Chapter 13: After the Belgian Surrender, 28th May, 1940
The movements of the British Expeditionary Force in the withdrawal to the Dunkirk bridgehead will be most easily understood by reference to the situation map facing page 202. The positions held by the British Army at five o’clock in the morning of the 28th are shown first. It will be seen from these that the retreat to the Lys had been practically completed during the night. By five o’clock in the morning of the 28th only the 42nd Division still had a rear-guard of one brigade (the 125th) on the bend of the Deule Canal running northwards from Lille; while the 4th Division’s 12th Brigade had also a small rear-guard on the canal bend. On the main eastern front, facing the German Army Group B, the augmented 5th Division and the 50th and 3rd Divisions still held the line from Warneton through Ypres to near Noordschote. In the twenty-mile gap between Noordschote and the coast beyond Nieuport, there were as yet no British divisions; only some cavalry of the French 2nd Light Mechanised Division (which had been placed by General Blanchard under General Brooke’s command) and the 12th Lancers watched this open left flank, while a detachment of sappers from the 101st Army Field Company, Royal Engineers, worked energetically to destroy the bridges between Dixmude and Nieuport. The surrender of the Belgian Army left the way clear for a rapid German advance at this point of supreme danger to the army retiring to the coast, and throughout the day German divisions which were no longer required to overcome Belgian resistance were being moved towards it.(2) Meanwhile their attack on our positions between Warneton and Ypres was renewed with increased violence.
As already pointed out this battle, which had begun on the 25th and was to continue until all our forces were within the Dunkirk bridgehead, was of crucial importance to the British Expeditionary Force. Just as the 2nd Division fought the south-western battle to keep the way open for the first stages of the British retreat, so the divisions of II Corps fought this longer, fiercer battle of the north-east to keep open the way for the last stages. General Brooke directed operations with great skill on a plan which the enemy was not allowed seriously to upset. And it succeeded because the troops under his command fought with a steadfast courage which matched his leadership.
The augmented 5th Division, under General Franklyn, again endured violent and sustained attacks on this day. The sappers who on the previous day had held the line of the Kortekeer river immediately north of the Comines–Warneton Canal were withdrawn in the night of the 27th/28th, and there the full weight of the renewed attack on the morning of the 28th fell on the 3rd Grenadiers and the 2nd North Staffordshire. Well supported by artillery and machine guns, they fought all day and yielded no ground although they suffered heavy losses.(3) On their left—all under command of the 5th Division—were the 2nd battalions of the Sherwood Foresters (1st Division), Wiltshire, Cameronians, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (5th Division), Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (4th Division), Royal Scots Fusiliers and Northamptonshire, with the 6th Seaforth Highlanders (5th Division) continuing the defence northwards. The attacks began at four o’clock in the morning under heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire. In attack and counter-attack all the battalions had severe casualties, but the line of the Warneton–St Eloi road was held. At one critical point carriers of The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry counter-attacked and restored the situation, thought they lost more than half their strength in doing so. When the battle died down at the end of a long day’s fighting the strength of the 5th Division’s two brigades was reduced in each case to about 600.(4) The artillery deserve a large share of the credit for holding the German attack. Not only the field regiments but I Corps artillery fired almost continuously till their ammunition was in the end exhausted.(5)
But the German divisions had been held off for another day, and the 5th Division, in accordance with plans for the withdrawal to the Dunkirk bridgehead, moved in the night to the line of the Yser where they were joined by the 42nd Division.
The 50th and 3rd Divisions on their left, heavily shelled and subjected to some attacks from the air, were in contact with the enemy all day, but, except for one assault on the centre of the 50th Division which was beaten back, the enemy was not yet up to our line in strength for a serious effort to advance. During the night the 50th Division moved as planned to a line running north-east from Poperinghe, and the right of the 3rd Division swung back to conform.(6) The French 2nd Light Mechanised Division had moved behind the Loo Canal, and the French 60th Infantry Division which had come from near Bruges ‘had been overwhelmed in the loop of the Yser, its survivors were gathered up by the 2nd Light Mechanised Division … and by the British who held the Furnes–Nieuport Canal’.1
Thus, in spite of all the enemy’s efforts to break through, in spite
of the Belgian surrender, and in spite of heavy losses in General Franklyn’s 5th Division, II Corps, holding the eastern flank of the corridor to the coast, completed the penultimate stage of the withdrawal. The positions held by five o’clock next morning (the 29th) are shown on the situation map facing page 202.
The 5th Division’s staunch defence of the Ypres–Comines front had defeated the assault of three German divisions, had certainly saved II Corps, and equally certainly the British Expeditionary Force. What these two days’ fighting meant to the troops involved has been indicated. What they meant to the corps commander can be seen in an extract from General Brooke’s diary for two critical days:
26th May: LOMME
Left early to visit 5 Div. in Plugstreet Wood: found them busy getting in. Motored to left of 5 Div. on canal to find them just debussing. On to country east of Ypres to look for Belgians. Not a sign of them anywhere.
In Zillebeke found Postal Services of 1st French Motorised Div., but no fighting troops.
Proceeded south along canal and railway on east side of it. Half mile north of Houthem crossed under railway bridge to west side, I was barely across when bridge was blown up; and on proceeding into Houthem, found German shells bursting which I mistook for bombs to start with. Situation was very serious: Germans had started attack no canal at Houthem and 4,000 yards further north the flank was entirely open.
Dashed back to GHQ where I secured 1 Brigade of 50th Div. and directed it on Ypres in M.T. [motor transport]. Informed that GHQ had received instructions for evacuation of BEF. Later secured second Brigade of 50th Div. and instructed it to follow on to Ypres to extent line northwards.
Very heavy bombing of Armentières and surrounding country.
27th May: L’ALOUETTE FERME
A very heavy day.
Held conference of 3 and 4 Divs. at Bondues at 8 a.m. Called on 1 Div. H.Q. Wambrechies to stop them using 3 Div. road for retirement.
Proceeded to 5 Div. H.Q. Plugstreet where I discovered that his front was being very heavily shelled. On to Ypres to see Martel, found Haydon’s Brigade holding Ypres but out of touch with 5 Div. Other Brigade coming up. Some of 2 D.L.M. on canal north of Ypres.
Back to 5 Div. to organise steps to establish touch with 50 Div.
On to GHQ to report situation.
Back to my H.Q. in Lomme where I ordered 3 Div. to relieve 1 Bde. of 4 Div., latter to proceed at once to assistance of 5 Div.
On to I Corps where I raised 3 Bns. of 1 Div. which had already been withdrawn and were behind Plugstreet.
Placed them also under 5 Div.
Back to GHQ where I raised 7 Infantry Tanks [from what remained of the 1st Army Tank Brigade now in GHQ reserve] which were also directed to 5 Div. Then back to Lomme against treble stream of French Army retiring. Orders for further Bde. from 4 Div. to proceed to 5 Div. on withdrawal and to be established on Wytschaete.
Back to Bondues to 3 Div. H.Q. to explain situation and final dispositions for withdrawal of 3 Div.
Returned to Lomme and on to GHQ to find they had gone without any orders as to where they were going.
8 p.m. closed down Lomme and moved to L’Alouette just north of Plugstreet. From there back to 5 Div. to discover situation and discuss results of fighting and plans for next day’s retirement and rumbled past all night within a few thousand yards of front on which 5 Div. supported by 3 Bds. and all Corps Heavy Artillery had been fighting a life and death struggle all day.
Belgians seemed to have vanished off the map.(7)
Lord Gort’s Headquarters had left Premesques that afternoon, spent the night at Houtkerque and on the 28th were established at La Panne in the Dunkirk bridgehead.(8) The 3rd Division was side-stepping to the left of the British front (page 196) at the time of the above entry.
On the long western flank of the corridor, where British troops faced the armoured and infantry divisions of Army Group A, the position was less satisfactory. General Wason’s III Corps was far weaker. The 48th Division had only two brigades, for it will be remembered that the 143rd had gone to strengthen the 5th Division on the Ypres front. The only other division ‘in the line’ was the hard-fought 44th, for what little remained of the 46th was held back in reserve behind Cassel. And not only were much smaller forces available in these two divisions; they were extended over more than twenty miles, so that there must be many gaps through which German armour could penetrate unhindered. It will be seen from the map facing page 202 that, at the beginning of the 28th, the 48th Division held a series of strongpoints—Soex, Wormhoudt, Ledringhem, Cassel and Hazebrouck. The 144th Brigade held the Soex–Ledringhem sector; the 145th Cassel and Hazebrouck.(9)
An order issued from General Headquarters at about two o’clock in the afternoon of the 28th set Poperinghe as the pivot of the line to which withdrawal would take place in the night, but ‘within the outline of these orders’ corps commanders were to use their full
discretion and to move as many men as possible into the Dunkirk bridgehead. II Corps needed no fresh instructions and was given freedom to hold a line from Poperinghe to Ypres and on to some point north of Ypres. In fact, they held from Poperinghe to near Noordschoete. I Corps, now only the 1st Division (less the three battalions which had gone to strengthen the 5th division) and the 42nd Division, were to retire to a position between Poperinghe and Proven, but in fact the 42nd Division went further north to the Yser and the 1st Division reached the perimeter of the Dunkirk bridgehead. Instructions to III Corps were less clear. The 48th Division was given no orders but was told that these would be issued when French dispositions had been ascertained; the 44th Division was ordered to retire ‘to frontier defences’ but no area was specified; the 2nd Division was to move back to Beveren on the Yser (the sector to which the 42nd actually retired). The 44th and 2nd Divisions could not carry out these instructions, and clearly they were based on insufficient information in regard to conditions on the corps front.(10)
The wide dispersal of the 48th and 44th Divisions and the fact that the enemy’s advanced columns had already penetrated between the positions they held had made the maintenance of communications very difficult, and General Wason was not yet able to get into personal touch with his divisional commanders.(11)
Use of wireless was very limited and uncertain. Much had to depend on liaison officers and dispatch riders, and as the principal roads were often choked with traffic or cut by the enemy, the delivery of message was a slow and precarious business. Moreover, Advanced General Headquarters was moving on both the 27th and the 28th and had been forced off the line of the buried cable which ran through Cassel. Only meagre and uncertain information was available to senior commanders and they could only communicate infrequently and with difficulty with units who were fighting or on the move. The divisional commanders who controlled this fighting knew that they were acting as a flank guard during the withdrawal to the coast. Troops in their commanders were largely ignorant of what was happening outside their own observation, and to many of them all seemed confusion. They encountered the enemy in unlikely places, they moved often in seemingly purposeless ways, and, contrary to all their training, they were ordered to dump unessential kit and stores, to destroy guns that could not be moved and vehicles no longer required. The over-all control by III Corps was in fact largely ineffective at this date.(12) But the divisional commanders knew what it was they must do and their action ensured that the general plan of withdrawal was carried out. Many men of the units who fought to the end to hold back the enemy were inevitably killed, wounded, or finally captured—but practically no one else was left behind. Below
the surface confusion the tide ran strongly northwards, and parties which had been separated from their units in the course of fighting or by the congestion of traffic, and refugees on the line of march, were caught up by the stream setting towards the coast. When they arrived there they were reorganised to hold the perimeter or were sent to the beach for evacuation to England if they could now be spared.
In default of orders, General Thorne could not know how long the 48th Division was expected to maintain its extended position. Even if the garrisons of Soex, Wormhoudt, Cassel and Hazebrouck could hold out, enemy penetration between those places might seriously interfere with withdrawals taking place farther east. He appealed to General Headquarters for reinforcements, and Brigadier Norman’s 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade and the 1st Welsh Guards (both of whom had been sent the day before to strengthen the defences of Cassel) were put under his command, as were also the 6th Green Howards from Usherforce. Part of Brigadier Norman’s brigade—the 1st East Riding Yeomanry—was left to help the 145th Brigade group at Cassel, but the rest, with the Welsh Guards, were moved north to hold the area Quaedypre, Vyfweg, West Cappel.(13)
The enemy attacked all the 48th Division’s strongholds during the day, and by six in the evening the road between Bergues and Cassel could no longer be used, Soex had been lost, Wormhoudt had become untenable, and all communications with Cassel and Hazebrouck had been lost. General Thorne ordered the 144th Brigade to retire during the night to the line of the Yser from Wylder to Bambecque and the move was duly carried out. But his message to the 145th Brigade at Cassel did not get through to them till six o’clock next morning, owing to the ditching of the armoured car which carried it.(14)
The 144th Brigade had heavy fighting before the time for their retirement. At Wormhoudt the 2nd Warwickshire were first attacked by tanks and infantry at eight o’clock in the morning, after heavy bombing followed by artillery and mortar fire. The attack was driven off, but later was renewed. Much of the town was on fire when enemy tanks and infantry broke in from two sides and there was fierce fighting amid the burning ruins. When the time for withdrawal arrived, the battalion was reduced to about a hundred of all ranks.(15) But the War Diary of the attacking German XIX Corps has an entry timed 1430 hours on this day which reads: ‘The Corps Commander is not counting on any success from this attack and is of the opinion that further useless sacrifice must be avoided after the severe casualties which the 3rd Armoured Regiment has suffered during the counter-attack.’2(16)
Meanwhile the 5th Gloucestershire in Ledringhem were surrounded,
and they were unable to disengage when the order to withdraw reached them. The enemy maintained his attack till after midnight, but failed to take the village. A little later, the fighting having died down, the Gloucestershire, much reduced in strength and with their commanding officer wounded, made their way across country through the enemy lines and rejoined their brigade on the Yser in accordance with their orders.(17) The 8th Worcestershire had already arrived there.
The 145th Brigade at Cassel were under continuous artillery and mortar fire all day, and the 2nd Gloucestershire fought off an attack on their position north of the town. But apart from this Cassel was not seriously attacked on the 28th.
In Hazebrouck, however, where the battalion headquarters and headquarters company of the 1st Buckinghamshire still had their ‘keep’ in the middle of the town, the enemy tried all day to overcome them. They shot the men of a German battery which sought to bring guns to bear at close range, and thereafter the Germans relied on mortars and sniping. The Buckinghamshires’ commanding officer was killed and the garrison steadily wasted through casualties. Ammunition began to run out, for the reserve in supply trucks blew up. A report adds laconically ‘The survivors were now definitely tired’. At about half pas six in the evening, he building which formed the keep collapsed under continuous shelling and mortar fire, and the enemy’s tanks and infantry, pushing in from all sides, at last overcame this stout-hearted garrison.(18) Of the 48th Division, only the 145th Brigade group at Cassel remained south of the Yser that night, for the 46th Division, which had been held under command in reserve behind Cassel, moved during the night to Teteghem in the Dunkirk bridgehead.
The 44th Division, in position on the canal running south-east from Hazebrouck and on the Caestre–Strazeele line, were subjected to heavy and continuous shelling and mortar fire all day, and were repeatedly attacked by infantry and tanks. Rouge Croix, between Caestre and Strazeele, was lost and retaken. Further south the road was crossed by the enemy, who took Clyte Hill, but that too was retaken. On the canal sector, La Motte was entered, recaptured, and lost again in a prolonged struggle; but though the Canal Line was eventually secured by the enemy, they made no substantial progress beyond it, and in the evening they abandoned the attack. Round both flanks of the divisional position, however, where there were no troops to oppose him, the enemy penetrated to Godewaersvelde on the north and Caudescure on the south.(19) The 2nd, 4th, and 5th Royal Sussex, 1st/5th and 1st/6th Queen’s, 1st, 4th and 5th Royal West Kent, a company of the 2nd Buffs and a detachment of Don Details suffered heavily in this day’s fighting, and some battalions
were reduced to the strength of weak companies before they were ordered to move north.
During the day the German XIX Corps commander (Guderian) made a tour of his forward positions. The Diary records his opinion that further tank attacks would involve ‘useless sacrifice of our best troop’: in his view the wise course is ‘to hold positions reached and to let 18 Army’s attack from the east take effect’.3
The Diary adds that after returning from his tour of the front Guderian advised the Chief of Staff to Kleist Group as follows:
1. After the Belgian capitulation continuation of operations here is not desirable as it is costing unnecessary sacrifices. The armoured divisions have only 50% of their armoured strength left and their equipment is in urgent need of repair if the Corps is to be ready again in a short time for other operations.
2. A tank attack is pointless in the marshy country which has been completely soaked by the rain. [It had rained heavily in the past twenty-four hours.] The troops are in possession of the high ground south of Dunkirk; they hold the important Cassel–Dunkirk road; and they have favourable artillery positions … from which they can fire on Dunkirk.
Furthermore 18 Army [of Army Group B] is approaching [Kleist] Group from the east. The infantry forces of this army are more suitable than tanks for fighting in this kind of country, and the task of closing the gap on the coast can therefore be left to them.4(20)
The Diary adds that Kleist group agreed: all three armoured divisions were to be withdrawn.
Between the British 44th Division and the divisions of II Corps on the eastern front lay the French First Army. By the morning of the 28th only its III Corps and the Cavalry Corps had got back to the Lys; the rest were still in the Lille area nearly surrounded by German divisions. Decision as to the French Army’s further movements had become a matter of urgency, for unless the French also moved promptly to the coast they would be left isolated when the British withdrawal from the Lys took place in the coming night. General Blanchard visited the Command Post at about eleven o’clock in the morning of the 28th and conferred with Lord Gort and General Pownall.(21) It was quickly apparent that although had had been present at the discussion of the defence of a Dunkirk bridgehead which had taken place at Cassel on the day before (page 197) he regarded retirement to the Lys as the final move; apparently the British decision to retire to the coast and evacuate to England, which had been notified by M. Reynaud and General Weygand on the 26th, had not been made known to him. When the British Government’s telegram
to Lord Gort was read to him, he was horrified. It is unnecessary to add anything to the account of this conference which is given in Lord Gort’s despatch, for the fact are not in dispute:
Next morning (28th May) General Blanchard arrived at my headquarters at Houtkerque at about 11 a.m., and I read him the telegram which I had received the previous day from the Secretary of State. It was then clear to me that whereas we had both received similar instructions from our own Government for the establishment of a bridgehead, he had, as yet, received no instructions to correspond with those I had received to evacuate my troops. General Blanchard therefore could not see his way to contemplate evacuation.
It then expressed to opinion that now the Belgian Army had ceased to exist, the only alternatives could be evacuation or surrender. The enemy threat to the north-eastern flank appeared certain to develop during the next forty-eight hours. The long south-western flank was being subjected to constant and increasing pressure, especially at Cassel and Wormhoudt, and the arrival of the enemy heavy columns could not be long delayed. These considerations could not be lightly dismissed. While this discussion was taking place a liaison officer arrived from General Prioux, now in command of the French 1st Army, to say that the latter did not consider his troops were fit to make any further move and that he therefore intended to remain in the area between Béthune and Lille, protected by the quadrangle of canals.
I then begged General Blanchard for the sake of France, the French Army and the Allied Cause to order General Prioux back. Surely I said, his troops were not all so tired as to be incapable of moving. The French Government would be able to provide ships at least for some of his troops and the chance of saving part of his trained solders was preferable to the certainty of losing them all. I could not move him. Finally he asked me formally whether it was my intention to withdraw that night to the line Cassel–Poperinghe–Ypres.
I replied in the affirmative and informed him that I now had formal orders from His Majesty’s Government to withdraw the BEF and that if I was to have any hope of carrying them out I must continue my move that night. General Blanchard’s parting was not unfriendly, and when he left I issued my orders for withdrawal to provide for that change of mind on the part of the French High Command for which I so sincerely hoped and which in fact took place later.5
The subsequent decisions of General Prioux, commanding the French First Army, were doubtless influenced by his knowledge of General Blanchard’s intention to stand on the Lys and by the absence of any orders to the contrary from General Georges or General Weygand. A liaison officer from Lord Gort’s headquarters who visited him during the morning understood him to say that he had
asked for permission to abandon all material (except a few guns for anti-tank protection) and withdraw across country through the area between lines drawn from Estaires to Bergues and from Armentières to Furnes (see situation map for 27th May). He had lost touch, then, with General Blanchard, and if the British withdrew from the Lys he too would withdraw on his own responsibility, starting before daylight on the 29th. He regarded his V Corps, still in the Little area, as lost.(22) This was in the morning.
At half past three in the afternoon, Major-General Osborne (whose 44th Division was immediately on the right of the French and who was therefore directly concerned to know when and by what routes the French intended to move) went to see General Prioux. There he learnt that General Prioux had now decided not to withdraw but to remain with his IV Corps on the Lys: only his III Corps and what remained of the Cavalry Corps would withdraw, starting at midday on the 29th. General Osborne tried hard to shake his decision and offered to stay and protect his flank if the whole French force would retire. But General Prioux held to his decision and General Osborne went to visit General de la Laurencie, commanding the French III Corps, which had been withdraw at noon on the 29th. General de la Laurencie told him that the III Corps would withdraw at eleven o’clock that night (the 28th), that is in two hours’ time; after that time there would be no protection for the 44th Division’s flank.(23)
General Osborne decided that instead of trying to make a long march immediately following such a hard day’s fighting, he would move only to the Mont de Cats, a naturally strong position six miles in rear, and from there continue the withdrawal on the following night. But moving cross-country in darkness units lost touch, and by dawn only the divisional headquarters and some elements of the division reached Mont de Cats. Till then the Mont had been held by as party of Royal Engineers, acting as infantry, with the 2nd Royal Horse Artillery, the 52nd and 65th Field Regiments and the 1st/8th Middlesex machine-gun battalion. The Horse Artillery had but two guns left and the Middlesex only twelve; and the gunners who had done much to save the infantry and to damage the enemy, were now few in number and short of ammunition.(24) The 44th Division was hardly capable of further operations, but it had fulfilled its task.
During the night the fragment that remained of the 2nd Division, no longer operational, withdrew to the Dunkirk bridgehead, moving with difficulty on the congested roads.
The roads to the coast presented an astonishing spectacle in those days when motor and horse-drawn transport of two armies, refugees on foot, stragglers and the fragments of units, and the withdrawing divisions all sought to find a way northwards. In the roadside fields burning equipment and abandoned stores heightened the appearance
of disintegration. But through the formless texture of the scene the British divisions which had been fighting by day and retiring at night wove a firmer thread; marching doggedly, tired and often hungry, shocked by all the crowding and confusion but too preoccupied to both much, they moved imperturbably through a crumbling world, upheld by discipline and the tradition of their Service.
The enemy sought in vain to stem the flow, and at intervals German bombing added to the confusion. Indeed, every circumstance seemed designed to upset calculations and interfere with plans, but Sir Ronald Adam’s arrangements for the organisation of the Dunkirk bridgehead worked, and with increasing inefficiency, as the days wore on and the fighting divisions came in. The traffic problem had been largely solved by good organisation, when on this day (the 28th) it was again immediately complicated as elements of the French 60th Division and later of their III Corps began to arrive. Some of their transport was mechanised but much of it horse-drawn, and none of the French troops appeared to have received orders to leave their vehicles outside the perimeter.(25) Seldom would they do so unless compelled by British control posts, and some of the roads inside the perimeter became choked and impassable.
British III Corps headquarters had taken over responsibility for the western sector of the bridgehead and for the defence of its perimeter from Dunkirk through Bergues to Warhem. Similarly, I Corps were now responsible for the central sector. For the eastern sector, Brigadier Lawson was still responsible until the arrival of the II Corps. This was at the moment the most dangerously exposed part of the bridgehead.
At eleven o’clock on the morning of the 28th when only a few hours had passed since the Belgian surrender, advanced troops of the enemy reached the perimeter between Nieuport and the sea coast. The 12th Lancers, guarding the exposed flank, drive off the first German patrols with considerable loss, but later in the day more of the enemy’s troops reached the perimeter defences.(26) The divisions of II Corps had not yet arrived and, interspersed with some French detachments, the defending troops consisted mainly of the detachments of the 53rd Medium and 2nd Medium Regiments, the 1st Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery, and of the 7th Field Company, Royal Engineers, all fighting as infantry. Heavy mortar and machine-gun fire was put down on their positions, and the enemy succeeded in capturing and holding an undestroyed bridge and a small bridgehead in the town of Nieuport.(27) But all subsequent attacks that day were successfully repulsed. The enemy’s possession of the Belgian coast, now that Belgium had surrendered, meant that La Panne beach could soon be brought under enemy fire. Realising the danger here General Brooke, who was to be responsible for the
eastern sector of the bridgehead, ordered all that was available of the 4th Division to move into the bridgehead as quickly as possible. Only the 12th Brigade was free to do so immediately, as the 10th and 11th were under command of the now much depleted 5th Division; and even the 12th Brigade could not arrive till the morning of the 29th. Nor could the then take over till evening, for the flat open country adjoining the canal made it impossible to carry out reliefs in daylight. The 4th Division took over the same night the front from Wulpen to Nieuport Bains.(28)
But while the eastern sector of the bridgehead was thus threatened, the situation in Dunkirk harbour on the 28th had improved, and early in the morning Captain Tennant asked for ships to be sent in to the mole, which had been found on the night before to be a practical substitute for the harbour quays. The destroyers Mackay, Montrose, Vimy, Worcester, Sabre and Anthony all entered and embarked large numbers, while others lifted men from the beaches.(29) There were still not enough small boats to ferry men from the shore and not enough skilled control of their use; and their handling was mad harder by a swell at sea which raised a surf on the beaches and led to the swamping of a good many boats in the hands of inexperienced soldiers. In the afternoon Lord Gort informed the War Office that some 20,000 men were waiting in the dunes and that the situation was critical.(30) But the Admiralty had already ordered ‘every available destroyer’ of the Portsmouth and Western Approaches Commands to be sailed for Dover and vigorous steps were being taken to collect still more small boats from rivers and estuaries of southern England. The Dutch schuyts, now mostly manned by naval crews, were starting to run a continuous service to Dunkirk from Margate and Ramsgate and a greatly increased and still increasing fleet was now at Admiral Ramsay’s disposal.(31)
Another good omen was that there was less interference from the air on this day for ‘the greater part of German bomber formations was employed in attacking the retreating enemy’.6(32) The Chief of Air Staff at home had called on the heads of all operational commands ‘to make their greatest effort today to assist their comrades of the Army and Navy’ and Fighter Command were ordered ‘to ensure the protection of Dunkirk beaches (three miles on either side) from first light until darkness by continuous fighter patrols in strength’. To fly continuously and in strength was beyond the power of the forces available, but they flew patrols at two-squadron strength with slightly longer intervals than the day before, when only single squadrons had patrolled. Three hundred and twenty-one sorties were flown, a record to that date. Four squadrons (Nos. 213, 229, 242 and 616) went out three times and most of the others employed
went out twice. They met smaller forces in the early morning, but later one patrol fought with forty of the enemy and another met a force which was estimated at 150. Thirteen of our fighters were lost: the enemy losses for the day, as shown in their return, were twenty-two destroyed and six damaged.(33) At the end of the day the Senior Naval Office at Dunkirk signalled that ‘fighter protection has been invaluable … bombing only sporadic’.
But the Navy had not escaped without loss. The Queen of the Channel (one of a number of passenger ships which were particularly valuable on account of their high speed and large carrying capacity) was sunk and the Maid of Orleans and several others were damaged by bombs or gunfire. It was therefore decided that such ships should no longer be used during hours of full daylight; only warships or smaller vessels would still be continuously employed.(34) Of the latter, two drifters, Boy Roy and Paxton, were so badly damaged by bombing that they had to be beached and one of the schuyts was hit and had to be abandoned. She and some of the similar Dutch boats had sailed with ammunition, food and water which were sorely needed by the Army. The troops suffered much from shortage of drinking water on the beaches, and although joint naval and military measures were taken to supply it in tanks and cans, and the ships off the beaches were directed to do all they could from their own resources, there was inevitable delay before requirements were met. Water and food did not reach Malo beach until two days later.(35)
Difficulty and danger were not now limited to the French–Belgian coast and coastal waters: the battle extended to much nearer home. To protect ships as they crossed the sea Coastal Command, with the help of aircraft loaned by the Fleet Air Arm, patrolled between the French and Belgian coasts and the Goodwins; and the Nore Command similar maintained a protective patrol. One of the ships—the destroyer Windsor—was attacked near South Goodwin light vessel by fifteen bombers supported by ten fighters. She was severely damaged and had thirty casualties. And the Brighton Belle, returning with 350 troops on board, struck a submerged wreck off the Gull light buoy while manoeuvring in an air attack and sank, though her crew and the troops she carried were rescued by nearby ships.(36)
In spite of these losses the 28th was a more successful day and the prospect now looked brighter. The Army was steadily nearing the end of the withdrawal to the coast, arrangements for evacuation were working with great efficiency and the increase of available craft encouraged a hope that all who reached the bridgehead might be brought home. The number landed in England on this day (17,804) was more than double the number of the day before.
To work during the coming night Admiral Ramsay ordered seven passenger ships, three hospital carriers (for casualties) and two
destroyers to embark men from the east mole of Dunkirk harbour with some twenty destroyers, nineteen mine-sweepers, seventeen drifters, over twenty schuyts, five coastal steamers and many motor boats, tugs and lifeboats and ships’ boats to work off the beaches. Provided the passage between Dunkirk and the buoy off Calais could be made in darkness the short route Z was to be used.
German troops knew that the British were embarking along the coast, and the Kleist Group had reported on the 27th, ‘it is very bitter for our men to see this’.7(38) When Fourth Army (of which the Group were a part) were told that on Goering’s order Dunkirk was being attacked by the Luftwaffe ‘in such a manner that further embarkations are reported to be impossible’ The Fourth Army Chief of Staff retorted, ‘the pictures in the Channel ports is as follows: big ships come alongside the quays, planks are run up, and the men hurry aboard. All material is left behind. But we do not want to find these men, newly equipped, up against us again later.’8(39) He might well protested, for notwithstanding Goering’s boat, the Royal Navy had in fact landed 25,473 men in England in two days.(40)
The picture which the German War Diary of the Fourth Army draws of the fighting on 28th May is extremely confused. Army Group A issued no fresh directive, and the battle was fought by the various commanders on what knowledge they had. Confusion was increased by absence of coordination between the two Army Groups A and B. A lack of grip is evident from the German records at this time. Slowly various corps halted and reorganised while others struggled forward. In the Lille area there was chaos, troops of the Fourth Army (Army Group A) becoming entangled with those of the Sixth Army (Army Group B).(41) In the War Diary of Army Group A the statement that its main task had been completed had appeared more than once. On this day (the 28th) two corps consisting of six divisions were pulled out, and although the Hoth and Kleist Groups continued their attacks (to join up with Army Group B), the main preoccupation of Army Group A Headquarters was now the forthcoming offensive southwards from the Somme–Aisne line. Halder, Chief of Staff of the Army High Command, had come to a conference, which Staff officers from all the army groups attended, when the matter for discussion was future operations. After this the Army Group Staff began discussions with the armies in its command concerning regrouping, assembly and boundaries for the operation which had been explained by Halder—to be known as Operation ‘Red’.(42)
The position on the evening of the 28th is shown on the adjoining situation map.