The Sacrifice of 30th Brigade and the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment.

Cap Badge and slip on shoulder title of the Royal Tank Corps.

As early as the 10th May, the port of Calais became a target for the Luftwaffe and the docks in particular were badly damaged in a succession of air raids. After the commencement of Blitzkrieg, the British had the idea to develop Calais as a BEF base port, supplying its troops in northern France and Belgium. Its defence was therefore given high priority and elite troops in the form of 30th Brigade and the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment (3RTR) were hastily despatched on the 22nd May, to join British anti-aircraft units already in place.

30th Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Nicholson, consisted of 1st Bn The Rifle Brigade (1RB) , 2nd Bn Kings Royal Rifle Corps (2KRRC – The Royal Green Jackets) and 1st Bn Queen Victoria's Rifles (1QVR). Tank support was provided by 27 14-ton Cruiser tanks and 21 6-ton Mark VI tanks of 3RTR under Colonel Keller. Meanwhile, the French garrison of 800 men had taken up positions in the Citadel, Fort Risban, and the bastions within the town walls, guarding the approaches to the town.

British operations were hampered from the outset by the difficulties in unloading their transport vessels in the battered dock area, the inadequate maps and intelligence in their possession and finally a series of conflicting and confusing orders from GHQ that took no account of the serious situation unfolding in northern France. On the 23rd May, two columns spearheaded by 3RTR were despatched from Calais to establish communications with St Omer and Dunkirk respectively. Both were stopped in their tracks by strong German forces in the shape of 10th and 1st Panzer divisions. Calais was now effectively isolated and the position already hopeless.

In response, Brigadier Nicholson, with the ultimate intention of evacuating the allied forces, set up a double ring of defensive positions, utilising the strongly fortified walls of the town and finally the canals and basins of the harbour area. However, news from London soon dashed hopes of an evacuation. Brigadier Nicholson was informed that he was now under the command of the French General Falgade and that due to political pressure from the French government, evacuation was now forbidden. To reinforce this message, the British War Cabinet issued the following communication:

"Defence of Calais to the utmost is of highest importance to our country as symbolising our continued co-operation with France. The eyes of the Empire are upon the defence of Calais, and HM Government are confident that you and your gallant regiments will perform an exploit worthy of the British name."

Thus the fate of the defenders was sealed.

On the 24th May, the German attack proper commenced along all sections of the outer perimeter and despite the fact that the defenders lacked heavy weapons, the Germans were held off. German losses in men and equipment was material. However, Fort Nieulay to the west of the town was forced to capitulate at around 4.30pm with the loss of its mixed French and British garrison. Pressure continued to mount on the western and south-western bastions and with the positions rapidly becoming untenable, the defenders withdrew to an inner defensive line. This stretched from Bastion 11 in the north-west, along a line of posts fronting the waterways surrounding the Citadel and swinging around towards the Gare Maritime and Bastion 1 at the harbour mouth. The streets and bridges were all barricaded and key buildings were converted into strong-points as the battle de-generated into bitter street fighting. The Germans quickly occupied the tower of the Hotel de Ville and other key buildings and their snipers hampered movement on the Allied side. In the morning of the 25th , the Germans sent a message via the Mayor to Brigadier Nicholson requesting the surrender of the Allied forces. This request was turned aside; if the Germans wanted Calais, they would have to fight for it.

1940 dated Side cap of a member of the Rifles.

The decline of surrender terms prompted an intense artillery and Stuka bombardment of Fort Risban and the Citadel. During the late afternoon, surrender terms were once more offered and declined. In fierce close-quarter and hand-to-hand fighting, the defenders were driven back towards the harbour itself and by early evening, the Citadel was ablaze. A further artillery bombardment heralded the arrival of German tanks, which advanced in an effort to secure the key bridges into the harbour complex itself. At the eastern bridge, Pont Faidherbe, ferocious defensive fire hit two of the tanks and the attack was beaten off, albeit with 2KRRC having several men killed. At the central bridge, Pont Richelieu, the first tank struck a mine on the bridge itself and the attack broke down. The defenders were less fortunate at the western bridge where a single tank with infantry support forced the road block and bridge. A heroic counter-attack led by Captain Stanton nearly salvaged the situation, but the German assault troops held onto their objective tenaciously. During the action, Captain Stanton was severely wounded. As night fell, the defenders' resources had dwindled to 750 fit men of 30th Brigade and 800 French troops who had refused to be evacuated on the 24th May.

At daybreak on the 26th , the artillery and air bombardment re-commenced and the German forces began to systematically pick off defensive strong points. The resistance offered by British and French troops in Bastion 11 was typical; having held out for 10 hours and suffered 70% casualties, they only withdrew when their ammunition ran out. By the afternoon, the resistance was compressed into two small areas around the Citadel and the two bastions east of the harbour mouth. The end was not long in coming. At 3.30pm, with the Citadel surrounded, the Germans finally forced an entry through the south gate and Brigadier Nicholson was forced to surrender. However, with communications at a complete breakdown, fighting was still taking place some two hours later in the harbour area.

The drama was still not over. Forty-seven British soldiers had taken refuge at the end of one of the harbour breakwaters, which had been cut off by a stray shell. At 2.00am, HM Yacht 'Gulzar', arriving off Calais and unaware that the town had fallen, spotted a signal lamp flashing from the jetty. Coming under fire as she closed and swung around, the captain gave the order for the men to jump onto the moving vessel as she passed. All made it safely and were the last men out of Calais. Three thousand British and eight hundred French troops had not been so lucky.

Cap badge and slip on shoulder title of The Rifle Brigade.

So was the sacrifice of 3000 highly trained troops, which Britain could ill afford to lose, justified? The debate has raged ever since. The need to show solidarity with the French is a weak argument as cracks in the alliance continued to grow throughout the remainder of the campaign. It has also been argued that the resistance offered by 30th Brigade bought valuable time for the defenders of Dunkirk to prepare. However, German records indicate that only a modest part of 10th Panzer's strength was ever directed against Calais. In the event, the main burden of the fighting at Dunkirk was to be borne by conventional infantry units and the Luftwaffe.

To view a German MP40 found in the area of Calais, click here.

To view the uniform of a member of The Rifles, click here.

To read more about the Calais citadel, click here.


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