It was at that moment that a swarm of sixty Luftwaffe bombers pounced upon beleaguered city. Sam Lombard Hobson, a first lieutenant aboard the destroyer Whitshed , described it in his book A Sailor’s War : “Every ship opened fire as the Stukas screamed down, with their angry hornet-like noise, to drop their bombs which sent up huge fountains of mud and water alongside the destroyers, drenching everyone on deck.”
Bombs and mortar shells blasted sailors on board the Keith. It and the Vimy, both captainless, began fleeing from port—the Vimy pausing only to use its main gun to obliterate a hotel a hundred meters away that the crew believed to be harboring the sniper that had shot their captain. The dive bombers hit two French destroyers, disabling one and causing the Orage to erupt in a cloud of fire and smoke.
The remaining British destroyers refused to attempt an evacuation while the German bombers roamed overhead—until twelve Spitfire fighters of the RAF’s 92 Squadron came to the rescue. The squadron had just seen its first action earlier that day when it shot down several Messerschmitt Bf.109 fighters. In the chaotic dogfight that followed, four Spitfires were lost in exchange for seven twin-engine Bf-110C fighter bombers confirmed shot down.
With air support overhead, the other British destroyers assembling near the harbor made their move. The destroyers Whitshed and Vimiera were the first to run the gauntlet. Mobs of desperate auxiliaries, soldiers and civilians swarmed the vessels when they arrived at the quay, trampling the dead and wounded underfoot. It was decided to embark the Welsh Guards first, while the Irish Guards continued to defend the perimeter around the harbor. In his account, Lombard-Hobson recalls witnessing one soldier who broke out of his place in line to dash for the gangway. An officer shot him dead.
The two destroyers managed to each pack about 550 troops on deck and make their getaway at 8:25 p.m.—with the Whitshed pausing to blast two Panzers to oblivions on its way out.
Ten minutes later, the destroyers Venomous, Wild Swan and Venetia charged into the harbor to pull out additional troops. The Germans held their fire until the last ship came, planning to cripple it at the mouth of the harbor and thereby trap the other two inside. For this task, they assigned two Panzer IV tanks armed with short-barrel seventy-five-millimeter guns from the Third Panzer Regiment.
German tanker Frank Steinzer described what happened next in the book Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man :
We heard the commander’s voice. It is almost jolly: ‘Half right, distance 500 meters, destroyer!’ Then the gunner says: ‘Target is in my sights.’ The first shell is fired. Fifty meters too far. I look through the binoculars and see that the destroyer is ready to land. I can see troops clearly on the deck. There is loads of activity. The gunner moves the guns and the second shot hits the ship. Within seconds, a bright yellow flame shoots up five meters into the air as bits of the ships are blown up. . . . The destroyer tries to escape from the shells . . . and at the same time it shoots back. The ground vibrates. Everything is shaking. Then there is a loud wailing sound, and our tank is hit. . . .
The Venetia, a V-class destroyer dating back to World War I. was struck by seven shells in all, setting its aft section on fire, knocking out a gun turret and smashing the bridge—the last putting much of its command crew out of action, causing it to run aground.
The Wild Swan and Venomous retaliated with their 4.7-inch naval guns, blasting two tanks apart, one of them cartwheeling on its side from the impact. Then the crew of the Venomous realized that shellfire was coming from captured French fortification at Fort de la Crèche! The destroyer swiveled its 4.7-inch guns, and managed to blow open the side of the fortification and the ledge it stood upon, sending the captured coastal guns tumbling down the hillside.
Venetia, its navigator dead and commanding officer seriously wounded, managed to limp backwards out of the harbor thanks to the steering of Sub-Lieutenant Denis Jones. Wild Swan and Venomous made it to the docks and picked up nine hundred men between them. By then, sniper fire had grown so intense that evacuating troops had to sprint across the piers in twos or three—causing some to splash into the water after missing their jumps to board the rescue vessels.
The last Royal Navy destroyer, HMS Windsor , safely completed a sixth evacuation run near midnight. Its captain reported that there were still a thousand men trapped in the doomed port. The Vimiera was dispatched run the terrifying gauntlet a second time under the cover of night.
The old destroyer glided silently into the harbor at 1:30 a.m., and in seventy-five minutes its crew somehow packed 1,400 British, French and Belgian troops and civilians onto her ninety-one-meter-long deck. The overloaded ship set off from the quay at a heavy list, barely dodging a deadly artillery bombardment. It made it over to Dover by 4 a.m..
This daring evacuation still left behind three hundred Welsh Guardsmen and thousands of French troops from the Twenty-First Division under General Lanquetot, who held out in the fortified medieval walls of the citadel in uptown Boulogne. British forces had no way of communicating with the French commander, who was cut off from their position by German troops.
Lanquetot’s men held the citadel against repeated German attacks throughout all of May 24, destroying several more panzers. Separately, several hundred British and French stragglers and auxiliaries led by Major J. C. Windsor of the Welsh Guards also occupied a makeshift sandbag barricade at the harbor railways station and held out against tank and infantry attacks. French destroyers continued to bombard the German attackers from outside the harbor, even though the Chacal and Fougueux were hit hard by Luftwaffe bombers, leading to the sinking of the former.
At dawn on May 25, the Germans launched their final assault. Powerful eighty-eight-millimeter flak guns blew apart the citadel’s ancient stone walls, siege ladders were deployed to allow assault troops to scale up them as if reenacting a medieval siege and combat engineers flushed out defenders with flamethrowers. Lanquetot finally surrendered at 8:30 in the morning, and Windsor hours later.
The Allies had paid a heavy price in the Battle of Boulogne: five thousand captured, not counting those fallen in action. In the Siege of Calais, which would last until May 26, the losses were even greater, with nearly twenty thousand British and French troops captured and only a few hundred evacuated.
But May 26 also marked another important milestone: the beginning of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk. Heinz Guderian’s elite XIX Panzer Corps had spent nearly a week tied down in the fight for the two French channel ports—and in the meanwhile, Field Marshals von Rundstedt and Kluge agreed on May 24 to halt his corps’ advance and let the Luftwaffe handle the British at Dunkirk—a mission the German flying branch failed to accomplish. Germans troops did not capture the critical port until far too late on June 4.
The factors behind the Wehrmacht’s decision not to execute a swifter ground assault on Dunkirk remain complicated and highly controversial, and include interservice rivalry in the German military and anxiety over a renewed counterattack at Arras. But if the ragtag defenders of Boulogne and Calais hadn’t put up such a fight, Guderian’s panzers might have swept towards Dunkirk that much faster and could have persuaded von Rundstedt to crush the evacuation point from the ground.
The French and British sailors, aviators and soldiers that fought in Boulogne and Calais put their lives on the line fighting what they soon must have known to be a hopeless battle. But in slowing down the Guderian’s northward advance, their seemingly quixotic last stand—and chaotic last-minute evacuation—may have made all the difference.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring .
Image: Museum of Slovak National Uprising. Wikimedia Commons / Vassia Atanassova