Rear Guard Action - The Sacrifice Army
Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines Location: France Period/ Conflict: World War II Year: 1940 Date/s: May 1940 Calais – Friday 24 to Sunday 26 May 1940 After the Boulogne operation Blue Watch was coming off leave, White Watch was on Coastal Defence and Red Watch was supposed to go on leave. I was in Red Watch and because we were available, we were sent to Calais.
As we came down the stairs from our accommodation to ‘Go Ashore’ we were approached by the Sergeant Major, who ordered us to listen out for the ‘General Assembly’ to be announced and to be prepared to muster on the parade ground within two minutes. We asked him what was happening to which he replied that we were going on another trip. ‘By the way’, he added, ‘Go to the Armourer’s shop and sign out your guns’. That was the two Vickers machine guns, tripods and water coolant as well as our personal .45 revolvers.
We were known as the ‘Sacrifice Army’ for that operation. Before we left for Calais we knew we were on a lost cause. A young ‘Geordie’ in our squad called Thwaites had been talking to a Brigadier’s daughter. She had overheard her parents talking and she was able to tell us, ‘You will be going to Calais, and you will not be coming back’.
The main reason we were sent there was to destroy the Calais harbour installations and reinforce the troops already in position. Unknown to us at that time, Winston Churchill, the wartime Prime Minister, had taken a leading part in planning a series of rearguard actions designed to allow the retreat of the Allied forces at Dunkirk to continue.
That Friday ninety-six Royal Marines and four officers headed for Calais on a Royal Naval destroyer. The officers included Captain Curtis, Lieutenant Bruce, Lieutenant Hunter and the Machine Gun Officer, Lieutenant Scott. The Senior NCOs were Colour Sergeant Reid and Sergeant Mitchell. The Junior NCOs were Corporal Harper and Lance Corporal O’Farran.
There were supposed to be some troops from the Royal Ulster Rifles with us but their trip was cancelled.
While we were crossing the Channel to Calais, Lieutenant Scott moved around the ship talking to everyone. He came and sat down beside me and started to talk. He said, ’You’re Irish, aren’t you?’ I said I was. He then asked me if I was superstitious and I replied that I wasn’t really. He told me that he was superstitious about some things. When I asked him what superstitions he had he related how a single magpie had flown across the road on the way to the Royal Navy destroyer. Lieutenant Scott was joking with me and had to bite his lip to stop himself from laughing. I told him the Irish also believed that superstition. He finished off by saying, ‘Just keeping you going.’ Before the weekend was up I would mistakenly pronounce him dead.
Our first action took place on the way into Calais harbour. Two mortar shells exploded harmlessly above the destroyer on the jetty. Because the jetty was well above us there were no casualties. It did not take us long to disembark from the destroyer after that hot reception. As we were disembarking other troops were boarding.
For the next three days there was a constant run of small ships from Calais harbour evacuating the Allied non-combatant troops. The ships never brought in fresh troops after we landed.
The Royal Marines were supposed to meet with French Marines but we never met them. We eventually found them on Sunday morning 26 May 1940 just before we were captured. They were all at the railway station, all drunk with their weapons piled up.
My mate ‘Geordie’ Thwaites said, ‘Paddy, I don’t know how to pray. Say a prayer for me.’ I replied that I had already said it. ‘What did you say?’ he asked. I replied ‘God help us.’ He asked, ‘Is that enough?’ ‘I think so.’ I replied. Bill Balmer Read More/ Web Link: The Bill Balmer Story (Royal Marine 1939-1953)