Siege of Calais (1940)
The Siege of Calais (1940) was a battle for the port and town of Calais during the German blitzkrieg which overran northern France in 1940. It immediately preceded Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force through Dunkirk. It has long been a subject of debate whether the sacrifice of the largely British garrison at Calais contributed to the successful evacuation from Dunkirk.
On 10 May 1940, the Germans launched their offensive against France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Within a few days, the concentrated German Panzer Group achieved a breakthrough against the centre of the French front near Sedan, and drove westwards. On 21 May, they captured Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme River, cutting off the Allied troops in Northern France and Belgium from those to the south.
The Panzer Group, spearheaded by the XIX Panzer Korps under General Heinz Guderian, turned to its right and drove against the rear of the cut-off Allied armies. Guderian's corps consisted of three Panzer Divisions and an SS motorised infantry regiment. They advanced north along the coast almost unopposed, although they were harassed by air attacks.
In British colloquial usage, "the Channel ports" refers to the group of ports nearest to Cap Gris Nez giving the shortest crossing from the UK: Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk (and sometimes also Ostend in Belgium). These are the most common entry ports for passengers and day-trippers, rather than freight.
When plans for the deployment of the British Expeditionary Force were made, the British Imperial General Staff drew on the lessons of the First World War. The British Expeditionary Force had then used the channel ports as their main logistic bases, even though they were only 20 miles (32 km) from the nearest point of the front line. Had the German Spring Offensive of 1918 succeeded in breaking through the front and capturing or even threatening the ports, the BEF would have been in a desperate position. In 1939, the BEF therefore based itself on ports further west, mainly Le Havre and Cherbourg. Calais and to a lesser extent the other channel ports were used for routine movement of personnel (drafts, soldiers going on leave, etc.) and rations. The British made no plans or preparations to defend the channel ports. Their defence was left to French reservists.
When the German offensive was launched in May 1940, Calais was subjected to increasingly heavy bombing, which caused disruption to military movements, and also widespread confusion as refugees making for Calais met other refugees fleeing the port. On 20 May, the Germans seized Abbeville on the River Somme, capturing the last bridges over the river before the sea, and effectively isolating the BEF in Flanders and Picardy, cut off from its logistic bases. The War Office in Britain hastily despatched troops to the channel ports, in case the ports were required either to resupply the BEF or evacuate it. A Guards infantry brigade went to Boulogne. Several units which were intended to join the British 1st Armoured Division, which at the time was forming at Pacy-sur-Eure in Normandy, were dispatched to Calais.
The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (RTR), the 229th Anti-tank battery of the Royal Artillery and the Queen Victoria's Rifles (QVR) arrived in Calais on 22 May. The haste with which the units were moved meant they were not properly ready for action. Four of the anti-tank battery's twelve guns had to be left behind. 3RTR (commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Reginald Keller) was equipped with twenty-one Light Tank Mk VI and twenty-seven Cruiser Mk I tanks. They had no chance to test fire or "zero" their tanks' armament, nor were most of their radios fitted.1 The QVR were a motorcycle reconnaissance unit of the Territorial Army. Because of a staff officer's error, the motorcycle combinations were left behind, and the personnel arrived in France without transport and equipped only with small arms.2
The Royal Tank Regiment had orders to advance from Calais to Boulogne, which was under attack. They also were ordered by Lieutenant General Douglas Brownrigg, the Adjutant General of the British Expeditionary Force, to detach some tanks to escort a convoy of trucks carrying rations for the British Expeditionary Force to the east. In the afternoon of 23 May, the main body of the tank regiment advanced south. At Guînes, they encountered half the German 1st Panzer Division (Kampfgruppe Kruger) which was skirting Calais. About half the British tanks were knocked out and the remainder retired to Calais. The German battlegroup continued to drive past Calais, fighting actions against the 1st and 2nd Searchlight Regiments of the Royal Artillery, fighting as infantry, east of the town during the evening.
The armoured detachment escorting the ration trucks also became tangled with the German battlegroup during the night. The trucks turned back but some of the tanks pushed on to Gravelines, where they knocked out several German tanks before being overrun the next morning.
Meanwhile, the main body of the British 30th Motor Brigade arrived in Calais. The brigade's units were the 1st Battalion of The Rifle Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Chandos Hoskyns, and 2nd Battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps, often referred to as the 60th Rifles, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Euan Miller. Most of the personnel of these two motor battalions, with a higher proportion of Bren Carriers than normal battalions, were highly trained reservists or regular soldiers.3 Because of German bombing, the ship carrying the brigade's vehicles closed its hatches and left with most of the Rifle Brigade's vehicles still aboard.
The brigade's commander, Brigadier Claude Nicholson, took charge of the port and all British units there. The few French army troops in the area (barely a company and a half of infantry, four machine-gun sections and two or three 75-mm guns) were also placed under his command.4
Already on 23 May, Guderian had ordered the 10th Panzer Division, commanded by Generalmajor Ferdinand Schaal, to capture Calais. The division was delayed around Amiens because infantry units supposed to relieve it in the bridgehead it had secured on the south bank of the Somme arrived late. The British reinforcements sent to Calais therefore forestalled the Panzer Division by 24 to 48 hours. Schaal complained on 24 May that his division was tired (it had fought a severe two-day battle at Stonne a week earlier), and had lost more than half its armoured vehicles and one third of its transport to battle casualties, mechanical breakdown and attacks by RAF bombers.5
The centre of the fortifications of Calais was a Citadel, dating from the sixteenth century but augmented and improved several times since. Perhaps more important to the British were the railway sidings and quays of the Gare maritime in the harbour, through which they would receive supplies and reinforcements, or be evacuated.
Surrounding the town was an Enceinte, originally consisting of twelve bastions linked by a curtain wall. In many places, the curtain wall was overlooked by buildings in the suburbs outside, while two of the southern bastions and the wall linking them had long since been demolished to make way for railway lines. The northernmost bastions and fortifications were manned by French naval reservists and volunteers commanded by Capitaine de Fregate Carlos de Lambertye6
A mile outside the enceinte to the west was the outlying Fort Nieulay. Two other forts to the south and east were ruinous or had disappeared.
Nicholson ordered the 60th Rifles to hold the western, and the Rifle Brigade the eastern, part of the enceinte. Some of the Queen Victoria Rifles held outlying positions. The rest of the QVR, and volunteers from the Searchlight Regiments and the various personnel ("useless mouths") awaiting shipment to England reinforced the two rifle battalions.
As the 10th Panzer Division surrounded the town, they were engaged by the French naval guns in the bastions along the seafront, though many of these could fire out to sea only. In many cases, the French seamen and gunners were evacuated by naval tugs once they had fired off their ammunition, but officers successfully appealed for volunteers to remain to defend their fortifications.7
For the attack on Calais, Ferdinand Schaal ordered his 86th Rifle Regiment (two battalions) to capture the old town and the citadel, while the 69th Rifle Regiment (also of two battalions) circled the town to attack from the east and capture the harbour and Gare Maritime. In the event, Fort Nieulay was defended by some of the QVR and some French troops, and held out for most of the morning. The German 86th Rifle Regiment was also distracted by the need to capture Sangatte and other outlying positions, and could not attack the enceinte before mid-afternoon. Although the defences were weak in this south-western section, the defenders (the 60th Rifles) were reinforced by various detachments and held out till fighting died away at nightfall. The German 69th Rifle Regiment had to relieve units of 1st Panzer Division, and also could not attack the enceinte before evening, when they made little progress.
During the day, Nicholson had spoken by telephone with the War Office, and described his situation. The War Office seemed to agree that there was little the defenders of Calais could do to assist the British Expeditionary Force, and that Calais could not really be defended even if reinforcements were sent. Nicholson was informed that "in principle" it had been decided to evacuate his brigade. There was much other, contradictory information. He received telegrams exhorting him to fight for "Allied solidarity", and was told that various units were advancing from Dunkirk to his aid. There was no truth in these claims.
Around midnight, Nicholson spoke with Vice Admiral Somerville. He stated that he could perhaps hold out, if given field artillery. He had some supporting fire from Royal Navy destroyers and the RAF, but communications with them were uncertain.
Late on the same day, Guderian was ordered to halt his advance across the Aa Canal against the rear of the British Expeditionary Force. Since the order came from Adolf Hitler himself, even the often disobedient Guderian had no choice but to comply. Although the order also stated that Calais was to be "left to the Luftwaffe" if its capture proved to be difficult, Guderian decided to continue with the attack on Calais, although with heavy air support from Junkers Ju 87 dive-bombers.
Nicholson knew that the full extent of the enceinte was too long and weak a line for his two battalions to hold. During the night of 24/25 May, he therefore withdrew to a shorter line, containing the northern part of the enceinte only. The 60th Rifles held the old part of the town, Calais Nord. A canal formed the most important part of their front line, and because the Germans had not followed up closely, they had time to fortify the bridges and houses overlooking them. The withdrawal left the Rifle Brigade on the other side of the harbour in a comparatively exposed position, behind the Canal du Marck but open to attack from three sides and with little cover. Nicholson moved his own HQ from the Gare Maritime to the Citadel, where he was joined by a party of 85 Royal Marines who had arrived during the night from Chatham.8
After a heavy bombardment in the morning, Schaal renewed his attack. The assaults were thrown back, and in the afternoon fighting ceased briefly while Schaal sent several demands for surrender, one of which was carried by the Mayor of Calais who feared for the safety of the citizens under the bombardment. When the attack was renewed, the 60th Rifles held their lines, but the Rifle Brigade were forced back towards a large cellulose factory near the port, and the Gare Maritime.
During the preceding night and the day, some drifters, yachts and other small craft had taken wounded from the harbour. No order to evacuate 30th Brigade was issued. An exhortation from Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden but inspired by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, to the effect that, "The eyes of the Empire are on the defence of Calais", was circulated, though few of the defenders were aware of it.
On the morning of 26 May, Calais Nord and the Citadel were pounded by artillery, and by 200 German bombers. Still, the defenders resisted for several hours. Guderian visited Schaal and suggested a pause to rest and regroup before resuming the attack. Schaal was confident that the attack was about to succeed, and was proved correct. About mid-afternoon, the Germans finally crossed the bridges over the canal and advanced into Calais Nord. The citadel was surrounded. The order, "every man for himself" was given to the 60th Rifles, but few if any escaped. On the other side of the harbour, the Germans captured the Gare Maritime. The Rifle Brigade were forced into a last stand around Bastion No. 1, north of the Gare Maritime.
Nicholson himself surrendered in the citadel at 4 pm. In addition to Nicholson's troops, the Germans rounded up many thousands of French and Belgian stragglers who had taken little or no part in the defence. More than 3,000 British troops and about 700 French were taken prisoners. A few personnel (including the Commanding Officer of 3RTR) managed to make their way via Gravelines to the Dunkirk perimeter, from where they were evacuated to England. In a daring rescue, HM Yacht Gulzar snatched a few dozen men from a jetty in Calais Harbour late on the 26th.
German casualties killed and wounded during the battle were not recorded, but probably amounted to several hundred, as a result of the fierce fighting over three days.
The day after Calais surrendered, the first British personnel were evacuated from Dunkirk. It has sometimes been claimed that the defence of Calais was instrumental in saving the BEF from capture.9 Guderian himself emphatically denied this, citing Hitler's unanswerable order to halt on 23 May as the cause (though he paid tribute to the defenders' tenacity). At best it could be said that the determined defence of Calais tied down a Panzer Division which could have been used to better effect elsewhere.
Brigadier Nicholson was never able to give his views on the whole episode as he died in captivity on 26 June 1943 at the age of 44.10 Lieutenant Colonel Chandos Hoskyns, commanding the Rifle Brigade, was mortally wounded on 25 June and died in England. Capitaine de Lambertye, commanding the French contingent, died of a heart attack while touring the defences of Calais on 26 June.
One of those taken prisoner at Calais was Airey Neave, then a young troop commander in the 5th Searchlight Brigade of the Royal Artillery. Neave would later be the first successful British escapee from Colditz and return to Britain where he served in MI9, and postwar became a Conservative politician.11
The 60th Rifles and the Rifle Brigade were merged into the Royal Green Jackets in 1966. The regiment bore "Calais 1940" as a battle honour. The Royal Green Jackets were merged into The Rifles in 2007.
- Neave, 49, 54-55
- Neave, p.67
- Neave, pp.88-89
- Neave, p.82
- Neave, p.79
- Neave, p.80
- Neave, pp.128-129
- The Sydney Morning Herald - Nov 15, 1941 - Heroic Marines: Epic of Calais (p.13)
- Marix Evans, p.100
- Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh Dunkirk: fight to the last man p501
- Marix Evans, pp.98-100