Operation Wellhit

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Operation Wellhit (Battle of Boulogne)
Part of Western Front, World War II
Boulogne Canadians 44.jpg
German prisoners marching through Boulogne shortly after its capture, September 22, 1944
Date September 17 – September 22, 1944
Location Boulogne-sur-Mer (France)
Result Allied victory
Belligerents
Canada Canada
 United Kingdom
 Nazi Germany
Commanders and leaders
Canada Daniel Spry Nazi Germany Ferdinand Heim Surrendered
Strength
2 infantry brigades with supporting armour, artillery and aircraft 10,000
Casualties and losses
600[1] <500 (9,500 taken prisoner)

Operation Wellhit was the World War II operation by the 3rd Canadian Division (Canadian 1st Army) to take the fortified port of Boulogne in northern France. At first, the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade had hoped to take Boulogne as part of its advance up the coast. The defences, however, brought them to a halt five miles from the city.[2]

Although the city's defences were incomplete, those that did exist were sufficiently formidable to justify massive bombardments before and during the assault and extensive use of specialised armour from the 79th Armoured Division. Despite the lower than expected level of material damage by the bombardments, the high degree of coordination between artillery, air force, armour and infantry greatly aided the success of the operation. The operation took from 17 to 22 September 1944.[3]

"Fortress" Boulogne[edit]

Boulogne was one of several Channel ports to be designated as a "fortress" by Adolf Hitler. The idea was that these would be heavily fortified towns manned by troops committed to fight to the end, thus denying the allies the use of the facilities and committing allied troops at least to a containment role. In practice, Boulogne's landward defences were incomplete, many of its garrison troops were second-rate and demoralised by their isolation and the obvious inability of the Wehrmacht to rescue or support them. In the event, none of the strongpoints fought to the end, preferring to surrender when confronted by powerful forces. Their commander, Ferdinand Heim's own appreciation of the situation was realistic.[4]

The city and port of Boulogne is sited at the mouth of the River Liane, which flows north, north westwards into the sea, which is to the north-west of the centre. The Liane splits the urban area, with the western side forming a high (250 feet high) peninsular between the river and the coast. High ground surrounds the city, with prominent heights, which had been fortified over the centuries. The most significant fortifications and artillery batteries were at La Tresorerie (inland from Wimereux and three miles north of the centre), at Mont Lambert (two miles east of the city centre), Herquelingue (2½ miles south-east of the city) and various fortifications south of Outreau on the "peninsular"

Heim had been appointed as commander only a few weeks before Boulogne became isolated by the allies' advance through northern France. The town's fixed defences were strong but little had been done on the landward side apart from some hastily built field defences. He was ordered to create a substantial defensive zone, but he had neither the specialist nor the resources to achieve this; in his own words, "I merely put a big red circle on my map to show that the demolitions had been theoretically carried out."[5]

Preparations[edit]

The allied advance into Germany depended upon supplies of materiel to the front, which was seriously constrained by the lack of convenient ports. Boulogne could not, therefore, merely be contained until a general surrender of German forces; it had to be won and the port had to be made available. The vulnerability of Boulogne was not appreciated by Harry Crerar (the commander of the Canadian Army), who judged that a full set-piece assault would be necessary, supported by heavy bombardments from land, air and sea and with specialised armour.[6] He also wished to be certain of success, so as to maintain the momentum following the fall of Le Havre and maintain psychological pressure upon the remaining fortresses at Calais, Dunkirk and elsewhere.[7]

Preparations for Wellhit were constrained by the difficulties of moving artillery ammunition from Normandy and Dieppe and by the need to complete operations at Le Havre before necessary armour and artillery could become available.[8]

The Canadians gained useful intelligence on the German defences through information from evacuated civilians (8,000 were expelled by the occupiers[9]) and with the help of the local French Resistance.[10]

In the days preceding the attack, attempts were made, by air and artillery bombardment, to weaken the German defences. There was also a large bombardment in the final ninety minutes, employing several hundred heavy and medium bombers and a "creeping barrage". This attempt at the destruction of defences was surprisingly ineffective; indeed, Heim said that "amongst personnel, casualties were almost negligible" and that permanent installations suffered little damage. In addition, bomb craters proved to be a real hindrance to armoured vehicles supporting the infantry attacks. Canadian assessments, however, noted that, within the bombardment area, progress was significantly quicker than elsewhere, due to the impact upon the defenders.[11]

The assault[edit]

The outline of the attack was that the northern and southern defences would be contained or diverted while the main attack would drive into Boulogne from the east. Since German artillery at La Tresorerie posed a threat to the main assault, an attack by North Shore Regiment of the 8th Brigade would go in here earlier than the main attack. In the main attack, two infantry brigades would advance parallel to the main road from La Capelle to the east; the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade (comprising Le Régiment de la Chaudière and Queen's Own Rifles of Canada) would be north of the road while the 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade (Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders and North Nova Scotia Highlanders) would be south of it.[12]

Once the main urban area had been captured, 8th Brigade would clear the area around Wimille, Wimereux and Fort de la Crèche and 9th Brigade would clear the Outreau peninsular.[13]

Day 1–17 September[edit]

The main attacks went well. In both attacks, infantry had been transported in Kangaroos (tanks converted into personnel carriers). The 8th Brigade captured Rupembert and its radar installation, intact, and consolidated in Marlborough (one mile north-west of the city centre).[12]

Mont Lambert was appreciated by both sides as the defensive key to Boulogne. The 9th Brigade's early advance had been rapid but, once its defenders had recovered from the bombardments, they gave an effective defence with artillery and machine guns. Once paths had been cleared through minefields, however, support was available from AVREs and Churchill Crocodile flame-throwing tanks from the 79th Armoured Division and the tanks of the Fort Garry Horse. Much of Mont Lambert was in Canadian control by nightfall.[14]

La Tresorerie proved more difficult than expected - the attack was impeded in a minefield - but its artillery did not interfere with the main attacks.[12]

Day 2–18 September[edit]

The guns at La Tresorerie were captured by the North Shore Regiment and the other two regiments in the 8th Brigade made progress in the suburbs and hills to the north of the city.[15]

The 9th Brigade's North Nova Scotias finally subdued Mont Lambert by 11am, the loss of which General Heim believed "would make defence of the port impossible".[14] The Glengarries, supported by AVREs, pushed beyond St Martin to the "upper town" or "citadel". This area occupies a dominant position above the port and was (and still is) entirely surrounded by thick medieval masonry walls with a dry ditch in places. As the Canadians prepared to assault with the AVREs, a French civilian disclosed a "secret passage" and a platoon was taken beneath the walls. At the same time, tank fire and demolition of the gates persuaded the German defenders to surrender.[15]

A company of North Nova Scotias, as ever supported by specialised armour, broke through to the River Liane in the city centre and the reserve battalion, the Highland Light Infantry of Canada (HLI), moved through the Glengarries to the river. The bridges had been partially destroyed, preventing an immediate advance onto the western side. Later, the HLI stormed across, under the protection of heavy fire from all available weapons. Improvised repairs were made on one bridge overnight and by daylight, light transport was across the river.[16]

Day 3–19 September[edit]

Once over the Liane, 9th Brigade moved south along the river's west bank and the Glengarries took the suburb of Outreau. The 9th Brigade was under heavy fire from a fortified position (code named Buttercup) on top of the peninsular between the river and the sea. Close coordination of the infantry advance and a creeping barrage enabled the strongpoint to be taken.[17]

The Divisional reserves, the Cameron Highlanders of Ottawa successfully completed their assault on Herquelingue heights, south-east of the city, east of the river, overnight on the 18–19 September. However, unbeknown to them, a large German force had remained in tunnels underneath the fortifications and had to be subdued separately on the 20th after making a nuisance of themselves (dubbed the "bargain basement incident").[17]

In the northern area, 8th Brigade's North Shore Regiment moved against Wimille and the coastal settlement at Wimereux. The taking of the fortress of Fort de la Crèche was the responsibility of Queen's Own Rifles and the Chaudière. Fort de la Crèche was heavily defended and manned by some of the best troops available to General Hein. In order to protect Canadian activities elsewhere, it was shrouded by a smoke screen.[17]

Day 4–20 September[edit]

The Nova Scotias had continued their advance along the river's west bank to capture St Etienne, opposite Herquelingue. They then crossed the peninsular, and moved northwards to deal with the defended coastal areas of Nocquet, Ningles and Le Portel, while the Camerons crossed the Liane and covered the southern flank.[17]

In the northern area, Wimille was attacked by 8th Brigade and captured the following morning, against stiff opposition.[17]

Day 5–21 September[edit]

The North Shore Regiment continued the actions north of Boulogne with an attack on the coastal town of Wimereux, three miles north of Boulogne, restricting the use of artillery to minimise civilian casualties.[13] Actions against Fort de la Crèche got under way with reconnaissance patrols by the Queen's Own Rifles and the Chaudière. These met with strong resistance, but an attack by bombers from No 2 Group RAF subdued the defenders and reduced their will to fight.[18]

Day 6–22 September[edit]

The capture of Wimereux was completed, to the relief of its population.[13] The now disheartened garrison of Fort de la Crèche surrendered to the Queen's Own Rifles after a brief action and bombardment before 8am.[18][19] The northern environs of Boulogne were now held by the Canadians.

The last major resistance was at the two fortresses at Le Portel on the Outreau peninsular. An ultimatum calling for prompt surrender was delivered by loud speakers and the northern fort's garrison marched out to surrender to the HLI shortly before the ultimatum's deadline expired. This left the southern fort, where General Heim was quartered and which continued firing. Armour, including flame-throwers, was brought forward and the German garrison destroyed their guns; a cease-fire came into force at 4:17pm. At 4:30pm, Heim was reported as captured and en route to brigade headquarters.[20]

A solitary gun on the harbour breakwater continued firing until Heim ordered it to stop.[18]

Aftermath[edit]

Once firing had stopped, civilian residents returned to recover their homes and the city rapidly returned to life. Canadian Civil Aid units provided soup kitchens, water and medical aid to the civilians. The port of Boulogne had to be cleared of wreckage, sunken ships and mines before it could be usable. This was not the Canadian's job; the 8th and 9th Brigades were redeployed to Calais and the German heavy batteries at Cap Gris Nez. Instead, an Army Port Repair and Construction Group was tasked with the clearance work. On 10 October, a "Pluto" oil pipeline was laid from Dungeness, in England, but the harbour was not open to shipping until 14 October, by which time Antwerp had become available.[21][22]

Bibliography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Report 184, para.88
  2. ^ Report 184, para.41
  3. ^ Chant, pp 330-331
  4. ^ Shulman, p.211
  5. ^ Shulman, p.217
  6. ^ Wilmot, p.542
  7. ^ Report 184, para.50
  8. ^ Stacey, pp.326-327
  9. ^ Stacey, p.337
  10. ^ Report 184, paras.41 & 42
  11. ^ Stacey, p.339
  12. ^ a b c Stacey, p.340
  13. ^ a b c Stacey, pp.342-343
  14. ^ a b Stacey, pp.340-341
  15. ^ a b Stacey, p.341
  16. ^ Report 184, paras.71 & 72
  17. ^ a b c d e Stacey, p.342
  18. ^ a b c Stacey, p.343
  19. ^ Report 184, para.85
  20. ^ Report 184, paras.86 & 87
  21. ^ Report 184, Appendix E
  22. ^ Copp, p.75