Calais Said 'No Surrender!'
What the French military spokesman described as "an exploit worthy of the most heroic examples of siege warfare" was the defence of Calais by a small force of British and French troops against a veritable host of Nazis. Below we give the story, so far as it has been told, of this most gallant episode in the great Battle for the Ports.
When the "vast armoured scythe stroke", as Mr. Churchill called it, of the German mechanized horde reached the shores of the English Channel, battalions of the Rifle Brigade, the 60th Rifles (King's Royal Rifle Corps), and Queen Victoria's Rifles (a Territorial battalion, largely recruited from London business men, of the K.R.R.C.), supported by a battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment and 1,000 French soldiers – in all about 4,000 strong – were thrown into Calais with the order to defend it to the last.
Against this little garrison was thrown a great enemy host, superior in everything save valour. The troops defended the town and port step by step – as a German description of the fighting put it, "the enemy defended with courage and desperation. Furious fire beat on the Germans. In attacks by German infantry firing came from every window. House by house had to conquered. The Englishmen had made every house a fortress. Then the Allies withdrew behind the walls of the old Citadel situated to the west of the town above the docks, and there in the deep case-mates beneath the turfed earthworks which perpetuate the fame and skill of Vauban, Louis XIV's master-engineer, they put up a tremendous resistance against attack from land, sea and air.
Breaches were made in the 300-year old walls, but the sheer drop from the top of the ramparts to the ground provided an insuperable obstacle to the German tanks, and the fire of the British and French riflemen continued to take heavy toll of the attacking hordes.
'Quiet Confidence, Grim Determination'
At the opening of the siege, when the British still had control of the port, one of our destroyers managed to make its way into the harbour and Vice-Admiral J. F. Somerville, who was on board, brought back a picture of a garrison hard pressed, surrounded by superior forces, but holding on grimly. "On shore", he said, "I found a brigadier, a very gallant brigadier, in command of our troops. His quiet confidence, his grim determination to hold out to the last man, was an inspiration to everyone there. No though of surrender, no thought but to serve their country to the utmost of their endeavour and to the last man."
Shortly afterwards the R.A.F. was given the task of supplying the garrison, now withdrawn to the Citadel. Taking off from an airfield in the south of England, a number of planes – in all thirty-nine were engaged in the operation – dropped on the Citadel a number of containers each carrying 10 gallons of water and fitted with parachutes that opened automatically as soon as they were released. When after their twenty minutes' flight the airmen approached Calais they found the town in flames and their objective was half-hidden by a pall of smoke. Despite heavy anti-aircraft fire, which brought down one of the planes and hit many others, out aircraft came down to fifty feet above the Citadel to make sure of their aim. A few hours later other planes dropped quantities of small-arm ammunition and hand grenades into the Citadel. At that moment none of the defenders could be seen, but there was no doubt that the garrison was still holding out, for the roar of battle continued.
At the opening of the action the British brigadier was given an hour to surrender, and according to the German description already quoted, his reply was brief: "The answer is no!" "He spurned the offer", said Mr. Churchill, in the course of his statement in the House of Commons on June 3, "and four days of intense street fighting passed before the silence reigned over Calais which marked the end of a memorable resistance."
'Thus Was Dunkirk Kept Open'
"Only thirty survivors", went on the Prime Minister, "were brought off by the Navy, and we do not know the fate of their comrades. Their sacrifice, however, was not in vain. At least two armoured divisions, which otherwise would have been turned against the British Expeditionary Force, had to be sent for to overcome them. They added another page to the glories of the Light Division. The time gained enabled the Gravelines waterline to be flooded and held by the French troops, and thus it was that the port of Dunkirk was kept open."