Introduction: No Time Could Be Wasted
In three days, the hell of war was to engulf the old French port of Boulogne. Just as its German garrison was instructed to defend Boulogne to the last bullet and breath, Allied high command had made its capture and opening to shipping a matter of the highest priority. As First Canadian Army advanced out of Normandy on the left flank of the Allied juggernaut headed for Germany, taking Boulogne fell to two brigades of its 3rd Infantry Division, supported by artillery, tanks, and specialized siege equipment.
Interrogation of German prisoners, information from the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (French Forces of the Interior ffi) resistance movement, and aerial photography analysis led Canadian intelligence staff to believe that Boulogne was defended by 5,500 to 7,000 German army, Luftwaffe, and marine personnel. While the relatively small garrison was considered to be a poor-quality affair afflicted by low morale, the city’s fortifications were daunting. One Canadian report stated that the city was “completely surrounded by high features which [form] a very strong all round defensive system covering the port from landward attack. These defences [are] mutually supporting to a marked degree and command all the approaches to the city.” Each defensive position was encircled by barbed-wire entanglements and minefields, and enclosed at least one large concrete gun emplacement protected by concrete dugouts linked together by underground passages. All roads approaching the city had been thoroughly mined. Every bridge had either been blown or was wired with explosives for destruction when the inevitable attack was launched.i
Just to the north of the city, the defences were anchored on an old French fort Fort de la Crèche that the Germans had extensively modernized and strengthened with thick-walled concrete pillboxes and defensive works. It bristled with light guns that protected two powerful 210-millimetre guns and four 105-millimetre heavy guns. Despite being designed primarily to face seaward, these six guns could rotate to fire landward, where the destructive weight of their massive shells posed a major threat to any attacker.
Fort de la Crèche was designed to protect Boulogne’s main fortifications from northern attack and to threaten the right flank of any force approaching the city from the east. The fort itself was protected by another major strongpoint a short distance to the northeast. Called La Trésorerie, it formed the outermost defensive work in all of Boulogne’s fortifications. Its coastal battery of three 12-inch guns were positioned on a dominating hill. Although these guns could not fire landward, the strongpoint’s other defences made it a potent threatso much so that the Canadians had decided La Trésorerie must be eliminated prior to the major assault on Boulogne. This task was given to the North Shore (New Brunswick) Regiment of 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade.ii On September 8, 1944, the regiment moved to a pre-attack position well beyond the range of the German guns and initiated a program of aggressive patrols around La Trésorerie and other strongpoints north of Boulogne that would also have to be taken.
One such strongpoint was the hamlet of Wacquinghen, about a mile and a half northeast of La Trésorerie. On September 14, Lieutenant Victor Soucisse’s scout platoon crept up to Wacquinghen’s outskirts. As this move drew only sporadic machine-gun fire, Soucisse was convinced the hamlet was only lightly held. The moment Soucisse reported this possibility to Lieutenant Colonel Ernie Anderson, the North Shores commander decided to kick off operations early with a stealthy and hurried assault on Wacquinghen.
Consequently, at dusk on September 15, a small squad of infantrymen rushed toward the hamlet. Drawn from ‘D’ Company, the men were led by its Major O.L. “Otty” Corbett. Having joined the North Shores in the midst of the Normandy Campaign’s bitter early-July fight for Carpiquet Airfield, Corbett had emerged from that campaign as one of the battalion’s most experienced company commanders. This night, he also hoped to be one of its luckiest. Just getting to the hamlet undetected would be no mean feat. The company was starting from high ground known locally as Bancres, about two miles east of Wacquinghen.iii Advancing along the road to the hamlet would be folly because it was overlooked by La Trésorerie. Instead, Corbett led his assault squad in a wide cross-country sweep to approach from the northeast.
Only Corbett’s most experienced men accompanied himmen he could trust not to silhouette themselves on a crest or make any other bad move that would betray their presence. As an added precaution, everybody had left behind equipment likely to rattle. Their wide sweep took them across gently rolling farm country, hugging every row of trees, delving into any fold of ground, or using the banks of a creek bed for cover. Precisely as night fell, Corbett’s squad reached a small rise overlooking the hamlet. Everything, Corbett later said, “sounded peaceful and quiet.” But he had a problem: the squad’s wireless set had failed. If they kicked over a hornet’s nest, there would be no calling for backup. Yet Corbett figured that if he were to “beat the Jerries to the village, no time could be wasted.”
Corbett led his men down from the high ground and into a couple of the backyard gardens. They then dashed silently through the streets to the other side of the hamlet. “This move was successful. We got [there] ahead of the enemy and quickly sent back for the remainder of the company. Wacquinghen was in our hands.”iv It was 0130 hours. The race had been narrowly won. Just a few minutes later, a three-man German patrol approached and was sent fleeing by a volley of gunfire.v
The rest of ‘D’ Company soon arrived, and Corbett deployed the men into defensive positions that mostly faced toward the German line of approach. Still unable to establish wireless contact with battalion headquarters, Corbett felt increasingly uneasy. This was not because he expected the Germans to counterattack. Corbett was confident his men could repel that. His worries fixed on a hill about a half mile away called Pas de Gay that Soucisse had reconnoitred during the same patrol that convinced him Wacquinghen was ripe for plucking. Soucisse had noted several concrete dugouts on the summit that he suspected sheltered a German observation post. The hill “looked high and menacing in the starlight and I commenced to think what a beautiful time we were going to have when it got daylight with an enemy observation post looking into our mess-tins and seeing every move.” Corbett could easily imagine the Germans calling down deadly accurate artillery and mortar fire.
After another unsuccessful attempt to contact Lieutenant Colonel Anderson, Corbett decided to send a platoon to discover if Pas de Gay was occupied. Summoning Lieutenant Hobart Staples of No. 10 Platoon, Corbett ordered him to climb the hill and secure the dugouts. Hoping to complete the mission before daylight, Staples hurried his men along a road and then across a broad field to where a raised railway hugged the hill’s southern base. “It was hard going,” he related, “as we did not want to make any noise and yet we had to get over some wire fences. They proved a problem, but by holding the wires for each in turn we managed the job without raising any disturbance and finally reached the mouth of a re-entrant . . . Then we came upon a small dried-up brook and started up the left sidea mistake. But we had nothing to guide us . . . we simply had to grope along as best we could and trust to luck.
“It was very dark and we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere except further away from the company, so I decided to withdraw to the mouth of the re-entrant. By that time it was getting near to morning and I left the men under Sergeant [Percy Fiesling] Mitchell and [Corporal Leonard Kenney] Dunne and went back to report to Major Corbett.”
Wanting the hill badly, Corbett ordered Staples to try again and promised to also send No. 11 Platoon up in a left-flanking manoeuvre. Because it would be daylight, Corbett told Staples to lead with just a small fighting section rather than having the entire platoon strung out inside the gully. When Staples called for volunteers, ten trusted men stepped forward. They started climbing at 0700 hours. “Things looked very different in the daylight,” Staples said. “We found and crossed the dried-up brook and this time we started up the right side instead of the left, came to barbed wire entanglements and concrete dugouts set in the hillside. These we had missed entirely in the darkness. We were almost to the top when I saw a German sentry on the skyline 25 yards away.” Staples hissed at his Bren gunner to take out the German, but the soldier was unable to spot him. In the few seconds it took for Staples to point out the sentry’s position, the German noticed the Canadians and ducked from sight.
Staples signalled his men to fan out and then led them up the slope at a run. Scrambling forward, Staples spotted another German and sighted his Sten gun on the man. When he squeezed the trigger, nothing happened. “I pressed the trigger again and again, decided safety was the better part of valour and went to ground. A few minutes later the enemy started to mortar the top of the hill and we were forced part way down the hillside where we had refuge in the concrete dugouts. We waited there and soon the enemy was coming over the top of the hill. We fired everything we had, Brens, rifles and mortar, and it slowed them up. I sent Sergeant Mitchell back to Major Corbett for reinforcements . . . and we waited there. Luckily the enemy didn’t realize our predicament and Major Corbett came.”
Emerging from their dugouts to charge Staples exposed the Germans to No. 11 Platoon closing from the left flank. The battle quickly deteriorated into a confused melee that allowed Staples and a few men to break into the summit fortifications. Private Eldon Wright got so close to one concrete dugout that grenades thrown by the Germans inside sailed well past him. Wright quickly exhausted his own grenade supply and shouted for more. Another man crawled over with a clutch of No. 36 grenades, and Wright threw two through an embrasure. With Staples closing fast on the dugout from the rear, the Germans suddenly vanished by way of an underground tunnel the Canadians discovered only after the position was overrun. At 0800 hours, Corbett arrived with more reinforcements. “We had the hill,” he reported, “a beautiful observation post which gave control of the ground right to the sea coast north of Wimereux, bomb-proof sleeping quarters, a tunnel leading in the direction of La Trésorerie, and a cable junction box leading toward Cap Gris Nez and Calais. The tunnel entrance was blown to prevent any counterattack and we also used some grenades on the cable box.”
After settling in the two platoons, Corbett went to battalion headquarters. He found Anderson “pacing the floor and ready to explode,” for the battalion commander had heard nothing from ‘D’ Company since it went off into the darkness toward Wacquinghen. The adjutant, Captain Bob Ross, had spent the night and early morning assuring Anderson that the lack of news meant there was nothing to worry about, but he refused to accept this. “Now he was so happy over the success of the operation that he didn’t give [me] the chewing out I deserved for not getting some messages back,” Corbett noted.vi Battalion headquarters staff failed to record ‘D’ Company’s casualty rate or probable German losses. But for what had been gained, North Shore losses were considered well within acceptable bounds.
In fact, when Anderson learned that Corbett had secured not only the hamlet but also Pas de Gay, he realized that a major obstacle to the forthcoming attack on La Trésorerie and the other main fortifications guarding the northern flank of Boulogne had been taken. The destruction of the junction cable box was particularly welcome. Corbett had counted a total of 210 different wires leading from it. Anderson realized the box must have provided a secure communication link between all the German positions north of Boulogne. Had it remained in enemy hands, the Germans’ ability to communicate would surely have compromised the planned operation. With the link severed, the Canadians had gained a critical and unforeseen advantage.vii
Still, Anderson was deeply worried about the coming engagement. As the North Shores’ Padre R. Miles Hickey later wrote, while men in other battalions usually knew their commander by “names that couldn’t be written on . . . paper, Colonel Ernie received the endearing title of ‘Uncle Ernie’” because he cared so much about his men’s welfare.viii Here at Boulogne, Anderson faced the disturbing reality that these men, and indeed the Canadians as a whole, had no experience in assaulting such heavily constructed and mutually supporting fortifications. Breaking through them to capture Boulogne promised to be a slow and costly affair. But it was also a vital and necessary undertaking that must be accomplished with the greatest speed. Indeed, it seemed that the longer it took them to win this and the other channel ports so urgently assigned to First Canadian Army, the more likely that what had seemed an opportunity to win the war before the end of 1944 would slip from the Allied grasp.