The Sacrifice Army - Royal Marines in the Rearguard Action At Calais
Unit/ Formation: Royal Marines
Period/ Conflict: World War II
Date/s: 24th May 1940
Calais – Friday 24 to Sunday 26 May 1940
The Bill Balmer Story (Royal Marine 1939-1953) My Second Battle 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. The Sacrifice Army 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. The Citadel Despite that setback with the French troops, a British officer was able to direct us, No 1 Gun Team, to a building called The Citadel, which was ideal for fighting from. It was a great vantage point, over three stories high. It had also been severely damaged during the fighting and was full of debris. This gave us good cover from enemy fire. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had a transport pool at the Citadel. The Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and the Queen’s Regiment had established a hospital within the Citadel. The roof of the Citadel was full of rubbish and debris from earlier battles. Our gun team NCO, Colour Sergeant Reid, thought this was ideal, just as long as we didn’t look up or move when the German aircraft flew over our position. The white of our faces would have given our positions away. The German spotter planes were constantly passing overhead and we used the rubbish to camouflage our position. Colour Sergeant Reid made sure we kept our heads and feet covered at all times. The other machine gun team was behind our position to our left. We could hear the machine gun firing but such was the confusion no one told us it was our other team. I had a very busy forty hours at Calais before we surrendered to the Germans. No sleep, hardly anything to eat or drink. ‘Geordie’ and myself worked a four-hour shift behind the gun but there was little respite for the two days. The lucky soldiers were those posted near or in the convent. They were well looked after by the nuns whereas we were isolated on the Citadel for the battle. Our main task in the Citadel was to observe a gap in the battlements where the railway line entered the old city. That was over 600 yards from our location. We had to stop German foot soldiers and vehicles from gaining access to the harbour through that point. The Germans were waiting there to break through, but we were successful in stopping them for two days. If the Germans managed to get through that gap they would have overwhelmed our troops in the harbour. As soon as we saw any movement on the other side of the railway lines we would fire a five or six round burst to keep them back. As soon as I saw any movement I would kick ‘Geordie’ awake and fire the gun. It was his job to reload the gun when necessary. We were sleeping rough because sleeping bags had yet to be issued to fighting troops in those early days. I saw many horrible sights at Calais. Men were blown to bits by Stuka bombs, artillery fire and mortar fire. The worst scene I witnessed was No.2 Gun Team and a rifle section of ten Royal Marines; twelve young men or should I say boys, blown to bits by a bomb from a Stuka. On another occasion Geordie and myself had to deliver a message to the railway station. We watched two soldiers coming along the track towards us. Then we heard a mortar shell being fired in our direction so we flattened ourselves to the platform. When we looked up the two soldiers were gone, just bits of uniform lying where they had been. When you see people killed in front of you, that’s when your training kicks in and you do what you were trained to do.
Ping That Sunday morning on 26 May 1940 at about 8 am, Colour Sergeant Reid said to me, ‘I’ve made a cup of tea. And there’s a cup sitting there for you. I will take over the gun’. I stood up and walked over to get the cup of tea. As I stood up I heard a ‘ping’ and thought little of it. The Colour Sergeant said to me later, ‘You were lucky. A bullet hit the gun just after you stood up and walked away’. Sure enough the bullet had hit one of the tripod legs. If I had been lying behind the gun the bullet would have caught me between the shoulders. No soldier likes to be shot in the back. We always thought that anyone shot in the back was either running away or doing something they should not have been doing. Stretching Our Legs Later that morning the Machine Gun Officer came to the Citadel and told ‘Geordie’ and myself that we needed to stretch our legs after being in position for nearly two days. There were stories circulating that German snipers had infiltrated close to our positions. Because of that we were tasked to go to the railway station and locate Sergeant Mitchell who was in charge of a rifle section there. Eventually we found Sergeant Mitchell and gave him the message. He had to take his rifle section and search the ground to his front before the machine gun teams moved forward. Sergeant Mitchell said, ‘I want the organ grinder not the two monkeys’. We had a few choice words with him and returned to the officer with the message. Sergeant Mitchell (G) shifted his position after that meeting and we never met him again to re-task him. The Last Stand For the last stand we had moved from our gun position on the Citadel to the sand dunes on the Dunkirk side of the town. We were located four hundred yards from Calais, overlooking the town. We had to street fight all the way there. I was carrying the tripod for the Vickers gun, another Marine carried the barrel and a third Marine carried the water container of coolant for the gun. Across the channel lay the town of Dover, freedom so near and yet so far. We had nothing but a very uncertain future, not really comprehending what lay ahead. We believed that our defence of Calais had engaged the Germans troops and allowed the Dunkirk evacuation to continue. Lieutenant Scott Later, two stretcher-bearers came to ‘Geordie’ and myself and asked us to identify a dead Royal Marine officer. We went with them and identified the officer as Lieutenant Scott, our Machine Gun Officer. We took his ‘dog tags’ (Identification discs) and pay book and then returned to Colour Sergeant Reid, our section commander. But Lieutenant Scott was not dead, just badly injured. Later on, after we were captured, the German stretcher-bearers came across him and moved him into hospital where he recovered. Captured We were taken prisoner by German infantry at 4 pm on Sunday afternoon on the 26 May 1940. The Colour Sergeant had just taken a phone call on the field telephone. He said, ‘We are going to surrender. They have asked for a senior officer to go forward with a white flag and surrender. Destroy your guns’. An army officer then told a Sergeant to take a white flag and stand on a hill. The Sergeant refused and had to be ordered again. He stood up, drew his gun and said, ‘Death before dishonour’. And then the Sergeant shot himself dead with one shot to the head from his own .45 revolver. Another Sergeant was ordered to raise the white flag and did so. The German troops were now swarming around us. A young German officer who was as broad as he was tall approached us. As he did so we were busy destroying the gun. 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. The German officer said something to us in German. We did not understand him and he repeated himself, but this time he spoke in perfect English. We said to him, ‘Why didn’t you say that in the first place?’ We learned that he had been educated in Cambridge before the war. He then asked us what regiment we belonged to and we refused to answer him. He then told us we were in the Royal Marines because he recognised the buttons on our tunics. He then asked us if we knew what the Germans did to Royal Marines. We replied that we did not know so he informed us that we would be shot. A rare sense of humour indeed! After talking to us for a while he returned to the German lines.