Second World War

Postcard of Calais market before the second world war

On the 1st September 1939, the German army invaded Poland. Hitler decided to end what he called the “monstrosities” of the Versailles Treaty and the Polish corridor; On the 3rd September 1939, in the wake of England, France declared war on Germany to defend its ally Poland. In May, Belgium and the Netherlands fell. The sky darkened over Calais with waves of German aircraft. On the 24nd May Panzers encircled Calais. 3000 British soldiers and 800 French defended the city and the port. The troops were insufficient to keep the perimeter of the city, heavy fighting took place in the streets of Calais, the British troops had been told by Churchill to resist at all costs to allow the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.

On May 26 at 16:45, Calais had to surrender.

The Germans were on the Channel, the British Expeditionary Force, the Belgian army, and the French army were encircled. In Paris, the French Government was in chaos.
Hitler watched. He wanted to spare England, he was still seeking a separate peace and Goering said that his aircraft were able to prevent any embarkation of British troops, 400,000 men were crammed, with a last hope of escape by sea, Churchill ordered to fetch them. This was Operation Dynamo. Destroyers, minesweepers, trawlers, tugs, barges, pleasure yachts, and even the Thames fireboat, anything that floats was sent across the Channel to rescue the besieged, troops with their British generals, including Montgomery.

The French troops contained the Germans on the outskirts of Dunkirk, with a price of heavy losses under the Luftwaffe Stukas and bombers.
The embarkation managed to save 215,000 English and 120,000 French. The French were taken to Britain to attempt a last stand. The English were directed toward re-equipment centres.
Churchill put it into perspective. He said lucidly: "You do not win wars with evacuations. Yet this was, in those first days of June 1940, the "Spirit of Dunkirk".
On 4 June the Germans entered Dunkirk. They discovered a fabulous booty, the remains of the British army. On the beach littered with wreckage, British Spitfires and carcasses of Allied ships showed the violence of the fighting. Hitler proclaimed: "Dunkirk is the biggest battle of all time, and June 4 will become a German national holiday."
80,000 French, were sacrificed in the defence of Dunkirk, or taken prisoner. Churchill said: "During those four critical days, the French have contained seven German divisions. They have thus made a splendid contribution to the salvation of their comrades. England could not continue the war without their sacrifice."
The following day, the occupation of Calais was put in place, my mother’s family prosperity and dignity was lost, a curfew was instituted in Calais from 21:00 to 6:00 in the morning. The national armistice was signed on June 22. The occupation was a time for France of suffering plundering, slave labour and deportation. The Calais sky became witness to the battle of Britain and the numerous air battles where the victims often fell into the Calais region. The resistance organized itself to collect and transmit information of military use to the allied cause.

The survival of Britain, now alone against Germany was played in the sky over southern England and the Atlantic. The war raged between the U-boats and Allied convoys carrying military hardware.

The war on the ocean, dependent on American aid, was watched by Britain with concern on the maritime routes used by German submarines, U-boats at the end of 1939, had sunk nearly 750 000 tons of Allied shipping. Reich's navy, the Kriegsmarine built submarine bases in the French ports of Brest, Saint-Nazaire, Lorient and Bordeaux and its submarines stationed there were ready to depart to hunt Allied ships. The old U boat pens are now pleasure marinas, they withstood endless RAF attacks, they were so strongly built that they are now impossible to demolish. After losing powerful battleships such as the Graf von Spee and the Bismarck, the German Navy was weakened, its remaining large ships were now safe in the Norwegian fjords, the only ships in a state of combat, submarines become the instrument of control of the seas.

In April 1941 in one month the Luftwaffe and the German U-boats, nicknamed the "gray wolves" sank around 600.000 tons of Allied ships. After the Luftwaffe had been sent to fight on the Eastern Front, there only remained in the Atlantic long range bombers. These identified Allied ships and transmitted their position to the submarines waiting in packs, waiting to cause carnage among the convoys. The entry into the war of the United States did not change the situation, the American fleet was for the moment confined to the Pacific. When the attack on Pearl Harbour was announced in my father’s barracks there was a cheer, Britain was saved, The German submarines continued their attacks and sank around 6.5 million tons of ships in 1942. The situation became critical for the Allied convoys, the transportation of military equipment to Britain was on the verge of stopping. 

Life aboard the submarine was cramped, fifty crewmen were difficult to place among the military equipment. Eating, sleeping, working in a few square metres, the submariners were sometimes several weeks without seeing daylight. Even if the submarine was forced to the surface every three days to renew the air, the crew was not allowed out, the men savoured this moment to scan the horizon with binoculars. It was then that the U-Boot became easy prey for detection and attack, the struggle was particularly challenging for the sailors. Until 1942, many attacks were on the surface, the U-boats were equipped with a gun, but the response of the allied ships forced the submarine to undertake deep dives, often dangerous.

The Strange Enigma machine, resembling a typewriter used the German Enigma code for messages to be transmitted between headquarters and troops and navy on the ground. The armies and navy of the Reich were all equipped with the Enigma machine, with an infinite number of combinations, it remained unbreakable. The Poles, first, then the British secret service, embarked on the decryption of German messages. In July 1941 the British seized the books containing the codes used by enemy ships to transmit the weather. From 1942, the Allies, put to work their best scientists, able to pierce the secret of the Enigma machine, they are then able to determine the position of U-boats in the Atlantic.

In the spring of 1943, the Allies reorganized their convoys by increasing the number of escort vessels. New long range radar was installed onboard aircraft involved in the fighting. The number of allied vessels destroyed decreased significantly, and the quantity of German submarines sunk increased. At the end of the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies lost 45 000 sailors, among them were 30 000 British. Despite these heavy losses and the constant threat of U-Boots, the Allies were actually winning this long battle of the oceans. 

At the end the year, the conflict became worldwide with the entry into the war of the United States after the attack by Japan on the base at Pearl-Harbour.

In February 1944, the Germans considered Calais as the likely place for an allied landing, many Calais people had to leave.

On June 6, the landing in Normandy took place, the information arrived in Calais two days later.

World War II

The Atlantic Wall

The Blockhouse at Éperlecques 

Normandy landings - D-day

The Caen memorial 

One of many Landing craft

Unloading the troops and equipment

French Sherman tank

One of many graveyards

D-day. The planning of the invasion of the European continent started on January 14th, 1943 during a meeting in Casablanca between Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin had asked persistently for the opening of a second front in Europe to relieve the red Army which had supported the bulk of the weight of war in Europe.
Military deaths in World War II:
Soviet Union 10,700,000
Germany 5,533,000
United States 416,800
United Kingdom 382,700
France 217,600
The operational range of fighters and logistical pressures reduced the possibilities of the invasion to two choices: Pas-de-Calais and Normandy.
Although Pas-de-Calais had the best beaches and a quickest access to Germany, it was considered to be too obvious a  choice, being too well defended.
Normandy was therefore chosen.
On the allied landing of June 06, 1944. with the hope of a near deliverance, it was necessary to wait  for months during the violence of the bombardments.
With the capitulation of the Germans on September 30 at 17:30, the German occupation was ended and the Calaisiens returned from shelter in the fields.
Calais survived the first world war, but its strategic position in the second world war nearly brought about the total destruction of the historical part of town.

On the 27th, Calais fell to the hands of the Canadians, the 28th brought a cease-fire to evacuate the 20 000 civilians still staying in Calais.
Several thousand inhabitants came out of their cellars to listen to a Canadian representative announce to them that an armistice of 24 hours had just been concluded to facilitate the evacuation of the city.
It was then an unforgettable scene, 1000 chests singing the Marseillaise then the song of Tipperary drowning the harangues of the French officer who came to address the crowd. The German garrison surrendered, an allied military column moved toward Calais. Commander Mengin who had prepared the offensive, was killed before seeing the final surrender of the Germans in the city.

This is my mother on the doorstep of my grandmother’s shop, before Calais had Hypermarkets. I remember the bullet holes in the front of the shop, some small, rifle, some large, machine gun?
I wonder what happened to the Germans who were defending the shop. Was Hitler notified that grannies shop had been taken by the allies?

My father was in hospital after helping to liberate France, my mother is looking rather tense. my father landed with the invasion troops on D Day. my mother met my father in a field, while he was driving a Bren Gun carrier. He couldn’t speak French, she couldn’t speak English. It must have been a fascinating conversation. When my father met my mother’s family, my mother’s father had dust and ceiling plaster on his head and shoulders. There was a hole at the front of the house and a hole at the back. A shell had passed right through the house without exploding.

Calais postcard after the war. this is what was left of Calais. the best way to kill soldiers in a building is to destroy the building.

Calais was left to rebuild, but there was no work for an ex British soldier who could not not speak French.
My mother and father went to London  and lived in lodging houses until my father received his "Home fit for a hero", he was working on the buses and my mother was working as a waitress. This was the time of the Teddy Boy. The Teddy boy emerged in the 1950s as Britain was coming to the end of post-war austerity and represented the first face of British youth culture. Working class teenagers could for the first time afford good clothes, a motorcycle and entertainment. The clothing of Teddy boys was designed to shock their parents' generation. It consisted of an Edwardian style drape jacket, narrow 'drainpipe' trousers, coloured socks and a bootlace tie. The trademark drape jacket was not as impractical as it seems. Not only did it act as a badge of recognition but, as it was made with lots of pockets, it kept its owner warm as he hung around on street corners and was also good at concealing weapons and alcohol.