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Dunkirk

Once the Allies had secured Paris and crossed the Seine in force, the German Army was in a shambles.  The Canadian Army had also suffered greatly; in August 1944, 632 officers and 8736 Canadians had become casualties, 2258 of those losing their lives.  The German Seventh Army had ceased to exist for all practical purposes, as had the German Fifth Panzer Army.  In mid-August, Allied troops had landed in southern France, and by the 11th of September, these troops would have fought their way north to join up with Allied troops in Normandy - bringing to an end both German occupation of the country, as well as the Vichy puppet regime in the south.   Almost all of France was free.  The greatest symbol of French liberation came on 25 August when the 2nd French Armoured Division entered Paris.  While the end of the war seemed tantalizingly close, events would show that eight months of fighting still lay ahead.

For First Canadian Army, the task was to take over the left flank of the Allied advance.  The Canadian Army's area of responsibility was of great importance for two reasons. Firstly, in this area lay the launching sites for the V-weapons; rockets fired from France against civilian targets in England.  Secondly, and most vitally, the port facilities along the coast promised to ease Allied logistical burdens.  As long as supplies were drawn from the Normandy area, long supply lines would cause logistical problems that would be worsened the further the armies advanced.

The Germans, recognizing this, fortified the ports and determined to hold on to them as long as possible. 

When the Seine River ceased to be an obstacle to Allied advance, the Germans planned another major defensive line on the Somme; yet on the last day of August, this was breached at Amiens.  By the 3rd of September, the British Second Army was in Brussels following a single day advance of 60 miles.  The next day, Antwerp fell, with its miles of docks.  The Americans to the south crossed into Belgium on the 2nd of September and to the Moselle River by the 7th.  After weeks of positional warfare in Normandy, where progress was measured in hundred of yards per day or even per week, it seemed the end was in sight.

Allied supplies were being sent to France mainly via the open beaches in Normandy; the need to secure a sizeable port facility was thus acute. The port of Dunkirk was put under siege, and the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division fought several actions from 6 to 18 September 1944 in an attempt to capture the port. These action also consisted of much patrolling, with some successful battles such as Loon Plage standing out from what was otherwise a dreary episode for the Canadians. The port never fell, and like many of the French Channel ports, it remained in German hands until May 1945.

The 2nd Division, which had paused at Dieppe to refit and commemorate its sacrifice there in August 1942, was ordered forward again on September 6th, 1944. It was assigned a stretch of coast from just east of Calais to Dunkirk itself.

At first light on 8 September, the Calgary Highlanders again moved towards Dunkirk, passing through Les Planches, the first objective, but stopped once again by heavy enemy artillery fire at their second objective, a road junction. On ground difficult to dig in, a company was sent to try and take Loon Plage from the west flank, but here too was stopped by a farmhouse 500 yards from the village. When the Maisonneuves were ordered forward to assist, it took five hours for the lead company to come within a mile of the Highlanders, a point their War Diarist grumblingly committed to posterity.

The Maisonneuves, like the Calgaries, were trying to invest the Dunkirk perimeter against formidable odds. The enemy had ample supplies of artillery shells, enough, as it turned out, to defend Dunkirk until the war was over, good observation of all daylight movement, and an intimate knowledge of the terrain. The infantry battalions, without any armour or air support, and without a clear mission were pressing forward without taking time for reconnaissance and without making full use of intelligence from the French resistance forces in the area.1

The Black Watch, too, tried to move forward without adequate support, attacking on the right flank of the brigade with a troop of armoured cars from the divisional reconnaissance regiment. Their axis of advance led them up a straight, elevated road on the bank of a canal, devoid of trees, hedges or cover. The infantry had to advance single file; the lead armoured car, 100 yards behind the first troops, was knocked out early by an anti-tank gun firing at long range. Machine gun and mortar fire came down next. The Canadian infantry could not dig-in, and supporting fire from the 5th Field Regiment was hampered by ammunition shortages and prior commitment to the other two infantry battalions of the brigade. The Black Watch was forced to pull back and regroup. The next morning, a single platoon with an armoured car in support rushed forward to find the Germans had pulled out in the night.

These gains meant little to 5 Brigade for they now found themselves occupying positions the Germans had carefully surveyed as artillery targets. Throughout the following week the brigade used fighting patrols to harass the enemy, and battalion attacks to compress the perimeter.2

During this period following the initial attacks on the Dunkirk defences, German shellfire remained intense, despite civilian assistance in locating German positions.

East of Dunkirk, the 6th Brigade occupied Furnes, Nieuport and La Panne, having received assistance at Nieuport from the Belgian White Brigade (the national resistance movement) in locating enemy positions and minefields. The Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders of Canada occupied German coastal positions west of La Panne and on 12 September the 6th Brigade was ordered to clear Bray Dunnes and Bray Dunnes Plage. Two days of attacks by the Camerons proved unsuccessful until Typhoon aircraft and the South Sasktachewan Regiment came in to assist, and the task was finally complete on the 15th. Les Fusiliers Mont-Royal took Ghyvelde after several attempts.

The 4th Brigade had an easier time in this period, originally placed in reserve. On 9 September, they occupied Ostend. Though the town contained a sizeable port, the Germans chose not to defend it despite numerous sturdy fortifications there. The port, partially demolished, was reopened on September 28th. East of Nieuport the Essex Scottish Regiment laid siege to another formidable looking coastal installation and laid down mortar, anti-tank and anti-aircraft fire of such volume that the enemy surrendered on September 12th without the need for an assault. As they collected 316 prisoners for the loss of two killed and three wounded, the Royals and the RHLI moved to Bruges, from which the enemy also fled before the 12th Manitoba Dragoons arrived to liberate it.

The brigade turned its attention back to Dunkirk, and the RHLI put in an attack at Bergues on the 15th which bogged down in flooded terrain. The enemy withdrew and the 8th Reconnaissance Regiment occupied the town on the 16th, by which time the entire 2nd Division was in the process of leaving the Dunkirk perimeter for Antwerp.

Notes

  1. Copp, Terry The Brigade (Fortress Publications, Inc., Stoney Creek, ON, 1992) p.123

  2. Ibid, pp.123-124


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