From Calais to Colditz: A Rifleman’s Memoir

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From Calais to Colditz has never been published before but readers will surely agree that the wait has been worthwhile. The author was a young platoon commander when his battalion were ordered by Prime Minister Winston Churchill to defend Calais to the last man and so distract German attention from the evacuation of the BEF at Dunkirk.

After an intense four day battle, the survivors were subjected to a gruelling twelve day march towards Germany. There followed incarceration in a succession of POW camps during which the author succeeded in escaping twice, both over the wire and by tunnelling, remaining at large on one occasion for twelve days.

These exploits qualified him for a place in the notorious Colditz Castle, the supposed escape-proof camp. The descriptions of his colourful fellow prisoners, their captors and their extraordinary experiences are as good as any of the previous accounts and in many respects more revealing.

How fortunate it is that From Calais to Colditz can now be read by a wide audience.

This excerpt deals with the stand that the King’s Royal Rifle Corps made at Calais in May 1940:

26 May 1940 – The Last Day

It seemed as if I had hardly fallen asleep before I was woken up to see daylight already appearing. Maurice held a platoon commanders’ conference at about 0700 hours. He told us to improve our weapon pits while we still had time and to hold our present position at all costs. Peter Parker’s platoon was moved to occupy the high ground where I had spent such an uncomfortable time the evening before and Everard went with him.

I then went round my platoon. They were all in great heart and each section gave me something different to drink. Crowther alone seemed dispirited. He had never really recovered from the first night when, after moving out of the goods yard, dead tired, he was told to keep an all-night guard on the Sangatte Road. Through lack of sleep he seemed to have lost all initiative. I tried to cheer him up, giving him every reason Why I was convinced the enemy would run out of supplies and we would be relieved.

The gap where the railway line passed through our position in which land-mines had been placed the night before still looked dangerous. The ambulances which had blocked the gap the previous day were gone so we decided to move a number of railway trucks into their place. For about three quarters of an hour we heaved and pushed on an empty stomach until the gap was satisfactorily blocked. The enemy made no attempt to hinder us although we were in their full view.

One of my couriers completed the job by towing a broken-down lorry into the last gap. Driving round in front of the ramp it returned behind our lines through a gap in Pat Sherrard’s position which Perry had already reconnoitred on his motor bike. Tucker had disappeared during the previous day and I never saw him again. I heard later that he was wounded by a machine-gun bullet in the leg. Perry replaced him and was indispensable — never leaving my side for the whole day except to take messages.

The mortars started punctually at 0800 hours, shelling our position as hard as ever. Under their cover the infantry tried to advance but they were very cautious and seemed unwilling to take risks or come to grips. This exasperated Dryborough-Smith who loathed sitting down under the mortar fire. With fixed sword he raged up and down muttering ‘Just let me get my hands on one of those bastards.’ It seemed strange that they should try creeping forward now after an undisturbed night in which to improve their positions.

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.

At about 1100 hours, above the noise of rifle fire and mortars, I heard a drone in the distance and, looking up into the sky, I saw about a hundred planes approaching in perfect formation. They looked just like a flight of wild-fowl flying imperturbably at a considerable height. I watched fascinated. They were almost overhead when, one by one, they detached themselves from the main body, diving vertically and, as it seemed, straight for our positions, omitting a terrifying wail.

It looked as if they must crash into the ground but a few hundred feet up they released their bombs, which could be seen clearly, sometimes one or two at a time, sometimes even four. For a moment it looked as if they might overtake their bombs but, at the last moment, they flattened out roaring close over our heads, before climbing back up into the sky; meanwhile their bombs exploded with a deafening roar and threw up clouds of debris unlike anything I had ever seen before.

At first the effect was paralysing as the wail of their sirens — for they must have had sirens fitted somewhere — struck terror into our hearts. Each pilot seemed to make straight for one’s own weapon-pit and each load of bombs seemed attracted towards one, as by a magnet; after a few moments, however, it became clear that the citadel, 200 yards in our rear, was their main target.

Heads popped out of weapon-pits to right and left as the riflemen began to realise that their psychological effect was far worse than their sting. Here and there a Bren-gun was hoisted on to its mounting and soon there was a crackle of small arms fire as each rifleman tried to hit back.

On our right one or two planes were diving over the sea but their targets were out of sight behind the cliffs. Whether any were shot down I am not certain. Several times a plane diving straight toward the earth disappeared, and I waited for the crash but it straightened up in the nick of time and soared serenely back into the sky. Throughout the bombardment there was no sign of a British fighter. We prayed for their arrival constantly because they would have found those dive-bombers an easy prey.

Although the noise must have been clearly audible in Dover no plane was sent to our aid and I realised months later that every available one was being used at Dunkirk, 20 miles further north, where the evacuation of the BEF had already begun.

At last after what seemed an endless H.G. Wells nightmare, the last bomb was dropped and the planes made off whence they had come. The bombardment had in fact lasted little more than half an hour, and, being concentrated chiey on the dock-area, the citadel and the centre of the town, ‘C’ Company had come off comparatively lightly. We were not left long in peace. The mortars, which had been silent during the bombing, now started shelling our positions intensively.

The heaviest fire fell on the high ground to the right. Here the enemy advanced in force; after the French position was overrun Peter Parker ’s platoon, including all available headquarter personnel, never stood a chance.

A Frenchman ran forward with a white flag and was at once shot dead by Corporal Marks. Next moment both he and Corporal Booth had been blown to pieces. They were both great chaps, close friends in peace time, and they fought superbly throughout the battle. Everard and Peter were taken prisoner and the remainder quickly overwhelmed.

The enemy were now in command of all the high ground overlooking the Company position, which they could enfilade from the flank and rear. There was only one thing to do. Maurice ordered a general withdrawal of the whole Company back to the goods-yard area where we had spent part of the first night.

There was no time for detailed orders to my section commanders. The enemy were ring steadily on to us from the high ground and the Company had already begun to retire on the right. I told everyone in my area to take their weapons and as much ammunition as they could carry and get back as quickly as they could.

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