Chapter 21: The Final Phase, 12th June to 18th June, 1940
On June the 13th the Royal Air Force mad a great effort to assist the hard-pressed French armies. In the east their defence had been broken through at a number of points; the enemy had crossed the Marne and was threatening to turn the Maginot Line.(1) In the west the Seine had been crossed, the French forces defending Paris were falling back, and a widening breach was opening between them and the French Tenth Army on the extreme left. If the German movement here was continued southwards, the airfields in use by the Advanced Air Striking Force would be exposed. Air Marshal Barratt reported this to the Chief of the Air Staff and asked for a directive should his squadrons be compelled to move. He was told to withdraw, if need, towards Nantes or Bordeaux: subsequent action must be dictated by the course of events, ‘but so long as the French Army is fighting you should endeavour to continue to render support’.(2)
While the inevitable move back was being agreed with the French Air Commander of the Northern Zone—General d’Astier—a heavy day’s programme was carried out. Armed reconnaissance of the Seine area began at dawn; thereafter enemy columns were attacked in turn by ten Battles, fifteen and, later, a further fifteen Blenheims. Meanwhile, in the Marne area, at the urgent request of the French, twelve Battles attacked a large concentration of enemy troops and armour. Heavy anti-aircraft fire showed the target’s importance, so a further attack was made by twenty-six Battles of which six were lost. Fifteen Blenheims of Bomber Command then attacked a third time, four being shot down. The damage done to the enemy on the ground could not be measured but he was stun to violent reaction.
Our bombing attacks were continued during the night; one hundred and sixty-four heavy bombers of Bomber Command were employed—forty-four in the Seine area, twenty north of Paris, forty-one on the Marne and fifty-nine against road, rail communications and woods in which the French reported that the enemy were concentrated. Fighter operations were restricted by bad flying conditions and were chiefly devoted to patrols over the coastal area.(3)
On the 14th bombing attacks were renewed at daybreak against the German penetration across the Seine, but then and throughout the day bad flying weather seriously limited their effect. the most successful was an escorted attack by twenty-four Blenheims on
Merville airfield which our fighters had reported to be ‘covered with enemy aircraft’. The night programme this time included marshalling yards in Germany, parts of the Black Forest in use by the German Army and the dropping of drifting mines in the Rhine (page 52). Seventy-two heavy bombers were engaged in these night operations of which two were lost against seven in the daylight attacks.(4)
By day ten squadrons of fighters from Fighter Command each flew two sorties either in patrols of squadron strength or as escorts to bombers. It was their biggest effort since Dunkirk, but this time they encountered few enemy aircraft. Fighters of the Advances Air Striking Force operated mainly over the area south of the Seine, where there were still some British troops.(5)
In addition to a considerable number of lines-of-communication troops at various bases and ports, the remaining British forces included the remnant of the 1st Armoured Division, two brigades of Beauman Division and, later, the 157th Brigade of the 52nd Division and leading elements of the 1st Canadian Division which were being sent out from England as a start in the rebuilding of a British Expeditionary Force.(6) None of these formations except the 157th Brigade were in fact engaged in serious fighting. They occupied successive and often very uncomfortable positions, acting at first under one or other of the French commanders in the retiring French Tenth Army but under General Brooke’s command in the final stage.
The situation of the French armies during these days went rapidly from bad to worse. It had been proved, as General Weygand had expected, that the long, thinly held defence line could not withstand the enemy’s assaults. It had broken at a number of points, and German forces were dividing the French armies and were pressing southwards through the widening breaches between them. The front was everywhere fluid, so that a report received was likely to be out of date before action could be based on it. General Weygand says that by June the 12th ‘it was apparent that our last line of defence was breaking up’.1 and at the French Council of Ministers that evening ‘I felt it my duty to ask the Government to start negotiations for an armistice’.2 At a meeting of the Supreme Council on the following day he asked for instructions concerning the Breton redoubt and he says that ‘from such replies as were forthcoming I gather that the work there was to be continued’.3 Reference to the ‘Breton redoubt’ must be explained.
The French Prime Minister had written to General Weygand on the 31st of May: ‘I would be glad if you would give some thought to the possibility of forming a national redoubt in the neighbourhood
of a naval base, which would enable us to benefit from the freedom of the seas, and likewise to remain in close touch with our Allies. The work should be laid out and provisioned, especially in munitions. It might be situated in the Breton peninsula’.4 General Weygand has since made it clear that he did not regard this as a practical proposition at this date, but ‘bound by the very definite orders I had received, I gave instructions for work to be started’.5
At a meeting of the Supreme War Council on the 11th June General Weygand records: ‘Mr Churchill then brought up once more the question of a bridgehead on the Atlantic, a variation of the theme of a Breton redoubt. I explained why I did not think it reasonable to base any hopes upon devices of that sort’.6 There, so far as Mr Churchill knew, the matter was left.(7) And there it might be left now, were it not for what happened after General Brooke arrived in France, late on the evening of June the 12th and assumed command of all the British forces on which the Government still hoped to build up a new Expeditionary Force.(8)
The orders he had received were similar to those which had been given to Lord Gort when he was appointed to command the British Expeditionary Force:
2. The role of the force under your command is to cooperate in the defeat of the common enemy under the Supreme Command of the French Commandant-en-Chef de l’Ensemble des Théâtres d’Operations. His Majesty’s Government have agreed that the latter may delegate the immediate command of your force to a subordinate French commander, of a rank not below the commander of a group of armies, as he considers necessary. You will, however, at all times have the right of direct access to the French Commandant-en-Chef.
3. In the pursuit of the common object, the defeat of the enemy, you will carry out loyally any instructions issued by the French commander under whose command you may be serving. At the same time if any order given by him appears to imperial the British Expeditionary Force, it is agreed between the British and French Governments that you are to be at liberty to appeal to the British Government before executing that order.
4, It is the desire of His Majesty’s Government to keep the British Forces under your command as far as possible together. If at any time the French High Command finds it essential to transfer any British troops outside the area of operation of your main force, it should be distinctly understood that this is only a temporary arrangement.(9)
There was nothing at all about a Breton redoubt. But on the day after General Brooke’s arrival in France he received the following message from the War Office:
At a meeting of Ministers 11 June C.I.G.S. was informed that study was being made for organising bridgehead to secure Brittany in event of coordinated defence of France becoming impossible due to present French line breaking …(10)
The message went on to suggest that General Marshall-Cornwall might be associated in this ‘study’, though it was to meet an eventuality which the C.I.G.S. hoped would never occur.
When however General Brooke met General Weygand by appointment on the morning of June the 14th General Weygand told him that organised resistance of the French armies as a whole had come to an end. The Germans were entering Paris and the French Government had moved to Bordeaux, but a ‘decision had been taken by the British French Governments to organise a redoubt in Brittany’.(11) Together they went to see General Georges to discuss this project. It was now to General Brooke that any such decision had been taken by the Allied Governments, and he did not think the plan feasible: it would need at least fifteen divisions to hold the 150-kilometre line proposed. Neither of the French generals seemed to have any better liking for the plan; General Weygand indeed described it to General Brooke as a ‘romantic’ plan, arrived at without military advice. But he also described as having been decided by the Allied Governments, and General Brooke, assuming this to be so, acknowledged the role allotted to him by signing the following ‘note’ (No. 2033) which had been drawn up by the French Chief of Staff:
General Brooke, commanding the British Expeditionary Force, got into touch on the morning of June the 14th with General Weygand, commanding all the theatres of operations, and General Georges, commanding the N.E. Front, to determine how the British troops in France should be employed.
Under the arrangements agreed to by the French and British Governments to organise a redoubt in Brittany, the following decisions were taken:
1. That the British troops now disembarking (the Brooke Corps, the last of the 52nd Division, and the Canadian Division) should be concentrated at Rennes.
2. That the British troops engaged with the Tenth Army (Evans Division, Beauman Division, and the 52nd Division less those elements not yet disembarked) should continue in their present task under the orders of the General commanding the Tenth Army.
Their employment in the overall operations of this army should bring them as far as possible into action in the Le Mans area, so as to facilitate their eventual regrouping with General Brooke’s forces.
On leaving the French Generals and before returning to his own headquarters, General Brooke sent the following message to the War Office through the Howard-Vyse Mission:
Weygand stated organised resistance has come to an end. French Army disintegrating disconnected groups. He told me of decision take by Governments yesterday to attempt to hold Brittany. He, Georges and I are in complete agreement as to military impossibility of this with troops which can be made available. Strongly recommended decision should be reconsidered as it can only lead to further losses of British troops without hope of result. Present plan is to hold back drafts and corps troops at Rennes and that the others should reassemble in that area after falling back fighting with 10th Army on Le Mans. Recommended Nos. 1 and 2 Mission should be withdrawn as Weygand and Georges will have no effective control.(13)
General Weygand has since expressed surprise that General Brooke took this step in view of the note which had been signed jointly so shortly before. But there was really no cause for surprise. Not only was General Brooke under French orders, but he was told by General Weygand that the decision to hold the Breton redoubt had been taken by the Allied Governments. As such he accepted it—but he was clearly justified in trying without loss of time to get his Government to reverse their decision in view of all he had learnt from General Weygand and General Georges about the position of the French armies. The orders given him on his appointment had specifically provided for such a position: ‘… if any order given by him [the French commander] appears to imperil the British Expeditionary Force it is agreed between the French and British Governments that you are to be at liberty to appeal to the British Government before executing that order. …’ He took the only proper course open to him of accepting the order of his superior commander and at once raising the matter with the Government to whom he was responsible.
General Brooke did more than merely send the message quoted. He rang up General Dill, now CIGS, and learned that General Weygand was mistaken in thinking that either he or the Prime Minister had done more than acquiesce in a ‘study’ of the Breton proposal. Certainly no ‘decision; had been taken at any meeting of the Supreme War Council. There was therefore no need for the British Government to ‘reconsider’ the matter. But the other and graver issues raised by General Brooke were less easy to resolve. The suggested withdrawal of the British Missions at the headquarters of General Weygand and General Georges implied that General Brooke and the British forces in France would thereafter be no longer under the French command. The decision to evacuate all personnel and stores not immediately required to sustain our small remaining
fighting force had already been taken. But the question now to be decided was whether we should continue our efforts to increase the fighting force—in particular whether the rest of the 52nd Division which had now landed should be sent forward to join the brigade already committed and holding part of the French Tenth Army front. General Brooke was strongly opposed to the addition of two further brigades to the rapidly disintegrating French forces. The Prime Minister, who joined in telephone conversations which went on all the evening, was on the other hand insistent that we must support our Allies to the full extent of our power. Only when General Brooke at last convinced him that such support as the newly arrived 52nd Division might give could not possibly save the position of the Tenth Army and would almost certainly result in the loss of the division, did he agree that they should be held back.(14)
Late that night (the 14th of June) the Secretary of State for War sent General Brooke a message which read:
You are no longer under French Command but will cooperate with any French forces which may be fighting in your vicinity. In view of tour report stating that organised resistance has come to an end you must now prepare for the withdrawal of your force to the U.K. …(15)
The Government’s decision was also notified to the French Prime Minister and the C.I.G.S. informed General Weygand.
But General Brooke’s determination to save the 52nd Division had not yet succeeded, for the 157th Brigade was till now under French orders. He therefore ordered General Marshall-Cornwall to take over command of all the troops that had been under the command of the French Tenth Army, adding ‘While cooperating in the withdrawal of the French forces direct your axis of withdrawal on Cherbourg in order to embark U.K.’(16) He then ordered the 52nd Division (less the brigade already with General Marshall-Cornwall in what was now to be called ‘Normanforce’) to fall back to a definite line near Cherbourg in order to cover evacuation, orders for which were issued on the 15th.(17)
While General Brooke was thus securing the decision to withdraw British forces, Air Marshal Barratt had been taking similar action. He had informed the Air Ministry on June the 14th that, in view of the situation of the French forces and the danger to which the airfields used by his few remaining squadrons were exposed, these should now be withdrawn to England.(18) On the 15th he received information that General Brooke was no longer to serve under French Command but was to prepare for the withdrawal; and he was informed that he should now concert operations to that end with General Brooke. When the message reached Air Marshal Barratt his squadrons were moving to the Rennes, Saumur, Angers, Nantes, area. Fresh orders
were now issued. The remaining bomber squadrons flew to England. The four fighter squadrons which were to cover withdrawal operations were moved to Nantes. Air operations that day were on a small scale.(19)
After pausing to construct bridges over the Seine the enemy renewed his advance on the 14th, and the 157th Brigade, in positions covering Conches, had to fight to maintain their line unbroken. On that night the French Tenth Army was ordered to withdraw to the line Verneuil–Argentan–river Dives where the 157th Brigade held an eight-mile front astride the Mortagne–Verneuil road. The Germans followed up quickly and on the 16th, under renewed enemy pressure, General Altmayer ordered withdrawal to Brittany.(20)
Now that the French armies, falling back everywhere, were broken up into separate groups, there was no longer any possibility of unified command and there could be no rebuilding of a stable front. The Tenth Army’s decision to move into Brittany would separate it more widely from other armies (the gap was already fifty-miles wide), and General Brooke agreed with General Marshall-Cornwall’s decision that the time had come when he must detach the remaining British forces and withdraw them to Cherbourg for embarkation to England.(21) General Altmayer was informed and agreed, and though the move was a difficult one it was successfully carried out. The tanks of the 1st Armoured Division’s 2nd Brigade, which were in rearward areas for reconditioning, were entrained for the port, and it was not the division’s fault that nothing more was ever heard of the train! The 26 tanks, 11 scout cars and 49 troop-carrying lorries of the 3rd Brigade covered the 200 miles by road and duly reached Cherbourg.(22) The 157th Brigade, in motor transport, arrived there on the 17th and were duly embarked that evening. Beauman’s remaining infantry had left a few hours before. the enemy were entering the outskirts of the town as the last troops sailed.(23)
Soon after midday on the 17th General Brooke received a message from the C.I.G.S. saying that the French had asked for an armistice.(24) There was in any case nothing more that he could do. All the arrangements for evacuation, mad under his orders by General de Fonblanque, were working well. Almost all of the 52nd Division had gone, and all that had landed of the 1st Canadian Division; over 40,000 troops had been carried to England in the past two days. General Marshall-Cornwall’s remaining troops were coming in. Half an hour before midnight General Brooke boarded the armed trawler Cambridgeshire. Early on the 18th she sailed as escort to a slow convoy, sol that he did not reach Southampton till six o’clock in the evening of the 19th.(25) Twenty-four hours before his arrival the last ship had left Cherbourg.
So ended the campaign on land; but in base areas further south there were still large numbers of British and Allied troops to be
evacuated. The epilogue belongs to the Royal Navy, covered to the limit of its strength by the Royal Air Force.
The campaign had started with the Navy’s successful transportation of the British Expeditionary Force to France; it ended only when they had brought home safely the vast majority of those who had survived the fighting.
The final operation, ‘Aerial’, which began on June the 14th was commanded by Admiral James, Commander-in-Chief Portsmouth. He could not organise a convoy system for he had not the necessary flotilla vessels (as explained on page 264). He therefore arranged that a continuous flow of troopships, store-ships, and motor transport ships would sail from Southampton and the French ports while coasters sailed from Poole Harbour and Dutch schuyts from Weymouth.(26) The few warships available would meanwhile patrol the shipping routes. The customary demolition parties were to be landed, but this time it was hoped that military stores and equipment could be brought home; for after the loss of so much material in the northern campaign there was urgent need of all that could be saved.
The tragic miscarriage of plans to bring away the 51st Division from St Valery has already been explained, and the bare fact has been told that this was followed by the successful evacuation of all the troops from Havre and Cherbourg. It remains only to add that 30,630 men were brought home from Cherbourg and 21,474 from St Malo without the loss of a single life or damage to a single ship. Of these all but 789 were British.(27) The enemy’s air force tried to interfere on occasion but was kept in check with the help of the Royal Air Force.
Simultaneous naval operations to clear the more southerly ports on the Bay of Biscay were under Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Nasmith, Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches, at Plymouth. His difficulties were increased by the fact that from the base areas (Brest, St Nazaire, and Nantes) information was scanty and inexact. The urgency of the situation was not at first realised there, but after Cabinet orders for immediate evacuation were received embarkation started at once and proceeded rapidly—so rapidly, indeed, that there was some confusion and lack of control in the matter of stores and equipment, and considerable quantities of precious guns and vehicles which could have been brought away were destroyed or abandoned.(28) It is difficult to apportion blame, for in those days no one knew what was happening or where the enemy would appear. It was certain that the Germans were in Paris, and that the French Government had gone to Bordeaux. The British Expeditionary Force had been withdrawn to England and it was said that the French Army was cut in pieces. The German Army was advancing southwards, but only rumour said how near it was. In such circumstances it is understandable,
though deplorable, that the chief concern was to avoid capture by the enemy, that some evacuations were concluded prematurely and that much equipment was abandoned which should have been saved.
Fighters from the squadrons which were still in France and others of Fighter Command patrolled the area actively, and the enemy’s aircraft mainly confined their efforts at first to minelaying.(29) Although this delayed movement, while minesweepers cleared the channels, it had no other effect on operations. This was fortunate, for the shipping used included large troopships—for example, the Arandora Star, the Strathaird, and the Otranto—which would have been vulnerable to strong attack by the enemy’s heavy bombers.
From Brest 32,584 British and Allies were brought to England; evacuation was successfully concluded and the demolitions were carried out by the French with the British demolition party’s help. The French warships sailed and by the 19th the great naval base was clear of shipping and the demolition party was brought away by the destroyer Broke.(30)
Operations had been proceeding concurrently at St Nazaire and Nantes, where there were greater difficulties to overcome. The former lies at the mouth of the river Loire where there are strong tides and other navigational hazards; the latter is some fifty miles up the river. As pointed out above, the Navy’s information was vague and often contradictory. Between 40,000 and 60,000 British and Allied troops were thought to be converging on Nantes, but neither exact numbers nor the times of arrival were known.(31)
In preparation for the lifting of so large a number, Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith ordered the assembly of a considerable concentration of ships, including the destroyers Havelock, Wolverine, and Beagle, the liners Georgic, Franconia, Duchess of York, and Lancastria, the Polish ships Batory and Sobieski, and a number of cargo ships. For the most part these had to lie offshore in Quiberon Bay, twenty miles north-west of the Loire estuary, where there was good anchorage for large ships but no anti-submarine or other defences. It was a risk which had to be taken, for no safer anchorage was available. Movement began on the 16th and over 12,000 troops were embarked that day on the Georgic, the Duchess of York, and the two Polish ships, and sailed for home. The enemy’s bombers attacked the ships in Quiberon Bay, but only the Franconia was damaged. The loading of stores went on all night, and additional ships arrived from England—and some from Brest. The destroyers Highlander and Vanoc also joined the flotilla.
The day that followed, June the 17th, was memorable for the only tragedy that marred the success of these difficult and dangerous operations. At Nantes the sun rose on a scene of great activity, large bodies of troops were assembling in the port to be taken home, and
in and out of the river entrance destroyers and smaller craft were busy ferrying parties to the ships which were waiting for them in the roads. Overhead, fighters of the Royal Air Force patrolled at frequent intervals to keep the sky clear of the enemy’s bombers. And more ships arrived to increase the speed of evacuation.
The morning’s achievements raised high hopes that again the Navy’s task would be completed without loss, but at a quarter to four in the afternoon, when the fighter patrol which had been maintained throughout the day along a thirty-mile stretch of the coast was not over the port, enemy bombers made a heavy attack on the ships assembled in the roadstead and the mouth of the river. While destroyers and all the smaller craft with anti-aircraft weapons defended themselves vigorously, the Lancastria, with 5,800 troops—including many of the Royal Air Force—already on board, was heavily hit and set on fire, and within fifteen minutes sank with great loss of life. Nearly 3,000 perished, though why so many lives were lost is something of a mystery.(33) It is true that there were not enough lifebelts on board for the quite exceptional number that had been embarked, and that a film of the ship’s oil-fuel spread over the surrounding waters. But the master, who was saved, testified that there was no panic aboard, and the ship sank slowly where small craft were present in considerable numbers. Doubtless many of these were so busy defending themselves from the air attack (which continued for forty-five minutes) that they failed to realise the urgent plight of the Lancastria’s men, yet this does not fully explain why there was so great a loss of life.
Notwithstanding this sad interruption, embarkation continued throughout the night, and soon after daybreak on the 18th ten ships sailed for Plymouth with some 23,000 men aboard. Only another 4,000 or so remained ashore, but alarmist and (as it was proved later) exaggerated reports of the enemy’s near approach led again to a needlessly hurried conclusion of the operation. Twelve ships bearing away the last of the assembled troops sailed at eleven o’clock that morning—and again much equipment which was badly needed in England was left behind. In the afternoon Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith heard that a further 8,000 Polish troops were nearing St Nazaire, and six destroyers and seven transports were sent to bring them home.(34) Again the news was inaccurate, and much shipping had been needlessly risked to save the 2,000 men who were there and were brought away.
Farther south at La Pallice (which with the nearby ports of Rochefort and La Rochelle is an important naval base) the movement of troops had begun on June the 17th. A senior naval officer for the port had arrived by destroyer the day before and, finding some 10,000 men but no transports, he requisitioned some cargo ships in harbour and embarked the troops, though again their vehicles were left behind. The convoy sailed safely on the 18th. Twice after this
the Commander-in-Chief Western Approaches was told that further troops were reaching the port and twice he ordered ships to fetch them away. On the 19th 4,000 Polish troops were embarked, but on the 20th very few men were found and the ships which were not required sailed southwards to the ports of the river Gironde.(35) There were now practically no British troops left in France, but there were Embassy and Consular staffs to be brought away; a considerable number, still, of the Polish and Czech troops who had been preparing to fight with the Allied armies; and British and foreign civilians who sought to leave France before the German conquest became effective.
The Arethusa had been stationed off Bordeaux on June the 16th to act as wireless link, and next day all British and some Allied shipping in the port was cleared for England, while the embarkation of Czech and Polish troops and civilians started. Similar traffic continued through the next two days, many thousands being got away. On the 19th the destroyer Berkeley brought off from Bordeaux the Embassy and Consular staffs and transferred them to the Arethusa. The Berkeley was then relieved by the cruiser Galatea and sailed for Plymouth with the President of Poland and many of his minsters and a number of other important people on board. Embarkation of Allied troops and civilians continued meanwhile from Le Verdon (at the river mouth) and Bayonne. The Polish ships Batory and Sobieski and the liners Ettrick and Arandora Star went to Bayonne on the 19th, and, having taken on board the men who were there, moved on to St Jean de Luz on the following day.(36) In the end a large number of Polish and some other Allied troops were brought home from Bayonne and St Jean de Luz.
On June the 24th the French Government announced that evacuation must cease on the following day on account of the armistice terms, and just before two o’clock on June the 25th what was officially the last troopship sailed.
But there were still a number of Allied troops who desired to get to England and evacuation continued from French Mediterranean ports until 14th August by which date the Royal Navy had brought away from the area south of the Somme:
These 191,870 have to be added to the 366,162 who had been brought away by the conclusion of Operation Dynamo. A grand total of 558,032 had thus eluded the enemy’s attempts to capture or destroy them; 368,491 of these were British troops.(37)
With the fall of France and the withdrawal of our troops and air forces the British campaign in France and Flanders was ended.