Majority of troops returned from Dunkirk

On the 2nd June 1940 there remained over 30,000 troops from the rear guard still to get away from Dunkirk

Bill Towey was a Medical Orderly with the 11th Casualty Clearing Station, he had spent most his time at Dunkirk caring for the wounded in the Aid station established in the Casino. He had volunteered, along with 120 other men, to stay behind with the wounded, accepting that they would eventually be taken prisoner. Late on the 1st June the officers in charge decided they had more than enough volunteers – so they drew lots to decide who would take the chance of getting away in one of the last few ships to leave Dunkirk:

And so another uncomfortable sleepless night had passed bringing us to the beginning of a new day, Sunday 2nd June. Although we did not know this, the Navy had determined that this was to be the last day of the evacuation, so if we did manage to escape, it would be, as the Duke of Wellington famously remarked at Waterloo – “A damn close run thing!!” Early that morning Admiral Wake-Walker had returned to Dover from Dunkirk and reported to Admiral Ramsay that about 5,000 British and 30,000 to 40,000 French still remained.

About 340,000 British had already been evacuated, so we were indeed the last dregs in the bottle. Ramsay signaled his whole command:-
“The final evacuation is staged for tonight and the Nation looks to the Navy to see this through. I want every ship to report as soon as possible whether she is fit and ready to meet the call which has been made on our courage and endurance.”

That call was indeed immense for the naval losses were almost unbelievable. Of the 848 ships, 235 were lost though enemy action or other causes and destroyers took the greatest beating – 9 sunk, 5 of them French, and 19 damaged. (For these and other such details, obviously not within my personal knowledge see, for example – “The Miracle of Dunkirk” by Walter Lord and “The Sands of Dunkirk” by Richard Collier).

The fearsome Stuka dive bombers were responsible for a large proportion of those losses. And the sight and sound of those attacks going home and succeeding was one of the chief horrors for those on the beaches. It wasn’t so much the vessels themselves, as the fate of the crew and men on board, who thought they had been rescued, but weren’t.

For us on the beaches, the constant shelling and strafing continued relentlessly and on three occasions we were nearly buried by near misses and had to dig ourselves out. We had no food or water, nor any hope of getting any, but that was the least of our problems. There was time for me to resolve my problem of conscience. During our retreat I’d been greatly disturbed by seeing the merciless strafing of the pitiful columns of refugees, and now, under relentless attack, all I wanted to do was to hit back and to do so as hard as I could. Scarcely without appreciating it, I had become convinced that the use of arms was more than fully justified.

Near the landward end of the mole, Commander Clouston of the Royal Navy was in charge of the embarkation. In the very finest traditions of the Senior Service, he was the epitome of calm, amidst all the tumult , a great inspiration to us all. It is a matter of profound regret that this supremely courageous man, who had been personally responsible for aiding so many thousands of our men to safety, was not himself to escape the cauldron of Dunkirk. His boat was sunk by Stukas and he was not rescued.

Then, late in the evening, as if a magic wand had been waved, all the strafing, shelling and bombing stopped and we were able to clamber out of our holes in the sand and walk in an orderly fashion on to the Mole, clambering around the gaps blown in the decking by shellfire to board a waiting ship.

It was Sunday evening and, throughout our beloved homeland, churches in cities, towns, villages and hamlets had been crowded with those thanking God for the return of so many of their boys and praying for the safe return of the few who were still out there. I don’t know what sort of ship I came back on. Once aboard, I fell down and passed out – not surprising, since I had had no sleep for three days and three nights. At 10. 50 pm, Captain Tennant signalled Admiral Ramsay triumphantly- “BEF evacuated” – so we had just made it!.

In broad daylight, the next morning 3rd June, at Dover we were welcomed by a drill sergeant from the Guards in khaki, adorned with a red sash, pace stick under arm, boots bulled so that you could see your face in them, who bawled at us to pull ourselves together and did we think we’d been on a Sunday school outing!!.

A great feeling of rage swept over me – I wanted to go and punch his smug face in. But then, within seconds, I realised that his was the right touch, even if couched too provocatively, and I felt a strange pride that I was part of an army which could take such a thrashing and yet react in this way.

Read the whole of Bill Towey’s account at BBC People’s War.

On Sunday 2nd June 1940 the British knew that over 300,000 troops had been rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk. Prayers were said for the safe deliverance of the great majority of the British Expeditionary Force. The Dean of Westminster described it as a ‘miracle’.

Yet many others were beginning to reflect on the position that Britain now found itself in. Although France had not yet fallen the situation looked grim.

I wonder as I gaze out on the grey and green Horse Guards Parade with the blue sky and the huge silver balloons like bowing elephants, the barbed-wire entanglements and soldiers about, is this really the end of England? Are we witnessing, as for so long I have feared, the decline, the decay and perhaps extinction, of this great island people?

See “Chips”: The Diaries of Sir Henry Channon.

The American Journalist Ed Murrow reported on the state of the RAF:

Yesterday I spent many hours at what will be tonight or next week Britain’s first line of defence, an airfield on the south coast… I talked with pilots as they came back from Dunkirk.

‘They stripped off their flight jackets, glanced at a few bullet holes in the wings or the fuselage [of their Hurricanes], and as the ground crews swarmed over the aircraft, refuelling motors and guns, we sat on the ground and talked. In the middle of the field the wreckage of a plane was being cleared up. It had crashed the night before. The pilot had been shot in the head but had managed to get back to his field…

I can tell you what these boys told me. They were the cream of the youth of Britain. As we sat there, they were waiting to take off again. They talked of their own work; discussed the German air force with the casualness of Sunday morning halfbacks discussing yesterday’s football. There were no nerves, no profanities, no heroics. There was no swagger about these boys in wrinkled and stained uniforms. The movies do that sort of thing much more dramatically than it is in real life…

The Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden broadcast to the British public that evening:

From the moment of the collapse of the Belgian Army there was only one course left to the Allied Armies – to hold a line round Dunkirk, the only port that remained, and to embark as many men as possible before the rearguards were overwhelmed. Thanks to the magnificent and untiring co-operation of the Allied Navies and Air Forces we have been able to embark and save more than four-fifths of that B.E.F. which the Germans claimed were surrounded…

The British Expeditionary Force still exists, not as a handful of fugitives, but as a body of seasoned veterans. The vital weapon of any army is its spirit. Ours has been tried and tempered in the furnace. It has not been found wanting. It is this refusal to accept defeat that is the guarantee of final victory.

He concluded:

Our duty in this country is plain. We must make good our losses and we must win the war. To do that we must profit by the lessons of this battle. Brave hearts alone cannot stand up against steel. We need more planes, more tanks, more guns. The people of this country must work as never before. We must show the same qualities, the same discipline, and the same self sacrifice at home as the British Expeditionary Force has shown in the field…

Blenheim bomber shot down off Dunkirk

Blenheim bomber over the sea with burning oil tanker below, photographed May 1940

Pilot Officer G.W. Spiers was was the observer on a Blenheim from 254 Squadon, based at Detling in Kent at the end of May. They were sent to support the Dunkirk evacuation. Flying Officer J. W. Baird commanded Blenheim L9481. At 0755, towards the end of their three hour patrol, they were flying at 8,000 feet about two miles out to sea, off Dunkirk:

I was sitting in the seat on the right-hand side of the pilot. Looking out to my right I could see the sand beaches with numerous clusters of troops queueing to embark on small craft. As I looked up I saw recognisable ME 109 German aircraft diving in line astern towards our rear starboard quarter. I managed to count eleven 109s and as I looked downwards I saw our other Blenheim who had, been flying in line astern of us, pass beneath to starboard with both
engines on fire.

As soon as I had seen the enemy, I had yelled to Baird “fighters” and in the meantime he turned to port and headed for North Foreland giving the engines full power. We were slowly picking up speed in a shallow dive but a cold feeling in the small of my back, made me realise we were “sitting ducks” for fighters.

In temper and fear I shouted to Baird to manoeuvre the aircraft about, at the same time I made demonstrations by waving my hand in front of him. Whether or not he understood I never found out, as the cockpit suddenly filled with acrid smoke and flying fragments as the dashboard and instruments disintegrated in front of me, under a series of violent crashes and flashes. Suddenly it stopped. The smoke started to clear and I looked back through the armour plate to see what had happened to Roskrow the Gunner. The fuselage down to the turret was a mass of bullet holes which which were accentuated by the sun beams that shone through the smoke. All I could see of Roskrow was a bloody green flying suit slumped over the gun controls.

Turning to Baird I immediately realised he had been hit although he still held the controls. His head was slumped forward on his chest and blood ran down his right cheek from a wound in the temple that showed through the side of his helmet. Another wound in his neck had covered him with blood and it had gushed all over my left shoulder. He looked very peaceful with his eyes shut; I was sure he was dead. It was miraculous that I had survived that burst of gunfire into the cockpit. The two foot square Perspex panel had many holes in it. The bullets had passed me and gone into Baird and the cockpit panel.

I was now in the unenviable position of any member of aircrew who is not a Pilot as I was flying on my own and it was now up to me to save myself. My immediate reaction was to bale out, so I went forward into the navigation compartment and attempted to lift the Navigator’s seat which was on top of the bale-out hatch. The seat would not fold back and was locked solid in the down position, and after struggling to raise it, for what seemed minutes, I realised the aircraft was beginning to roll to port. I then clambered back to the Pilot’s cabin and viciously hit Baird’s arms off the controls.

Leaning over I pulled back the throttles as the engines were still at full power and were vibrating excessively. Yellow flames from the port engine were beating against the front and side windows and standing at the side of Baird I was about to level the aircraft to prevent the vicious sideslip, that was causing the flames to play on the cockpit, when suddenly the windscreen shattered. I felt a hot searing wind on my face, I felt my cheeks, nose, throat and mouth shrivelling under the heat but have no recollection of any pain. As soon as the aircraft righted, the cockpit cleared of fire and smoke and a noticeable peace descended as the cut back engines purred and the wind gently whined through the shattered glass.

Read the whole account at BBC People’s War

Evacuated troops on a train at Paddock Wood station in Kent are provided with fresh socks, 1 June 1940.

One of the ‘little ships’ approaches Dunkirk

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation. NYP 68075 Part of AMERICAN (US) EMBASSY SECOND WORLD WAR PHOTOGRAPH LIBRARY: CLASSIFIED PRINT COLLECTION
British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation.
NYP 68075
Part of
AMERICAN (US) EMBASSY SECOND WORLD WAR PHOTOGRAPH LIBRARY: CLASSIFIED PRINT COLLECTION
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo.
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo.
Three of the armada of 'little ships' which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk, to the safety of British warships and other vessels.
Three of the armada of ‘little ships’ which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk, to the safety of British warships and other vessels.

The British were readily able to mobilise a large number of commercial ships, including ferries and paddle steamers, to convey men back to England. These were used in addition to their own destroyers. However a major difficulty was getting the men off the beaches on to these ships. There were very limited facilities for such ships in the harbour of Dunkirk itself – so the call went out for ‘little ships’ – motor launches and the like, which could take the men directly from the beaches to the larger ships offshore. The use of such craft became a central theme in the propaganda that was later to surround the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’. Nicholas Drew was on one of these craft:

An hour later we were nearing the French coast. Subtly the feeling in the boat changed. There was a nervous tension amongst us; we no longer talked, but stared ahead as if looking [out] for a reef. We were moving up the coast with a stranger miscellany of craft than was ever seen in the most hybrid amateur regatta: destroyers, sloops, trawlers, motorboats, fishing boats, tugs and Dutch schuits. Under the splendid sun they looked like craft of peace journeying upon a gay occasion, but suddenly we knew we were there. Someone said, ‘There they are, the bastards!’ My eyes followed the line of the pointing arm, but I could see nothing; but not for long this blindness.

There were over fifty German planes, I counted them swiftly, surprised to find how easy it was to count them… I imagined that they were bombers with fighter escorts… They were like slow flying gnats in the vast sky, seeming to move deliberately and with a simple purpose towards us, flying very high.

I got a heavy sick feeling right down in the stomach. The bombs dropped out of the cloudless sky. We watched them fall as the planes directed their principal attack upon two destroyers. The destroyers seemed to sit back on their buttocks and spit flames; the harsh cracks of their ack-ack guns were heartening. Then we got the kick from the bombs as their ricochet came up through the sea. Our little boat rocked and lifted high out of the water. One, two, three, four… We waited, counting them and held tight to the gunwale.

The bombers seemed to be dispersing. Our own fighters suddenly appeared. It was quite true, I thought, all that I had read in the newspapers: our pilots really did put the other chaps to flight. Far above us the German formation broke. Some came down in steep dives. From 15,000 or 20,000 feet we computed they were down to 2,000 or 3,000.

One came low, machine-gunning a tug and its towed lifeboats. Then came another. We knew it was coming our way… The rat-a-tat of the bullets sprayed around the stern boats of our little fleet.

See Nicholas Drew: Amateur Sailor

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Wounded British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk make their way up the gangplank from a destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Wounded British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk make their way up the gangplank from a destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops arrive back in Dover following the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk on 31 May 1940. Some men change into clothes provided by the authorities.
Troops arrive back in Dover following the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk on 31 May 1940. Some men change into clothes provided by the authorities.
A group of 'walking wounded' British troops evacuated from Dunkirk, in front of a railway carriage at Dover, 31 May 1940.
A group of ‘walking wounded’ British troops evacuated from Dunkirk, in front of a railway carriage at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.

134,000 troops now saved by Dunkirk evacuation

British troops during the evacuation from Dunkirk, 1940.
British troops during the evacuation from Dunkirk, 1940.
British officers in a trench dug into the beach at Dunkirk, 1940.
British officers in a trench dug into the beach at Dunkirk, 1940.

The beaches of Dunkirk were still crowded with men trying to find a way out to the ships. Yet the evacuation had already lifted many more men than had been expected and it appeared that the perimeter would hold for a few days yet.

Douglas Chisholm was a despatch rider with the Royal Corps of Signals. He had spent the days leading up to the evacuation reconnoitring routes through the narrow country lanes for convoys of troops:

The sound of gunfire was gradually coming nearer and we seemed to be increasingly inactive, then one day the Major said we had finished our job, we were to destroy the wireless sets and vehicles and make our own way to the beach at Dunkirk. I didn’t fancy walking what seemed quite a way to the smoke cloud, so I rode to the outskirts of the town, then drained the oil out of the engine, set the throttle to high rev’s, kick-started the engine, and set fire to the petrol tank and walked away.

It was evening by the time I got onto the beach, there were groups in trenches dug in the sand, others seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. Some were wading out to sea hoping to get on one of the small boats that came in as close as possible. I took off my boots and hung them round my neck and got to the water’s edge, realised it was low tide and decided to wait until the tide was right in, then I wouldn’t have so far to wade in order to get on a boat.

I walked up and down the beach for a time wondering if I would see anyone I knew, but no luck. There were lorries that had been driven out as far as possible at low tide, so at high tide they formed a jetty which gave easier access to the boats. I made myself a hole and tried to get a few minutes sleep, but air raids on the larger boats waiting well out to sea made it difficult. I watched one raid and was sure I saw one bomb go right down the funnel of a destroyer which seemed to explode in slow motion. When the smoke cleared there was nothing left.

At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water – we backed well away until I suppose the compressed air in their motors ran out, then they just lay there, like a couple of stranded fish.

A rumour went round that we should make our way to the East Mole at dusk, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was dark when I got to the Mole and we were marshalled by a group of sailors into single file and then told to move along, there seemed to be hundreds of French soldiers just standing there watching, it was very eerie.

Once on the mole we realised why we were in single file, great holes had been blown in the concrete and these had been bridged by planks about two feet wide and we could hear the waves about twenty feet below. When we got on a solid piece of mole we were told “wait, make way for wounded”. Some were on foot others on stretchers, when they passed we moved on again. Finally some more sailors helped us on to a slide made from planks and we slid down quite a distance and landed on the deck of a ship, we were told to spread ourselves round the ship.

I got my back against a rail of some sort and sat down. I woke up to the fact that we were moving so dozed off again. I vaguely remember hearing a machine gun on the ship firing, and thought that everything must be under control, so went back to sleep.

At dawn I got up and had a look round and realised that although it was a civvy ship it was manned entirely by the Navy, then I was amazed to find that it was the ship in which I had sailed from Southampton to Le Havre – the “Tynwald”.

I think we docked at Dover and were surprised to see flags and banners waving and women offering us tea and sandwiches. We were hustled quickly on to a train waiting in the docks (we were not a pretty sight!), and off we went. If we went slowly through a station people ran alongside the train offering food and cups of tea, we were puzzled by all the flag waving and cheering, having just been chased out of France.

Read the whole of Douglas Chisholm’s account at BBC People’s War, where there is also a link to his full length memoir, available online

For an alternative account by a young officer at who was at Dunkirk on the 30th May 1940, the memoirs of Major General Dare Wilson were featured on World War II Today in 2016.

Extracts from the ‘NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION for the week up to 12 noon May 30th, 1940’ as reported to the War Cabinet:

NAVAL SITUATION. General Review.

THE principal feature of the Naval Situation during the past week has been the evacuation of the B.E.F., which has imposed a heavy strain on our light craft resources and resulted in serious destroyer losses and damage. German M.T.Bs., operating from Dutch ports, have been active.

In the Narvik area naval operations have been considerably impeded by incessant enemy air activity. A reinforcement of four Canadian destroyers is on passage to the United Kingdom. There has been increased enemy minelaying by aircraft.

6. At 4 a .m. on the 28th May, the Belgian Army capitulated on the order of King Leopold. All available small craft, including 27 destroyers, were sent to evacuate our troops from the beaches off Dunkirk, screened by a force of 2 destroyers, 4 corvettes and 7 motor torpedo boats. Fighter aircraft provided further protection. At 6 a.m 5 destroyers succeeded in going alongside the east pier at Dunkirk. By 10 pm. on the 28th 16,500 troops had been landed in England, and 2,500 more were estimated to be on passage.

H.M.S. Windsor was damaged by bombing in the Downs and sustained heavy casualties. H.M.S. Montrose was in collision during the night of the 28th with a vessel towing small boats loaded with troops, and H.M.S. Mackay ran aground but was later refloated. H.M.S. Wakeful was sunk by a torpedo from a motor torpedo boat early in the morning of the 29th. She was returning to England with 630 troops on board. Casualties are not known, but many small craft picked up survivors.

H.M.S. Grafton was torpedoed by an M.T.B. while assisting to pick up survivors from Wakeful, and later sank. There were no troops on board. H.M. Trawler Thomas Bartlett was mined and sank off Calais. H.M. Trawler Thuringia was sunk, probably by a mine, off Nieuport. H.M. Paddle Minesweeper Brighton Belle sank after colliding with a submerged wreck in the Downs. H.M. Drifter Ocean Reward was sunk in collision with S.S. Isle of Thanet while stationed as an examination vessel off Dover. The S.S. Abukir, with the Needham Mission on board, was torpedoed by an M.T.B. and sank 50 miles N.E. of N. Foreland. Thirty-three survivors were picked up by destroyers.

7. On the 29th a number of merchant seamen at Dover refused to take their ships to sea for the evacuation and were replaced by Naval ratings from Chatham. By midnight on the 30th/31st 134,000 troops had been landed. Evacuation is still proceeding. Up to the present 222 warships and 665 other ships have been employed in this operation. Twelve Naval officers and a number of ratings have been sent as a ” beach party ” to Dunkirk, and about 130 small ships, requisitioned from the French, are being sent to Dover…

Narvik Area.

9. Narvik was captured by Allied troops on the night of the 28th/29th May. Intensive enemy bombing continued throughout the week. Bjerkvik and Lilleborg piers were bombed on the night of the 22nd while troops and stores were being transferred. On the 24th ELM. Destroyers Fame and Firedrake and the French cruiser Milan* were damaged by bombs, and the supply ships Battealco and Mashrobra and four trawlers were beached after being attacked by aircraft. On the 25th H.M. Ships Cairo and Southampton were slightly damaged, the former had her aerials shot away, and the latter was holed by bomb splinters, the Captain, 1 officer and 27 ratings being wounded.

MILITARY SITUATION.

Western Front.

British prisoners of war at Calais, with wounded men transported on a German tank.

26. During the period under review the main German thrust, which at first was approaching: the sea, changed direction and two armoured divisions swung northwards to attack Boulogne and Calais, both of which were eventually occupied by the enemy. A larger force headed by three armoured divisions struck north-eastwards, their blow falling upon the line St. Omer -Bethune. Both these forces were supported by motorised divisions, which were relieved on the southern front by infantry divisions.

27. The Allied Forces in north-east France and Belgium being thus hemmed in, the conventional German search for a tactical soft spot ensued. Attacks at St. Omer and further south at Carvin having failed to achieve penetration, the pressure was shifted on the 25th May to the eastern face of the Allied salient, where heavy attacks between Menin and Courtrai resulted in breaching the Belgian right flank. Two days later a further attack to the north near Eecloo produced a break on a 10-kilometre front. The determined exploitation of this gap, combined with heavy attacks all along the front north of Courtrai to the sea and assisted by intensive air bombing of forward troops, battery positions and communications, led to the capitulation of the Belgian Army on the morning of the 29th May. The left flank of the B.E.F. and 1st French Army was thus imperilled.

AIR SITUATION.

Royal Air Force Operations.

The Boulton Paul Defiant, initially successful in combat,until the Luftwaffe developed tactics to avoid its rear facing guns

47. Fighter protection in Northern France and covering the withdrawal of the B.E.F. has been afforded largely by squadrons based on this country. This heavy additional commitment has seriously extended Fighter Command, who have flown 320 patrols, involving over two thousand sorties during the week. The majority of this effort has been directed, from aerodromes in Kent, in maintaining regular standing patrols over the Boulogne-Calais-Dunkirk and Lille- Arras areas. Squadrons are employed in rotation and latterly large composite formations have been used. The main enemy air effort has been in support of his land operations in this area, and very heavy and continuous air fighting has resulted. Our fighters have proved exceedingly successful, and, on the afternoon of the 29th May, a squadron of Defiant turret fighters destroyed 40 enemy aircraft in two patrols, without any casualties to themselves, 16 Me. 109’s being shot down in a single attack.

For the full report see: TNA : cab/66/8/15

Courtrai on the night of 30th/31st May 1940, illuminated by photoflash

British photographic reconnaissance techniques were developed rapidly. This is the first successful operational photograph taken at night, using the latest photoflash. Developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, the 8 inch flash can be seen exploding in the middle of the picture, creating sufficient illumination over a wide area for much detail to be recorded. The picture was taken from 4,000 feet. See AIR 14/3696. (NB: web photo-reproduction does not do justice to the quality of the original).

Dunkirk evacuation underway – HMS Grafton sunk

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS VANQUISHER alongside a sunken trawler at Dunkirk, 1940.
The Royal Navy destroyer HMS VANQUISHER alongside a sunken trawler at Dunkirk, 1940.
Troops under fire on the beaches of Dunkirk, as seen from a ship offshore.
Troops under fire on the beaches of Dunkirk, as seen from a ship offshore.
Men of the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940.
Men of the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940.

The evacuation was now getting under way from Dunkirk. Troops had to endure long waits on the beaches before being embarked. Yet the hazards of being bombed or machined gunned continued even after they found their way onto a ship. Three destroyers loaded with troops were sunk off Dunkirk on the 29th May. There was only one survivor from over 600 troops who were below decks on board HMS Wakeful when she was hit by a torpedo, and only 25 of her crew survived. HMS Grafton went to pick up survivors when she too was torpedoed. Basil Bartlett was one of the Army officers on board HMS Grafton:

There was a terrific explosion as the torpedo hit the destroyer. I suppose the force of it must have knocked me unconscious. First thing I knew I was stumbling around in the dark trying to find the door of the cabin. The whole ship was trembling violently, the furniture appeared to be dancing about. There was a strong smell of petrol. I heard someone scuffling in a corner and just had the good sense to shout: ‘For God’s sake don’t light a match.’ With the greatest of difficulty I found the door and managed to get it open it.

I pushed my way out on deck. Someone said: ‘Keep down. They’re machine-gunning us.’ I huddled against a steel door and watched the fight. Two dark shapes in the middle distance turned out to be German M.T.B.’s. The destroyer and another British warship were giving them hell with shells and tracer-bullets. The M.T.B.’s were answering with machine-gun fire. But one by one they were hit. We saw them leap into the air and then settle down’ into the water and sink. Everyone sighed with relief….

The deck was a mass of twisted steel and mangled bodies. The Captain had been machine-gunned and killed on the bridge. The destroyer had stopped two torpedoes. She’d been hit while hanging about to pick up survivors from another ship, which had been sunk a few minutes before. She was a very gruesome sight….

Wounded men began to be brought up from the bowels of the ship. I learned that one of the torpedoes had gone right through the wardroom, killing all thirty-five of our officers who were sleeping there. It’s pure chance that I’m alive. If I’d gone on board a little earlier I should have been put in the wardroom. I only slept in the Captain’s cabin because there was no room for me anywhere else…

There remained only one job to be done. We had to transfer our cargo. The men showed wonderful discipline. There was no ugly rush. They allowed themselves to be divided into groups and transferred from one ship to another with the same patience that they had shown on Bray-Dunes beach. It must have been a great temptation to get out of turn and take a flying leap for safety. But no one did …

See Basil Bartlett – My First War: An Army Officer’S Journal For May 1940 Through Belgium To Dunkirk.

HMS Wakeful sunk by torpedo off Dunkirk with over 600 troops on board on 29th May 1940. Only one man and 25 crew survived.
29th May 1940: The approaches to Dunkirk. A salvo of bombs dropped by 107 Squadron can be seen falling towards a German transport column. The vehicles can just be discerned on the road running down the middle of the image

RAF over Dunkirk beaches – Captain Leah is captured

2nd Lieutenant David Callander in the full dress uniform of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at his graduation from Sandhurst in 1939. He won the Military Cross at La Bassee, near Dunkirk, as commander of the 1st Battalion’s anti-tank platoon. Their three two pounder guns accounted for 21 German tanks.
A working party of the 1st Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders at Aix in France, November 1939.
A working party of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders at Aix in France, November 1939.
Men of the 1st Battalion Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.
Men of the 1st Battalion Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders digging trenches at Aix, France, November 1939.

Captain Leah’s remarkable diary of just eighteen days in the movements of the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in France 1940 is representative of many in the British Expeditionary Force. The move forward from France into Belgium, the attempt to establish new positions and then the confusing and exhausting retreat as they sought to avoid being outflanked. The transition from peacetime army to experiencing shellfire for the first time and then rapidly on to full scale murderous battle, with the loss of many friends and colleagues.

In just one respect the The 1st Battalion the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders were different, they were members of the Highland Brigade in France 1940, the last unit of the the British Army to fight in kilts.

There were many examples of successful British actions like the counterattack at Escaut that might well have have led to further successes had the whole British force not been completely outflanked by the German breakthrough to the coast. They were not a beaten army. Captain Leah’s diary reveals just how lucky some were to get away to Dunkirk and how only slightly less luck led to long years as a prisoner of war:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

28th May

Floundering about in mud and water and crossing last wire fences. Kilt badly torn. However we covered about 7 1/2 miles and dawn found us on outskirts of Laventie. By this time we were more or less clear of enemy except for odd motor cyclists but very tired and hungry. Here made unfortunate mistake of deciding to lay up for another day until dark. Poured with rain and had to take to houses – for a few hours but got out again about 8 a.m. Spoke to Frenchman and family who had seen no enemy and then took cover in orchard. In afternoon surrounded by Coy of enemy. Half of us asleep at this time. Henderson hit and several enemy. Kerr’s platoon got clear away and are home.

[Captain Leah was taken prisoner by the Germans]

Taken to H.Q. either of Bde or Division. Asked if we told troops that Germans shot all English and French prisoners. Pr. civilians. Given a plate of noodle which I badly needed. Searched by probably Intelligence Officer and left with equipment. Raining hard all afternoon and spent unpleasant hour on motor bike before getting into truck, soaked to the skin and troops not much better. Travelled back along column to Reception Camp.

[space] police – given bread and three bars of chocolate amongst us. Three Royal Scots and several French here. Buchanan threw a fit. Embussed again and taken on to Bethune. Still soaked but fire of sorts going and got dry by following morning. Extremely hungry this evening and went to sleep at 8 p.m.

Here separated from troops but still in same camp.

[added note] Turner and Nicholson hit on 27th in field outside La Bassee. Henderson hit Laventie.

28th. 8 miles [marching].

[Entry No.19, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

At present we have little more information about Captain R. Leah whose short diary was deposited with the War Office sometime after the war.

Spitfire Mk I in flight, May 1940.
Spitfire Mk I in flight, May 1940.

Meanwhile the RAF were doing their utmost to provide air cover to the evacuation now under way from Dunkirk.

Hugh Dundas, nineteen years old, had only just completed his training and been posted to 616 Squadron. He had flown his first Spitfire in March 1940. On 27th May they had moved to an airfield at Rochford, Essex, so that they were closer to the beaches at Dunkirk. His memoir, published in 1988, opens with a typically vivid , and candid, account of his first day in action.

The two Skuas of the Fleet Air Arm swooped by in the opposite direction, twisting and jinking. In the headlong manner of their flight there was something reminiscent of agitated sheep running from dogs. And killer dogs indeed were at their heels. I saw the black crosses and the swastikas, plain and clear, and recognized them as Messerschmitt 109S.

Fascinated, I craned my neck to watch the five planes, now diving away behind and to starboard. From the leading Messerschmitt came thin trails of grey smoke as the pilot fired his guns. The group faded into specks which, in an instant, disappeared beneath the thick black smoke cloud rising from Dunkirk and stretching down the Channel for seventy or eighty miles.

Perhaps this little cameo lasted before my eyes for about five seconds, it was a lightning personal introduction to the use of guns in earnest and to the terrifying quality of air fighting. But I did not at that time have so much as one second to reflect upon it, for I was suddenly aware that the formation in which I was flying as last man in the last section was breaking up in violent manoeuvre. My own section leader, George Moberley, wheeled round in a climbing turn. As I followed I heard a confusion of excited voices on the radio. Then I saw another Messerschmitt, curving round. It had a bright yellow nose. Again I saw the ripples of grey smoke breaking away from it and the lights were winking and flashing from the propeller hub and engine cowling. Red blobs arced lazily through the air between us, accelerating dramatically as they approached and streaked close by, across my wing.

With sudden, sickening, stupid fear I realized that I was being fired on and I pulled my Spitfire round hard, so that the blood was forced down from my head. The thick curtain of blackout blinded me for a moment and I felt the aircraft juddering on the brink of a stall. Straightening out, the curtain lifted and I saw a confusion of planes, diving and twisting. My eyes focused on two more Messerschmitts, flying in quite close formation, curving down towards me. Again I saw the ripple of smoke and the wink of lights; again I went into a blackout turn and again the bullets streaked harmlessly by.

At some stage in the next few seconds the silhouette of a Messerschmitt passed across my windscreen and I fired my guns in battle for the first time a full deflection shot which, I believe, was quite ineffectual.

I was close to panic in the bewilderment and hot fear of that first dog fight. Fortunately instinct drove me to keep turning and turning, twisting my neck all the time to look for the enemy behind. Certainly the consideration which was uppermost in my mind was the desire to stay alive.

‘A sincere desire to engage the enemy’ – that, Winston Churchill has written, was the criterion by which Lord Haig had judged his fellow soldiers. That, above all else, was the impulse which Churchill himself admired and demanded in fighting men. I found out that day, 28 May 1940, over Dunkirk, in my first close encounter with Britain’s enemies, how hard it is to live up to that criterion. When it comes to the point, a sincere desire to stay alive is all too likely to get the upper hand. Certainly, that was the impulse which consumed me at that moment that day. And that was to be the impulse which I had to fight against, to try and try and try again to overcome, during the years which followed.

See Hugh Dundas: Flying Start: A Fighter Pilot’s War Years

For more on the situation at Dunkirk the Open University has an interactive guide..

A Royal Navy destroyer on its way to Dunkirk, May 1940.
A Royal Navy destroyer on its way to Dunkirk, May 1940.

Massacre as situation worsens for the BEF

Propaganda leaflet with map of encircled Dunkirk
A German propaganda leaflet that fairly accurately portrays the situation on 27th May 1940

The 2nd Norfolk Battalion had been ordered to fight to the last man and the last bullet in their stand at La Bassee Canal. By the 27th May many were dead and their wounded had only the most rudimentary care in a first aid post established in a barn. When they ran out of ammunition surrender became inevitable. The 97 survivors were marched in ranks of three into a field near Druries Farm near Le Paradis which had been their base. Signaller Albert Pooley, A Company, 2nd Norfolks was one of the men who surrendered to the SS Totenkopf Regiment under the command of SS Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein.

There were a hundred of us prisoners marching in column of threes. We turned off the dusty French road through a gateway and into a meadow beside the buildings of a farm.

I saw, with one of the nastiest feelings I’ve ever had in my life, two heavy machine-guns inside the meadow. They were manned and pointing at the head of our column. I felt as though an icy hand gripped my stomach.

The guns began to spit fire and even as the front men began to fall I said fiercely, “This can’t be. They can’t do this to us!” For a few seconds the cries and shrieks of our stricken men drowned the cracking of the guns. Men fell like grass before a scythe.

The invisible blade came nearer and then swept through me. I felt a terrific searing pain in my left leg and wrist and pitched forward in a red world of tearing agony. My scream of pain mingled with the cries of my mates but even as I fell forward into a heap of dying men the thought stabbed my brain, “If I ever get out of here the swine who did this will pay for it”.

Pooley was shot twice more in the leg when the SS went through the pile of men to administer the coup de grâce. He survived along with one other man, William O’Callaghan, concealed under the bodies of dead men. They escaped from the scene and were later taken prisoner by another German unit. They spent the war as P.O.W.s. but Albert Pooley was repatriated in 1943 because of his disabling wounds. He then discovered that the British Military authorities would not believe his account of the massacre, they did not believe that the Germans would behave like this.

It was only when his account was corroborated when O’Callaghan was released in 1945 that an investigation began. Pooley finally had the satisfaction of giving evidence against Fritz Knöchlein in a War Crimes Tribunal convened in 1948. Knöchlein was interrogated at the ‘London Cage’ where he alleged that he was mistreated , but he was convicted and subsequently hanged.

See Peter Hart (ed): Voices from the Front: The 2nd Norfolk Regiment: From Le Paradis to Kohima

British and French prisoners
British and French prisoners being marched back from the area of the crossing of the La Bassee Canal. 27 May 1940.

Most of the British Expeditionary Force tried desperately to find a means to avoid surrender, even though the opportunities to get away seemed very slender indeed:

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Monday 27th May

French tanks put in attack this morning with certain amount of success. Hear that “A” Coy were unsuccessful last night and lost heavily, but know nothing definite. Bn. front in the town is still intact, hut I hear that enemy are through on left flank as well as right. About 1pm went to “D” Coy H.Q. as we were out of touch with the Battalion. Charles [—] was also there with some more hopeful news of French attack in the south. Had some very good brandy there.

Runner suddenly arrived with a verbal message from the C.O. to the effect that Camerons were to withdraw immediately. We commenced to withdraw about 1.45 but not with a great deal of hope as we knew that enemy were round on both sides and probably behind us. We intended to head across country for Laventie and Sailly Bridge. Having passed the church on the main road we turned off into a lane and thence across country due north.

First I directed C.S.M. and the whole party with me less Cpl Hamilton’s sec to carry on to the first bound and waited on the main road for the remainder to come up which they did some 15-20 minutes later. Mainwaring and P.S.M. Kerr arrived with remainder of 10 and 11 Pl’s and we started off. By this time the first party was out of sight. Had got about 300 yds when confronted by several tanks and had to get down in the field and available ditches.

In my ditch were remains of original 10 Pl., Sgts Turner and Watson, Ptes Leidlar, Gillespie, Nicholson, Buchanan, Elvin. Opened fire on tank with Bren and unfortunately A/T [anti-tank] Rifle jammed and striker broke. Turner and Nicholson there hit. Ditch very uncomfortable with about one foot of water in it. We stayed there from 2 p.m. till nightfall. At 10 p.m. Tanks continued firing over us and M.G. opened from the main road on our left. Occasional shell landed in our field. Enemy moving up fast on both sides and we were completely surrounded, but apparently undiscovered.

Enemy 150 yds away on either side. Have a good supply of cigarettes and fair supply of chocolate. Fortunately the day was warm but it was unpleasant and we spent a cold evening. Turner and Nicholson in a bad way. Could see enemy several times in houses on right and thought ourselves seen. No sign of D or C Companies, but Leidlar told me D had turned back to original position. It later transpired they had tried to get out of La Bassee by another route.

At 10.15 pm. appeared dark enough to get away and we started off in two parties. Failed to find any sign of Coy H.Q. and C.S.M’s party. Enemy dotted all over country side and frequently passed within 20 yds of them, had torches shone on us and were hailed but managed to get through without a mishap. Terrible night.

[Entry No.19, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

An excellent summary of the invasion of France can be found in the West Point History of World War II, an invaluable guide to the whole war, which I reviewed in 2015. This history has contains many maps and charts that help to explain the campaign:

blitzkrieg-map-2

Calais surrenders to Germans

Calais May 1940 after the fierce Anglo French defensive battle to hold up the Germans attacking from the west.
Destruction in Calais and the graves of French troops.
British dead immediately after the battle in Calais.

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. :

Sunday 26th

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.

Ping

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

Norfolks fight on as bombing fails to halt Germans

Men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment man a snow-covered forward trench in France while hand grenades are handed out to other soldiers on 26 January 1940. Most of the preparations for war made by the British Expeditionary Force were based on the experiences of the First World War.
Men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment man a snow-covered forward trench in France while hand grenades are handed out to other soldiers on 26 January 1940. Most of the preparations for war made by the British Expeditionary Force were based on the experiences of the First World War.
Men of the Norfolk Regiment receive their rum ration before going out on patrol, 26 January 1940.
Men of the Norfolk Regiment receive their rum ration before going out on patrol, 26 January 1940.

Desperate efforts were now being made to establish a perimeter line around the British positions in northern France. The estimates from the Royal Navy suggested that 30,000 men, at best 50,000, might be evacuated out of over 250,000 men in the British Expeditionary Force.

Although most of Hitler’s Panzers were now stalled this did not mean that German forces were not pressing the British positions. The 2nd Battalion Norfolk Regiment found themselves facing west as they struggled to hold the La Bassee Canal against the Waffen SS 2nd Totenkopf Regiment. Private Ernie Farrow, a Pioneer with the HQ Company who was called in to fill a gap in the line, describes the situation on the 25th:

We had to go in between two different companies — just the Pioneers which was about twenty of us because we’d lost about eight men by this time. What they told us to do was to go up on to the top of this canal bank and make sure that every round that we fired got a German.

We were getting short of ammunition and we must try and make every round count. I was using my .303 rifle, occasionally we took turns in firing the Bren gun but there again we had to be very careful. We found that by using the rifles we could save quite a lot of ammunition. We could pick a German off with our rifle just as well as we could do with the Bren gun where you’d fire probably twenty rounds to hit the same German.

After we’d fired a certain amount of rounds, we’d got to scramble back down the bank of the canal, run along a bit, then go up top again – just to try and bluff the Germans that there was a great company of us there. We were being hard pressed, we were being machine gunned, mortared, shelled.

We were led to believe that the German tanks were made of cardboard and plywood but by God we knew the difference when they started firing at us — we got our heads down very, very quickly! The most terrible thing that I’ve ever experienced.

We were dug in our little fox holes and we’d keep our heads down but you couldn’t be there all the time — you had to get up to fire at the Germans on the other side because those Germans were trying to get across the canal to get at us! The more we were hiding up the less chance we had of stopping them. So we had to go out and fire at them.

They were even driving their lorries into the canal and trying to drive their tanks across on these lorries. But the artillery managed to keep them at bay. I don’t think we saw an aircraft over our sector at the time.

It was a very frightening thing. It really showed you what war was like.

See Peter Hart (ed): Voices from the Front: The 2nd Norfolk Regiment: From Le Paradis to Kohima

Pontoon bridge over La Bassee Canal. German PzKpfw 38(t) crossing. probably on 27th May, from Rommel's personal collection, later captured by the British.
Pontoon bridge over La Bassee Canal. German PzKpfw 38(t) crossing, probably on 27th May, from Rommel’s personal collection, later captured by the British.

Although many in the British Expeditionary Force were to complain that they did not see the RAF, tremendous efforts were being made to hold up the German advance. Troops on the ground who were being bombed felt that the Germans were unopposed.

From the Diary of Captain R. Leah, 1st Battalion, Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders :

Saturday May 25th

Arrived about 2 a.m. Estaires. Got billeted and to bed by 3 a.m. Slept till 9.

Great enemy air activity today. Had orders to move back to Festubert. Sent Cameron on billeting, then arrived self with 1 Pl. Got settled in and was going to look for Camerons in War Cemetery when we were called back to Estaires. Lot of enemy air bombing along roads. Then had orders to move back to Violaines. Later in afternoon Coy Comdrs went on to meet Queens Regt, who we were to relieve in L.B. and recce area there. The usual defences of a canal in a town. Mortar shelling.

Went back to Violaines and had a meal. Company arrived shortly afterwards. Carried out relief tonight, fairly quiet. Put 11 Pl in the houses on right where some French troops were and left 10 Pl out in houses near Coy H.Q. All had some sleep tonight.

3 miles.

[Entry No.16, for the first entry see 10th May 1940]

See TNA WO 217/15

Aerial view of Marck, bombed-May-1940
The RAF were seeking to bomb the advancing Germans columns. The village of Marcke, south-west of Courtrai, was bombed by Blenheims from 82 Squadron on the 25th May. The route used by the German transport columns can clearly be seen leading up to a pontoon bridge, circled on the left of the photograph. One salvo of bombs is seen landing directly on this route, circled in the middle.

The evacuation from Calais as Hitler orders ‘Halt’

British transport on the dockside at Calais, pictured after the Germans had captured the port.

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. Continue reading “The evacuation from Calais as Hitler orders ‘Halt’”