Road to Dunkirk:
Scenario Preview, Part Five
Panzer Grenadier: Road to Dunkirk marks our second full-sized (really, oversized) game on the 1940 campaign in France – and we haven’t even touched the fighting in Belgium and the Netherlands yet. As with 1940: The Fall of France, Philippe Léonard has crafted a fine set of scenarios to show the campaign unfolding; unlike 1940: The Fall of France, they’re organized by chapter in our unique story-arc format and tied together with “battle games” that link them together.
Let’s take a look at the first half of Chapter Five. You can see Chapter One here, Chapter Two here, Chapter Three here and Chapter Four here.
One More Day
The British War Council made its decision to implement Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk, on 26 May, only 16 days after the Allied armies had entered Belgium confident of meeting the German armies on even terms. The Council expected that a substantial portion of the BEF would not be rescued. Slow to start, the evacuation gained speed and efficiency as the need for shallow draft small craft was filled by Dutch schuits (shallow draft river barges), Thames River tugs and all manner of pleasure and working craft scrounged by the Royal Navy and manned, in many cases, by civilians on 30-day enlistments.
The slow start required the perimeter to be held longer than expected, a requirement further complicated by the Belgian surrender. King Leopold III entered captivity along with his army on 28 May, signaling the end of Belgium’s formal resistance to the German invasion. The Belgian Army’s elimination from the Allied order of battle needed to be accommodated by the perimeter defense which, at the time of the decision to withdraw, extended from Dunkirk to Lille, 45 miles to the southeast.
Originally planned to be complete by 28 May, the operation continued through 4 June. The extensions were due to the continued success of the evacuation and the belated realization that the French forces trapped in the pocket might also benefit from evacuation.
As a result of the operation’s extension, the perimeter had to be held day after day. The battles along the perimeter and the slow and successful withdrawal are part of the mythology of Dunkirk. The plan for Dynamo itself called for the rescue of less than 50,000 men over a two-day period. Ultimately nearly 340,000 men were evacuated over nine days. Despite His Majesty’s Government’s efforts to control elation over the results of the evacuation, the successful operation substantially lifted national morale.
Prelude to Dunkirk
23 May 1940
Across Flanders, terrorized refugees choked every road and the bridges over the Aa River became awful bottlenecks. As a countermeasure, the best the Allies could do was to concentrate on the bridges and to erect barricades. In St. Omer, the rumor of approaching panzers had grown since the capture of the full headquarters of the French 1/35e Régiment d’Artillerie in Lumbres. No reinforcements were to be seen and the forward elements of 6th Panzer Division were indeed approaching. Here British and French reports diverge as usual, each accusing the other of abandoning the battle or failing to reinforce.
In the early morning hours a German patrol infiltrated across the canal and seized the vital railroad bridge at Arques. When six German tanks tried to exploit the situation, some French and British artillery destroyed several before the survivors surrounded the guns. Meanwhile in St. Omer, more German tanks attacked the railway station. Continuous German artillery fire supported the attackers and the weak Allied detachments gave way all along the Aa River line. Sixth Panzer Division was only 15 kilometers away from Dunkirk.
This is an unusual situation, with a long narrow playing area split by a river. The Germans are looking to force their way across, or at least prepare for a river crossing (a new special mission added for Road to Dunkirk). A motley collection of British and French are out to stop them, but the Germans are very mobile, allowing them to feint at one location and dash off to try to cross at another.
24 May 1940
The Royal Irish Fusiliers had been holding a long six-mile stretch of canal since 21 May. During the night, battered but not entirely dispirited remnants of French units had trickled at intervals over the Bethune bridges. D Company of First Royal Irish Fusiliers covered Gorre with its two road bridges across the canal, one of which remained intact to allow retreating French troops to cross. On the company’s left was a mixed company of Frenchmen who held a footbridge and then came a platoon of C Company.
The British fought off German attempts to cross the canal throughout the morning, assisted by French reinforcements. The British destroyed the bridge, but the Germans continued their attempts to get across and brought up tanks to assist the infantry with covering fire. In response a single French tank commanded by Sous-Lieutenant Morat crawled to the lip of the broken bridge and shot it out across the canal with the panzers for 20 minutes before a German anti-tank gun finally put Morat’s tank out of action. A few small German groups briefly made it across, but the Allied defense held.
A much smaller river (actually canal) crossing attempt this time, but there’s no alternative for the Germans (or the mixed defenders, either): the Germans must get across the canal, the Allies must stop them.
24 May 1940
The BEF, withdrawing on Dunkirk, desperately needed the 350,000 rations unloaded at Calais on 22 May. Brig. Claude Nicholson, the garrison commander, formed an escort including tanks to take a truck column down the road to Dunkirk; his orders from London directed that this be achieved “overriding all other considerations.” The Calais troops would take the column halfway to Dunkirk. Already the 1st Panzer Division was already moving up to block the road at Marck.
After two miles the British column encountered a strong German roadblock, supported by anti-tank guns hidden amongst the suburban houses on either side of the road. Anti-tank fire forced the British tanks to stop, but infantry platoons of the Rifle Brigade worked their way around the German flanks. A spirited action followed which lasted until daylight. When it became clear that the British would be surrounded they reluctantly withdrew, losing 22 riflemen killed and several wounded.
The Brits have a truck convoy filled with bully beef and biscuit, with a long way to go and a short time to get there. The Germans are coming to set up a roadblock, and the Brits will have to bop their way past.
Royal Horse Artillery
27 May 1940
German forces stormed along the main road from St. Omer to Cassel, thrusting toward the Channel ports. In the direct line of their advance lay the village of Hondeghem, defended by Maj. Robert Rawdon Hoare’s K Battery of the 5th Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery. Hoare posted his guns on the outskirts to command the roads by which the Germans would probably come, and placed Bren carriers between the village’s houses. The night passed quietly although in an atmosphere of great tension.
The role of the Royal Artilleryman is, as it has ever been, to fight his gun, forgetful of self, to the last round in support of other arms.
By 0730, German tanks and infantry had overrun two of K Battery’s Great War-vintage 18-pounders, after the guns had knocked out several German tanks. Hoare chose to stand his ground within the village, supported by additional batteries firing in support from Mont Cassel, and Germans began to infiltrate Hondeghem. There the gunners fought them with berserk fury as panzers and 18-pounders shot it out at ranges of 100 meters or less. When German machine-gun teams began to fire back from the upper floors of village farmhouses, the British guns methodically destroyed the buildings one by one. German tanks attempted to drive down the village’s main street, now known as Rue de la Ker Battery, only to lose several more of their number. With ammunition running short, Hoare finally ordered a retreat at 1615.
This is an epic close-range fight between panzers and artillery, what would become a touchstone of the Royal Horse Artillery’s identity.
They Wore Skirts
27 May 1940
After the HaltBefehl, the panzers resumed the offensive in the afternoon of 26 May. The Germans soon gained a small bridgehead across the Canal d’Aire close to La Bassée. In the early morning a depleted company of the 1st Camerons supported by French Somua tanks counterattacked and drove the enemy back across the canal, albeit at a high cost in casualties. Although the Camerons had won their position, they could not hold it so they withdrew to form a defensive arc around the town.
Rommel had to order every weapon to fire from the south side of the canal on the French tanks while the engineers desperately tried to speed up the bridge work. Eventually some panzers began to cross on a shaky bridge and poured onto the north bank. Thanks to pontoons, the 7th and the 5th Panzer Divisions were soon massing across the canal. La Bassée was attacked from the west and Salomé from south. A column of tanks moved north of Violaines and surrounded the British headquarters. Although the French Somuas and the British anti-tank platoons disabled or destroyed numerous German tanks, the initiative went to the Germans and one by one the villages fell. Then came 18 tanks of the 4th/7th Royal Tank Regiment in support. Their action combined with the Somuas eventually allowed some of the trapped Scots to escape but most of the Camerons in the front-line companies were either killed, wounded or captured; the battalion only consisted of 79 men when it was evacuated from Dunkirk. On the French side, the battalion-sized 7th Recon Group lost about one hundred men. The city of Lille, Rommel’s objective, was within reach of the Germans.
One of the larger scenarios in the set, this one features good numbers on both sides with artillery, morale and plenty of tanks. But about a third of the Allied force is French, and the Allies aren’t on very good terms at the moment as Brexit looms.
Your Generals are Gone
27 May 1940
New lines held by British and French troops along the canals running south from Dunkirk created a kind of safety zone, or corridor, down which retreating Allied troops could safely march on their way to Dunkirk. The main towns and villages were transformed into strongpoints to buy a few more days for the evacuation. Cassel is a small picturesque medieval town strategically located on top of a hill which rises some 160 meters above the surrounding flat plain of French Flanders and is an important road junction south of Dunkirk. The site had been the scene of many battles, dating back to Roman times. At Cassel Brigadier Nigel Somerset was to command a group known as Somer Force, consisting of his 145th Brigade, part of 48th Division, and some additional units. German leaflets fell across the city calling for surrender, stating “Your generals are gone!”
The whole town had been converted into a fortress, complete with outposts. While the Germans on both flanks were held at bay, some two dozen tanks advanced from the south. The Czech-made panzers went in without infantry support and suffered grievous losses from anti-tank guns. The battle soon became a contest between British anti-tank guns and the tanks’ cannon and machine guns. British 25mm and 2-pounder anti-tank rounds ricocheted off the Pz 35(t)’s front armor until the gunners switched their aim to the tank tracks, or waited until the tanks passed and hit them from the side or rear; the 209th Battery claimed 40 tanks destroyed. Finally, at midnight 6th Panzer Division abandoned the fruitless assault and the surviving panzers withdrew. Though victorious, by the end of the day the Tommies were surrounded. The British held on at Cassel until the night of May 29.
This one’s a brutal city fight, fairly unusual in Panzer Grenadier since we don’t have a lot of urban terrain. Road to Dunkirk has a full map of it, and this scenario makes use of it.
And that’s the first half of Chapter Five.
You can order Road to Dunkirk right here.
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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.