A Brigade of British troops had been hurriedly landed at Calais on 22nd and 23rd May the to seek to halt the Germans encirclement from the West towards Dunkirk. Subjected to fierce assaults from a Panzer Division they were forced into ever smaller defensive area, eventually holding out in the 17th century Citadel designed by Vauban. Colonel R.T Holland describes the last hours in the H.Q. :
At 0500 hrs combined British and French H.Q. moved into the vaulted cellar at the north-west corner of the ramparts. The Old Town and Citadel were subjected to an intense dive-bombing air attack from about 0800 hrs to about 0930 hrs.The bombs made no effect on our H.Q. cellar our appreciation of the engineering skill of the great VAUBAN was thus enhanced.
About 1200 hrs I visited H.Q. 1/R.B. at the Gare Maritime, and went on to the wooden pier beyond, where a naval drifter was embarking the last party of wounded to be evacuated to ENGLAND. I handed the captain of the drifter a message tar the War Office giving our situation, and received from him our last message from the War Office, which contained the words “Every hour you hold out helps to save the B.E.F.”
By the morning of 26th Commandant LETELLIER had organised under available officers the hundreds of French Army stragglers, who had gathered in the cellars of the Citadel since 20th. The few British details in the Citadel (A.A.R.A. and Royal Marines) were allotted to the defence of the N.W. corner of the ramparts) the rest of the Citadel perimeter was defended by the French, who put up a stout defence, when the attack on the Citadel came in the afternoon.
The enemy finally forced the south gate. Brig. NICH0LS0N end I and other H.Q. personnel surrendered about 1515 hrs. During the day our troops in the town were gradually driven back to the area of the BOULEVARD DES ALLIES and the GARE MARITIME, not only by the enemy forces advancing through the town, but also by an enemy thrust along the coast from the east. By the evening all units had been forced to surrender.
… I was shortly afterwards marched off with Brig. NICHOLSON to the German Regimental H.Q. in the THEATRE (in the PLACE ALBERT 1ER). On the way a German officer, who passed us, said to Brig. NICHOLSON in French: “Vous avez battu tres courageusement.” The same sentiments were repeated at the German Regimental H.Q. Here, also, a German officer expressed surprise that we had had no artillery.
Royal Marine Bill Balmer had a rather different perspective of the battle. His unit had been sent over from Chatham to man the perimeter line while other troops were evacuated. He was also based in the Citadel:
It had been severely damaged in the fighting which made it ideal for fighting from. It was full of rubbish and the Colour Sergeant Reid accompanying us thought this was ideal, just as long as we didn’t look up or move when the German aircraft flew over our position. The German spotter planes were constantly passing overhead and we used the rubbish to camouflage our position. Colour Sergeant Reid made sure we kept our heads and feet covered at all times and we were warned never to look up at the spotter planes as the white of our faces would have given our positions away.
The other Machine gun team was behind our position to our left. We could hear the machine gun firing but such was the confusion no one told us it was our other team. At one stage No.2 Gun team went forward of our position and were killed.
I myself had a very busy seventy-two hours at Calais before we surrendered to the Germans. No sleep, hardly anything to eat or drink. The pair of us worked a four-hour shift behind the gun but there was little respite for the three days. As soon as I saw any movement I would kick my partner awake and fire the gun. It was his job to reload the gun when necessary. We were sleeping rough because sleeping bags had yet to be issued to fighting troops in those early days.
I saw many horrible sights at Calais. Men were blown to bits by Stuka bombs, artillery fire and mortar fire. The worst scene I saw was No.2 gun team and a rifle section; twelve young men or should I say boys, blown to bits by a Stuka bomb.
Our main task in the Citadel was to cover the railway line crossroads and stop German foot soldiers and vehicles from approaching the harbour. We knew where the Germans were waiting to break through and we were successful in stopping them for the three days.
If the Germans managed to cross the railway lines they would have overwhelmed our troops in the harbour. As soon as we saw any movement on the other side of the railway lines we used five or six round bursts of fire to keep them back.
On Sunday morning at about 8am, Colour Sergeant Reid said to me, ‘I’ve made a cup of tea. And there’s a cup sitting there for you. I will take over the gun’. I stood up and walked over to get the cup of tea. As I stood up I heard a ‘ping’ and thought little of it. The Colour Sergeant said to me later, ‘You were lucky. After you stood up and walked away a bullet hit the gun’. Sure enough the bullet had hit one of the tripod legs. If I had been lying behind the gun the bullet would have caught me between the shoulders.
I never felt anything until we were on the second day of the POW march on Monday evening. A friend asked me, ‘What’s wrong with your putty?’ I looked down and my putty was covered in blood. There was a sliver of shrapnel stuck in the putty and it had worked itself into my leg. I worked out that it must have happened when I stood up from behind the gun to go for a cup of tea on Sunday morning.
The Germans classed that as a wound and without me knowing it word was sent to my mother in Ballymoney that I was wounded in action and captured.
See Bill Ballmer: My Service Life 1939-1979, available to read online.
Another account of this fateful day in Calais did not appear until 2016. The memoirs of Lieutenant Philip Pardoe King’s Royal Rifle Corps ‘From Calais to Colditz’ was one of my featured books of the year and I was pleased to add another account of the action that day:
Here and there a Verey light was red into the air such as we had seen on the first morning patrol. The forward troops were signalling to their gunners who usually replied by plastering our positions more heavily than ever with their mortars. The nauseating smell of explosives permeated the air. Despite the noise and discomfort, the sand in my clothing, cracked lips and scraped hands, I found time for a short sleep.
See ‘From Calais to Colditz’ for the full excerpt.
Meanwhile the situation for the British Expeditionary Force was becoming increasingly precarious. The evacuation from Dunkirk was just getting under way but there were still many troops who were a long way inland. The Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were amongst them:
From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :
Sunday May 26th
Still fairly quiet this morning. 10 Pl took up positions in house and factory on main road and canal, just beside “D” Company. Very good French M.G. Platoon. French Infantry on our right but did not see much of them.
Things livened up towards midday. French seem to have gone on right. Am told Worcesters have taken their place but continually failed to get in touch with them. Enemy through on our right, 1 sec of Worcesters back on our rt hand platoon Enemy in view out of wood, but withdrew under French M.G. fire. Very pleasant Fr officer in charge of M.G.s but he is rather worried about the situation, so am I.
Great difficulty in getting into communication with Bn H.Q. but finally learn that “A” Coy are to C/a [Counter Attack] on our right. Hear them going in this morning, but with what results do not now. Lot of shelling.
The Church steeple came down today, several men from 10 Pl wounded and L/c Graham badly so. Got them all away. Buoyed up with very hopeful news of unspecified nature from Tony acting adjutant.
[Entry No.18, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]
See TNA WO 217/15