- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Brian Asquith
- Location of story:
- Battle at Calais and subsequent capture
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 January 2004
What follows is Brian Asquith's memories of the battle of Calais and subsequent capture.
As a rifleman in the King's Royal Rifle Corps on May 10th 1940, I received a telegram ordering me back to my unit in Dorset. On rejoining it, I learned that we were moving out at 11pm on 12th May. After stopping the night at Hertford, we reached Rayleigh in Essex on the 14th. Here we were "standing to" at dawn and dusk scanning the sky for non-existent German paratroopers. On the 17th, we moved again to Bury St Edmunds. The next evening for some reason, we were ordered to hand our over our armoured scout cars to the 10th Hussars in Hampshire — another night drive for some of us returning by train late on Saturday night.
On Tuesday evening, we were told that we were moving again at 11pm and we arrived in Southampton about midday on Wednesday, where we boarded the 'Royal Daffodil' in the evening, only to find ourselves in Dover next morning. When we reached Calais the docks were already under spasmodic shellfire but we got ashore unscathed and later our vehicles were unloaded from another ship. A battalion of the Rifle Brigade had followed us but their vehicle ship arrived much later, by which time the shelling had increased so much that the ship sailed back to England without unloading and still carrying some of our ammunition. The Queen Victoria Rifles (Territorials) had landed the previous day and were already in action but their vehicles had not even got further than Devon. As someone said: "It's an extraordinary way to go to war."
We moved to the outskirts of the town near the Pont de Jourdan and the night was quiet, but at dawn, we came under heavy shellfire, which continued all day. Our platoon had a good position on a steep bank but we lost one man. In the evening we were told that we were too stretched on this outer perimeter and we moved back behind the canal and spent most of the night searching houses for fifth columnists but found none. Under constant shellfire, machine gun fire and some bombing, we held our position for most of the next two days but the Germans had mounted a heavy onslaught on the docks area and by Sunday afternoon, we were surrounded. At about 6pm one of our officers called out: "There's no ammunition- it's now every man for himself". He suggested that we hide up and escape after dark.
The inner part of the town was now in ruins and many houses were on fire but we got out of the building we were in, and found an alley through which we clambered. We then found a courtyard with steps leading into a cellar and decided this would be our hiding place, but we had only been there for about half an hour when we heard footsteps in the yard and we heard a loud voice say; "Englander Aus". We remained quiet but we then saw jackboots followed by another shout to come out. We were dead beat and decided our time was up so we trooped out to find two Germans with grenades in their hands, ready to throw into the cellar if there was any opposition. It was an ignominious end, but strangely, I felt a sense of relief, in the comparative silence that had now descended.
We were eventually lined up with many of our comrades in the docks area. I have to say we were treated in a civilised way by these front line troops who offered medical treatment to anyone needing it, as opposed to the behaviour of some of those we encountered later on our long trek inland. I had been lucky and suffered only minor shrapnel wounds. We spent the night in the grounds of a large chateau where we just laid down on the lawn and went to sleep. We then spent nearly three weeks walking through France with very little food. I do not remember much about it but I know we went through Peronne and St Quentin eventually reaching the Luxembourg border near Dinant where we were loaded into open goods wagons on the railroad and finished up in Trier. We were then in Germany.
I sometimes wonder whether the 300 killed in 4 days at Calais contributed to the success of Dunkirk, but I hope it did. It would be a pity if so many good men gave their lives in vain. Incidentally, when they sent us over to Calais, they evacuated the guards division from Boulogne; perhaps the Rifles were more expendable than the guards were.
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