Battles of Boulogne, Calais, on the Aa canal, Lille and Dunkirk
- Published: 25 January 2011 25 January 2011
- Last Updated: 07 April 2012 07 April 2012
The German operations launched on 10th May 1940 enable to encircle 13 French infantry divisions, 3 French armoured divisions (DLM), 13 Belgian and 9 British divisions in the north on 23rd May. On 27th May the British evacuation plan is ready and the War Office tells Lord Gort that "his single duty is now to evacuate to Great Britain as much troops as possible". On 28th May morning the Belgian army surrenders.
On 23rd May the 2.PzD reaches Boulogne, the 1.PzD reaches Calais, the 6.PzD is near Saint-Omer and the 7.PzD is in the suburbs of Béthune. Nonetheless, the German operations against the allied pocket are not easy. The German troops are opposed to the best allied troops : the 1st French Army, the French cavalry corps and the BEF. The ground defense of the pocket of Dunkirk itself is mostly in French hands while British had the primary order to evacuate. Nonetheless, until 1st June there are still very small British elements on the south-eastern part of the pocket. This resistance played a significant role in the success of the evacuation. If on the ground the defense was mostly French, in the skies over Dunkirk the allied aircrafts were mostly from the RAF but several French fighters took part to the battle. Most of the French air force was engaged more south over the Somme River.
BATTLE OF BOULOGNE (22nd – 25th May 1940)
Boulogne is commanded by general Lanquetot, commander of the 21e DI. The city is not prepared to defend itself and the first German tanks are only 55 km away. The allied troops on 22nd May are composed of :
• 2 infantry battalions of the 48e RI (21e DI), which have fought in the Saar and in Belgium with the 7th Army
• Many French sailors based in the harbor and the ground installations, fighting as marine infantry
• Motorized elements of the 3e DLM, including about 5 Panhard 178 armored cars (12e Régiment de Cuirassiers) and 2 Hotchkiss H39 tanks.
• Elements of the 35e RA with a few 75mm Mle1897 field guns
• Elements of the 181e RALT with 7 155mm GPF guns but no ammunition. The gunners increase the defense by only 30 carbines.
• French coastal artillery : a battery of 3x 194mm guns at La Crèche and a battery of 3x 138mm guns on the Mont-de-Couple. These batteries are able to fire against the Germans.
• 3 air-fleet bases from the French Navy are located at Boulogne-casino, Alprech and Berck. Several air force troops will also take part to the combats.
• 2 infantry battalions of the 65e RI (21e DI), which are not in Boulogne but will delay the German advance in the close surrounding area.
In Boulogne there are also British elements led by general Griffin :
• 2 infantry battalions of the 20th Guards Brigade (which was only on training a few days before) :
--o 2nd Battalion Irish Guards
--o 2nd Battalion Welch Guards
• Few AT guns from the reduced 275th battery (69th AT Regiment)
• Elements of the 262nd engineer company (12th Infantry Division)
One photo shows also the presence of 1 Belgian T13 tank in Boulogne.
The French navy supports the city with :
• 10 torpedo and counter-torpedo ships
• 1 minesweeper sloop
• 2 destroyers
• 2 fast attack boats
• 7 armed auxiliary ships
The French fleet-air arm tries also to provide air cover and bombing support.
The Royal Navy provides also a fleet of 7 British destroyers and torpedo boats next to Boulogne.
The German troops attack Boulogne mainly with the 2.PzD, which advances along the coast on the left flank. The 1.PzD with the attached "Grossdeutschland" regiment in the center and the 10.PzD on the right flank are also implicated.
On 22nd May at 12h30, the 2.PzD clashes with elements of the 48e RI in Neufchâtel and Nesles next to Boulogne. The battle lasts until 16h00 and the guns of the 35e RA manage to destroy 9 German tanks. The French coastal artillery fires several salvo at 14,000m, against the German troops advancing on the Neufchâtel – Boulogne road. 4 German tanks are destroyed. At the end of the afternoon a German counter-battery fire destroys one of the 138mm guns as well as the command post of the Mont-de-Couple battery. The French troops moves back to Boulogne at 22h00.
A second column of the 2.PzD is blocked by the 3rd battalion of the 65e RI at Questrecques and Wiwignies. During this time the 1.PzD is blocked at Desvres by the 1st battalion of the 65e RI. Several German tanks are destroyed, with 25mm AT guns but also with Molotov cocktails.
On 23rd May, the 2.PzD completes the encirclement of Boulogne. The 1.PzD is again blocked by the 1st battalion of the 65e RI at Alincthun, east of Boulogne and cannot move on until 22h00.
At 2h00, the Germans assault the fort of La Crèche, which falls at 9h45 despite the intervention of 3 French torpedo-boats at 7h45 (Siroco, Mistral and Cyclone). After the German success, 5 French ships (Cyclone, Siroco, Mistral, Léopard and Chacal) and HMS Vimy fire on the fort.
The German troops try to seize the harbor to prevent any reinforcement or evacuation but they are defeated.
The situation is nonetheless critical with the numeric superiority of the Germans. The situation is even worsening more because the British troops are withdrawing at the end of the morning and prepare to be evacuated. The evacuation operation involves only British troops and ships while the French troops continue to fight. 4,368 British soldiers are evacuated between 23rd May afternoon and 24th May at 2h45. 6 out of 7 British destroyers are damaged by the Luftwaffe and the German artillery. The losses are important and the commander of the British destroyer fleet is KIA.
4 extra French torpedo boats arrive to support the defenses : Bourrasque, Frondeur, Orage and Fougueux.
The French fleet air arm T2 and T3 squadrons (based at Cherbourg) attack the German troops with 10 Latécoère 298 seaplanes. 4 aircrafts are shot down. Beside the coastal and anti-submarine patrols, the Latécoère 298 seaplanes were used to harass the German motorized units with their MGs and their 500kg bombload.
The French navy in the air, on the sea and on the ground is largely responsible for the resistance in Boulogne. The German advance is delayed on 23rd May. Only the 2.PzD can advance very slowly. The torpedo boat Orage is sunk by the Luftwaffe.
On 24th May, the situation is critical. The citadel of Boulogne is still strongly held by the French troops but in areas only several groups more or less isolated are still fighting. These groups include 300 remaining British soldiers (Welsh Guards battalion) and 200 French sailors.
The 2.PzD is unable to take the citadel of the city despite 2 assaults at 18h00 and 20h00. Several German tanks are burning.
The torpedo boat Fougueux is damaged by the Luftwaffe. The destroyer Chacal is damaged by the Luftwaffe and sunk by the German artillery. The French navy support is reduced because the ships are too much endangered. During the night, 100 French soldiers try to break the encirclement and to reach Dunkirk but it proves quickly impossible. Only several men hidden in a garage during the night manage to escape from the city on 25th May.
On 25th May, at dawn, the Germans assault the citadel (and its 10 meters thick walls) with ladders, a bit like during the Middle-Age. But the German assault troops are supported by 8.8cm FlaK from 8.FlaK Batterie, a strong artillery support and they are using grenades and flamethrowers.
At 8h30, general Lanquetot is unable to continue the fight and surrenders. Colonel von Vaerts, commander of the 2.Schützen Brigade granted him the honors of war. General Lanquetot meets General Guderian, who tells him that his troops around Boulogne have blocked the whole 2.PzD during 4 days, hampering his plans.
BATTLE OF CALAIS (23th – 27th May)
The French garrison of Calais is commanded by battalion commander Raymond Le tellier and is composed of :
• 202e compagnie de mitrailleuses de position (MG company) (capitaine Chassaigne)
• 1 reduced battalion of the 265e RI (272e demi-brigade), 3 platoons are in Berck and Boulogne
• 2 platoons of the 2e compagnie de DCA (4 twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss Mle1930 AAMGs) (capitaine Herreman)
• The 7th battery of the 402e RADCA (4 "autocanons de 75mm Mle1913/34" - 75mm self-propelled AA guns) (lieutenant Bugnot)
• Various remnants of French units including 200 men from the 187e RALH (heavy horse-drawn artillery regiment), who are probably only armed with carbines and handguns, motorized elements of the 32e GRDI (including motorcycle platoons and 4 Panhard 178 armored cars) and probably a few AMR35 light tanks from the 1e DLM (according to photographic evidences).
• French Navy coastal units in several strongpoints and forts (Bastion 1, Bastion 2, Bastion 11, Bastion 12, Fort Lapin) but the coastal guns are useless since they are directed towards the Channel.
The weak garrison cannot defend the whole area. The defense is mainly anchored in the northern part of Calais (the citadel and the harbor), in the forts and on the Boulogne-Calais road (western part of Calais).
Fort Nieulay is an old abandoned fort on the Coquelles-Calais road. It is initially defended by about 50 French soldiers and the AA platoon of lieutenant Pierru with 2 twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss Mle1930 AAMGs.
One MG platoon (sergent-chef Pruvost) of the "202e compagnie de mitrailleuses de position" is positioned in Bastion 11. The 4 Hotchkiss Mle1914 MGs have the task to control the Sangatte-Calais road and the area between Fort Nieulay and the Channel.
One MG group (2 MGs, sergent Henneton) of the "202e compagnie de mitrailleuses de position" is deployed on the Boulogne-Calais road, about 200m in front of Fort Nieulay.
The 4 75mm self-propelled AA guns are deployed in AT role on the Coquelles-Calais road, about 50m in front of Fort Nieulay.
One platoon of the 265e RI (sous-lieutenant Duez) is deployed in Coquelles in reinforcement of the rifle platoon of lieutenant Hivert. The town is defended by 2 25mm AT guns.
On 22nd and 23rd May, British troops arrive in reinforcement in Calais and general Nicholson takes the command :
• 3rd battalion Royal Tank Regiment (21 Vickers MkVI light tanks and 27 A9/A10/A13 Cruisers = 48 tanks)
• 30th Guards Brigade
--o 2nd battalion the King's Royal Rifle Corps
--o 1st battalion the rifle brigade
--o 1st battalion Queen Victoria's rifles
• Few AT guns from the reduced 299th battery (58th AT Regiment)
• AA elements including 2 batteries of the 1st searchlight regiment and the 6th heavy AA battery
General Nicholson is nonetheless already preparing the evacuation of several auxiliary British troops. The 30th Guards Brigade should have been directed to Boulogne but the city is already encircled and partly occupied by the enemy. The unit remains to defend Calais.
On 23rd May, a squadron of the 3rd RTR is sent in reconnaissance towards Saint Omer but is destroyed around Guînes by the 6.PzD. Other British tanks are destroyed by the 1.PzD around Les Attaques (between Guînes and Calais). An other squadron of the 3rd RTR is sent towards Dunkirk but only 3 Cruiser tanks are not destroyed and will join the French troops at Gravelines on the Aa canal. Just after its landing, the 3rd RTR has only about 20 tanks left. Most of these remaining tanks will simply be scuttled in the harbor of Calais.
The MG group of sergent Henneton is pulling back in Fort Nieulay at 22h00. Captain Tim Munby (with 55 men of the 1st battalion Queen Victoria's rifle and 3 men of the 1st searchlight regiment) is at first deployed on the Boulogne-Calais road but moves back to Fort Nieulay. These men reinforce Fort Nieulay with 6 Bren LMGs and 1 Boys AT rifle. Fort Nieulay is then defended by about 150 French and 75 British soldiers. The main armament consists in 2 twin 13.2mm Hotchkiss AAMGs, 2 8mm Mle1914 HMGs, several Bren and FM 24/29 LMGs and 1 Boys AT rifle.
On 24th May early morning, the 4 75mm self-propelled AA guns are firing on German advanced elements. To avoid the capture the guns are moved back and will not anymore defend Fort Nieulay.
A patrol of 3 British Bren carrriers (second-lieutenant R. Scott) is ambushed by a German anti-tank gun just after Coquelles. Two carriers are destroyed and the third carrier (rifleman Wilson) is damaged and moves back to Fort Nieulay with several WIA. After having crawled during one hour, second-lieutenant R. Scott and one other survivor manage to reach the allied lines.
On the road between Boulogne and Calais, the 2.PzD has to reduce a strongpoint of the French navy reinforced by infantry elements at cap Gris-Nez (capitaine de corvette Ducuing). The strongpoint is armed with 2x 37mm guns, 2x 25mm AT guns and 4x 95mm coastal guns. Unfortunately the 95mm guns are out of ammunition at the arrival of the German troops. Several German attacks are defeated and 2 armored cars are destroyed. The battle lasts all the day. On 25th May, all the guns are out of ammunition and the position is abandoned. The French troops try to join Calais. The capitaine de corvette Ducuing is KIA at 9h00.
The 10.PzD is attacking Calais by the south-west. The Schützen Regiment 86 (rifle regiment) supported by Panzer Aufklärung Abteilung 90 (reconnaissance regiment) and several tanks is in charge of taking Coquelles and Fort Nieulay. After an artillery preparation, the German attack is launched. Under the increasing pressure and the numerous opponents, the platoon of lieutenant Hivert moves back to the cemetery of Coquelles and later to Fort Lapin. The platoon of sous-lieutenant Duez retreats to Fort Nieulay but has to scuttle 1 25mm AT gun. Fort Nieulay is therefore reinforced by several soldiers and 1 25mm AT gun.
From Coquelles, the German troops move north to the coast. The 2 13.2mm Hotchkiss AAMGs at Fort Nieulay open fire on them at 1500m. The fort is then heavily shelled by the German artillery and mortars. The allied troops are at first supported by the Royal Navy but the ships are dispersed by the Luftwaffe and the HMS Wessex is sunk. A first German assault against the fort is defeated. A second German assault, involving this time 50 tanks is launched at 14h00. The German artillery support is very important. The 25mm AT fires all its shells and the heavy AAMGs are destroyed by direct fire. Fort Nieulay falls around 16h00 but the German losses are significant. The Boulogne-Calais road has been blocked during several hours, enabling the preparation of the rear defenses in Calais itself.
At the same time, the Schützen Regiment 86 supported by 3 platoons of the Panzerpionier Battalion 49, 2 medium tanks and several light tanks is engaged in the area between Fort Nieulay and the coast. They assault Fort Lapin and Bastion 12. At 13h00, unable to supply the fort anymore, the commander of Fort-Lapin orders to scuttle its useless guns and to withdraw to Bastion 12. In Bastion 12 the crews are also scuttling their guns which are directed towards the Channel.
Calais is encircled and Bastion 2 on the eastern part of the city fights until the arrival of the Germans at close range. The useless guns are then scuttled and the garrison tries to reach Dunkirk. The 2 commanders of the garrison (enseigne de vaisseau Roulet and lieutenant de vaisseau Lavier) are captured and executed by British troops, who think they would be spies. Enseigne de vaisseau Roulet is hit by 3 bullets but nonetheless survives and manages to escape.
The 10.PzD launches an attack against Calais itself but it is not very successful in front of the stiff resistance of the allied troops. During the night the southern part of Calais is seized, but the northern part, the harbor and the citadel are still strongly held. Guderian wants Calais taken for the 25th May but it will not be the case despite bombings of the Luftwaffe.
On 25th May 4 British destroyers are supporting the allies in Calais. They control only the citadel, the harbor as well as Bastion 11 and 12. At 16h00 a German heavy artillery preparation begins and is followed at 18h00 by an attack of Ju87 dive bombers. The thick and old walls of the citadel resist well but inside the citadel the HQ, the food dump and the ammunition dump are on fire. The water supplies are cut and the hospital is also burning. Nonetheless, the German infantry is once again defeated. The German artillery fires on the citadel all night long.
On 26th May 3 British destroyers and 1 cruiser (HMS Galatea) provide fire support. At 11h30, after strong Gemran artillery preparation, Bastion 11 and 12 are submerged by German infantry and are taken at the beginning of the afternoon.
At 14h30 the citadel is encircled by the 10.PzD. At 15h15 the southern gate is destroyed. The garrison surrenders at 16h00. The harbor will resist in a last stand until 27th May at 1h00, when the patrol boat HMS Gulzar leaves Calais.
BATTLE OF THE AA CANAL (24th – 28th May)
24th May 1940
On 24th May, the 1.PzD, LSSAH regiment and the "Grossdeutschland" regiment (attached to the 1.PzD) assault the allied troops on the Aa canal between Petit-Fort-Philippe and Gravelines (close to the coast) and Watten.
Petit-Fort-Philippe is defended by 78 French sailors manning 2x 95mm coastal guns, 2x 75mm guns and 2 MGs. They are supported by 1 British infantry company.
The other defending elements on the Aa canal from the coast to Watten are roughly all French :
• elements of the 272e demi-brigade (a battalion of the 310e RI)
• elements of the 68e DI
• elements of the 21e DI
South of Watten and especially after Cassel the first line units are mainly British but will not be very concerned by the German attack on the Aa canal.
Gravelines is an old citadel (Vauban style) defended by :
• the 4th battalion of the 310e RI (21st, 22nd and 23rd companies) from the 272e demi-brigade
• the 1st battalion of the 48e RI (21e DI)
• elements of the 18e GRCA (including one 25mm AT gun)
• 1 battery of 155mm L Mle1932 Schneider guns from the French Navy (with 3 Somua MCG 4 halftracks for each gun)
• 3 British cruiser tanks from the 3rd RTR
From Gravelines to Holque (north of Watten) there are :
• the 18e GRCA which has organized many blockades on the bridges.
• 3 battalions of the 137e RI (21e DI)
• the 402e RADCA with its autocanons de 75mm Mle1913/34 (75mm self-propelled AA guns)
In Watten and Watten hill (72m high, good observation post) :
• 1 British engineer detachment (probably from 48th ID) in charge of blowing the bridges
• 1 cavalry platoon from 27e GRDI
• motorized elements of the 59e GRDI (capitaine Lemaire) (including a weapons platoon on the hill)
• 3x 25mm SA34/37 AT guns from the divisional AT company of the 21e DI, on Watten hill
• 2 companies of the 14e RTT (Régiment Territorial de Travailleurs - a worker regiment)
• north of Watten there are some elements of the 248e RI defending the lock on the Aa canal
• south of Watten in the Ham woods there is the 3rd company of the instruction battalion of the 110e RI (21/110) (commandant Ancelot)
More on the east and south-east, behind the Ham woods there are :
• Other companies of the 21/110 and elements of the 59e GRDI in the woods and in the town of Lederzeele
• 2 companies of the 21/119 (instruction battalion of the 119e RI - commandant Laplane) in the towns of Mengat, Noordpeene, and Wemaerscappel
The Aa sector is supported by French artillery, elements of the 35e RA (6 batteries) and 235e RA (5 batteries) deployed around Bourbourg. There are also 2 mobile batteries from the French Navy with 8x 155mm L Mle1932 Schneider guns.
The Aa sector is supported by French artillery, elements of the 35e RA (6 batteries) and 235e RA (5 batteries) deployed around Bourbourg. There are also 2 mobile batteries from the French Navy with 8x 155mm L Mle1932 Schneider guns.
Further south, between Watten and Cassel the day is rather quite. There are only skirmishes between the 2.PzD and the position of Watten. The BEF is deployed rougly from Cassel and further south.
25th May 1940
On 25th May there is a French counter-attack launched at 09h00 in the Saint-Georges area (north of Watten). It is led by commandant Miquel with the II/137e RI supported by 5 Hotchkiss H35 tanks. Despite the German artillery barrage and the attack of about 40 German aircrafts, the French troops advance, proceeded by the bombardment of the 5th battery of the 35e RA. At 12h00 the German troops of the "Grossdeutschland" regiment in Saint-Georges are forced to retreat and the town is taken. A new defensive line is deployed on the heights (on the railway) with communications with French troops on the left (I/137e RI in Bourbourg) and on the right (I/48e RI).
After the failure in front of Gravelines, the Germans attack now the area of Watten. The hill, the town itself and the woods south of Watten are heavily bombarded by the German artillery. At 16h00 the assault is led by the LSSAH regiment towards the south and the east of Watten, infiltrating in the Ham woods (south of Watten). The allies are encircled in Watten and fight for each house. Only the elements of the 59e GRDI, which are motorized, manage to break the encirclement but Capitaine Lemaire is heavily wounded.
The 21/110 in the woods of Ham is pulled back in the woods. Supported by reinforcements from the 59e GRDI coming from Lederzeele and thanks to the French artillery, the German advance is stopped. At the night the Germans have established a bridgehead east of the Aa canal and control Watten hill.
26th May 1940
Two French counter-attacks are planned for the 26th May :
• One led by commandant Ancelot, the objective is Watten hill.
• The other on the Rubrouck-Volkerinkove-Wulverdinghe-Watten axis led by lieutenant-colonel Lefèvre with the II/65e RI (commandant Alkermann) reinforced by 1 Somua S35 tank and a two 105mm guns from the 115e RA.
The first counter-attack is launched at 5h00. Proceeded by 3 motorcyclists of the 59e GRDI, elements of the 21/110 advance rapidly towards Watten hill, the German hidden in the Ham woods react intensively. Watten hill is shortly taken except the tower on the top but the situation is not secure enough with German troops in the woods. The French troops are too isolated and move back to the area of Lederzeele.
The 2nd company of the 21/110, which is still in Saint-Momelin, is heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. At 16h00 this company is assaulted by German troops and resists until 20h00 before retreating to Lederzeele.
The second counter-attack can be launched only at 16h45 because the troops had first to move to the area under German air attacks. The II/65e RI advances rapidly towards Watten. The Somua tank moves continuously forth and back, firing on every German troops appearing. The tank destroys even a German aircraft which has made an emergency landing east of Watten. In the woods of Watten the Germans are pulled back and the French battalion seized many German equipments and weapons but they don't manage to take Watten hill. Outflanking the hill by the south, the French battalion moves towards the Aa canal, but it is blocked by intense fire coming from the Eperlecques forest. At the night the attack is stopped and new defensive positions are organized.
27th May 1940
On 27th May 1940 the German offensive goes on. The whole artillery of the XIX.Armee-Korps (mot.) enters in action. Around 12h00 the French position in Saint-Georges (II/137e RI) and Bourbourg (I/137e RI) are attacked by German infantry and tanks. At Saint-Georges the II/137e RI resists well, counter-attacks and takes some POWs. During the afternoon the 2 towns are massively bombarded.
The main German attack is directed south of Bourbourg. At 10h00, after a violent artillery preparation the "Grossdeutschland" regiment, supported by tanks of the 1.PzD, assaults the III/137e RI (commandant Guilloz) deployed around Cappellebrouck and Pont-l'Abesse. The French troops resist and stay on their positions. At the beginning of the afternoon the German attack is renewed at the junction of the I/137e RI and the III/137e RI, between Bourbourg and Cappellebrouck. The German tanks break through the French lines then join the Cassel road and head south, reaching the Haute-Colme canal at Looberghe.
At 15h00 Cappellebrouck is encircled and is taken, at 15h15 commandant Guilloz with its III/137e RI moves back to the canal in difficult conditions, having to fight while retreating but 3 German tanks are destroyed by a 25mm AT gun. Having reached the canal the French troops cross a wooden bridge and blow it.
The III/137e RI continues to retreat, still attacked by infiltrated German troops. At 18h30, south of Drincham, they are attacked on their rears by German units with tanks coming from Looberghe on the Cassel road. The last survivors of the III/137e RI are captured after a last and desperate stand.
The offensive is also intense more south : the XIV.AK (mot.) (with the 20.ID (mot.)), the LSSAH and the 6.PzD attack Cassel and Bergues on a 18km wide front, after a heavy artillery preparation. This sector is defended by colonel Compagnon (HQ in Zeggzescappel) with :
1) on the right flank lieutenant-colonel Perinel commanding :
• I/48e RI (chef d'escadron Bailly) defending Bollezeele
• III/310e RI (just arrived in the area after a forced march of 35km) (3 companies, north east of Bollezeele)
• CID/21e DI (Centre d'Instruction Divisionnaire = instruction center of the 21st infantry division)
• II/65e RI (in the woods east of Watten)
2) on the left flank lieutenant-colonel Lefèvre commanding :
• 21/129 in Nordpeene
• 21/110 in Lederzeele
The artillery in this area consists in :
• two 75mm Mle1897 guns from the 4th battery of the 35e RA
• the 1/115e RA (105mm guns)
• Groupement Lavergne (3/35e RA and 6/235e RA).
The sector is also supported by 2 Somua S35 tanks and 3 "light tanks" (probably Hotchkiss tanks).
The 59e GRDI is retreating from its previous position and elements are deploying in Lederzeele.
On the right flank, the II/65e RI is attacked at 6h30 on its front and flanks. Supported by the two Somua tanks the battalion resists well but later, to avoid being encircled, it moves back in Merckeghem and the surrounding woods.
Behind the II/65e RI, the I/48e RI improvises a new defensive line in Bollezeele beside the 6th company of the II/65e RI and 3 companies of VI/ 310e RI. The French units resist very well, blocking important German means during several hours. But at 17h00 they have to retreat towards Eringhem and Zeggerscappel.
In the centre, the 21/110 receives the main shock at 6h30 at Lederzeele but resists very well thanks to the two 75mm guns of the 35e RA and elements of the 59e GRDI (one motorcyclists platoon and one MG platoon). To avoid the encirclement, the battalion moves methodically back on the Saint-Omer - Dunkirk axis. At 12h00 it is at Broxeele and after several rearguards combats they reach Zegerscappel in the afternoon.
On the left flank, the 21/129 and elements of the British 44th ID, which are still more on the east are attacked by numerous German tanks at 7h30. The allied lines are pierced in many areas. The battalion retreats in Herzeele after high losses.
At the end of the afternoon the general retreat on the second defensive line from Drincham to Herzeele is achieved. The battle of the Aa is finished. The stiff resistance allowed the 68e DI to install good defensive positions on the rear. At 18h00 the SFF (Secteur Fortifié des Flandres) which is in command of all the allied units in the area receives the order to break all the engagements in the line of the towns and to move all the units north of the Basse-Colme canal. This retreat is achieved during 27th - 28th May night, under the protection of the 137e RI.
BATTLE OF LILLE (28th May – 1st June)
The successful evacuation of the BEF would probably not have been possible without the stiff French resistance around Lille, which blocked 7 German divisions. From 28th May to 1st June, about 40,000 French troops led by general Molinié (also commander of the 25e DIM) held about 800 German tanks and 110,000 soldiers from the 4.PzD, 5.PzD, 7.PzD, 7.ID, 217.ID, 253.ID and 267.ID. The French troops are composed of various more or less complete units :
• Secteur Fortifié de l'Escaut and Secteur Fortifié de Maubeuge with the I/54e RIF and elements of the 84e RIF and 87e RIF
• 12e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 106e RI
--o 3e GRDI
• 1e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 1e RI except 400 men, who are in Dunkirk
--o 2 battalions of the 110e RI
--o 150 men of the 43e RI
• 4e DI (infantry division)
--o II/72e RI, III/72e RI and 1 company of the I/72e RI
--o III/124e RI and 1 company of the I/124e RI
--o 29e RAD
--o VI/229e RALD
--o Engineer elements
• 15e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 4e RI
--o 27e RI except a part of the I/27e RI which is in Dunkirk
--o 134e RI
--o 4e GRDI except the 1st motorized squadron which is in Dunkirk
--o 1e RAD
--o 201e RAD
--o Engineer elements
• 25e DIM (motorized infantry division)
--o 38e RI except some element which are in Dunkirk
--o III/92e RI and half of the I/92e RI, the rest of the regiment is in Dunkirk
--o 121e RI
--o Elements of the 5e GRDI
--o II/16e RAD and III/16e RAD, the I/16e RAD is in Dunkirk
--o V/216e RALD
--o Engineer elements
• 2e DINA (North-African infantry division)
--o 13e RTA
--o II/22e RTA (the 2 other battalions are in Dunkirk)
--o 11e RZ
--o Horse-mounted squadron of the 92e GRDI
--o 40e RAD
--o V/240e RALD
• 5e DINA (North-African infantry division)
--o 14e RZ
--o I/24e RTT and II/24e RTT
--o Elements of the 95e GRDI
--o 22e RACD
--o Engineer elements
• 1e DM (Moroccan division)
--o 1 battalion of the 1e RTM, the rest of the regiment is in Dunkirk
--o 1 battalion of the 2e RTM
--o 1 battalion of the 7e RTM
--o Horse-mounted elements of the 80e GRDI
--o Elements of the 64e RAD
--o Engineer elements
These French troops fought encircled until all their ammunition was used and led several counter-attacks, the commander of 253.ID, general Kühne, was even captured. The Germans let the defenders parade in the streets after the battle granted them the honors of war to salute their fierce resistance. Even Churchill in his memories recognized the role of the troops in Lille.
THE LAST DAYS OF THE ALLIED POCKET AROUND DUNKIRK (27th May – 4th June)
On 25th May, Lord Gort decided unilaterally to retreat all the British troops to Dunkirk. Initially the Belgian army is defending the eastern part of the pocket but it surrenders on 28th May and the size of the pocket is reduced. The eastern part is then defended by the French 12e DIM and British troops.
The British evacuation begins on 27th May but on 30th May the British troops are still playing a role in the defense of the pocket on the eastern part with the French 12e DIM. This role will nonetheless very quickly decrease each day, the troops having the main task to retreat. Nonetheless, until 1st June there are still very small British elements on the south-eastern part of the pocket.
On 30th May the main troops defending the Dunkirk pocket are 100,000 French troops commanded by general Fagalde and admiral Abrial. These men are from various units, often very reduced units :
• Organic elements of various armies and corps (1st Army, 7th Army, Ist, IIIrd, IVth and Vth Army corps), including the 18e GRCA and 4 tank battalions attached to the 1st and 7th Armies.
• Divisions :
--o 1e, 5e, 9e, 12e, 15e and 25e DIM
--o 4e, 32e and 43e DI
--o 1e DM
--o 1e, 2e and 5e DINA
• French cavalry corps with the remnants of the 1e DLM, 2e DLM and 3e DLM. The 39 last operational tanks (21 Somua S35 and 18 Hotchkiss H35/39 tanks) are grouped under the command of squadron commander Marchal. They will play a decent role in the defense of the allied pocket. Many times their intervention even in small numbers of 1-5 tanks allowed to defeat German attacks on the pocket and to delay the fate of the trapped troops. The last Somua S35 tanks are out of fuel and scuttled beginning June.
• Territorial units :
--o Secteur Fortifié de l'Escaut (SFE)
--o Secteur Fortifié de Maubeuge (SFM)
--o 11th regional infantry regiment
--o Cavalry depot of the 1st region
• Various French Navy ground troops (including 2 mobile batteries of 155mm L Mle1932 guns – 8 guns)
• Main AA defenses
--o 8 groups of 75mm self-propelled guns (96 guns)
--o 4 groups of towed 75mm AA guns (48 guns)
--o 12 batteries of 25mm AA guns (45 guns)
--o at least 1 battery of 90mm AA guns (4 guns) from the French Navy
--o AA elements of the 1st region (DAT)
There are also about 20,000 British troops, elements from the 1st, 5th and 42nd divisions for a total of 120,000 men.
Beginning June 1940, about 30,000-40,000 French troops constitute the very last barrier to cover the evacuation of the BEF against about 130,000 German troops. The main elements involved in this last stand are from these main units :
• The 12e DIM (general Janssen) reduced to about 8,000 men
• The 68e DI (general Beaufrère)
• The tank group Marchal with the last tanks of the cavalry corps
• Reconnaissance groups (92e GRDI, 7e GRDI and 18e GRCA)
• Engineer battalion of the 60e DI
• Elements of the 32e DI
• Various units and remnants of units attached to the Secteur Fortifié des Flandres (SFF)
During 9 days (27th May to 4th June) these forces will prevent the German troops to stop the evacuation and to reduce the allied pocket. The priority of the British HQ will quickly be to evacuate as fast and as much as possible. The French HQ priority is to fight as long as possible to gain time for the troops, which will face all the German troops after Dunkirk. This resistance played an important role in the success of the evacuation of the BEF. A total of 123,095 French troops and 338,095 British troops are evacuated from Dunkirk. The French Navy (300 French military and civilian ships are engaged and 60 lost) alone evacuated 68,999 soldiers (20,525 French and 48,474 British soldiers). The success of the evacuation in the air and on the sea is widely due to British means. In Dunkirk the BEF abandoned 76,000 tons of ammunition ; 600,000 tons of supplies and fuel ; 1,200 field guns ; 1,250 anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns ; 6,400 anti-tank rifles ; 11,000 machineguns and 75,000 vehicles. On 9th June 52,669 of the evacuated French troops are back in France and about half of them will continue to fight until the end of the 1940 western campaign.
To defend the 500 km of the so-called "Weygand Line", from the North Sea to the Rhine, there remains only 63 divisions (59 French, 2 Polish depending from the French army and 2 British divisions) to stop 136 German ones, including 10 Panzerdivisionen, 6 motorized infantry divisions and 1 cavalry division. With such means only a frontline on the Somme and Aisne Rivers can be defended. Mathematically the campaign is lost, but the French troops will offer a fierce resistance during June 1940, inflicting heavy losses to the Germans and later to the Italians, who declared war to an already beaten opponent.
Sources used"Blitzkrieg à l’Ouest, Mai-Juin 40" (Jean-Paul Pallud)
"Comme des lions – mai/juin 1940 – le sacrifice de l'armée française" (Dominique Lormier)
"Des forêts d'Alsace aux chemins de Normandie – La 43e division d'infanterie dans la guerre, 3 septembre 1939 – 26 juin 1940" (Thibault Richard)
"Le 7e GRDI dans les combats du 10 mai au 4 juin 1940" (Laurent Soyer)
"Le mythe de la guerre-éclair – la campagne de l'Ouest de 1940" (Karl-Heinz Frieser)
"Mai - Juin 1940 : les combattants de l'honneur" (Jean Delmas, Paul Devautour and Eric Lefèvre)
39/45 maganzine n°164 (February 2000)
Hors-Série Historica n°80 "Dunkerque 1940" (part 1) (Heimdal)
Hors-Série Historica n°81 "Dunkerque 1940" (part 2) (Heimdal)
Militaria Magazine Hors-Série n°17 "Dunkerque juin 40" (Histoire & Collections)