Operation Wellhit

This was Canadian reduction of the German-held Boulogne pocket by Major General D. C. Spry’s 3rd Division (17/22 September 1944).

Boulogne was one of several Channel ports, including Le Havre, Calais and Dunkirk, which were desired by Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Anglo-Canadian 21st Army Group as a means of reducing its reliance on ports such as Cherbourg far to their rear. The reduction of Le Havre was allocated to Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army, while the capture of the other three ports was entrusted to Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s II Corps of Lieutenant General H. D. G. Crerar’s 1st Army.

The English Channel ports had significance to Adolf Hitler too, and on 4 September 1944 he ordered General Gustav-Adolf von Zangen’s 15th Army to provide a ‘fight-to-the-death’ garrison for each of the ports. The Boulogne pocket was commanded by Generalleutnant Ferdinand Heim with a mixed force of 10,000 men supported by a powerful artillery component.

Boulogne was next on the Canadian list of objectives after Dieppe, which had been taken in ‘Fusilade’, as it lay on the 1st Army’s line of advance toward Belgium and the port of Antwerp. Lying on the estuary of the Liane river, Boulogne had a defensive wall of high ground, in part fortified and in part shielded by pillbox-reinforced trench lines. Boulogne was at the northern end of a key part of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, reaching to the north in the direction of Cap Gris Nez and to the north-east in the direction of Calais. The ports and strongpoints of the region were prepared for all-round defence, mutually supporting each other, and both the landward and seaward approaches were covered by artillery. The two most dominant defensive features could be readily determined. The first was Mont Lambert, a high hill to the east of Boulogne and overlooking the town. Though at first sight the weaker of the two defensive points, its features nonetheless included reinforced concrete gun emplacements, dug-outs and underground passages, and casemated and disappearing guns. The other feature was the Fort de la Creche. This was an old French fort which the Germans had incorporated into their defensive perimeter, and to which they had added concrete pillboxes and artillery of many calibres including 240-mm (9.45-in) guns on mountings providing 360° traverse.

The town had been heavily damaged during pre-invasion air bombardments, yet it too had been readied for defence. Roads had been blocked, ambush points had been pre-planned and bolstered by machine gun emplacements and anti-tank guns. The strength of Heim’s garrison was estimated at anything between 5,500 and 7,000 men, whereas the reality was about 10,000 men. Most of the troops belonged to low-grade fortress machine gun units (older men and ex-administrative personnel), yet the German morale was relatively good as a result of the trust the men placed in the surrounding defensive works.

Before the assault, the Allies had gathered much intelligence with the help of French resistance units, which had been able to provide estimates of garrison strengths and helped establish the locations of defensive emplacements and German dispositions. Information was also provided by photo-reconnaissance, and also the interrogation of captured German troops and up to 10,000 French civilians evacuated from Boulogne at the proposal of the German commander, who had become concerned about the food and water requirement of such ‘useless mouths’.

Even at this stage, the Canadian assault forces were already suffering from acute supply problems. All ammunition still had to be brought from the Normandy beach-head and Dieppe by trucks facing a round-trip period of seven and three days respectively. Also, the specialised armoured vehicles (‘funnies’)of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s British 79th Armoured Division had to be moved from Le Havre, where they were involved in mineclearing, to Boulogne. Artillery formations were also lagging somewhat behind the first-line troops, but on 6 September the first artillery units to reach the area were able to fire first rounds at the defenders. These were smoke rounds, and the Canadian command hoped that this would persuade the Germans to reveal the location of their own batteries with counter-fire. The Germans did not respond, however. Another trick employed, with a greater measure of success, was the fire of moving artillery units, which led the Germans to overestimate the strength of the artillery supporting the Canadians. Ultimately, though, the strength of the artillery could hardly be overestimated: 16 regiments fielded 368 guns of calibres ranging between 3.45 in (87.6 mm) for the 25-pdr gun/howitzer to 155 mm (6.1 in) for the US and 7.2 in (183 mm) for the British howitzers.

Propaganda shoots were also used to exploit what was presumed to be low German morale in the face of Allied numerical and hardware superiority: almost 500,000 leaflets were delivered by special rounds into Boulogne. Another propaganda factor was the use of White scout cars fitted with loudspeakers: these were officially credited with the surrender of 900 Germans in the period 19/22 September.

In the period immediately before the assault, Allied fighter-bombers and medium bombers attacked known targets within the German perimeter marked by 25-pdr red smoke shells. The accuracy was doubted, though, and an examination after the German surrender discovered that the air attacks had caused little damage, and that only four pieces of artillery had been put out of action by 800 bombs and 200 rockets. Heavy bombers were also included in the Allied air assault, performing a 90-minute bombardment on an area measuring 3,300 by 1,100 yards (3000 by 1000 m) and including all of the important defensive features. The end of the air bombardment was immediately followed by heavy artillery fire to prolong the effect on the Germans.

The Canadian plan was to break into the perimeter from the east, while the northern and southern ends of the defensive horseshoe would at this stage merely be contained for later assault should this be required: the Canadian forces committed to this plan were Brigadier K. G. Blackader’s 8th Brigade against Wimeureux on the coast to the north of Boulogne, and also the northern part of Boulogne on the round to Wimeureux, and Brigadier J. M. Rockingham’s 9th Brigade against Boulogne proper.

Delayed by unfavourable weather conditions as well as the need to bring up additional artillery and the specialised armour of the 79th Armoured Division, the assault thus started five days after the surrender of Le Havre and 11 days after first artillery shells had been fired into Boulogne, and was supported by four British coastal guns (firing across the English Channel from the North Foreland in Kent) and an attack by 800 heavy bombers of Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command.

Lying to the east of Boulogne and commanding the town and its approaches, Mont Lambert was assaulted by infantry carried in Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers supported by AVRE specialised assault tanks, followed by others riding in armoured half-tracks. Wasp flamethrower-fitted Universal Carriers and M10 self-propelled guns were also involved in the operation. Within 45 minutes the Canadians had reached all their objectives, though the advance had been slowed down mud and the need to bypass bomb craters and search for mines. Fighting in the area did not end until the next day.

In other areas fighting was equally fierce. The Germans fought hard to retain their positions, often using 20-mm anti-aircraft cannon against the Allied troops. Mortar and heavy artillery fire was encountered at other points, and there was ferocious close-quarter combat everywhere.

Despite the gains of the initial attack, the results of the first day’s fighting were moot. The advance was slower than had been planned, none of the German positions had been captured and completely cleared, and there was a continued German presence within the areas captured or at points covering them.

During the second day of the attack the area of Mont Lambert was finally secured and its garrison captured. Bitter fighting continued in the streets of the city and for the bridges, all of which were eventually found destroyed or heavily damaged, although several of them could be crossed by infantry or were bridgeable by the engineers. In the evening the first troops moved across the bridges to the south-western bank of the Liane river, covered by all kinds of guns, including anti-tank guns and PIAT anti-tank launchers. As soon as the river had been crossed, the Canadian advance continued to clear the south-western area of Boulogne, while on the other side of the Liane river the troops prepared to assault the Fort de la Creche. By 12.00 on the third day, there were still an estimated 2,000 Germans under arms, though their determination often broke at the very moment they came under Allied fire.

The Canadian advance had by now compressed the Germans into areas north and south of the town around the Fort de la Creche and Wimeureux in the north and Le Portel in the south. The northern strongpoints were not reduced till the sixth day of the operation, namely 22 September. The Germans holding le Portel still refused to surrender, and these last German positions yielded only late in the afternoon of the same day.

The Canadians suffered only 600 casualties in ‘Wellhit’, whereas the Germans lost their entire garrison, of which about 500 men had been killed.

Despite the many thousands of tons of explosives dropped by the bombers and hurled onto the targets by the artillery, several of the gun emplacements were put out of action only by infantry attack or threat of flame-throwing tanks. According to the German officers captured and interrogated at Boulogne, about a half of the 90 artillery pieces were located in concrete gun emplacements which were little damaged by air and artillery bombardment.

Once the fighting had ended, the French civilian population returned and the town quickly returned to life with the aid of Canadian civil aid units, which provided soup kitchens, water and medical aid to the civilians. The port of Boulogne had to be cleared of wreckage, sunken ships and mines before it could be usable, but this was not the task of the Canadians, whose 8th and 9th Brigades were redeployed against Calais and the German heavy artillery batteries at Cap Gris Nez. Instead, an Army Port Repair and Construction Group was tasked with the clearance work. On 10 October, a PLUTO oil pipeline was laid from Dungeness on the south coast of England, but the harbour was not open to shipping until 14 October.