Chapter 12: Dunkirk, Bethune and Ypres, 27th May, 1940
The fear of impending disaster haunted the minds of all who knew what was happening in France at this time. In the week which had just closed one shock had followed another with appalling rapidity. On the Monday morning (May the 20th) Admiral Ramsay had held his first meeting at Dover to consider the possibility of large-scale evacuation if, ‘as then seemed unlikely’, the need should arise. On that morning our main front was on the Escaut, our lines of communication were intact, north-western France was still inviolate and the Channel ports were in the Allies’ hands. By the following Sunday evening, when Operation Dynamo was ordered, all France north of the Somme was in enemy hands except the narrowing strip through which the British Expeditionary Force now sought to reach the coast. Dunkirk was the only northern port left to the Allies and it was threatened.
The inside of a week would be a very short time in which to plan and prepare so difficult a feat as the evacuation of a large beleaguered force, even if military requirements were precisely known from the outset; but Operation Dynamo could be planned with on such certainty for the military situation was changing hourly. No one could say how many of our fighting troops would reach the coast or under what conditions they would arrive. When Dynamo began it was thought in London that the enemy could be held at bay for, perhaps, two days and if so that about 45,000 men might be brought home.(2) Naval arrangements were being shaped accordingly, and though the manning and assembly of all the ships and boats that would be needed was not yet complete, the first vessel sailed for Dunkirk two hours after the Admiralty made the signal to begin.(3)
The decision to withdraw British forces in the north, not only to the coast of France but is possible to England, brought the intervening sea into the field of active operations. Control of the Army’s movements till the coast was reached remained with Lord Gort in France, but their final movement to England would be controlled from Admiral Ramsay’s headquarters at Dover. It was from England too that the vital battle of the Royal Air Force off, over, and behind Dunkirk would be ordered and controlled. Kent was the base from which the fighters of No. 11 Group fought their fight with the Luftwaffe. Operations of the three Services during the next nine days
were thus determined partly in France and partly in England, and it would simplify the account of their actions to describe each in turn. But such a simplification would be quite unreal. It did not happen that way. The Services played their parts in the drama together, and in each day’s scene all three were on the stage at the same time. If the story of events seems complicated, so, too, were operations, which now stretched out from where the Army fought in France to the coast of Kent.
The first ship which left Dover on Sunday evening (26th) was the armed boarding-vessel Mona’s Isle. Her experience on that first trip foreshadowed things to come. She berthed in Dunkirk harbour during an enemy air attack but took on board 1,420 troops. After leaving harbour to return she was straddled by enemy guns on shore between Gravelines and Les Hemmes and shortly after she was heavily machine-gunned from the air. Twenty-three of the men on board had been killed and sixty wounded when she reached Dover at noon on Monday morning. May the 27th. Meanwhile five transports which had sailed earlier that morning were shelled so heavily off the French coast that they could not reach Dunkirk and returned to Dover empty.(4)
Reference to the adjoining sketch chart makes it easy to realise that the loss of Calais on Sunday evening had given the enemy possession of a coast from which artillery could command the last reach of the short sea route from Dover. Ships sailing by this western route (route Z) must approach to within a few miles of Calais and then sail eastwards past the shore where enemy batteries were now sited. An alternative northerly route (route Y) was now swept for mines and adopted, but the diversion more than doubled the length of passage. Route Z covers thirty-nine sea miles, route Y eighty-seven. Moreover, although this diversion reduced the difficulty of reaching Dunkirk by avoiding the fore of land-based artillery, the longer passage increased the danger of attack both by enemy surface vessels and aircraft.
The Royal Air Force began a supreme effort to ward off the Luftwaffe attacks, an effort which to last as long as evacuation went on. Fighter Command ordered sixteen squadrons to cover the area as continuously as possible from five o’clock in the morning till nightfall and most of them on this day carried out two or even three patrols, which varied in size from twenty aircraft to only nine. They nearly always met the enemy in far greater strength. Often they were themselves beset by enemy formations called up to rescue those they were attacking. Eleven aircraft of No. 74 Squadron fought ten bombers and twenty fighters of the enemy; five of No. 145 Squadron fought twelve bombers and a large formation of fighters; nine of No. 601 Squadron engaged ten bombers and twenty fighters; and about seven o’clock in the evening twenty aircraft of Nos. 56 and 610
Squadrons did battle with an enemy fighter force of nearly twice their number. Fourteen of our Spitfires and Hurricanes failed to return from this brave effort to cover the evacuation. The German returns show that in all they lost on this day thirty-eight aircraft; our own total losses in day and night fighting were twenty.(5)
But, while the air battles went and while aircraft of the Luftwaffe concentrated largely on attacking Belgium, they also bombed Dunkirk heavily that day twelve separate occasions. They destroyed a large part of the town and mad the dock and harbour so dangerous that Captain W. G. Tennant, Senior Naval Officer at Dunkirk, decided that for the time at least they could not be used. He reported to Dover that only the outer mole and beaches could be used and asked for every single available craft to be sent there immediately, since ‘evacuation tomorrow night problematical’.(6) This was a severe blow to naval hopes for experience taught that evacuation from an open beach is a comparatively slow process. In the shallow waters of Dunkirk beaches no ship of any size could come close inshore, and though the base establishments of the Nore Command at Sheerness, Chatham and Ramsgate were working night and day to collect, condition, equip and man a fleet of small craft for off-shore work these were not yet available at Dunkirk.
The anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta, two transports, nine destroyers, four minesweepers, seventeen drifters and a few Dutch schuyts (motor coastal vessels escaped from Holland), were ordered to the beaches, where they were to use their own boats to ferry men from the shore to the ships.(7) Unfortunately news that the use of the port had been stopped led to a false rumour that Dunkirk was now in enemy hands and to the passing from ship to ship of a warning not only to avoid Dunkirk but to return to England. By midnight only 7,669 men had been landed and of these about two-thirds came on ships which had entered Dunkirk harbour before its use was suspended. Operation Dynamo thus made an inauspicious beginning. At the end of the day there was little to encourage hope that a large proportion of the Army could be saved.
It was not even certain that our main forces would be able to fight their way to the coast. For as the Allied armies started to move northwards the German order which had held the divisions of Army Group A to the Canal Line was superseded by another; their advance was now authorised and fighting broke out all along the western front. In the east too, the German attack on the Ypres front was continued with mounting violence; in the south the French First Army was attacked from both sides of the narrow pocket which they still held.
The enemy’s double purpose is clear. The Kleist Group of Army Group A sought in the north-west to get within artillery range of Dunkirk but their main attack was further south from St Omer to
Robecq. There they sought to break through to the Poperinghe–Kemmel line where they should meet divisions of Army Group B, now seeking to breach the Ypres sector with the same objective. If Dunkirk and Ostend were made unusable, all evacuation would be stopped; if the attacks converging on Kemmel succeeded, a large part of the Allied armies would be surrounded and cut off from the sea. To carry out Allied plans both of the enemy’s aims must be frustrated.
At the same time Hoth Group, starting from the Béthune–La Bassée area, also struck north-east towards Armentières–Lille, where a considerable part of the French First Army might be cut off. Bridgeheads had been won over the Canal Line in the previous days: the main attack was timed to begin at eight o’clock on the morning of the 27th.(8)
In the attack aiming at Dunkirk in the north-west the enemy made some progress. The French were heavily engaged to the south of Gravelines and by the end of the day had been forced back with heavy losses. During the night they withdrew from Gravelines and the Aa and occupied a line which followed canals from Mardick through Spycker to Bergues. the German hold on the Channel coast was thus brought to within four miles of Dunkirk. The port and its approaches were now within artillery range.
The object of the British 48th Division, deployed south of Bergues, was now to hold the road which runs southward from Bergues through Wormhoudt, Cassel and Hazebrouck.(1) Between Wormhoudt and Cassel, forward positions were occupied at Arneke and Ledringhem. The former was strongly attacked, and in fierce fighting both sides had heavy casualties; and the garrison of the 2nd Warwickshire, now greatly reduced, was withdraw during the coming night. When night fell on the 27th Ledringhem was still held by the 5th Gloucestershire, though a German column had penetrated for some distance between it and Cassel; another column had penetrated for some distance between it and Cassel; another column was moving round the north of Wormhoudt. Covering Cassel itself, the 48th Division’s forward positions were at Zuytpeene and Bavinchove and, after very heavy bombardment of both places and of Cassel, the enemy attacked with tanks and infantry. A company of the 2nd Gloucestershire fought valiantly to hold Zuytpeene, and were reduced to a handful before the place was captured at seven o’clock in the evening. Bavinchove too was eventually lost, and the enemy reached the western foot of the sugar-loaf hill on which Cassel is built. From there German mortars could range freely on the town, while they were themselves masked from our artillery fire by the steep contour of the hill. The enemy’s main attack on Cassel itself began about ten o’clock in the morning of the 27th, coming in from the south and south-east, and it was maintained throughout the day. German forces tried, too, to work round the northern outskirts but were driven back by the 2nd
Gloucestershire, and on the south-east they attacked Hondegham. There K Battery of the 5th Royal Horse Artillery and a troop of the 2nd Searchlight Regiment fought back all day, but they suffered heavy casualties and by the evening were almost out of ammunition, when a squadron of the 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry arrived and relieved the pressure. These were part of Brigadier C. W. Norman’s 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, which had come under the command of the 48th Division and was to play a notable part in the fighting of the next few days.(11)
Late in the evening the enemy’s attack on Cassel died away. They had failed to take the town and had suffered heavily in men and armour. Further south they strove all day to take Hazebrouck with tanks and infantry, and although the companies of the 1st Buckinghamshire who held the outskirts were gradually overcome or driven out of their positions, battalion headquarters and headquarters company held out in a ‘keep’ in the centre of the town, isolated and surrounded, but unsubdued.
The 44th Division was on the flank immediately south of Hazebrouck. At the beginning of the day (27th() they held Morbecque and behind it a line running south-east to La Motte, south-west along the Nieppe Canal and again south-east on the road through the Forest of Nieppe towards St Venant. There was heavy fighting, and though Morbecque was lost, the enemy’s attacks made no headway against this zigzag line.(12) But armoured columns pushed through the gap between Cassel and Hazebrouck and attacked our positions on a road (not shown on the situation map) which runs south-east from Eecke through Caestre, Strazeele, Vieux Berquin, and so to Estaires on the Lys. They attacked Eecke but were held off. They attacked Caestre and were driven back by the 4th Royal Sussex, who knocked out six tanks and captured their crews. They attacked the 5th Royal Sussex who were holding Strazeele and the road towards Estaires, and again were unsuccessful.(13) And in the afternoon they withdrew after an expensive and unprofitable day. Then the 131st Brigade (only arrived that morning from the eastern front) came in to strengthen this line, occupying Strazeele with a flank guard at Merris and the nearby Clyte Hill. What remained of the 23rd division was behind them but by now incapable of further fighting. The rest of the 46th Division was also now in the rearward area of the 48th Division.
From the Lys Canal at St Venant to La Bassée is a distance of about fifteen miles. To guard this, so that the main French and British forces could be withdrawn to the Lys during the coming night, was the 2nd Division’s responsibility. For them the battle reached its crisis on this day. Their 6th Brigade was on the right, responsible for the St Venant–Robecq sector; the 4th Brigade was in the centre,
responsible to beyond Béthune; the 5th held from there to La Bassée. Further east the French First Army held the front.
No one visiting the quiet little town of St Venant for the first time would consider that it had military importance. Yet the contrast between its past and the peaceful history of any comparable town in England could hardly be greater. St Venant has seen many actions and suffered many sieges. Sir Thomas Morgan, one of Cromwell’s commanders, took it from the Spaniards in 1657; Marlborough took it from the French in 1710; in 1940 it had been taken by the Germans on May the 24th and recaptured by the British 2nd Division on May the 25th (page 146). It was held on the morning of the 27th by the 6th Brigade’s right flank battalion, the 1st Royal Welch Fusiliers, and part of the 2nd Durham Light Infantry. It will be remembered that the Welch Fusiliers had a detached company holding Robecq, but between St Venant and Robecq the enemy had penetrated. On the morning of the 27th composite forces of tanks and infantry attacked both places. The troops holding St Venant had heavy casualties and were gradually borne back and enclosed. As evening drew on, the enemy had tanks beyond the canal bridge behind St Venant. When at last the order to withdraw north of the Lys reached the reduced garrison they had to fight their way out and but a fraction of the battalions got through. The detached company of Welch Fusiliers holding Robecq, which had been isolated and completely surrounded the day before, also tried to fight its way back to the Lys, but few avoided capture.
Through the gap east of St Venant the enemy’s armoured columns had advanced on Merville and Lesterm. Merville was practically surrounded. A machine-gun company of the 6th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders sent to assist the 6th King’s Own came under heavy fire as they approached, and could not get into the town. The enemy was reinforced by troops landed by aircraft on the nearby airfield (which our gunners shelled) but the garrison held out till night-time when, on orders to withdraw, those who were left managed very skilfully to get away. The third battalion of the 6th Brigade—the 1st Royal Berkshire—also suffered heavily before they too were drawn back to the north.(14)
Meanwhile the 4th Brigade had met an armoured attack, preceded by artillery fire and dive-bombing, and had been gradually forced to fall back on Paradis and Locon. The 1st Royal Scots, the 2nd Royal Norfolk and the 1st/8th Lancashire Fusiliers fought there to a finish and were gradually overwhelmed. Their last signals were received late in the afternoon.(15) The 25th brigade, which was being held as a reserve north of the Lys, sent the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers and a battery of the 65th Anti-Tank Regiment to form a defensive line on the Canal de Lawe from Lesterm to Vieille Chapelle, and the.
5th Dragoon Guards continued this rear-guard position from there to Neuve Chapelle.
On the 5th Brigade front between Béthune and La Bassée the enemy established posts across the canal at dawn, on the left of the 7th Worcestershire. At five-thirty in the morning, the reserve company of the 1st Camerons–now only forty-five strong—supported by six French tanks and artillery fire, counter-attacked and drove the enemy back across the canal. But in doing so thirty-nine of the forty-five were killed or wounded, and though the gap between the Camerons and the Worcestershire was cleared, numbers were so reduced that it could not be reoccupied. In the meantime the enemy had advanced from Gorre northwards and the 2nd Dorsetshire faced west to form a defensive flank. The 1st Camerons similarly formed a defensive flank covering the gap between the battalion and the 7th Worcestershire.(16)
By ten o’clock in the morning the enemy again succeeded in crossing the canal in the 7th Worcestershire sector, and throughout the morning the enemy’s tanks were massing north of the canal between Givenchy and La Bassée; opposite the 1st Camerons, seven were put out of action. Festubert, Givenchy and Violaines, north of La Bassée, were now being held, and in the early afternoon the enemy’s armoured attack reopened. La Bassée and Violaines were attacked from the west and a column of tanks moved round the north of Violaines and attacked la Bassée from the east. The 1st Camerons were almost surrounded but the 5th Brigade Anti-Tank Company helped them to claim twenty-one tanks! About three o’clock Brigadier G. I. Gartlan ordered a withdrawal when opportunity offered. Shortly after, ten tanks of the Royal Tank Regiment counter-attacked the German armour at Violaines, and thought they lost all but three of their tanks their action helped the remnant of the Camerons and Worcestershire to get away. About one hundred, all that were left of the two battalions, reached Laventie by early evening. The 2nd Dorsetshire and a company of the 7th Worcestershire remained holding a defensive position at Festubert. The enemy attacked with tanks from half past five in the evening till seven o’clock; and thought they came in from half past five in the evening till seven o’clock; and though they came in from three sides they were held off. Remnants of the two battalions began to fall back at half past nine and, moving across country, got through the enemy and reached Estaires soon after midnight.(17)
The fight of the 2nd Division has been described in some detail in an attempt to convey the idea of what lay behind the sentence in Lord Gort’s despatch: ‘2nd Division, now reduced to less than the strength of an infantry brigade, had fought hard and had sustained a strong enemy tank attack.’(18) It had indeed sacrificed itself to keep open the line of retirement to the Lys and delay the junction of the
two German army groups which would have cut off all the French First Army. The outline that has been drawn would need to be filled in to give an adequate picture of the steadfast courage of the troops in the division. It would not be enough to tell the deeds of the infantry, for they were supported with equal stout-heartedness by all available artillery and machine guns and by what few tanks remained of the 4th/7th Royal Tank Regiment. The artillery comprised the 10th, 74th and 99th Field Regiments, 139th Army Field Regiment, 61st Medium Regiment and 13th Anti-Tank Regiment; and the machine-gun battalions were the 6th Argyll and Sutherland and the 2nd Manchester. All lost heavily.
While the main British forces were on this night behind the Lys according to plan, only part of the French First Army managed to get there. Many of their units had had to come from much farther south and were still in the Lille area. Before they could get back to the Lys, German attacks from the east and from the west met behind them and a considerable part of the French First Army was enclosed.
The German forces which had been attacking the 2nd Division were the 3rd, 4th and 7th Armoured Divisions and the motorised S.S.T. (Totenkopf) Division: the 44th Division had opposed the 8th and part of the 6th Armoured Divisions and the motorised S.S.V. (Verfügungs) Division. All these were in the Kleist and Hoth Groups in the Fourth Army of Army Group A.(19) In the War Diary of the Sixth Army (Army Group B) it is recorded that Group Kleist wirelessed that their objective on the 27th was Kemmel and Poperinghe and that the Kleist Group were informed that the objective of the Sixth Amry (which was attacking our 5th Division between Ypres and Comines) was also Kemmel.(20) This pincer movement on Kemmel had been ordered by the German Army High Command on the 26th;(21) as has been shown the southern claw had made little progress. The German accounts of the British interference with Kleist’s arm of this dual attack tell how fighting during the afternoon appeared to the XXXXI Corps of the Group:
… At every position heavy fighting has developed—especially at every village and indeed in every house. In consequence the corps has not been able to make any notable headway to the east or north-east. Casualties in personnel and equipment are grievous. The enemy are fighting tenaciously and, to the last man, remain at their posts: if they are shelled out of one position, they shortly reappear in another to carry on the fight. The enemy appear to have very good observation for their artillery fire. ...1(22)
Army Group B were constantly lamenting the absence of armour,
but the XXXXI Corps Diary contains a note here on the unsuitability of tanks against well-defended positions:
As already stressed above the actions fought on this day have exacted severe losses in personnel and equipment, and from them it is clearly possible to draw the following brief conclusion: when engaged against enemy troops stubbornly defending a partly fortified field position, and particularly barricaded villages, the armoured divisions is not so suitable because it does not command sufficient infantry forces and because tanks make good targets for numbers of emplaced anti-tank weapons.2(23)
And the following conclusion is recorded by XXXIX Corps in Hoth Group:
As foreseen the enforced two-day halt on the southern bank of the canal produced two results on 27th May:
1. The troops suffered considerable casualties when attacking across the La Bassée Canal, now stubbornly defended by the enemy.
2. There was no longer time to intercept effectively the stream of French and English troops escaping westward from the Lille area towards the Channel.3(24)
The German conduct of the day’s fighting was stained by the shameful misconduct of one of the formations engaged. A hundred men of the 2nd Royal Norfolk were taken prisoner when the house in which they were surrounded was finally overrun by troops of the S.S. Totenkopf Division. They had fought hard and many were wounded. After being disarmed and searched they were ordered to march in single file past a large barn wall. As they did so two machine guns which had been set up 30 yards away mowed them down. between them and the barn there was a large declivity into which they fell and there any who still showed signs of life were shot or bayoneted. Two, who were badly wounded but were hidden by bodies which fell across them, managed to crawl away when the Germans had left the scene of butchery. They were subsequently take prisoners by another unit who knew how to behave and were sent to hospital and well cared for, and eventually they were repatriated. The German office who gave the order for this mass-murder was himself captured later in the war, convicted by a British court martial and sentenced to be hanged. It is but fair to the German Army to note that these S.S. units were formed by the Nazi Party and were not part of the Regular Army, though many of their officers had been Regular soldiers. But it is also noteworthy that the Army authorities left the crime unpunished, though it was fully reported to them at the time.(25)
The Royal Air Force had done their best to interfere with the
enemy’s progress on this day. Reconnaissance had noted the increased movement during the morning, and in the afternoon successive attacks were made by Blenheims at half past two, four, just before seven, and again half an hour later. Their targets were moving columns, tanks, anti-aircraft batteries, troop concentrations, a troop train, and motor transport. Thirty-six bombers were employed; two were lost. Six Swordfish of the Fleet Air Arm, under the orders of Coastal Command, also bombed enemy batteries near Mardick, the western limit of the Dunkirk beachhead after the French had withdrawn from Gravelines.(26)
An even larger bombing programme, which had been arranged with the French Command, was carried on through the night by Bomber Command and the Advanced Air Striking Force. Thirty-six Battles bombed enemy airfields, dumps, and railways, and ten Hampdens bombed enemy communications in the Meuse area. Thirty-five Wellingtons bombed communications near Courtrai, Tournai, Aire, and St Omer. Thirteen Hampdens bombed railways in Germany. Thirty-eight Whitleys bombed marshalling yards. Eighteen Hampdens bombed oil refineries in Germany.(27) The great effort made by Fighter Command to cover the Dunkirk area has already been told.
On the eastern front the divisions still holding the old frontier position—the 42nd, 1st, 3rd and 4th Divisions—were to withdraw during then night to the Lys, with the French First Army conforming. The 42nd Division was to keep rear-guard (125th Brigade) on the Deule Canal between Lille and Marquette, while the 126th and 127th Brigades moved back to the Lys. the 1st Division was to send three battalions to help the 5th Division to fill the gap which had opened between the British left and the Belgian Army, and for the rest the division was to move back to hold the Dunkirk perimeter. The 4th Division was to move one brigade (the 12th) to the Lys, while the 10th and 11th went to strengthen the 5th Division on the front between Ypres and Comines. The 3rd Division was to sidestep in order to prolong the front on the Ypres–Comines Canal from Boesinghe northwards.(28) The result of these moves is seen in the map facing page 202, which shows where the divisions were on the morning of the 28th.
The moves were successfully carried out. The 42nd Division encountered some enemy tanks in the Lille area but drove them off, and an enemy attack on the 2nd Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire in the 4th Division was driven back by the 1st Coldstream Guards, who covered the final withdrawal of the 10th Brigade. The 2nd Royal Fusiliers of the 12th Brigade also held off a determined attack which was maintained all day, and then managed to withdraw during the night.(29)
Withdrawal routes had been agreed with the French First Army,
but throughout the withdrawal to the coast French troops with horse-drawn transport cutting in to the roads allotted to the British Expeditionary Force made movement difficult and at time almost impossible. As already told only a part of the French First Army withdrew on the Lys on this day; a large force remained in the Lille area, where they were surrounded and surrendered only after holding out for four more days.(30) During that time, as the situation maps show, considerable enemy forces were occupied in attacking these stubbornly resisting divisions of the French First Army—forces which would otherwise have been able to intensify the attack on Allied divisions withdrawing to the coast.
While these moves were in progress a furious battle was developing on the II Corps front south of Ypres which had been exposed by the Belgian withdrawal. There, three enemy divisions—the northern claw of the German pincer movement, sought to break through to Kemmel.(31) The 2nd Division had, as already told, held off the attack of the southern claw and their task was completed at the end of the day (27th) when our main forces were behind the Lys. On the Ypres front it was General Franklyn’s 5th Division which bore the weight of the enemy’s attack,(32) and on this front the battle was to rage for three days till our main forces were inside the Dunkirk bridgehead. It will be seen later that as it grew in intensity the corps commander (General Brooke) strengthened the 5th Division progressively by additional artillery and infantry, until by the evening of the 27th General Franklyn had under his command in addition to the artillery and infantry of his own division (the 5th) the corps artillery of I Corps; 13th/18th Hussars; a brigade group (143rd) from the 48th Division; two brigades (10th and 11th) and the Royal Engineers from the 4th Division; three battalions from the 1st Division; and two battalions of machine guns.(33) The presence of these additional units must be remembered when the 5th Division is mentioned in the story of their fight. As the battle progressed the 3rd and 50th Divisions also played important parts, but it was the augmented 5th Division with which General Franklyn fought off the main attack at this most critical stage.
On the 26th, the 143rd Brigade from the 48th Division had arrived first of the troops being sent to extend II Corps’ front to the north of Comines. Between Comines and Ypres they put their three battalions over the whole stretch of the canal between those places until the 5th Division’s arrival in the area. Then the 143rd (who then immediately north of Comines and the 5th Division’s own 13th and 17th Brigades occupied the remainder of the Canal Line to the right-angle bend north of Hollebeke and from there continued on the railway line to Zillebeke, three miles south-east of Ypres.(34)
The 12th Lancers, holding Ypres till infantry arrived, had found there only a few Belgian engineers preparing bridges on the west of the town for demolition, for on this front Belgium had signified her neutrality by preparing defences which faced France. The town was not attacked on the 27th, but the canal and railway line from Comines to Ypres, which was held when morning broke by three brigades (the 143rd, the 13th and the 17th), was attacked violently by three Germans divisions after a heavy bombardment by artillery, mortars and dive-bombers.(35) In the 143rd Brigade sector immediately north of Comines, the battalions on the front fought till they were being borne down by numbers, before they were ordered to retire. On their left the 13th Brigade had the 2nd Cameronians and the 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers on the canal, and the 2nd Wiltshire in reserve on high ground 500 to 1,000 yards to the east of the Warneton–St Eloi road. The main weight of the enemy’s thrusts penetrated at Houthem and Hollebeke (on the flanks, that is, of the brigade frontage) and also between the Cameronians and the Inniskillings. With each forward battalion doubly outflanked, they were ordered to fall back, and the 2nd Wiltshire reserve position then became the front.(36)
Meanwhile a counter-attack was made in the southern sector of the 143rd Brigade front, between the Warneton–Comines Canal and the road between those places. It was a spirited affair, planned by the commanding officer of the 6th Black Watch, who, with his headquarters and one weak platoon, was in Warneton. Royal Engineers of the 4th Division, acting as infantry, had taken up a defensive line screening Warneton on the east. The Black Watch platoon and these sappers constituted the infantry for the counter-attack: the latter were the 7th, 59th and 225th Field Companies. They were to support two squadrons of the 13th/18th Hussars. The counter-attack went in at seven o’clock in the evening and succeeded in driving the enemy back and in consolidating the line of the Kortekeer river. the 13th/18th Hussars in fact reached the Ypres–Comines Canal, but suffered heavy casualties in doing so and had to be drawn back. Earlier in the day General Brooke, impressed by the threatening position in the gap caused by the Belgian withdrawal, ordered the 1st Division to reinforce General Franklyn with three infantry battalions, and the 3rd Grenadier Guards, the 2nd North Staffordshire, and the 2nd Sherwood Foresters were moved north. Late in the evening they too counter-attacked on the left of the 143rd Brigade, supported by the guns of the 97th Army Field Regiments, four Medium regiments and one Heavy battery of I Corps artillery.(37) The attacking infantry, the 3rd Grenadier Guards and 2nd North Staffordshire, started shortly after eight o’clock and came under heavy artillery and mortar fire from the enemy; but they
continued to advance in spite of casualties till, an hour before midnight, they reached the line of the Kortekeer river and gained touch with the sappers who had counter-attacked earlier on the right. When the day ended, our front here had been pressed back to a line which ran from the junction of the Kortekeer river with the canal, west of Comines, to St Eloi on the Warneton–Ypres road, farther north the 17th Brigade’s forward battalions, the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers and the 6th Seaforth Highlanders, had also been withdrawn, after hard fighting, from the railway line south of Zillebeke to the west bank of the Ypres–Comines Canal, where the 2nd Northamptonshire had a small reserve. At about eight in the evening the enemy attacked them again, and the 17th Brigade were gradually forced back to the Warneton–St Eloi road.(38) The 10th Brigade from the 4th Division was meanwhile brought up and the 2nd Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire and the 2nd Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry were put in to hold a two-mile stretch of the road north of Oostaverne.
By now the 50th Division had arrived, and the 150th and 151st Brigades prolonged the line through Ypres northwards while the 12th Lancers made touch with the Belgian Army near Roulers. The Belgians were found to be swinging back in a north-easterly direction so that the gap between them and the 50th Division was widening. For the time being it was covered by the 12th Lancers with a detachment of the 101st Army Field Company of the Royal Engineers, but the 3rd Division was side-stepping and, before the night was over, they were in position on the left of the 50th Division.(39) So far the enemy had achieved nothing of importance. His plan to break through had failed and the gap created by the Belgian withdrawal had been nearly closed. Yet the situation was critical and the danger increased as the hours wore on.
At Lord Gort’s Command Post the day had opened with the receipt of a personal message from the Prime Minister to the Commander-in-Chief:
At this solemn moment I cannot help sending you my good wishes. No one can tell how it will go. But anything is better than being cooped up and starved out … I feel very anxious about Ostend till it is occupied by a brigade with artillery … A column directed upon Calais while it is still holding out might have a good chance … We shall give you all that the Navy and Air Force can do … (40)
Mr Churchill realised that Lord Gort’s main purpose must now be withdrawal to the coast for evacuation, but the suggestion that he should send a column to relieve Calais and put a brigade group into Ostend also shows that the Prime Minister did not, at that time, appreciate fully either the strength of the surrounding German forces, the weakness of the Belgian position, or the danger in which these involved the British Expeditionary Force. Nor did he know,
apparently, that Calais had been in enemy hands since the previous evening.
The Secretary of State for War sent a message to Sir Richard Howard-Vyse, head of the British Military Mission at French General Headquarters, instructing him to consult General Weygand as to the eventual destination of the British Expeditionary Force and any French force that it might prove possible to evacuation especially respect destination in France to which they wish these units transferred in due course. …’ He was to ‘make plain that we have every intention continue struggle side by side with our Allies’.(41) The Prime Minister had already sent a message on this subject to Sir Roger Keyes for transmission to the King of the Belgians. ‘… What can we do for him? Certainly we cannot serve Belgium’s cause by being hemmed in and starved out. Only hope is victory and England will never quit the war whatever happens till Hitler is beat or we cease to be a State. … Should our operations prosper and we establish effective bridgehead we would try if desired to carry some Belgian divisions to France by sea.’(42)
It is clear, therefore, that at this date evacuation was seen as a way to reunite the severed forces of the Allies by use of the sea. The Weygand Plan had sought to do so on land, but transfer by sea via England was now the only route open and the Secretary of State ‘in case smallest doubt’ informed Lord Gort that ‘your sole task now is to evacuate to England maximum of your forces possible’.(43)
French policy was less clear-cut. At seven-thirty in the morning (27th) General Sir Roland Adam attended a conference in Cassel at which there were also present Admiral Abrial (the French commander at Dunkirk), General Fagalde (commanding the French XVI Corps—two French divisions of the original Seventh Army, which remained in the coastal sector)—General Blanchard (commanding the First Group of Armies) and General Koeltz, representing General Weygand.(44) Before the conference began, Sir Ronald Adam and General Fagalde drew up a plan for the defence of the Dunkirk perimeter from Gravelines to Nieuport. The French were to be responsible for the sector west of Dunkirk; the British for the area from Dunkirk to Nieuport. ‘The possibility of the Belgian Army being included was not discussed as its situation was obscure …’(45) These matters were reopened at the full conference and the plans agreed were not questioned, and various consequential decisions in regard to transport and the organisation of troops retiring within the Dunkirk perimeter were considered. Yet early in the afternoon General Prioux, commanding the French First Army, issued a General Order to his corps commanders that ‘The battle will be fought without thought of retreat on the Lys position’.(46)
Thus, while the Cassel conference agreed how the Dunkirk bridge-head
was to be organised for the reception of retiring forces, the whole of the French effectives which were not already in the coastal sector were ordered to stand finally on the Lys. This was not all. The commander of the French XVI Corps had agreed with Sir Ronald Adam to be responsible for defending the western half of the bridgehead. But General Koeltz speaking for General Weygand urged the French XVI Corps to recapture Calais, and neither General Blanchard nor General Fagalde pointed out that the proposal was incompatible: for even while it was being urged, French troops were preparing to withdraw from Gravelines under pressure of enemy divisions which they would have to defeat if Calais were to be recaptured.
Meanwhile on the Belgian front affairs went from bad to worse. By midday, the line by Belgian forces came to an end at Zonnebeke. From there to Ypres there was gap which the Belgians could not fill through General van Overstraeten stated in a message that ‘the Belgians believe that the protection of the British left is assured in the most effective way by the dispositions of the Belgian Army and by the fight which they have been waging for four days on a 50-kilometre front forward of the Yser’.(47)
With the end of Belgian resistance in sight Lord Gort received the following message from Sir Roger Keyes who was with the Belgian King:
… He wishes you to know that his army is greatly disheartened. It has been incessantly engaged for four days and subjected to intense air bombardment which the RAF have been unable to prevent. The knowledge that the allies armies in this sector have been encircled and that the Germans have great superiority in the air has led his troops to believe that the position is almost hopeless. He fears a moment is rapidly approaching when he can no longer rely upon his troops to fight or be of any further use to the BEF. He wishes you to realise that he will be obliged to surrender before a débâcle. The King fully appreciates that the BEF has done everything in its power to help Belgium and he asks you to believe that he has done everything in his power to avert this catastrophe.(48)
While the Commander-in-Chief now realised that the Belgian front was collapsing and might shortly expose his left flank, while all the British forces were fully engaged in a final effort to hold the German attack and to fight its way back to the coast—while his mind was concentrated on these grim and urgent tasks, Lord Gort received one more message from General Weygand:
General Weygand makes a personal appeal to General Gort. The British Army must participate strongly in the necessary joint counter-attacks. Situation demands hard hitting.4(49)
What were the counter-attacks in which the British Army was to participate strongly is not clear.
Sir Roger Keyes’ message that the Belgian King ‘wishes you to realise that he will be obliged to surrender before débâcle’ had been received by Lord Gort late in the morning. During the afternoon the Needham Mission at Belgian General Headquarters sent a telegram giving the position at three o’clock that afternoon and adding: ‘Situation still very confused but indications are that the Belgian front may be crumbling.’ Just before six o’clock they sent a further message. ‘Belgian front has broken under ceaseless bombing. King asking for an armistice now.’(50) This message seems to have gone astray. The War Diary makes no mention of its receipt and certainly it did not reach either Lord Gort or his Chief of Staff. Although therefore the earlier messages had prepared Lord Gort for what was likely to happen, it came to him as a shock when, at eleven o’clock that night, he learnt from the French admiral’s headquarters at Dunkirk that the Belgian surrender was timed for midnight. In fact that Belgian emissary had arrived in the German lines at seven-thirty in the evening to ask the terms on which an armistice would be granted.(51) The German reply was ‘unconditional surrender’, terms which in later years were imposed by the Allies on the German Army.
By midnight on May the 278th the King of the Belgians had accepted defeat and the Belgian Army had been ordered to cease fire. On the eastern front there was now a twenty-mile open gap between the left of II Corps and the coast near Nieuport. The position is shown on the adjoining situation map.