By the 20th May 1940 (just ten days after the invasion of France) the German army had driven a corridor across northern France and through to the sea at Abbeville and the Somme estuary.
This audacious move had split the Allied armies into two separate parts. A large part of the French army with a few units of the BEF on a line defending the Somme and the French 1re Armée, BEF and Belgian Army sealed into an ever decreasing pocket in Artois and Flanders.
On the 21st May the British, who were still holding Arras against Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division, attempted to relieve pressure on the Arras garrison. The attack on the west of the town failed and the new French Commander in Chief, Général Maxim Weygand (Maréchal Foch’s Chief of Staff in 1918) ordered a withdrawal to a defensive position along the Escaut River.
Weygand was considering a pincer movement north-south to cut through and disrupt the Panzers’ lines of communication. Such a move had also been considered by von Rundstedt and the effort by the British at Arras had greatly disconcerted the German Staff.
The fly in the ointment of Allied Plans was the battered Belgian Army, created for defence and now totally outmatched by the forces ranged against it. Weygand wanted the Belgians to pull back to a line on the Yser (as in 1914) but the Belgian King and his Generals did not believe that they could carry out such a manoeuvre without the army falling to pieces.
If the Belgian Army failed to hold, the British flank would be thrown wide open and Lord Gort VC commanding the BEF realised that unless the French could bolster the hole the BEF would be forced to retreat to the coast and the only port still available — Dunkerque. They were already cut off from their supplies and by the 23rd May were on half rations.
The French 1re Armée was badly tired having taken the brunt of the fighting and were known by everyone (except apparently Weygand) to have little means available for any great pincer movement. At this critical moment Général Billotte commanding the northern Group of Armies was fatally injured in a motor accident and it took days for the ponderous French war machine to have him officially replaced.
The British tank attack at Arras had however caused the Germans to reconsider their lines of communication and Hitler agreed with von Runstedt that a pause against the northern front would take place. This would not only give time to refit and re-muster units before cleaning up towards Dunkerque but would also prepare the German Army for its next stage: the drive south towards Paris.
Although French tanks and motorised infantry were holding their positions near Mont St Eloi, Lord Gort realised by the evening of the 23rd May that the Arras Garrison was only 8 kilometres away from being surrounded. The order to pull out through the thin corridor still open to them was given and the Welsh Guards fought a fighting retreat out of Arras.
There is a memorial plaque to the Welsh Guards in the Abbey Gardens at Arras
The move in the early hours of the 24th May had been inevitable given the circumstances but Général Weygand took news of the move as a : retirement towards the ports. This in despite of the fact that the 5th and 50th Divisions were both preparing for Weygand’s supposed pincer movement.
Ultimately, what Weygand thought was neither here nor there because within 24 hours Lord Gort was informed of the imminent collapse of the Belgian Army. The direction of the war was about to be changed.
At 1800 hours on the 25th May Lord Gort took the decision which would allow the United Kingdom to continue the struggle against Hitler. He ordered his 5th and 50th Divisions north onto the old Ypres battlefields to plug the gap created by the Belgian Army’s movements away towards Antwerpen.
The British now held the top of the right hand strut of the Allied lines, The French 1re Armée the bottom right hand corner and then the BEF a line running from near Arras along the canals to the sea at Gravelines.
With the Germans capture of St Valery at the mouth of the Somme the three ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkerque became the only means of supplying the BEF.
In 1066 William of Normandy had set sail for England from St Valery.
The 20th Guards Brigade was dispatched to Boulogne on the 21st where measures were already being taken to defend the town. At Samer, to the south, the French 21e Division d’Infanterie were in theory preparing defences, but the soldiers from various training units were caught by the rapidity in which the 2nd Panzer Division swung northwards, and were either overcome or forced back on Boulogne.
By the evening of the 22nd May the 2nd Irish Guards on the southern flank of the port and the 2nd Bn Welsh Guards were already in action against the 2nd Panzers. Boulogne was under siege.
Weight of armour and numbers eventually told and under the guns of the Royal Navy and French ships an evacuation was begun. The French garrison from the 21e DI continued to fight on in the upper town (which is still encircled by its old town wall) but with their surrender on the 25th May Boulogne was in German hands.
It would be true to say that the French soldiers felt that the British had simply packed their bags and run off.
The defence of Calais turned into one of those gloriously muddled lost causes that the British excel at. Conflicting orders by Staff who were not on the spot (indeed at times not even in the same country) only helped add to the confusion, but the soldiers did their duty to the last.
As the 1st and 10th Panzers were moving north towards Calais on the 22nd May the 1st Queen Victoria’s Rifles arrived in the port. A territorial unit they were soon followed by soldiers and tanks from the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment.
Having initially been ordered to reinforce the garrison at Boulogne to the south-west the 3rd RTR were then ordered south-east towards St Omer. The reconnaissance patrols sent out along that road were intercepted by the 6th Panzers and were roughly handled. By the time that the main body had turned towards St Omer they in turn encountered the 1st Panzers and were forced back on Calais.
The Regiment had sustained considerable losses before any real fighting had taken place.
When, the following afternoon the remainder of 30th Brigade arrived in Calais, they were told to be ready and prepared to move south to Boulogne, then re-ordered to prepare the defences of Calais and finally some hours later told that they were required to escort ammunition to Dunkerque.
The 3rd RTR were sent out to reconnoitre the road to Dunkerque and whilst a few tanks got through the reality was now realised that Calais was surrounded.
The situation soon became as desperate as it had been at Boulogne with the port being shelled from all sides except the sea. The only way to save the troops was to evacuate and Brigadier Nicholson began shortening his line of defence in preparation for the inevitable withdrawal.
Then, word came through from London. The French were intent on resisting to the last and for the sake of Allied solidarity Nicholson must make the same stand. Having evacuated at Boulogne it would be unseemly to do so at every opportunity.
Two trains of thought were in action here. The French making a stand to the end in defence of their country and the British looking not just to save its Army but also thinking about its one great asset — the ability of the Royal Navy to transport men almost anywhere in the world.
Throughout the 25th May the fighting in the outskirts of Calais became increasingly bitter as metre by metre the encircling Germans took possession of the town.
The British and French troops were running short of ammunition, and food and water were becoming scarce. The supply ships which had been in the port had never been fully unloaded and with the imminent fall of the town had been ordered back to England.
With the capture of Boulogne the Germans were by the 26th May in a position to bring up further artillery and dive bombers. That afternoon the Calais Citadel was taken capturing Brigadier Nicholson and his Headquarters.
The fighting in the streets continued for a while longer but Calais was taken.
In helping to hold off a sizeable portion of the German Forces the garrison had helped the BEF and French 1re Armée prepare the way for the defence of Dunkerque and its beaches.