Road to Dunkirk:
Scenario Preview, Part Four
The more recent installments in the Panzer Grenadier saga are meant to be just that, a story of great (or less than great) deeds performed by men on the battlefield. We use the scenarios to tell the story, in chapters bound together with background text and a “battle game” linking them together in terms of play.
The British Expeditionary Force certainly wrote its own saga, the theme of Road to Dunkirk, and nowhere is the story more poignant than in the doomed yet determined defense of the Channel ports of Calais and Boulogne. Written off by a cynical self-celebrator safely ensconced in his bunker beneath London, the troops fought on regardless of the moral betrayal. Let’s have a look at their story.
You can see Chapter One here, Chapter Two here and Chapter Three here.
I now resolved that Calais should be fought to the death, and that no evacuation by sea could be allowed to the garrison.
- Winston Churchill, The Second World War
The German forces which reached the Channel near Abbeville were well aware of the opportunity to destroy the pocketed Allied troops. Several divisions moved north along the coast towards Boulogne where a small garrison awaited. On 24 May that garrison, having provided a two-day delay to the Germans in their northern drive, was evacuated. Churchill said that he regretted that decision. He would not make the same “mistake” with Calais.
The decision to fight to the end in Calais was a Cabinet-wide choice. Indeed, Anthony Eden even signed off on the lack of an evacuation despite the fact that the garrison included the regiment in which he had served just before the outbreak of war.
On 26 May the Calais garrison commander, Brigadier Claude Nicholson, received the following wire:
“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.”
South-West of Boulogne
22 May 1940
Protecting Boulogne’s harbor, the 2nd Irish Guards battalion covered a line south of the city 3.5 kilometers long, stretching from the village of Manihen on the banks of the River Liane to positions on the coast overlooking the harbor. At 1500, the defenders spotted the first German scout vehicles on the high ground south of Outreau.
On the coast road to Boulogne, the German advance had already seen tough fighting. The only route leading directly to the harbor offered little possibility of manoeuvre for tanks, and the first panzers were quickly dispatched by the Irish anti-tank guns. German motorcyclists and infantry then maneuvered around the flanks of the British. The fighting in and amongst the back gardens and hedgerows was a chaotic and confused affair, which dragged on intermittently until nightfall when firing eventually died down.
We make use of the heavy urban-river board, with the Germans having to go straight at the Irish Guards. The Guards have fanatically high morale, plentiful anti-tank guns and a tank-smashing heavy anti-aircraft gun. This one’s going to be tough for the panzers.
Boulogne Must be Held
23 May 1940
The 20th Guards Brigade was training at Camberley on the morning of May the 21st when orders were received from the War Office to proceed immediately to Dover for service overseas. Less than twenty-four hours later it arrived at Boulogne and began to disembark. Boulogne lies at the mouth of the river Liane, which winds its way to the sea through a valley in the surrounding hills. The Welsh Guards covered the part of the town north-east of the river, holding the western slopes of the Mont Lambert ridge and the high ground through St Martin. The troops were extended over a six-mile perimeter and inevitably thin on the ground.
At daybreak on the 23rd the German attack resumed. British anti-tank guns destroyed or drove off the German tanks after heavy fighting. Further waves of tanks and infantry supported by artillery and mortar fire inflicted considerable casualties on the British infantry and anti-tank gunners, and the Guards gave ground. By the end of a long morning's fighting it was clear that the original perimeter could not be held, and the battalions were drawn back to the outskirts of the town. The 20th Guards Brigade would remain and fight.
The Germans get to try again, having disposed of the anti-aircraft gun but not the Guards’ crazed determination to hold their ground. The Germans have a handful of tanks, but this fight’s going to be won by the infantry.
Fresh off the Boat
South of Calais
23 May 1940
The British 3rd Royal Tank Regiment disembarked in Calais harbor on 22 May amid a scene of utter devastation. The docks were cluttered with abandoned rations, the dockside cranes had no electricity, the workers were exhausted, the ship’s crew went on strike and the captain tried to leave port without unloading – a situation resolved by a 3rd RTR officer holding a pistol to the ship captain’s head. Once ashore, Lt. Col. Reginald Keller commanding 3rd RTR faced shaky supply arrangements, weak collaboration with the French and a motley collection of partially-assembled tanks that were either unfamiliar or obsolete – or both. Handed an array of contradictory orders, Keller eventually decided to move out along the road to Boulogne with all the tanks available.
While assembling his squadrons, Keller received reports of a German column moving from the south-west. This was the leading edge of 1st Panzer Division under Oberst Kruger. The British moved off in a drizzling rain to try to pass ahead of the Germans. They had not gone far when they sighted and evaded two light tanks, but soon they spotted a large mechanized force on top of a wooded ridge. A confused, chaotic and rambling battle followed in the open fields, by-roads and sunken tracks near the village of Hames-Boucres. Thanks to their numbers and field artillery, the Germans gained the upper hand and the British soon withdrew, some of their machines putting down a smoke screen as cover. Although losses were about even on both sides - about 10 vehicles destroyed each - the British were in a state of shock realizing the enemy was so strong and so close.
Tank battle! The British have the numbers, but they’re not well-organized and unlike the Germans have absolutely no supporting infantry. Even so, we’ve got us a swirling tank battle here.
24 May 1940
Ordered to hold Calais, troops from Queen Victoria’s Rifles along with assorted troops from the French garrison had responsibility for blocking the main roads into the city. A motorcycle battalion, the Queen Victoria’s Rifles did not actually have any rifles (they carried pistols instead), and had to scrounge weapons upon their hurried arrival from England (the motorcycles never made it across the Channel). They spent the night digging in, building a roadblock from a double line of railway trucks and gathering more troops from scattered small British units. At dawn, some figures approached carefully along the railway tracks. The British opened fire and the attackers fell to the ground.
As mortar bombs came whistling down and German infantry advanced, the forward British platoons withdrew to strengthen the line held along the town’s old ramparts. Both sides deployed snipers; the well-trained sharpshooters of the 60th Fusiliers killed a dozen Germans. Making good use of the abandoned railway wagons, the British blocked the level crossings and bridges to defend the embankment.
Tenth Panzer Division’s staff expressed surprise at the hot reception; one German company had six men killed and the same number seriously wounded in the fighting in front of the bastions. Several light tanks were lost, with two of them burned.
It’s an infantry fight, with the Brits dug in behind a pretty stout barrier. The Germans are going to have to come into their kitchen and dig them out. It won’t be pretty.
The Hell of Boulogne
24 May 1940
In total disarray, remnants of the 2nd Welsh Guards converged on the quays in Boulogne after others escaped by ship. Denied evacuation to England, they were ordered to stand fast instead and took positions in the railway station under cover of the trucks and carriages of two motionless trains. Meanwhile the French, exasperated by the precipitous British departure, fought tenaciously to defending the city’s high citadel.
The Germans finally realized that not all the Allied troops had escaped, and opened fire with small arms, machine guns and tank cannon. Meanwhile, the French garrison stood behind the 10-meter-high ramparts of the medieval citadel, on the city heights. German artillery, mortars and heavy flak guns came forward, firing directly against the walls. Both Allied strong points continued resisting despite repeated assaults, refusing surrender demands as the hours passed. As darkness fell the Germans still hammered at the walls of the citadel and the quays of the harbour. The city’s fall would have to wait until final surrender, early the next morning.
It’s the last stand at Boulogne, and despite their doomed situation the British Guards are still full of fight. That means that the Germans are going to have to capture the city’s ancient citadel with a frontal infantry assault. They have lots of support weaponry, artillery and planes – but it’s the foot soldier who will determine this battle.
Bitter End at Calais
25 May 1940
From the start, a withdrawal into the north of Calais to defend the docks appeared inevitable. The British made the decision to withdraw to a line of posts behind the three bridges over the canal de Calais separating northern and southern parts of the city. With their backs to the sea many of the defenders still believed evacuation a possibility but it was not to be. Almost every house overlooking the waterfront along the quays was turned into a defensive position. In late morning, the Germans tried to take Calais without a fight and asked for the formal surrender of the Allied forces.
The British refusal to surrender was the signal for a thorough bombardment of the city’s remains, including Stuka dive bombers. After a second demand for surrender met the same answer, another bombardment pounded the citadel and the bridges. Since the OKH feared further tank losses, infantry led the attack and fought their way forward under heavy defensive fire. The three standing bridges witnessed some of the bitterest street fighting of the entire campaign. The situation became most critical at the western bridge and around the Citadel. Under cover of a heavy mortar barrage one tank forced the roadblock followed over by German infantry. But it was all in vain as the British fought on tenaciously. As it began to grow dark, General Ferdinand Schall of 10th Panzer Division decided to call it a day.
The Germans get to use their explosive “destroyer” panzers in fierce urban combat while the British are ready to fight for every inch of Calais: Calais spent 212 years as an English territory, and Tommy Atkins seems to think it’s still his own soil.
26 May 1940
The British War Cabinet ordered Lord Gort, the BEF’s commander, to fight his way back to the west and embark his troops. At the same time, the British leadership told the motley garrison of Calais to fight to the end. Within the besieged port, no one questioned the success of the next German attack. In the early morning what was left of the old city was turned into a raging furnace by artillery and Stuka attacks. Infantry then swarmed the bridges with tanks firing point-blank at the defenders in the ruined houses.
A small mixed force of 60th Rifles and French sailors and soldiers still held out in the Citadel and one of the Bastions. On the jetty, Bastion 1 had been reinforced by Royal Marines landed from HMS Verity on the previous evening. At around 1015 a vicious struggle developed again on the main bridges, repelled by spirited British counterattacks. In mid-afternoon the Germans swarmed over the quays and platforms despite stubborn British resistance. At around 1630 the Citadel fell and most of the exhausted Allied troops finally surrendered. When daylight faded an eerie silence reigned amongst the smoking wreckage.
It’s the last stand for the Calais garrison, with French and British Marines standing alongside them. Despite their exhaustion and the situation, the Brits still have soaring, Israeli-level morale and the Germans are going to have to dig them out of every hex.
Winston Churchill later wrote that the defense of Calais delayed the German attack on Dunkirk and helped facilitate the evacuation there. The British official history maintains that Nicholson’s men tied down three panzer divisions. Neither of these claims is true. Lions led by asses, the Guards died because, once again, someone had blundered.
And that’s Chapter Four.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.