When the order was telegraphed, the garrison was under siege.
And it became hard to know who was dealing each particular death. Was it the Luftwaffe above? The Panzer tanks from all sides? The seething Nazi fighters filling every conceivable gap?
The British and French fighters hunkered down and fought valiantly from their coastal fortification in Calais. The Nazis had shocked the French Army, the British Expeditionary Force and the world in utterly routing the forces arrayed against them in the Battle of France. In a matter of six weeks, Hitler’s forces had achieved what the Kaiser couldn’t achieve in four years of fighting World War I. And as several hundred thousand British and French soldiers found themselves stranded on the barren beaches of Dunkirk, they awaited rescue from the sea or death from the sky.
The Calais garrison awaited rescue too. But then the order came.
Because any and every method was necessary to draw the Nazi forces away from the vulnerable soldiers at Dunkirk, Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the Calais garrison as the last best option. And yet this meant the worst possible consequences for four thousand brave soldiers.
The British destroyers that were prepared offshore to rescue the men would not rescue them. Instead, the men were ordered to fight to the death.
“To Brigadier [Claude] Nicholson. The eyes of the Empire are upon the defense of Calais, and [His Majesty’s] Government are confident you and your gallant regiments will perform an exploit worthy of the British name.”
Amidst dire circumstances and with death or brutal captivity awaiting him, Nicholson stood his ground. Several times, the Nazi forces shelled Calais relentlessly and then sought surrender from him. He turned their emissaries away.
“Surrender? No, I shall not surrender. Tell the Germans that if they want Calais they will have to fight for it.”
Later that evening, Churchill himself would dictate a telegraph to Nicholson,
“Every hour you continue to fight is of greatest help to the British Expeditionary Force…Have greatest admiration for your splendid stand.”
Consequently, the Calais garrison didn’t give hours of resistance. It gave four days. In the end, many were killed. Even more were captured. Nicholson himself would die in German captivity in 1943. But the Calais garrison’s resistance and Hitler’s mysterious halt order were instrumental in giving time for the “little ships of Dunkirk” to save nearly 350,000 soldiers.
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