Battle of Boulogne (1940)
The Battle of Boulogne was a battle for the port and town of Boulogne-sur-Mer during the German blitzkrieg which overran northern France in 1940. It occurred at the same time as the Siege of Calais and immediately preceded Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force through Dunkirk.
Boulogne-sur-Mer - along with Calais, Dunkirk and Dieppe - was one of the Channel Ports on the French side at the narrowest part of the English Channel. During the Phoney War period, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been supplied through ports further to the west, such as Le Havre and Cherbourg, but the Channel Ports had been used for communication and troop rotations. After the start of the Battle of France and the subsequent withdrawal of the BEF through Belgium and into northern France, it became clear that fewer logistic troops would be required as the lines of communication grew shorter, and the British began to withdraw surplus manpower through Boulogne and Calais. On 17 May, General Douglas Brownrigg, the Adjudent-General of the BEF, moved the Rear General Headquarters (GHQ) from Arras to apparent safety in Boulogne, without informing his French liaison officers. This did nothing to close the growing rift between the Allies. To protect Boulogne from air attack, some anti-aircraft guns and searchlights had arrived from England on 20 May.
On the same day, the leading elements of the German XIX Army Corps, commanded by Heinz Guderian, had reached the coast of the English Channel at Abbeville, thereby cutting off the BEF from its depots in western France. The importance of holding the Channel Ports for resupply, and if necessary, evacuation, now became apparent to the British high command.
Being a port, the defence of Boulogne was the responsibility of the French Navy who manned some 19th century forts that protected the harbour. The garrison was commanded by Commandant Dutfoy de Mont de Benque. Early in the morning of 21 May, he ordered the naval garrison of 1,100 men retire behind the medieval walls of the Haute Ville or "Old Town". After hearing some alarming reports of the approach of a large German force, he then ordered his men to disable the coastal guns sited in the forts and to head for the harbour for evacuation. Before the order was countermanded by Admiral François Darlan, Dutfoy and most of his garrison had left, leaving many of the big guns unusable.
Part of 20th Guards Brigade, consisting of the 2nd Battalion, Welsh Guards and 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards, were in training at Camberley on 21 May, when they were ordered to embark for France under the command of Brigadier William Fox-Pitt. Together with the Brigade Anti-Tank Company and a battery of 69th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, they arrived in Boulogne on the morning of 22 May aboard three merchant ships and the destroyer HMS Vimy, having been escorted by the destroyers HMS Whitshed and HMS Vimiera. The French 21st Infantry Division under General Pierre Louis Félix Lanquetot was to hold a line about 10 miles south of the town; three battalions were already in place. Further British reinforcements, including a regiment of cruiser tanks, were expected from Calais on the following day.
Fox-Pitt deployed his men around the edges of the town, the Irish Guards holding the right flank and the Welsh Guards the left. Some road blocks had already been established by Royal Engineers and anti-aircraft personnel along the roads approaching from the south. There were a further 1,500 largely untrained men of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC) in the town awaiting evacuation and some French and Belgian training units; few of these were of any military use.
Guderian had decided that the German attack on Boulogne was to be undertaken by 2nd Panzer Division which was under the command of Lieutenant-General Rudolf Veiel. He split the division into two columns, one of which would circle round the town and attack from the north. The other column made contact first in the early afternoon of 22 May, when they encountered the headquarters company of the 48th Infantry Regiment, the only troops of 21st Division who had actually arrived between the Germans and Boulogne. The small French force, that included clerks, drivers and signallers, set up two 75 mm field guns and two 25 mm anti-tank guns to cover the cross roads at Nesles where they delayed the Germans for almost two hours until they were outflanked.
The same column arrived at the outskirts of Boulogne that evening, and started shelling and probing of the Irish Guards' positions in the south of the town. In the early hours of the next morning, more serious fighting developed as the Germans attacked the Welsh Guards' positions along the coast from the north east. General Brownrigg, who was Fox-Pitt's only communication link with England, evacuated himself and his headquarters staff at 03:00 on the destroyer HMS Verity, without informing the Guards. At 04:00, Fox-Pitt was informed that the French 21st Division had fallen back from their blocking position after an armoured assault. Part of the division were still arriving by train and were machine-gunned by German tanks.
As the fighting developed, a gap appeared between the two Guards battalions, so 800 AMPC troops were rushed into the breach; a further 150 were sent to bolster the Welshmen. By 10:00 a further German attack from the south had forced the Irish Guards back into the town. At midday, HMS Vimy arrived carrying a naval demolition and shore party (codenamed "Force Buttercup") and started the evacuation of the wounded and AMPC. Orders were passed on that the Guards were to hold Boulogne at all costs, as radio contact with England had been lost earlier in the day. During the afternoon, there was a lull in the fighting which presaged the arrival of a heavy Luftwaffe air raid; it was partly frustrated by Royal Air Force Spitfires from 92 Squadron. However, the commanders of both British destroyers were killed by bomb splinters and two French destroyers bombarding offshore were hit by Stuka dive bombers; Frondeur was disabled and Orage had to be scuttled.
Shortly before the air raid, the destroyer HMS Keith berthed in the harbour and began embarking AMPC troops. Before 18:00 Keith had received orders for a full evacuation of the British force, a further five destroyers were either en route or were standing off Boulogne giving gunfire support. Fox-Pitt decided to continue with the AMPC evacuation while the Guards would conduct a fighting withdrawal to the harbour. and HMS Vimiera and HMS Whitshed replaced Vimy and Keith, and embarked most of the Welsh Guards.
HMS Venomous and HMS Wild Swan arrived and began embarking "Force Buttercup" and the Irish Guardsmen. The Germans had taken up positions overlooking the harbour, and conducted a furious firefight with the Guards and the ships, which were using all of their weapons to try to suppress the German fire. At one stage, some German tanks advanced towards the quayside but were knocked out very effectively by the 4.7 inch guns of Venomous. One tank was seen to turn "over and over, like a child doing a cart-wheel" after being hit by a naval shell. German field guns were now covering the harbour, and as HMS Venetia was in the narrow entrance channel, she was repeatedly hit and set ablaze, but was able to reverse out the way she had come. This allowed Venomous and Wild Swan to escape, also backwards, the former using her engines to manoeuvre because her steering had jammed.
HMS Windsor arrived after dark, and was able to continue the embarkation. On clearing the harbour, she signalled that there were still British troops requiring evacuation, and so Vimiera was dispatched again, arriving in Boulogne at 01:30 the next morning. At first the quayside was deserted, but the captain called out using a loud hailer and found over a large number of men waiting, who were packed into every available space. When she arrived at Dover at 04:00, 1,400 men disembarked. Some 200 Welsh Guardsmen were left behind; they had been wrongly informed that the evacuation had ended and attempted a breakout to the north east.
Approximate numbers evacuated
- Keith: 180
- Vimy: 150
- Whitshed: 580
- Vimiera: 1,955 (in two trips)
- Wild Swan: 400
- Windsor: 600
- Venomous: 500
A total of about 4,365 including some French and Belgian troops.
French last stand
General Lanquetot had established his headquarters within the medieval walls of the Haute Ville ("Old Town"), sometimes called "The Citadel" in British accounts, awaiting the arrival of elements of 23 Division. When he discovered that disaster had befallen his division, he organised his remaining forces to defend the town as best he could. By the time that Brigadier Fox-Pitt had received orders to evacuate, there were no means of communication with General Lanquetot.
On the evening of 24 May, the Germans launched two assaults on the town walls at 18:00 and 20:00. The attacks were repulsed and some German tanks were reported to have been destroyed. The French Navy continued its gunfire support, however the torpedo boat Fougueux and the destroyer Chacal were damaged by the Luftwaffe; Chacal was later sunk by German artillery. During the night, a force of one hundred French soldiers attempted to break out towards Dunkirk but failed.
At dawn on 25 May, the Germans assaulted the walls again using ladders, grenades and flamethrowers, supported by 88 mm guns. At 8:30, Lanquetot surrendered to Colonel von Vaerts and was taken to meet Guderian, who congratulated him on his defence.
Meanwhile, Major J C Windsor Lewis, the officer commanding No 4 Company 2nd Welsh Guards, had taken charge of a large party of stragglers who were vainly awaiting rescue in the sheds at the quayside. Besides Guardsmen from both battalions, there were 120 French infantry, 200 AMPC, 120 Royal Engineers and 150 civilian refugees. Most of the Pioneers were unarmed. When the sheds came under heavy German fire, Windsor Lewis moved the group into the Gare Maritime (the harbour rail station) and made sandbag barricades. On the evening of 24 May, under direct fire from tanks and machine guns, they drove off a German assault party that had approached the quay in a boat. Without food, running low on ammunition and realising that there would be no further evacuation, the force eventually surrendered at 13:00 on 25 May.
The Germans captured a total of 5,000 Allied troops in Boulogne, the majority of whom were French.
As Fox-Pitt retired towards the harbour on the morning of 23 May, Lanquetot had signalled to his superiors that the British were withdrawing precipitately, perhaps unaware of how fiercely the withdrawal was being fought. To make matters worse, Fox-Pitt was out of communication with the French when he received orders to evacuate and was unable to offer to take them too, as his orders had instructed. French complaints about British desertion at Boulogne may have led to Churchill's decision not to evacuate Calais, where the British garrison were ordered to fight to the finish. In his memoirs, Churchill stated that he "regretted the evacuation".
British histories tend to emphasise the delay caused to the advance of Guderian's corps towards the Dunkirk perimeter; the official history of the War at Sea states that the defence of Boulogne "undoubtedly contributed to that end". In the event, it was Hitler's famous "halt order" that gave the Allies sufficient time for evacuation, although none of the participants at Boulogne would have been able to foresee it.
- Boulogne Bowl, a commemorative silver trophy in recognition of the role of the Pioneer Corps in the 1940 Battle of Boulogne
- Operation Wellhit, the Canadian liberation of Boulogne in 1944
- Sebag-Montefiore p. 188
- Ellis p. 153
- Sebag-Montefiore p. 190
- Ellis p. 153-154
- Sebag-Montefiore p. 192
- Report on Evacuation of Boulogne: 20 Guards Brigade: The National Archives Catalogue Reference: CAB 106/230
- Jackson, p.40
- Hawkins, Ian 2003, Destroyer: An Anthology of First-Hand Accounts of the War at Sea 1939 - 1945, Conway Maritime Press, ISBN 0-85177-947-6 (p. 70)
- Gardner (pp.8-10)
- Gardner (p.10)
- Ellis p.159
- WWII Online - Battles of Boulogne, Calais, on the Aa canal, Lille and Dunkirk
- "Report of Operations - 21st-24th May - 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards by Major J. C. Windsor Lewis.", The National Archives Catalogue Reference, CAB 106/228
- "Battle of Boulogne, 22-25 May 1940", Military History Encyclopedia on the Web
- Sebag-Montefiore p. 198
- Churchill, p. 70
- Roskill p. 213
- Baker, Anthony, 1986, Battle Honours of the British and Commonwealth Armies, Ian Allen ISBN 978-0711016002 (p. 146)
- Churchill, Winston S. (1949) The Second World War: Their Finest Hour, Mariner Books, ISBN 0-395-41056-8
- Ellis, L. F. (1954) History of the Second World War: The War in France and Flanders 1939–1940. J. R. M. Butler (ed.). HMSO. London
- Gardner, W. J. R. (2000) The Evacuation from Dunkirk: Operation Dynamo, 26 May-4 June 1940, Frank Cass Publishers, ISBN 0-7146-5120-6 (pp. 8–10)
- Jackson, Robert (2002) Dunkirk: The British Evacuation, 1940, Cassell Military Paperbacks, ISBN 0-304-35968-8
- Roskill, S. W. History of the Second World War: The War at Sea, Volume I, HMSO London
- Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh (2006) Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man, Penguin Books, ISBN 0141024372