Friday 20 May 2011

Escape to Victory (1)

The title of this week's blog doesn't refer to the cheesy 1981 movie starring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pele and sundry Ipswich Town footballers of the day, which quite possibly ranks as one of the worst war films of all time. Neither does it relate to those brave men who escaped Nazi Prisoner of War camps to return to Great Britain, but covers the great evacuations of May and June 1940, which enabled the British Army to escape home from France and thus become the nucleus of those forces which would return in 1944 to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny.

Even those with only a passing interest in the history of the Second World War are probably aware of Dunkirk, the French Channel port through which nearly 200,000 British and 110,000 French troops were evacuated between May 27th and June 4th 1940 but what is not so well known is that although Dunkirk saw by far the largest number of Allied troops evacuated from the clutches of the advancing Germans, it was by no means the only evacuation from the French coast and was just one of a series that saw over half a million mainly British and French servicemen evacuated to Britain, as well as significant numbers of Poles and Czechs who had made their way to France in order to continue the war.

The first of these remarkable mass withdrawals came at the channel port of Boulogne. This port did not originally contain a British garrison but was one of the primary ports used to maintain supplies to the British Expeditionary Force or BEF as it was known, which had been sent to France on the outbreak of war in 1939 to stand alongside the French Army, in what was widely seen as being a repeat of the static warfare seen during 1914-18. By the spring of 1940, this force was some 300,000 strong but although numerically strong, many of the units were still woefully undertrained and poorly equipped despite the best efforts of rising stars of the British Army such as Generals Alan Brooke, Bernard Montgomery and Harold Alexander.

On May 10th, the long awaited German offensive against the Low Countries and France began and despite the early success of the BEF in holding the Germans in their sector, it soon became apparent that the French Army was a shadow of it's former self during the Great War and the British were soon hard pressed to stem the relentless German advance. The French Army was in disarray and coupled with the imminent collapse of the Belgians, the BEF was dangerously exposed and a withdrawal to the coast soon became the only option open to the British if they were going to stand any chance of not losing their Army.

To return to Boulogne, by May 21st the Germans had reached the French coast near Abbeville and became clear that the British were in a race against time to reach and hold their section of the Channel coast before the Germans could complete an encircling operation and cut off the BEF from any chance of escape. It was originally intended to evacuate the BEF from all of the northern Channel ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk but the speed of events would ensure that Dunkirk and it's adjacent beaches would be the centre of the withdrawal.

Although Boulogne did not contain a British garrison, it did contain a 1,500 strong contingent of No. 5 Group Auxiliary Pioneer Corps, who had been engaged on dock labour work unloading the various cargo ships supplying the BEF. These men were largely unarmed and not trained in combat but were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Donald Dean VC, who had won this highest award for bravery with the Royal West Kent Regiment in the Great War. Dean was a determined commander and although many of the Pioneers in Boulogne were later reported to have been ill-disciplined and disorderly, the men under Dean's command were made of different stuff. Despite having no anti-tank guns, they improvised road blocks with abandoned lorries and petrol bombs and thus managed to hold off the German tanks long enough to enable them to withdraw to the inner harbour to join up with the Brigade of Guards who had been sent across the Channel to stiffen the port's defences whilst the port was evacuated. The 20th Guards Brigade, comprising the 2nd Irish Guards and 2nd Welsh Guards had originally been sent in the hope of not only holding the town but also of linking up with the British garrison at the neighbouring port of Calais

This idea very quickly proved to be wishful thinking in the extreme and shortly after first light on the 23rd May, the Germans completed their encirclement of the port when they captured the Fort de la Creche. The Germans then mounted an attack on the main defences of Boulogne but although heavily pressed, the Irish and Welsh Guards held firm, supported by makeshift platoons of the Pioneers who had been armed with rifles taken from the wounded and from those who had already managed to embark for England.

The evacuation was now in full swing and as always, it was the Royal Navy that came to the rescue with a succession of destroyers entering the port whilst under heavy fire from the German armour, which was now well within firing range of the harbour. During the late afternoon, whilst HM Ships Keith and Vimy were alongside the Gare Maritime embarking a mass of troops and evacuees, they also came under air attack from Stuka dive bombers. By a miracle and also the intervention of the RAF, no hits were registered on the British destroyers but another hazard was about to manifest itself. Due to the state of the tide, the bridges of the British vessels were exposed above the level of the quayside and as the air raid was clearing, Captain David Simson of the Keith fell dead, hit by a German sniper located in an adjacent hotel that overlooked the harbour. The enemy was moving ever closer and shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Commander Donald, commanding officer of the Vimy was also hit, as were several others - both officers and men of the destroyers and also their passengers. The destroyers then left port under the command of their First Lieutenants and on their passage back to Dover performed the melancholy task of burying their dead at sea.

The Navy was undeterred and as these destroyers left, their place was taken by HMS Whitshed (pictured) and HMS Vimiera which began the task of embarking the Irish Guards and Brigade HQ whilst at the same time disembarking a demolition party from the Royal Engineers tasked with the destruction of the port's facilities so as to deny their use to the Germans. Following the embarkation of these men, it was the turn of the Welsh Guards to leave and two further destroyers, Venomous and Wild Swan moved into the port to fulfil this task. A third destroyer, the Venetia was also ordered in but as she entered the harbour was struck hard by German artillery. It was clear that the Germans wanted to sink her in the harbour entrance, thus blocking the port and bottling up the remaining destroyers inside. By skilled ship handling though, she was able to manouvre full astern out of the harbour and on fire aft, managed to escape back to England.

The Germans were now getting ever closer and as enemy columns were seen moving through the town, the destroyers deployed their 4.7 inch (120mm) main armament against the Panzers with absolutely devastating effect. It was probably the first effective anti-tank fire that the Germans had encountered; at least one tank was seen to somersault through the air following a near miss from a 4.7 inch shell and two tanks were obliterated by direct hits from HMS Whitshed. According to one eye witness who saw the destruction of the tanks:

"The shout of triumph that went up from the embarked troops was more suitable for the football ground than the field of battle and order had to be restored by megaphone, also at point blank range!"

Soon after 2100, Venomous and Wild Swan slipped their moorings and left the harbour. Even so, British troops still remained within Boulogne - many Welsh Guardsmen including almost three companies who had become separated from the main body of the Guards Brigade during the fighting and about 800 Pioneers remained along with the Sappers of the Demolition Parties as well as some wounded men being cared for by the Padre and Medical Officer of the Pioneers. So, at about 2230 the destroyer HMS Windsor entered the harbour and took off 600 men including most of the Pioneers and Demolition Parties and at 0140 the following morning, HMS Vimiera, making her second trip entered the port and embarked an incredible 1,400 men in just over an hour - the last to embark was the redoubtable Lieutenant Colonel Dean, who only just made it; he had been knocked out by a nearby explosion but had recovered just in time to make it onboard. He had wanted to return to the port to bring more men who were taking cover underneath railway wagons but had been dissuaded from doing so by Lieutenant Commander Roger Hicks in command of Vimiera, whose ship was jammed full and who understandably wanted to sail before daybreak.

Vimiera then returned to England in a dangerously overloaded condition. Sadly, the three companies of Welsh Guards - just over 300 men - began to arrive just after Vimiera sailed but even then could still have been saved had a further destroyer, HMS Wessex not been diverted to Calais at the last moment. No further vessels were sent to Boulogne and these fine soldiers mostly all became prisoners of war for five long years. Despite this, some 4,300 men had been evacuated from Boulogne, although the garrison along the coast at Calais was to be largely sacrificed to the Prisoner of War camps in an attempt to buy time for the main evacuation at Dunkirk.

As mentioned earlier, Operation 'Dynamo' as the embarkation at Dunkirk was officially titled, is well known but in the next part of this article, we shall take a look at the post-Dunkirk evacuations which brought a further 140,000 British and 46,500 Allied servicemen back to these shores but which also brought Britain's worst disaster at sea.

Published Sources:

B.E.F. Ships before, at and after Dunkirk - John de S Winser, World Ship Society 1999
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man - Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Viking 2006
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory - Major General Julian Thompson, Sidgwick & Jackson 2008

V and W Class Destroyers 1917-45 - Anthony Preston, Macdonald & Son 1971

With Ensigns Flying - David A Thomas - William Kimber 1958

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