154 Brigade at Dunkirk
Sept - Oct 1944
Extract From 'The History Of 154 Infantry Brigade In North West Europe'
23RD SEPTEMBER 1944 TO 9TH OCTOBER 1944
On 23rd September the Brigade Commander was informed by the Divisional Commander that he had been ordered to send one Brigade to invest Dunkirk and to contain the enemy garrison in that port, as it was thought that there was a possibility that, if the garrison were not kept severely in hand, they might sally forth and interfere with 21st Army Group's lines of communication routes which ran through Cassel, about 15 'miles south of Dunkirk. The task was at present being carried out by 4th, S:S. Brigade who had to be relieved to enable it to start special training for the Walchern operations. 154 Brigade was detailed for the Dunkirk task, being' put under direct command of 1st Canadian Army for this purpose, and on 24th September the Brigade Commander went to Canadian Army Headquarters and received his orders for the role which the Brigade was to carry out.
The dispositions round Dunkirk were found to be on a very wide perimeter and the relief of 4th S.S. Brigade in these dispositions was successfully carried out on 26th September without incident. The whole Divisional Artillery had, soon after the capture of Le Havre, been sent off to Calais to shoot in support of the Canadians' attack on that town, and an A.A. Brigade of four Regiments, already deployed on the Dunkirk perimeter, was accordingly put under command of 154 Brigade with the task of supporting the Brigade in a ground role. The Brigade lay-out was as follows:-
7th Argylls-Bray-Dunes Plage, about 4 miles to the east of Dunkirk. This was one of the places from which a considerable part of the B.E.F. was evacuated in 1940. 7th Black Watch-Ghyvelde, about 3 miles south of Bray-Dunes Plage. 1st Black Watch-Loon-Plage, about 4 miles west of Dunkirk.
The perimeter held by the Brigade extended to about 25 miles, but a considerable part of the area was flooded and was impassable for either infantry or tanks. It was found that the above dispositions covered all "dry" exits from the town with the exception of the main road running south through Bergues and, in order to defend this, a composite force consisting of the carrier platoons from each Battalion and some tanks was formed under Major 1. Campbell, 7th Argylls, and was located at Bergues. Brigade Headquarters was established at Wormhout.
The Brigade remained at Dunkirk carrying out its containing role there until 9th October when it was relieved by the Czech Brigade, supported by a British Tank Regiment. During the period at Dunkirk the following matters of special interest occurred:-
(a) The enemy made a strong raid against 7th Black Watch on the night 26th/27th September and succeeded in setting fire to several houses in the village of Ghyvelde and demolishing the windmill there which was being used by the Battalion as an O.P. Later in the same night the enemy also attacked 7th Argylls, the attack penetrating as far as Battalion Headquarters which was situated in a large concrete redoubt which had been part of the enemy coastal defences in this area. 7th Argylls sustained a number of casualties, including the Adjutant who was wounded.
The situation was very difficult and unpleasant until the C.O. was able to reach one of his Company Headquarters and to control the engagement from there, his own Battalion Headquarters being, by that time, partially occupied by the enemy. Both these attacks were, however, successfully beaten off during the night but they showed that the enemy was in a very aggressive mood and that no chances at all could be taken.
It was learned from prisoners taken in these attacks that they had ascertained that a relief had just taken place and the attacks were accordingly staged at that time in order to take advantage of the fact that the newly arrived troops would be unfamiliar with the area.
(b) At the request of the French Red Cross the Brigade Commander negotiated a 36 hours truce with the German garrison in Dunkirk to enable the French civilian population to be evacuated and thus avoid the very heavy civilian casualties which are bound to occur in a siege of this nature and which had already been experienced by the French at Le Havre. The initial contact with the German garrison was made through a member of the French Red Cross who passed through the German lines for this purpose.
The Brigade I.0., Captain Wingate-Gray, then entered the town blindfolded and under a flag of truce and accompanied by two German officers. He interviewed the German Garrison Commander, to whom he conveyed the Brigade Commander's proposals for the establishment of a truce for the purpose stated. The request for a truce was agreed to by the German Commander subject to both Commanders giving written personal guarantees that no change in military dispositions would be made during the truce. These guarantees were duly exchanged and the truce started at 06.00 hours on 4th October.
A suitable meeting place near the perimeter was arranged and both sides undertook to clear the mines from their respective approaches to this meeting place and to rebuild such bridges in their area as would be required for the civilian evacuation. The truce was, at the request of the German Garrison Commander, extended by 12 hours to enable the mines to be replaced and the bridges to be re-demolished after the evacuation was completed.
Over 18,500 civilians were evacuated, including a certain number of German seriously wounded cases whom the Brigade Commander agreed to accept on a one for one basis with Allied wounded who were in hospitals in the town. The terms of the truce were scrupulously observed by each side and no special incidents occurred.
The relief by the Czech Brigade was completed on 8th and 9th October and the Brigade was ordered to re-join the Division, which had moved to the area of St. Oedenrode in Holland, between Eindhoven and Nijmegen.