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The port of Dunkirk in WWII
Czechoslovaks at Dunkirk 1944-45

Jan Hyrman
On 15th September 1944, the 4th, 5th and 6th Infantry Brigades of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division were ordered to be relieved. On 18th September, this was accomplished and the Canadians moved on to advance towards Antwerp, while the containment of the port was assigned to the 4th South Saskatchewan Brigade. This unit was, in turn, relieved within nine days by the 154th (Highland) Infantry Brigade of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, coming under direct command of First Canadian Army.

On 6th October 1944, the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group (C.I.A.B.G.) was deployed around the perimeter, together with formations of the British, the Canadian and the French armies, completing the relief of the 154th (Highland) Infantry Brigade by 9th October 1944.
Major-General Alois Liska, the commanding officer of the Brigade Group, was given the command of all these units, the whole of the perimeter and the surrounding area fell completely under his own jurisdiction. The Brigade Group came under the command of the First Canadian Army, later passing under 21st Army Group Headquarters when the Canadians moved inconveniently far off to the east.

Other Allied formations involved in the siege included the 2nd Canadian Heavy Anti-aircraft Regiment (arrived to Dunkirk from Calais on 30th September 1944) and 109th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery, equipped with 3.7" anti-aircraft and 40mm Bofors guns and 125th Light Anti-aircraft Regiment also with 40mm Bofors guns. The anti-aircraft formations were also experienced in offensive infantry support by firing air-burst H.E. rounds, a practice applied repeatedly in the previous operations along the coast of the English Channel.

A British tank reinforcement of battalion strength equipped with Churchill infantry and close support tanks, the 7th Royal Tank Regiment (R.T.R.), engaged previously in
Operation Astonia, was deployed in the westernmost part of the perimeter, guarding its section outlined by the Channel coast on one side and the road from Dunkirk to Loon-Plage on the other. The town of Loon-Plage hosted the Field Artillery Regiment headquarters (Col. S. Rajmon was the commanding officer of the unit, as well as the Brigade Group's artillery) and its two batteries, each with four 25-pounder Field Guns (another battery was formed during the siege).

South of this road, the Czechoslovak 1st Armoured Regiment under the command of Major S. Rezabek was based, their sector stretching south down to the Canal de Bourbourg. The Regiment was equipped with
Cromwell cruiser (6-pounder cannon, 75mm) and close support tanks (howitzer, 95mm), Crusader AA (Anti-Aircraft) tanks and later Challenger or Sherman Firefly tank killers (17-pounder anti-tank cannon). Armoured carriers and all-terrain vehicles were also part of the unit's motor pool. The same, of course, applied for the 2nd and, later, the 3rd Armoured Regiment. The unit was a continuation of the tradition started by the 1st Infantry Battalion of the Czechoslovak 1st Infantry Division in France and the 1st Infantry Battalion of the Czechoslovak Independent Brigade in Britain.

Beyond this feature, the Anti-tank Battery was based, commanded by Major A. Sitek (who later commanded the Token Force during its long journey to Czechoslovakia just before the liberation of the country). This unit was supplemented by formations of the Free French. These formations were formed from the F.F.I. (Forces Francaises d'Interieur), hastily trained and equipped with British weapons and equipment. Two Free French infantry battalions were formed, both under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lehagre. The section assigned to these formations bordered in the southeast with the artificial lake northwest of Bergues and the Canal la Colme. The Anti-tank Battery retained the designation usual in the pre-war Czechoslovak Army, "oddil K.P.U.V." ("kanon proti utocne vozbe"), as the meaning was practically the same as the term used by the British artillery. The equipment included twelve
17-pounders (76.2mm), the famous tank killers, in three batteries of four cannon each. Originally, Chevrolet 30cwt trucks were used to tow the rather awkward and heavy, but extremely efficient weapons, but the more appropriate Morris F.A. 4 x 4 gun tractors were later employed instead.

The beautiful town of Bergues, with its perfectly preserved fortifications by Vauban, was the station of the Armoured Reconnaissance Squadron under Major V. Velimsky, and later the newly formed 3rd Armoured Regiment, created on the basis of Major Velimsky's unit. Humber Scout Cars, Beaverettes as well as Honey/Stuart light tanks were employed as reconnaissance vehicles, but the unit also had three platoons of cruiser tanks.

East of Bergues, south of the artificial lake stretching to the east from the Canal le Bergues, the Field Engineers Company with storm boats maintained regular patrols between the partly submerged ruins of houses and farms. In comparison with the official British numbers, it was short of one platoon. Aside from the boats (which also included dinghies and detachable boat engines), the unit also had demolition equipment including explosives, compressors and drilling tools, and a field laboratory facility for checking the quality of water. 

North of the easternmost flooded area of the perimeter and the Canal de Dunkerque a Furnes, the 2nd Armoured Regiment under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel F. Seda was stationed, neighbouring on the sector of the Motor Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel J. Chvalkovsky. The Motor Battalion was formed from the veterans of
the Czechoslovak units involved in the north African campaign, the troops of the 200th (Czechoslovak) Light Anti-aircraft Regiment, its tradition reaching back as far as the Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion No. 11 - East, whose battle colours were handed to the unit by Col. Karel Klapalek at the Wivenhoe Park camp in August 1943. The motor pool included tracked (Universal Carriers) and half-tracked (the famous American "half-tracks") armoured carriers, armament consisted of 6-pounder anti-tank cannon, 20mm anti-aircraft cannon, Vickers medium machine guns, mortars and P.I.A.T. launchers (Projector, Infantry, Anti-tank). The northern limit of the Motor Battalion's sector was formed again by the cold waters of the English Channel, which allowed them at several points to challenge and even repel the German motor boats bringing supplies and news to the port.

Other units of the Brigade Group included a Headquarters Squadron (
Cromwell cruiser tanks, Covenanter bridge-layers, M4A4 Sherman Armoured Observation Posts, Armoured Commanding Vehicles built on A.E.C. Matador chassis), an Anti-aircraft Troop (40mm Bofors guns, Chevrolet 30cwt 4 x 4 used as gun tractors), a Bridging Troop (Bailey bridging sets), the Brigade Signals Squadron (radios, maintenance, interception and encoding equipment) and others.

The Armoured Brigade Headquarters were stationed at Wormhout, south of Dunkirk and a distance away from the perimeter and outside the range of German harassing artillery and mortar fire.
Major-General Alois Liska was the commanding officer of the C.I.A.B.G., with Colonel A.Barovsky-Zeman as his deputy and Lieutenant-Colonel K.Ondracek as the Brigade Group's chief of staff. It was here that General Liska accepted the German garrison's unconditional surrender from the hands of Vizeadmiral Frisius on 8th May 1945. Dunkirk was the last French city to be liberated.

167 Czechoslovak soldiers were killed during the siege of Dunkirk, other casualties were 461 wounded and 40 missing. Those killed were buried at cemeteries in neighbouring towns and villages. The largest Czechoslovak sector is at the Bourbourg Communal Cemetery (61 men), the second is at the Adinkerke Military Cemetery (48 Czechoslovak war graves) and the third at the Longunesse (St. Omer) Souvenir Cemetery (34 buried). 11 soldiers were buried at the Cassel Communal, 3 at the La Panne Communal, 6 at the Calais War Cemetery, 2 at the Bayeux British Cemetery, 2 at Furnes, 1 at the Etaples War Cemetery and 1 at Chouan. Some Czechoslovaks, captured by the Germans, have their final resting places at the German cemetery in Dunkirk.



Czechoslovaks at Dunkirk 1944-45


We are, of course, free to question the importance of the assignment given to the C.I.A.B.G. and the wisdom of the decision to exclude the unit from the drive to liberate Czechoslovakia in Spring 1945. Supply trouble resulting from the inclusion of a British-equipped unit into the all-American 3rd Army also added more weight to the problem, as well as insufficient reserves for first line fighting. We can only remember the grave problems encountered by the Polish troops following their valiant involvement in the battle of the Falaise Gap and the heavy losses sustained in the process.

Of course, the inclusion of the Czechoslovaks into the forces liberating the western part of Czechoslovakia could hardly alter the direction in which history would inevitably be heading for the following decades. Decisions about the fate of Central European countries were already taken.

After the war ended, the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group was converted into a Tank Corps according to Soviet standards, and later split up into brigades and deployed all over Czechoslovakia. Following the Communist coup of 1948, the soldiers of the unit shared the unhappy fate of the Czechoslovak members of the R.A.F. Many had to choose exile again to avoid being persecuted, others could not or just did not want to leave the country for the liberation of which they risked everything only years earlier.
The Last Outpost

At the time of the arrival of the Canadians to Dunkirk in September 1944 the port had its own"Atlantic Wall". The city was partly destroyed due to the extensive bombardment of the city and the port by German air force and artillery in 1940 during
Operation Dynamo, although the city was partly rebuilt after that. The region also received due attention during the air bombarment prior to D-Day, as well as some artillery fire during the Canadian approach and surrounding of the sizable German garrison. Already during the Allied advance from Normandy towards northeast and the successful attacks on other Channel ports (Le Havre, Dieppe, Boulogne, Calais) must have caused some concern to the German troops within the port. Extensive fortification work continued already since Hitler issued his directive regarding the Atlantic Wall, the "second Westwall" in 1942, but all this work had to be hastened to make the port more easily defendable.

Hitler readily supplied a new designation for the former S-Boote base - "Festung Duenkirchen" - as soon as the port was surrounded. As we will found below, the city became nothing short of a real fortress.

Yet the approach to the problem of a strong and determined German garrison encountered in yet another Channel port was to be completely different. Canadian and British losses during
the siege and conquest of Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais and Cap Gris Nez, together with the necessity of employing specialized armoured vehicles had to be seriously considered in respect to the importance of the port of Dunkirk. Le Havre, Boulogne, Calais, Dieppe - all of these ports had been already taken, and although most of the port installations had been destroyed by the Germans, work already began to rebuilt them for future use by the Allies. Moreover, the badly needed port of Antwerp was an objective of vital importance and it was for this reason that Montgomery decided to give up the capture of Dunkirk.

The Free French government disagreed with any suggestion to subject the city to extensive air or naval bombardment, which was essential for the success of previous operations earlier that year. Also, the Canadian and later the Czechoslovak troops were to be grossly outnumbered and outgunned, the advantage of tanks and armoured vehicles became doubtful in an area where fighting was largely stationary.

The surrounded port was to be only contained, not taken, as the estimated casualties did not match with the target's importance. The Brigade Group's mission was to contain the German troops and influence their determination to fight on by aggressive reconnaissance activities, harassing artillery fire, tactical air bombardment and propaganda. Supply lines leading along the coastline and frequented by the German S-Boote were to be cut off, as well as air drops.



Defences


Counter-invasion measures, although largely useless after June 1944, were applied all along the coast of the perimeter as it was outlined by the Canadian advance. Log ramps and wooden posts built up from stout beams and stakes, together with hedgehogs, star-shaped solid-steel obstacles as high as a man, Belgian gates and girders were angled toward the sea and topped with anti-tank mines to rip up the hulls of landing craft and ships coming too close to the coast. (We now know that the Allies failed to accept the most important premise with which these obstacles were constructed - the invasion taking place at the time of high tide.)

At regular distances, concrete bunkers, mortar emplacements and machine gun nests guarded the beaches. Anti-aircraft bateries were deployed extensively, often including medium and heavy anti-aircraft artillery. For better coordination and identifications of sectors during defence, the beaches were parcelled up into sectors. These sectors were given German names in alphabetical order (from east to west). Inland strongpoints were also given such names, here the order was rather more complicated. Mines were deployed in their thousands, particularly in the eastern part of the perimeter, north of the Canal de Dunkerque, east of the heavily fortified foodstore, the Fort des Dunes. The cemetery to the southeast of the Rosendael Hospital, where the British memorial now stands, was also mined as was the road bypassing it. As the Czechoslovak engineers would learn during some of the probing attacks of the siege, at some places three or four Tellerminen were found underground one upon each other. Electrically triggered explosive charges weighing up to 50 kilogrammes were found as well. For example, during a single attack on 5th November 1944, 350 pieces of German mines were recovered by the Czechoslovak field engineers.

The centre of the city had obvious advantages for the defenders. A canals divided the city into quite easily defendable sectors, one even creating a natural obstacle blocking the access to the city centre, where the "fortress headquarters" was located. The canal banks were lined with trenches, strongpoints and improvised pillboxes, bridges could be easily destroyed to delay the advance of attackers. Streets were blocked by road blocks and baricades built up from the debris typical for every city subjected to air bombardment.

Aside from the "Festungskommando", a P.O.W. camp was also located in the city centre. Prisoners of war were held at the town prison in Rue des Ramparts (the street branches out northwest from the Quai De La Citadelle). About 60 British and Canadian soldiers were held here, together with French Resistance members and also two U.S.A.A.F. non-commisioned officers, one of whom fell in the torn-off rear turret of a B-17 into a mine field, from where he was recovered by the Germans.

The inland part of the perimeter was also heavily defended. The low country surrounding Dunkirk was flooded by the Nazis by opening the locks on the coast. The high level of water (at some points, the water depth was as much as 5 metres) was maintained by letting water into the artificial lakes during high tide. The Germans, well-accustomed to the features of the local terrain, exploited every possibility to support their defensive works. Houses, farms and small factories in the suburbs and the surrounding countryside were changed into strongpoints and small fortlets, peninsulas reaching out into the flooded regions of the perimeter were used as routes for patrols and often heavily defended. Concrete pillboxes and bunkers built already before D-Day were also used.

An estimated number of 25,000 civilians were caught in the surrounded port. 6,000 left the city either secretly or during a truce on 20th September, negotiated by the Red Cross for this purpose. On 5th October, the majority of others escaped the hardship of "La poche" ("The Pocket"). At the time of the Czechoslovak take-over, 820 civilians remained within the city. 145 French citizens, mostly children, the old and the sick, lef the city as late as 18th April 1945, during another truce.

Even after the arrival of the Czechoslovak Independent Armoured Brigade Group the name and rank of the German garrison commander was not completely determined. Reportedly, Lieutenant-General von Kluge was in the port when it was surrounded. This was confirmed on 16th September 1944, when a written rejection of a request by the Canadians for the surrender of the German garrison was delivered, along with a furious artillery attack.

Nevertheless, Lieutenant-General von Kluge was later given another assignment, escaped from the port by means of a motor boat and was replaced by
Kontraadmiral Friedrich Frisius, the former commander of Pas-de-Calais, who was later promoted to the rank of Vizeadmiral. Colonel von Wittstadt became his chief of staff, while Captain Schneider remained in the position of the commanding officer of the port installations of Dunkerque. Major Turke, nicknamed Fridolin by the Germans, was another of the major figures of the garrison, heading the battle school, which was giving the troops lessons about offensive sorties against the besiegers. Allegedly, he was a man of great authority and old-fashioned manners of Imperial Germany and was respected by his subordinates.

German strength in the port was rather impressive by the numbers, yet the quality of the troops was often doubtful. Numbers are rather difficult to determine, however, when the garrison surrendered at 9:20 a.m. on 8th May 1945, there were 354 officers and 10,884 soldiers, divided into five battle groups and 21 battalions, 5 artillery groups, an anti-aircraft group and a battle school. 542 wounded and 141 sick were found at the Rosendael Hospital. All these troops belonged to a multitude of Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and Festung units, including the 226th Infantry Division, 346th, 711th, 49th and 97th Divisions and the 26th and 1046th Fortress Batallions. 2,000 troops belonged to the Waffen-SS Reinecke group. In general the infantry formations mentioned above were usually remnants of garrisons either in Normandy or the Pas-de-Calais area, where the majority of their troops were lost during the Allied invasion and breakout. During the siege of the city, the Germans lost about 1,000 men and 890 more, including 18 officers, were captured between the Czechoslovak take-over and 18th April 1945.

There was no serious lack of food when the war ended for the garrison. In fact, more than 21 tons of food were found and it is estimated that the food could last for further 3 months. The Germans also had 410 vehicles at their disposal, as well as 731 horse wagons and 998 horses, 5 fishing boats and one motor boat. Three small submarines and seven other seagoing craft were captured as well. Regarding ammunition, there were still loads of what could be hurled at the Czechoslovak besiegers. 133,225 pieces of ammunition for 85 artillery pieces (calibres ranging from 75 to 200mm) were captured, over one hundred thousand pieces of ammunition were also available for the garrison's 97 anti-tank guns (including 28 pieces of heavy artillery). Also, more than 10 million pieces of small arms ammunition were found, together with 98,520 hand grenades.



Besiegers


Even during
Operation Undergo, the capture of Calais, the Canadians were still moving northeast towards Dunkirk. By 15th September, the date when the final decision was made to bypass Dunkirk in a run for Antwerp, aggressive attacks by the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division reduced the area held by the garrison. Bourbourg was captured on 7th and 8th September 1944 by the 5th Infantry Brigade, receiving orders to encircle the port. Loon-Plage, another of the enemy outposts on the port's perimeter. During 15th and 16th September, elements of the division took Bray Dunes, Ghyvelde and entered Bergues. Mardick was taken the following day, Furnes, Nieuport and La Panne were also occupied by the 6th Infantry Brigade, assisted by the invaluable information (enemy's strength, defences, minefields) provided by the Belgian White Brigade, the national resistance movement.
Operation Dynamo
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France, May-June 1940.
The Atlantikwall
The Atlantic Wall, the western frontier of Hitler's Fortress Europe.
Clearing the Channel Ports
One of the lesser-known campaigns of Northwest Europe in 1944, the struggle to capture French ports cost many lives of Allied soldiers, particularly Canadians.