Battle of Boulogne (1940)
The Battle of Boulogne was the defence of the port of Boulogne-sur-Mer by French, British and Belgian troops, during the Battle of France of the Second World War in 1940. The battle was fought at the same time as the Siege of Calais, just before Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) through Dunkirk. After the Franco-British counter-attack at the Battle of Arras (21 May) German units were held ready to resist a resumption of the attack on 22 May, despite the protests of General Heinz Guderian, the commander of XIX Corps, who wanted to rush north up the Channel coast to capture Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. An attack by part of the XIX Corps was not authorised until 12:40 p.m. on 22 May, by when the Allied troops at Boulogne had been reinforced from England by most of the 20th Guards Brigade.
The Guards had time to dig in around the port before the 2nd Panzer Division, which had been delayed by French troops at Samer, then attacked the perimeter held by the Irish Guards at around 5:00 p.m. and were driven off after an hour. The Welsh Guards front was attacked at 8:00 p.m. and again at dusk before cutting off a party of the Irish Guards at 10:00 p.m. The defence of Boulogne was assisted by about eighty light bombers of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and at dawn on 23 May, the German attacks resumed, eventually pushing the defenders back into the town.
Royal Navy ships shot their way into and out of the harbour and with French navy destroyers, bombarded German positions as wounded and non-combatants were embarked and landed a navy demolition party. During a lull in the afternoon, a Luftwaffe force bombed the harbour, despite being intercepted by RAF fighters and at 6:30 p.m. the Guards Brigade was ordered to re-embark. The navy destroyers ran the gauntlet of German tanks and artillery to evacuate the garrison. The French defenders around the Citadel above the lower town could not be contacted and only in the morning of 24 May did General Lanquetot realise that the British had gone, which led to reproaches.
The French and remaining British troops held out until 25 May and then surrendered. Guderian wrote that the delays in allowing an advance and then the retention of considerable forces to guard against Allied counter-attacks, had forfeited an opportunity quickly to capture the Channel Ports and destroy the Allied forces in northern France and Belgium. An advance on Dunkirk began on 23 May but the next day was halted until 27 May and Dunkirk was not captured until 4 June, by when most of the BEF and many French and Belgian troops had escaped.
Boulogne-sur-Mer, Calais, Dunkirk and Dieppe, are Channel Ports on the French side at the narrowest part of the English Channel. Boulogne is at the mouth of the Liane river, which meanders through a valley between hills. The harbour is on a level area of ground on either side of the river, well built-up and with steep roads uphill to the old town (Haute Ville or the Citadel). The rolling hills make for hidden approaches to the port and offer commanding high ground to an attacker, particularly Mont St. Lambert ridge. During the Phoney War (September 1939 – 10 May 1940), the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been supplied through ports further to the west, such as Le Havre and Cherbourg but the Channel Ports came into use, once mine barrages had been laid in the English Channel in late 1939, to reduce the demand for ships and escorts. When leave from the BEF began in December, Boulogne was used for communication and for troop movements.
The Battle of France
On 10 May 1940, the Germans began Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) the offensive against France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Within a few days, the panzers achieved a breakthrough against the centre of the French front near Sedan and drove westwards down the Somme river valley. As the BEF withdrew through Belgium into northern France, fewer supply troops were needed as the lines of communication shortened. The British began to withdraw surplus manpower through Boulogne and Calais and on 17 May, General Douglas Brownrigg, the Adjutant-General of the BEF, moved the Rear General Headquarters (GHQ) from Arras to Boulogne, without informing his French liaison officers. The Germans captured Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme River on 21 May, cutting off the Allied troops in Northern France and Belgium from their bases south of the river.
The defence of Boulogne was the responsibility of the French Navy, which manned some 19th-century forts under the command of Commandant Dutfoy de Mont de Benque. To protect Boulogne from air attack, eight 3.7-inch anti-aircraft guns of the 2nd Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, eight machine-guns of the 58th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and a battery of the 2nd Searchlight Regiment had arrived from England on 20 May; the French had two 75 mm field guns, two 25 mm anti-tank guns and two tanks, one of which was unserviceable. On 20 May, the leading elements of the German XIX Corps, (General Heinz Guderian), reached Abbeville. The importance of holding the Channel Ports as the only means of supply and if necessary, evacuation, became vital for the Allies. Early in the morning of 21 May, Dutfoy ordered the naval garrison of 1,100 men to retire behind the medieval walls of the Haute Ville (Old Town or Citadel), east of the Liane river.
After hearing alarmist reports of the approach of a large German force, apparently from General Jean Pelissier de Féligonde, who had commanded a unit attacked by German tanks at Hesdin, 30 mi (48 km) to the south-east of the port. Dutfoy ordered his men to disable the Coastal artillery in the forts and to head for the harbour for evacuation. Dutfoy left for Dunkirk and discipline broke down, looting took place and civilians waiting for places on evacuation ships began to panic, until the commander in charge of the sea front threatened people with a gun. The commander decamped at 10:00 a.m. and the spiking of the naval guns continued, until the order was questioned and Admiral Leclerc in Dunkirk was contacted, who ordered the remaining guns to be preserved for the defence of the town and then visited Boulogne early on 22 May. Leclerc ordered the sailors to fight it out and wait for relief by the French and British armies. Admiral Jean Abrial at Dunkirk ordered
You are to die at your posts one by one rather than give in.
Allied defensive preparations
In response to General Brownrigg's requests for reinforcements, a detachment of Royal Marines arrived in Boulogne in the early morning of 21 May. Meanwhile, part of the 20th Guards Brigade under the command of Brigadier William Fox-Pitt, consisting of the 2nd Battalion, Welsh Guards and 2nd Battalion, Irish Guards, were training at Camberley on 21 May, when they were ordered to embark for France. 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 (General Pierre Louis Félix Lanquetot) was to hold a line between Samer and Desvres, about 10 mi (16 km) south of the town, where three battalions had already arrived. Further British reinforcements, including a regiment of cruiser tanks, were expected from Calais on the following day.
Fox-Pitt deployed his men on the high ground outside the town, liaising with General Lanquetot who organised the French troops in the town. The Irish Guards held the right flank to the south-west from the river at St. Léonard to the sea at Le Portel and the Welsh Guards held the left flank north-east of the river, on the west slopes of Mont Lambert ridge and high ground through St. Martin Boulogne, which made a defensive perimeter of 6 mi (9.7 km). Some road blocks had already been established by a party of about fifty men of the 7th Royal West Kents from Albert, about 100 men of the 262nd Field Company Royal Engineers and anti-aircraft personnel held the right of the Welsh Guards, along the roads approaching from the south. Fox-Pitt had left a gap in the perimeter between the Welsh Guards' left flank and the coast, allocated to the reinforcements which were expected from Calais. There were 1,500 men of No 5 Group Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps (AMPC) in the town awaiting evacuation, a mixture of recalled reservists and incompletely-trained troops working as labourers. Under French command were the fort garrisons and some French and Belgian training units of limited military value.
German offensive preparations
The Franco-British counter-attack at Arras led the Germans to continue to attack north towards the Channel Ports, rather than south over the Somme and late on 21 May, Oberkommando des Heeres (OKH) ordered Panzergruppe Kleist to advance about 50 mi (80 km) north, to capture Boulogne and Calais. Apprehension about another counter-attack led to the XV Corps (General Hermann Hoth) being held back, a division of the XXXXI Corps (Major-General Georg-Hans Reinhardt) being moved eastwards and the 10th Panzer Division (Lieutenant-General Ferdinand Schaal) of XIX Corps was detached to guard against a counter-attack from the south. Parts of the 1st Panzer Division (Lieutenant-General Friedrich Kirchner) and 2nd Panzer Division (Lieutenant-General Rudolf Veiel) were also held back to defend bridgeheads over the Somme. The 2nd Panzer Division was ordered to advance to Boulogne on a line from Baincthun to Samer, with the 1st Panzer Division as a flank guard on the right advancing to Desvres and Marquise in case of a counter-attack from Calais.
The 2nd Panzer Division was divided into two columns, one of which was to circle round the town and attack from the north. The other column made contact first in the early afternoon of 22 May, when it encountered the headquarters company of the French 48th Infantry Regiment, the only troops of the 21st Division who had arrived between the Germans and Boulogne. The small French force, including 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 began shelling and probing the Irish Guards positions in the south of the town. In the early hours of the morning, 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, departed with his headquarters staff at 3:00 a.m. on the destroyer HMS Verity, without informing the Guards. At 4:00 a.m., Fox-Pitt was told that the 21st Division had fallen back from its blocking position after being attacked by tanks. Parts of the division, en route by train, were machine-gunned by German tanks and dispersed.
An hour after dawn, Fort de la Crèche near Wimereux, north of Boulogne, was captured by German troops. The appearance of German armour at the northern perimeter confirmed to Fox-Pitt that there would be no reinforcements from Calais. Therefore, a force of 800 was hastily selected from those AMPC troops with previous military experience and armed with rifles taken from the others, they were rushed into the gap between the two Guards battalions, and a further 150 were sent to reinforce the Welsh Guards. Meanwhile, the anti-aircraft gunners guarding the southern approach roads destroyed two German tanks with their 3.7-inch guns AA before retiring. By 10:00 a.m., the determined German attack from the south had forced the Irish Guards back into the town. At midday, HMS Vimy arrived, carrying a naval demolition party and Force Buttercup, a Royal Marine shore party, then began to embark the wounded and the AMPC. Orders were passed on from Vimy to Fox-Pitt that the Guards were to hold Boulogne at all costs, as his radio contact with England had been lost earlier in the day.
During the afternoon there was a lull, followed by a Luftwaffe air raid, which was intercepted by Royal Air Force (RAF) Spitfires from 92 Squadron. The commanders of both British destroyers were killed by bomb splinters and Stuka dive bombers hit Frondeur which was disabled; Orage had to be scuttled as they bombarded German shore positions. Shortly before the air raid, the destroyer HMS Keith berthed in the harbour and began embarking AMPC troops. Before 6:00 p.m., Keith had received orders for a full evacuation of the British force and five more 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 conducted a fighting withdrawal to the harbour. Vimiera and Whitshed replaced Vimy and Keith, embarking most of the Marines, Irish and Welsh guards.
HMS Venomous and HMS Wild Swan arrived and began embarking Force Buttercup and some of the Irish Guards. The Germans had taken up positions overlooking the harbour and engaged the Guards and the ships, which used their guns to counter the German fire. German tanks advanced towards the quayside but were knocked out by the 4.7 inch guns of Venomous, one tank turning "over and over, like a child doing a cart-wheel". German field guns bombarded the harbour and as HMS Venetia moved through the narrow entrance channel, it was hit several times and set on fire but managed to reverse out and make way for Venomous and Wild Swan which also backed out, Venomous steering with its engines as the rudder had jammed.
HMS Windsor arrived after dark, and was able to continue the embarkation. On clearing the harbour, the captain signalled that there were still British troops requiring evacuation and Vimiera was sent back, arriving in Boulogne at 1:30 a.m. The quayside was deserted but the captain called out using a loud hailer and found that a large number of men were hiding, who were packed into every available space. When Vimiera arrived at Dover at 4:00 a.m., 1,400 men disembarked. About 300 Welsh Guards were left behind, having been wrongly informed that the evacuation had ended, who then attempted a break-out to the north-east. Lanquetot had established his headquarters within the medieval walls of the Haute Ville (Old Town, the Citadel), awaiting the arrival of elements of the 21st Division. When he discovered that disaster had befallen his division, he organised the 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 Lanquetot.
On the evening of 24 May, the Germans attacked the town at 6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. The attacks were repulsed and some German tanks were reported to have been destroyed. The French Navy continued its gunfire support but the destroyers Fougueux and Chacal were damaged by the Luftwaffe and Chacal was later sunk by German artillery. During the night, about 100 French soldiers tried 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 and at 8:30 a.m., Lanquetot surrendered.
Major J. C. Windsor Lewis, officer commanding 4 Company, 2nd Welsh Guards, had taken charge of a large party of stragglers, who were 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 German fire, Windsor Lewis moved the group into the Gare Maritime (harbour railway station) and made sandbag barricades. On the evening of 24 May, under fire from tanks and machine-guns, they fought 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 surrendered at 1:00 p.m. on 25 May. The Germans captured 5,000 Allied troops in Boulogne, the majority of whom were French.
The 20th Guards Brigade had retired towards the outskirts of Boulogne on the morning of 23 May, after resisting attacks from all sides from 7:30 a.m. and Lanquetot signalled to his superiors that the British were withdrawing precipitately, perhaps unaware of how fiercely the withdrawal was being contested. Communication between Fox-Pitt and the French headquarters at the Citadel had been cut off, by the advance of German troops between the Citadel and the Guards positions in the lower town, when he was ordered to evacuate but could not offer to take the French, according to the orders. On the morning of 24 May, Lanquetot discovered that the British had gone and French complaints about British desertion (sic) at Boulogne, along with the belief that the Germans at Calais would immediately move towards Dunkirk if the siege ended, may have influenced Churchill who ordered the British garrison to fight to the finish.
In 1954, in the British official history, L. F. Ellis wrote that the five-hour delay of the XIX Corps attack on Boulogne until 12:40 p.m. on 22 May, which had been ordered by General Ewald von Kleist, commander of Panzergruppe von Kleist, had been criticised in the Corps war diary, because the retention of the 10th Panzer Division in reserve during the attacks on Boulogne and Calais, meant that the Aa Canal could not be attacked simultaneously. Had the panzers not been delayed, the preparations of the 20th Guards Brigade might have been interrupted but the long, exposed flank of Army Group A, the uncertain hold on Amiens and Abbeville and the Allied possession of Arras meant that the situation on 22 May could have changed and the delay was not excessive, since the Allied counter-attack at Arras could have continued. S. W. Roskill, the navy official historian, wrote (also in 1954), that the defence of Boulogne delayed the advance of the XIX Corps towards Dunkirk ("undoubtedly contributed to that end"), which assisted the Allied defence during the Battle of Dunkirk (26 May–4 June). The Welsh and Irish Guards were awarded the battle honour; "Boulogne 1940".
Orders of battle
|XIX Corps | Boulogne garrison|
- Relations among Franco-British commanders had been good until the German breakthrough on the Meuse, after which the British staff officers became apprehensive that they might be cut off from the coast, began slighting the liaison officers and withheld information. The French liaison party left Boulogne after a Luftwaffe air raid on the night of 19/20 May and reached Abbeville just before the Germans.
- One of the rescued soldiers was Arnold Ridley.
- In Their Finest Hour (1949), Churchill wrote that he "regretted the evacuation" of Boulogne.
- Ellis 2004, p. 155.
- Ellis 2004, p. 16.
- Bond & Taylor 2001, p. 130.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, pp. 188, 190.
- Ellis 2004, p. 153.
- Ellis 2004, pp. 153, 385.
- Churchill 1949, p. 53.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, p. 190.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, pp. 190–191.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, pp. 190–192.
- Jackson 2002, p. 39.
- Ellis 2004, p. 154.
- Thompson 2009, p. 50.
- Ellis 2004, pp. 153–154.
- Cooper 1978, pp. 227–228.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, p. 192.
- Windsor Lewis 1940.
- Jackson 2002, p. 40.
- Ellis 2004, p. 157.
- Hawkins 2003, p. 70.
- Gardner 2000, pp. 8–10.
- Ellis 2004, p. 158.
- Ellis 2004, p. 156.
- Rickard 2008.
- Gardner 2000, p. 10.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, p. 198.
- Churchill 1949, pp. 70, 72.
- Ellis 2004, p. 159.
- Roskill 1954, p. 213.
- Baker 1986, p. 146.
- Ellis 2004, pp. 368, 402–403.
- Baker, A. (1986). Battle Honours of the British and Commonwealth Armies. London: Ian Allen. ISBN 978-0-71101-600-2.
- Bond, B.; Taylor, M. D., eds. (2001). The Battle for France & Flanders Sixty Years On. Barnsley: Leo Cooper. ISBN 978-0-85052-811-4.
- Churchill, W. S. (1949). Their Finest Hour. The Second World War. II. Boston, MS: Mariner Books. ISBN 978-0-395-41056-1.
- Cooper, M. (1978). The German Army 1933–1945, its Political and Military Failure. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day. ISBN 978-0-8128-2468-1.
- Ellis, Major L. F. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1954]. Butler, J. R. M., ed. The War in France and Flanders 1939–1940. History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84574-056-6. Retrieved 29 June 2015.
- Gardner, W. J. R. (2000). The Evacuation from Dunkirk: Operation Dynamo, 26 May – 4 June 1940. London: Frank Cass. ISBN 978-0-7146-5120-0.
- Hawkins, I. (2003). Destroyer: An Anthology of First-Hand Accounts of the War at Sea 1939–1945. London: Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 978-0-85177-947-8.
- Jackson, R. (2002). Dunkirk: The British Evacuation, 1940. London: Cassell Military Paperbacks. ISBN 978-0-304-35968-4.
- Roskill, S. W. (1954). The War at Sea. History of the Second World War. I. London: HMSO. OCLC 174453980. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
- Sebag-Montefiore, H. (2006). Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man. London: Penguin. ISBN 978-0-14-102437-0.
- Thompson, Julian (2009). Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory. London: Pan Books. ISBN 978-0-330-43796-7.
- Rickard, J. (18 February 2008). "Battle of Boulogne, 22–25 May 1940". Military History Encyclopaedia on the Web. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
- Windsor Lewis, J. C. Report of Operations, 21st – 24th May, 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards by Major J. C. Windsor Lewis. The National Archives Catalogue Reference (Report). CAB 106/228. Retrieved 26 August 2015.
- Cull, B.; Lander, Bruce; Weiss, Heinrich (2001). Twelve Days: The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countries, 10–21 May 1940, As Seen Through the Eyes of the Fighter Pilots Involved. London: Grub Street. ISBN 978-1-902304-12-0.
- Frieser, K-H. (2005). The Blitzkrieg Legend (trans. ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 978-1-59114-294-2.
- Guderian, H. (1976) . Panzer Leader (repr. Futura, London ed.). London: Michael Joseph. ISBN 978-0-86007-088-7.
- Horne, A. (1982) . To Lose a Battle: France 1940 (repr. Penguin, London ed.). London: Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-14-005042-4.
- Warner, P. (2002) . The Battle of France, 1940: 10 May – 22 June (repr. Cassell Military Paperbacks, London ed.). London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 978-0-304-35644-7.