The liberation of the Channel Ports of Le Havre, Boulogne and Calais (5-30 September 1944) saw the Allies finally gain control of the French coast opposite Kent, ending the long artillery bombardment of that part of the English coast, and eventually provided the Allies with ports closer to the front.
The Allies reached the Channel Ports early in September, during the ‘Great Swan’ - the breakout from Normandy. The first troops to arrive were from the Canadian II Corps. This unit crossed the Somme at the start of September and pushed north. On 1 September the Canadian 2nd Division captured Dieppe unopposed, returning to the scene of the costly defeat of 1942, and on 2 September the 51st Highland Division liberated St. Valery, where an earlier incarnation of the division had been forced to surrender in 1940.
On 6 September the Polish Armoured Division crossed the Albert Canal at St-Omer (only a day after Hitler had ordered Field Marshal von Rundstedt to build a new ‘West Wall’ along the Albert Canal, Meuse and Upper Moselle). On their left the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division reached Boulogne and Calais, while the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division passed through them and reached Dunkirk.
At all three ports it soon became clear that the Germans intended to make a stand. Hitler had ordered XV Army to hold some of them as fortresses on 4 September. The Canadians thus had to leave some troops outside each port, while detachments continued the rapid advance. Nieuport and Ostend were reached on 9 September. The Canadian 4th Armoured Division then came up to the left of the Poles, and crossed the Ghent-Bruges canal south-east of Bruges, while the Poles moved to Ghent.
The Channel Ports were thus cut off, but each was strongly held. At first Eisenhower had considered leaving them alone to focus entirely on Antwerp, but on 9 September Montgomery argued in favour of capturing Le Havre, Dieppe, Boulogne, Dunkirk and Calais, then using them to support an attack by 40 divisions straight across Germany to Berlin. Eisenhower was won over, and clearing the Channel ports was given a higher priority than clearing the approaches to Antwerp. In retrospect this looking like a mistake, but at the time it was felt that attacks on the Channel ports could be mounted quickly, using troops already available on the Continent, while the sea approaches to Antwerp would require a much more complex amphibious assault that couldn’t be mounted for at least a month.
Le Havre, 10-12 September
The attack on Le Havre was known as Operation Astonia, and took place on 10 September. The attack was carried out by the British I Corps, which was then part of the Canadian First Army. The attackers were given air support and engineer assistant and carried the port in an impressive combined arms operation.
Le Havre was defended by 11,000 German troops under Colonel Wildermuth, and also contained 50,000 French civilians. The Germans were focused on the destruction of the port facilities. The port was located at the tip of a peninsula, with the sea to the west and the mouth of the Seine to the south. The defences were thus concentrated on the plateau to the north-east of the port.
On the Allied side the British 49th and 51st Divisions from Lt General Crocker’s 1st Corps, supported by two tank brigades, the specialist tanks of 79th Armoured Division, a mass of artillery and the guns of the monitor Erebus and later the battleship Warspite.
On 2 September the Germans were forced back into the defences. Wildermuth attempted to negotiation terms of surrender, but made demands that couldn’t be accepted. Attempts to arrange the evacuation of the civilian population also failed. The fortress was attacked by artillery, and Bomber Command dropped 4,000 tons of bombs on the port. The Erebus got into a duel with the Grand Clos battery, just to the north of the port.
The plan was for Bomber Command to drop 5,000 tons of bombs on the defensive outside Le Havre on the evening of 10 September. 79th Division’s tanks were to spearhead the ground attack, with AVREs bridging the anti-tank ditch, Crabs clearing gaps in the minefields and flame throwing Crocodiles attacking any pill boxes. 49th Division would then attack into the gap. 51st Division would follow up, attacking at night using ‘artificial moonlight’ provided by shining searchlights onto clouds, and would expand the gap in the lines. The attack would pass through Harfleur, Le Harve’s predecessor as a major port, just to the east of the new town.
The attack began on time with the heavy bombers. The attacking forces withdrew 2,000 yards to avoid friendly fire, then began the assault the moment the heavy bombers had turned for home. The attack kept to its timetable, with the 49th Division breaking into the defences late on 10 September, soon followed by the 51st.
11 September began with another attack by Bomber Command. The 49th Division was then able to get into the outskirts of the town itself, while the 51st Division turned north and rolled up the German defences to the coast. The 49th Division turned south-west, heading through Harfleur to the main dock area, but ran into stronger German defences. Only after the specialist tanks turn up did they start to make more progress. By the end of the day the entire perimeter of the town was in British hands.
On 12 September the British assaulting columns headed into the centre of the town. A wounded Wildemuth finally surrendered at 11.45 on 12 September, and some 12,000 prisoners were taken (including non-combatants). However the port was very badly damaged.
Boulogne, 17-22 September
Boulogne and Calais were the most important targets, located on the French side of the Straits of Dover. They were separated by Cape Gris Nez, the location of a battery of massive German guns that had been used to bombard Kent, and that would need to be cleared before either port could be used. Boulogne was on the coast to the south of the cape, and Calais on the coast to the east.
Boulogne was more strongly defended than Le Havre. Although the garrison was slightly smaller, with around 9,000-10,000 men, it had a more experienced commander in Lt General Heim, a former chief of staff to Guderian during the fighting in Poland, and a stronger defensive position. The port was surrounded by hills, which were riddled with concrete gun emplacements and bunkers.
The attack on Boulogne was delayed to 17 September by bad weather, and by the need to move the artillery and the specialist tanks up from Le Havre, which was 135 miles back down the coast! During the pause around 8,000 civilians were evacuated from the port.
As at Le Havre, the attack was supported by Bomber Command (although not to the same extent), and by rocket firing Typhoons of 2nd Tactical Air Force. The artillery in France was supported by fire from four heavy coastal guns on the North Foreland near Dover (including ‘Winnie’ and ‘Pooh’). The South Foreland Battery actually managed a direct hit on a German battery near Calais at a range of 42,000 yards.
On 17 September Bomber Command attacked with 800 aircraft, mainly focusing on the key fortifications, including those on Mont Lambert, to the east of the town. At the same time the artillery focused on known anti-aircraft guns. These bombardments don’t appear to have caused much physical damage to the garrison.
The infantry attack was launched by two brigades from the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division. Progress was slow, and the attack often got bogged down in the maze of German fortifications. Three armoured columns that were meant to dash forward to the bridges over the Liane river were held up until the bridges had been blown. Mont Lambert, which was meant to fall on the first day, held out for twenty four hours and wasn’t cleared until 18 September. Eventually the specialist armour was used to blast a route into the city, until eventually they reached the Citadelle. Once the armour had reached the centre of the town, columns were sent north and south to clear the coastline.
On 22 September the Allies were close enough to communicate with Heim via loudspeaker, and he finally agreed to surrender. A total of 9,535 prisoners were taken, and a strongly held fortress had been captured in under a week at the relatively low cost of 634 Canadian and British casualties, but once again the port itself was in a terrible state and would take some time to repair.
Calais, 24-30 September
The last of the ports to fall was Calais. This time the garrison consisted of 7,500 men, described by their commander, Lt Colonel Schroder, as ‘mere rubbish’. However they were protected by the usual Atlantic Wall fortifications, supported by areas of flooding and minefields, with extra fire support coming from coastal batteries at Cap Gris-Nez and Sangatte.
The attack began with a less successful bombardment by Bomber Command, on 24 September. Poor weather meant that only 300 of the 900 bombers were able to drop their bombs, and the enemy anti-aircraft guns were left alone, so eight bombers were lost.
Calais was attacked by the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division on 25 September, after another artillery bombardment. This time the attack was deliberately slow but steady, to avoid any extra casualties. By 29 September the Canadians had reached the Citadelle, and surrender negotiations began. However these dragged on until the morning of 30 September, and the Germans only surrendered after one final Canadian assault. Although the battle had lasted for a week, the Canadians only suffered 300 casualties and civilian casualties were also low.
An armistice was then agreed to allow the civilians to evacuate the town. The attack resumed on midday on 30 September, and all organised resistance was over by the end of the day. Another 10,000 prisoners were taken.
Dunkirk remained in German hands for the rest of the war. The Canadians were soon ordered to focus on clearing the Scheldt, and the Czech Independent Armoured Brigade (under Major-General Alois Lishka) took over at Dunkirk. Dunkirk thus became the last French towns to be liberated, on 10 May 1945.
Cape Gris Nez
Although it wasn’t a port, the German positions at Cap Gris Nez also needed clearing. Once again they fell to a combination of infantry and the specialist armour, firing their last shells with Allied infantry already on top of the gun positions. The biggest of the guns could only fire towards England, so played no part in the actual battle. The position fell on 29 September, one day before Calais
During the attacks on the Channel Ports the Allies captured 30,000 prisoners and eliminated the German gins that had been bombarding Kent since 1940, all at a cost of 1,500 casualties. Unsurprisingly the Channel Ports were very badly damaged when they were captured, and weren’t restored to their full peacetime capacity in time to be really useful. However Boulogne was opened on 12 October, and they did help overcome some of the supply shortages that plagued the Allies in the autumn of 1944. They were also used during the campaign to clear the Scheldt and open Antwerp, making that campaign somewhat easier.