credence to. A more speculative view is that by adopting a generous attitude to the British he hoped to be able to come to peace terms with them.
Whatever the reasoning, Hitler’s decision gave the BEF just enough breathing space to form a better defensive line and to begin implementing the evacuation plans.
German troops were now established on the coast west of Calais and threatening to move east along the coast, cutting off the British forces access to the sea. Fresh troops were landed in Calais, intended to hold up the German advance and permit the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Stephen Sykes, a Royal Engineers officer, describes the scene in Calais as the new troops arrive and the wounded and others are evacuated:
During that night and at first light the shelling intensified and proved uncannily accurate, putting some of the dockside cranes out of action. These had been operated by French civilians who had largely disappeared. It was said afterwards that the German artillery had been in telephonic communication with Fifth Column observers in the town, who reported the accuracy of the shelling over the civilian telephone service.
I was woken abruptly at 4.30 am and summoned to help transfer wounded to the Ben Lawers from the hospital train which had moved alongside the quay from the marshalling yard. The men had been wounded in Belgium and had been in the train some days, being shunted this way and that to avoid the German advance.
The Ben Lawers was a medium-sized cargo ship which, with the Kohistan, had brought in the Queen Victoria Rifles and their vehicles and ammunition, as yet only half off-loaded. When I first emerged from the stuffy cellar and instinctively sniffed the fresh salt air I was met with, for me, a new and very unpleasant smell. It was the smell of scorched flesh, coming from the corpses of men who had received direct hits on the quayside.
For the unloading of the hospital train it was a question of pairing off with someone, going into the train (which also stenched heavily) and carrying to the ship a wounded man on his stretcher. Very soon all the available space below decks was full, and stretchers had to be arranged on the open decks.
Shelling had become, for some reason, less heavy, and I can remember standing by the rail of the Ben Lawers, looking down on the quay at the heaps of covered corpses and a mass of kit and equipment abandoned by troops who had left previously. I had at last improved my personal armament by picking up an abandoned rifle with which I was comfortably familiar, and my main concern now was to be aboard the ship and not on the quay when the moment came to pull out. This happened at 6.30 am, which was the latest the ship could make it out of the harbour on the falling tide. My relief when I felt the gentle slow movement of the ship from the quay was overwhelming – but clouded by a sense of the great disaster in which I had been involved.
Meanwhile British Expeditionary Force troops who had been engaged with the enemy in Belgium were still some way from the coast, Captain R. Leah among them:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Friday 24th May
Left embussing point about 3 a.m. Had a traffic jam, my bus ditched, then convoy behind went astray and I lost the convoy in front. Fortunately all transport seemed to be going to the same place. Roads full of traffic but no sign of enemy aircraft. Passed through la Bassee, which had been heavily bombed shortly before, and arrived at Bde Dispersal Point, Indian War Memorial about 8 a.m.
Reached Bn. area 9 a.m. Violaines near Festubert. Cpl Cameron already there, and he had done the “billeting” Coy arrived about an hour later. C.S.M. very annoyed they had gone wrong and fetched up in Armentieres.
Most of the day spent in resting for the Company except party on Coy Rd Block. Nothing very exciting today and we had orders to move tonight in troop carriers, to Estaires. Started quite early but did not arrive till after 2 a.m.
[Entry No.15, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]
See TNA WO 217/15