Operation Siege of Dunkirk

The 'Siege of Dunkirk' was the Canadian investment by units of Major General Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division of General H. D. G. Crerar’s Canadian 1st Army of the German-held fortified port town of Dunkirk in north-eastern France (15 September 1944/9 May 1945).

The siege lasted until the day after the official end of the war in Europe. In this period, otherwise known as the 2nd Battle of Dunkirk, German units within what Adolf Hitler had designated as a Festung (fortress) withstood probing attacks until the opening of the altogether more important Belgian port city of Antwerp persuaded Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander of the Allied 21st Army Group, to order the containment rather than the capture of Dunkirk by Brigadier Alois Liska’s Czechoslovak 1st Armoured Brigade. Commanded by Vizeadmiral Friedrich Frisius, Calais’s fortress garrison eventually surrendered unconditionally on 9 May 1945, one day after Germany’s unconditional surrender.

The Canadian 1st Army had been allocated to the left wing of the 21st Army Group line of advance and Montgomery had directed the Canadians to clear the English Channel ports before continuing into the Netherlands. Most of the ports had been fortified and despite the generally poor quality of their garrisons, it proved necessary to capture them with set-piece attacks.

The Allies needed the ports of north-eastern France for the delivery of supplies to the armies as these advanced to the east, and the lack of such facilities had halted or slowed much offensive activity. Montgomery had estimated that the English Channel ports would be sufficient for the requirements of his army group and this view persisted until the middle of September. Under orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Allied supreme commander in north-west Europe, Montgomery modified his instructions to Crerar on 13/14 September: 'Early use of Antwerp so urgent that I am prepared to give up operations against Calais and Dunkirk' and 'Dunkirk will be left to be dealt with later; for the present it will be merely masked'.

The operation to take Calais was continuing in 'Undergo' as a result, at least in part, of the need to silence the German heavy artillery sited in the area. Moreover, the forces that might have been used in the reduction of Dunkirk had been dovered for commitment in the Battle of the Scheldt and thus open access to the largely undamaged port of Antwerp. Thus only comparatively small Allied forces were available for the operation against Dunkirk, which was now to be contained rather than destroyed.

During the first weeks of the siege, as Allied forces were being deployed on the Scheldt river, several formations took short turns in the containment of Dunkirk. Brigadier W. J. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade, part of the Canadian 2nd Division, was relieved by the Royal Marine commandos of Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s British 4th Special Service Brigade, and was in turn replaced by Brigadier (4th SSB, a Royal Marines Commando formation), which was in turn relieved by Brigadier A. S. Clarke’s British 154th Brigade. However, the major part of the siege was undertaken by Liska’s Czechoslovak 1st Armoured Brigade from a time early in October until the final surrender. The German garrison consisted of diversity of men, including navy and air force personnel, as well as army and fortress units. The garrison thus comprised elements of Generalleutnant Macholz’s 49th Division, Generalleutnant Wolfgang von Kluge’s 226th Division, Generalleutnant Erich Diestel’s (from 16 October Generalleutnant Walter Steinmüller' and from 1 February Generalmajor Gerhard Linder’s) 346th Division, Generalleutnant Josef Reichert’s 711th Division, Generalleutnant Friedrich Rabe von Pappenheim’s 97th Jägerdivision, the 26th Festungsbataillon, the 1046th Festungsbataillon, and the 2,000-strong Kampfgruppe 'Reinecke'[/] of the Waffen-SS. The Germans' total strength was thus more than 10,000 men, many of whom were remnants of five divisions which had been savaged during the Normandy campaign and had retreated to Dunkirk. The town itself was heavily fortified, and well-supplied for a lengthy siege.

The Canadians approached Dunkirk along the coast from the south-west. On 7/8 September, the Canadian 5th Brigade captured Bourbourg, about 8.1 miles (13 km) from the town. The Germans' outer perimeter extended through the villages of Mardyck, Loon Plage, Spycker, Bergues and Bray Dunes, 4.3 to 7.5 miles (7 to 12 km) from Dunkirk. The Calgary Highlanders attacked Loon Plage on 7 September against very heavy opposition and suffered losses so heavy that each of its companies was reduced to less than 30 men. The village was taken only on 9 September when the Germans withdrew. During the next 10 days, Canadian units nibbled at the German perimeter, taking Coppenaxfort on 9 September and Mardyck on 17 September, both of these to the west of the town, Bergues on 15 September, and on the same day Veurne, Nieuwpoort and De Panne to the east of the town in Belgium, and Bray Dunes and nearby Ghyvelde both just within France with air support after the initial land attacks had failed.

By this time it had become clear that the German defenders could not be defeated without a major assault. Given the greater need to open the Scheldt river estuary to Antwerp and the likelihood that Dunkirk would then be of only limited use as a supply port as a result of German demolitions, the major Canadian units were redeployed. Nearby Ostende had fallen easily to the Canadians when the Germans withdrew, and its port had been partially opened on 28 September, easing the Allies' supply problems. Dunkirk was no longer worth the effort of its capture.

The Allied forces around Dunkirk were now to contain the German garrison and minimise their inclination to continue the fight by reconnaissance, artillery and air bombardment as well as propaganda. Coastal supply routes used by S-boote and air supply drops were to be be brought to an end. Of all of the German fortress garrisons on the English Channel coast, Dunkirk appears to have been the most resilient: at the other English Channel ports, and most especially Calais and Boulogne, and the artillery sites at Cap Gris Nez were easily persuaded to surrender, but those in Dunkirk were more determined and capable of mounting an active defence. The German garrison drove off early Canadian probes with an aggression sufficient to dissuade them from a full assault. By this stage, other priorities compelled the Canadians to persist in patrolling and local counterattacks. On 16 September, the Canadian 2nd Division was relieved by the 4th Special Service Brigade, and on the night of 26/27 September the 4th Special Service Brigade was replaced by the 154th Brigade of Major General T. G. Rennie’s *from March 1945 Major General G. H. MacMillan’s) 51st Division. The Germans attempted to take advantage of the change with sorties against the 7/Black Watch in Ghyvelde and the 7/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders at nearby Bray Dunes Plage. Both of these German attacks were repulsed, but only after the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders' headquarters had been partially occupied and houses in Ghyvelde had been destroyed. A truce was negotiated for the period between 3 and 6 October at the initiative of the French Red Cross, to allow the evacuation of 17,500 French civilians and Allied and German wounded. The truce was extended to allow the Germans to restore defences which had been removed to facilitate the evacuation.

On 9 October, the Czechoslovak 1st Armoured Brigade assumed responsibility for the siege. The Czechoslovaks executed frequent raids into the eastern suburbs for nuisance effect and to take prisoners: an attack on 28 October netted 300 men. There was a flurry of attacks and counterattacks, mostly on the eastern perimeter during November. Conditions on both sides were difficult during these winter months. The low-lying ground outside the town had been flooded to form part of the defences and adjacent land became water-logged, hampering movement and making life unpleasant. Canadian gunners reported that they had to bail out their gun pits, and the sides of dug-outs collapsed. Czechoslovak morale was maintained by leave in nearby towns and in the city of Lille. The defenders were stuck with poor food, declining health care and harsh discipline.

On 28 April and 2 May 1945 the Germans managed to deliver a limited quantity of supplies to the garrison with some of their 28 'Seehund' two-man midget submarines. These craft were normally armed with two torpedoes mounted outside the hull, and for the supply missions the torpedoes were replaced with special food containers. On their return passages the 'Seehund' craft used the containers to carry mail from the Dunkirk garrison.

Finally, the garrison surrendered unconditionally on 9 May 1945, two days after the signature of the overall German surrender and one day after this became effective.