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The Closing Trap
EVERY MAN HAD HIS own special moment when he first knew that something was wrong. For RAF Group Captain R.C.M. Collard, it was the evening of May 14, 1940, in the market town of Vervins in northeastern France.
Five days had passed since "the balloon went up," as the British liked to refer to the sudden German assault in the west. The situation was obscure, and Collard had come down from British General Headquarters in Arras to confer with the staff of General André-Georges Corap, whose French Ninth Army was holding the River Meuse to the south.
Such meetings were perfectly normal between the two Allies, but there was nothing normal about the scene tonight. Corap's headquarters had simply vanished. No sign of the General or his staff. Only two exhausted French officers were in the building, crouched over a hurricane lamp ... waiting, they said, to be captured.
Sapper E. N. Grimmer's moment of awareness came as the 216th Field Company, Royal Engineers, tramped across the French countryside, presumably toward the front. Then he noticed a bridge being prepared for demolition. "When you're advancing," he mused, "you don't blow bridges." Lance Corporal E. S. Wright had a ruder awakening: he had gone to Arras to collect his wireless unit's weekly mail. A motorcycle with sidecar whizzed past, and Wright did a classic double take. He suddenly realized the motorcycle was German.
For Winston Churchill, the new British Prime Minister, the moment was 7:30 a.m., May 15, as he lay sleeping in his quarters at Admiralty House, London. The bedside phone rang; it was French Premier Paul Reynaud. "We have been defeated," Reynaud blurted in English.
A nonplussed silence, as Churchill tried to collect himself.
"We are beaten"; Reynaud went on, "we have lost the battle."
"Surely it can't have happened so soon?" Churchill finally managed to say.
"The front is broken near Sedan; they are pouring through in great numbers with tanks and armored cars."
Churchill did his best to soothe the man—reminded him of the dark days in 1918 when all turned out well in the end—but Reynaud remained distraught. He ended as he had begun: "We are defeated; we have lost the battle."
The crisis was so grave—and so little could be grasped over the phone—that on the 16th Churchill flew to Paris to see things for himself. At the Quai d'Orsay he found "utter dejection" on every face; in the garden elderly clerks were already burning the files.
It seemed incredible. Since 1918 the French Army had been generally regarded as the finest in the world. With the rearmament of Germany under Adolf Hitler, there was obviously a new military power in Europe, but still, her leaders were untested and her weapons smacked of gimmickry. When the Third Reich swallowed one Central European country after another, this was attributed to bluff and bluster. When war finally did break out in 1939 and Poland fell in three weeks, this was written off as something that could happen to Poles—but not to the West. When Denmark and Norway went in April 1940, this seemed just an underhanded trick; it could be rectified later.
Then after eight months of quiet—"the phony war"—on the 10th of May, Hitler suddenly struck at Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Convinced that the attack was a replay of 1914, the Supreme Allied Commander, General Maurice Gamelin, rushed his northern armies—including the British Expeditionary Force—to the rescue.
But Gamelin had miscalculated. It was not 1914 all over again. Instead of a great sweep through Flanders, the main German thrust was farther south, through the "impenetrable" Ardennes Forest. This was said to be poor tank country, and the French hadn't even bothered to extend the supposedly impenetrable Maginot Line to cover it.
Another miscalculation. While General Colonel Fedor von Bock's Army Group B tied up the Allies in Belgium, General Colonel Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group A came crashing through the Ardennes. Spearheaded by 1,806 tanks and supported by 325 Stuka dive bombers, Rundstedt's columns stormed across the River Meuse and now were knifing through the French countryside.
General Corap's Ninth Army was the luckless force that took the brunt. Composed mainly of second-class troops, it quickly collapsed. Here and there die-hard units tried to make a stand, only to discover that their antitank guns were worthless. One junior officer ended up at the Le Mans railroad station, where he committed suicide after penning a postcard to Premier Reynaud: "I am killing myself, Mr. President, to let you know that all my men were brave, but one cannot send men to fight tanks with rifles."
It was the same story with part of General Charles Huntziger's Second Army at Sedan, fifty miles farther south. As the German tanks approached, the men of the 71st Division turned their helmets around—a rallying sign of the Communists—and bolted for the rear.
Three brigades of French tanks tried to stem the tide, but never had a chance. One brigade ran out of gas; another was caught de-training in a railroad yard; the third was sprinkled in small packets along the front, where it was gobbled up piecemeal.
Now the panzers were in the clear—nothing to stop them. Shortly after 7:00 a.m., May 20, two divisions of General Heinz Guderian's crack XIX Corps began rolling west from Péronne. By 10:00 they were clanking through the town of Albert, where a party of untrained English Territorials tried to hold them with a barricade of cardboard boxes.... 11:00, they reached Hédauville, where they captured a British battery equipped with only training shells ... noon, the 1st Panzer Division had Amiens, where Guderian took a moment to savor the towers of the lovely cathedral.
The 2nd Panzer Division rolled on. By 4:00 p.m. they had Beauquesne, where they captured a depot containing the BEF's entire supply of maps. And finally, at 9:10, they reached Abbeville and then the sea. In one massive stroke they had come 40 miles in fourteen hours, cutting the Allied forces in two. The BEF, two French armies, and all the Belgians—nearly a million men—were now sealed in Flanders, pinned against the sea, ready for plucking.
Deep in Belgium the British front-line troops had no way of knowing what had happened on their flank or to the rear. They only knew that they were successfully holding the Germans facing them on the River Dyle. On May 14 (the day Rundstedt routed Corap), Lance Bombardier Noel Watkin of the Royal Artillery heard rumors of a great Allied victory. That night he had nothing but good news for the diary he surreptitiously kept:
Enemy retreat 6 ½ miles. Very little doing till the evening. We fire on S.O.S. lines and prevent the Huns crossing the River Dyle. Many Germans are killed and taken prisoner. 27,000 Germans killed (official).
Next day was different. As the French collapsed to the south, the Germans surged into the gap. Soon shells were unaccountably pouring into the British flank. That evening a bewildered Noel Watkin could only write:
What a day! We are due to retreat at 10:30 p.m., and as we do, we get heavy shellfire, and we thank God we are all safe.... Except for the shock I am o.k.
Most of the BEF were equally mystified by the sudden change in fortune. Throughout the 16th and 17th, the troops began to pull back all along the line; more and more guns were shifted to face south and southwest. On the 18th, when the 2nd Essex was ordered to man the La Bassée Canal, facing south, the battalion commander Major Wilson was incredulous—wasn't the enemy supposed to be to the east? "I can't understand it, sir," agreed Captain Long Price, just back from brigade headquarters, "but those are our orders."
One man who could understand it very well was the architect of these stop-gap measures: General the Viscount Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force. A big burly man of 53, Lord Gort was no strategist—he was happy to follow the French lead on such matters—but he had certain soldierly virtues that came in handy at a time like this. He was a great fighter—had won the Victoria Cross storming the Hindenburg Line in 1918—and he was completely unflappable.
General Alphonse-Joseph Georges, his French superior, might be in tears by now, but never Gort. He methodically turned to the job of protecting his exposed flank and pulling his army back. His trained combat divisions were tied up fighting the Germans to the east. To meet the new threat to the south and the west, he improvised a series of scratch forces, composed of miscellaneous units borrowed from here and there. Gort appointed his intelligence chief, Major-General Noel Mason-MacFarlane, as the commander of one of these groups, appropriately called MACFORCE. Mason-MacFarlane was an able leader, but the main effect of his assignment was to raise havoc with the intelligence setup at GHQ in Arras. That didn't seem to bother Gort; always the fighting man, he had little use for staff officers anyway.
Meanwhile, using a timetable worked out by the French, on the evening of May 16 he began pulling his front-line troops back from the Dyle. The new line was to be the River Escaut, 60 miles to the rear, the retreat to be carried out in three stages.
Crack units like the 2nd Coldstream Guards carried out their orders meticulously— generations of tradition saw to that. For others, these instructions—so precise on paper—didn't necessarily work out in fact. Dispatch riders carrying the orders couldn't always find the right headquarters. Some regiments started late. Others lost their way in the dark. Others made the wrong turn. Others ran into hopeless traffic jams. Still others never got the orders at all.
The 32nd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was hurrying toward the Dyle, unaware of any retreat, when word came to take position in a field some miles short of the river. Gunner R. Shattock was told to take one of the unit's trucks and get some rations. This he did, but by the time he got back, the whole regiment had vanished. After a night of worry, he set out for the main road, hoping to find at least a trace of somebody he knew.
He was immediately swamped by a wave of running men. "Come on, get going," they shouted; "the Jerries have broken through, and it's every man for himself." They swarmed over the truck, piling on the roof, the hood, the fenders.
Shattock headed west, flowing with the tide. At first he made good mileage, but gradually the drive became a nightmare. Stuka dive bombers poured out of a dazzling sun. They had let the British columns advance deep into Belgium without interference, but the trip back was different. With toy whistles attached to both planes and bombs (the Germans called them the "trumpets of Jericho"), they screeched down in an orgy of killing and terror. Pulling out of their dives, they flew along the roads at car-top height, strafing for good measure.
The hot, still air filled with black smoke and the smell of burning rubber; the traffic slowed to a crawl. Weeping refugees swarmed among the dazed troops. Discarded hand-carts, bicycles, baby carriages, burnt-out family cars lay cluttered along the roadside.
Finally the traffic stopped altogether. Shattock's passengers, seeing they could make better time on foot, abandoned him, and soon he sat alone in his stalled truck. He climbed onto the roof, but could see no way out. Traffic had piled up behind as well as ahead, and deep ditches on either side of the road ruled out any cross-country escape. He was simply glued in place on this blazing hot, smoky May afternoon. He had never felt so alone and helpless. Before, there had always been someone to give orders. Here, there was no one.
Actually, he could not have been very far from his own regiment, which had disappeared so mysteriously the previous day. They had pulled out when a battery observer, sent up a telegraph pole, reported "a lot of soldiers with coal scuttles on their heads a couple of fields away."
To Lance Bombardier H. E. Gentry, it was the chariot race in Ben-Hur all over again. The regiment hooked up their guns ... roared out of the meadow ... and swung wildly onto the main road, heading back the way they had come.
It was dark by the time they stopped briefly to fire off all their ammunition—at extreme range and at no particular target, it seemed. Then on again into the night. Gentry hadn't the remotest idea where they were going; it was just a case of follow the leader.
Midnight, they stopped again. It was raining now, and the exhausted men huddled around a low-burning fire, munching stew and trading stories of the hell they had been through.
Dawn, the rain stopped, and they were off again into another beautiful day. A German Fieseler Storch observation plane appeared, flying low, hovering over them, clearly unafraid of any interference. The men of the 32nd understood: they hadn't seen a sign of the RAF since the campaign began. From past experience, they also knew that rifles were useless. In exasperation Gentry blazed away anyhow, but he knew that the real time to worry was when the Storch left.
When it finally did veer off, a dozen bombers appeared from the right. The 32nd came to a jolting stop at the edge of a village, and the shout went up, "Disperse—take cover!" Gentry ran into a farmyard, deep in mud and slime; he dived into a hayrick as the planes began unloading. Bedlam, capped by one particularly awesome swoosh, and the ground shook like jelly. Then the silence of a cemetery.
Gentry crept out. There, stuck in the slime a few feet away, was a huge unexploded bomb. It was about the size of a household refrigerator, shaped like a cigar, with its tail fins sticking up. A large pig slowly waddled across the barnyard and began licking it.
On again. To Gentry, the 32nd seemed to be going around in circles. They always seemed to be lost, with no set idea where they were supposed to be or where they were going. Occasionally they would stop, fire off a few rounds (he never knew the target), and then, on their way again. His mind drifted back to last winter in Lille, where he and his friends would go to their favorite café and sing "Run Rabbit Run." Now, he ruefully thought, We are the rabbits and are we running!
At the River Dendre the 32nd once again got ready to go into action. Traffic was particularly bad here—few crossings and everyone trying to get over. Gentry noticed a number of motorcycles with sidecars moving into a field on the left. The soldiers in the sidecars jumped out and began spraying the 32nd with machine guns.
Jerry had arrived. The British gunners scrambled into action, firing over open sights, and for five minutes it was a rousing brawl. Finally they drove the motorcyclists off, but there was no time to celebrate: a squadron of German fighters swooped down from out of the sun and began strafing the road.
As if this wasn't enough, word spread of a new peril. Enemy troops masquerading as refugees were said to be infiltrating the lines. From now on, the orders ran, all women were to be challenged by rifle. What next? wondered Lance Bombardier Gentry; Germans in drag!
Fear of Fifth Columnists spread like an epidemic. Everyone had his favorite story of German paratroopers dressed as priests and nuns. The men of one Royal Signals maintenance unit told how two "monks" visited their quarters just before a heavy bombing attack. Others warned of enemy agents, disguised as Military Police, deliberately misdirecting convoys. There were countless tales of talented "farmers" who cut signs in corn and wheat fields pointing to choice targets. Usually the device was an arrow; sometimes a heart; and in one instance the III Corps fig leaf emblem.
The Signals unit attached to II Corps headquarters had been warned that the Germans were dropping spies dressed as nuns, clergy, and students, so they were especially on their guard as they pulled off the main road for a little rest one dark night during the retreat. Dawn was just breaking when they were awakened by the sentry's shouts. He reported a figure trailing a parachute lurking among some trees. After two challenges got no response, the section sergeant ordered the sentry and Signalman E. A. Salisbury to open fire. The figure crumpled, and the two men ran up to see what they had hit. It turned out to be a civilian in a gray velvet suit, clutching not a parachute but an ordinary white blanket. He had died instantly and carried no identification.
The sergeant muttered something about one less Boche in the world, and the unit was soon on the road again. It was only later that Salisbury learned the truth: an insane asylum at Louvain had just released all its inmates, and one of them was the man he had shot. The incident left Salisbury heartsick, and forty years later he still worried about it.
There were, of course, cases of real Fifth Column activity. Both the 1st Coldstream and the 2nd Gloucesters, for instance, were harassed by sniper fire. But for the most part the "nuns" were really nuns, and the priests were genuine clerics whose odd behavior could be explained by pure fright. Usually the Military Police who misdirected traffic were equally genuine—just a little mixed up in their work.
Excerpted from The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1998 Wordsworth Editions Limited. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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