Axis & Allies
By James Marshall
Late May, 1940
Outskirts of Dunkirk, France
The defenses around the evacuation zone were crumbling fast under the relentless German attack. For all the hundreds of men already evacuated back to England, there were still thousands more waiting to escape. But they would need time to board the ships out in the harbor - another three days, at least. And a ring of tanks, soldiers, and aircraft was tightening like a noose around the trapped British Army.
This was the scenario in which Lt. Edwin Prescott found himself sent with a reinforced company to set up a roadblock at a small village outside Dunkirk and ordered to delay the Germans for as long as possible. Unfortunately, the Germans were entering the town just as Lt. Prescott's company arrived.
They met as the lead squads from each army arrived at the T-shaped crossroads at the center of the village. The Germans turned left, the British turned right, and both sides stared awkwardly for a few moments before the shooting started. Unaimed rifle shots echoed down the streets as both sides dived for cover in door frames and behind house corners.
Lt. Prescott ran up as close as he could to the fight, Webley revolver in hand and aides following close behind. All of First Platoon was already caught up in the fight, exchanging fire with the Germans and unable to move. Prescott waved over his other platoon leaders, and began to issue orders.
"Royce, take Second Platoon down the side road to our right and try to flank them. Giles, take Third Platoon and flank around the outside left of town. Brisby, send one of your squads in to reinforce First Platoon, but the rest of your boys are our company reserve. Get to it, men!"
As Second Platoon hurried down the side road, they were met with an intense burst of machine-gun fire that cut through the lead squad like butter. German soldiers rushed down the street, attempting to launch their own flank attack. Second Platoon was boxed in, and could do no more than keep the enemy pinned down as well.
Third Platoon had better luck than the rest of the company. After knocking down a fence and using a garden to slip out of town, they succeeded in circling around the outside back onto the main road. Lt. Giles waited until they were within ten yards before ordering the men to fire, taking the Germans by surprise. They began to withdraw back into town, taking the pressure off of First Platoon, which finally began to crawl forward after being trapped for a very long five minutes.
Lt. Prescott had already committed another squad from Fourth Platoon when he saw the situation at the crossroads beginning to improve. Waving for his aides to follow him, he ran forward to Lt. Giles' position.
"Giles, keep the pressure on them! We've got a machine-gun section and a French rifle company coming to reinforce our position. We need to make sure this town is still ours by the time they arrive, got it?"
Before Lt. Giles could answer, a mortar shell slammed into a nearby rooftop. Then another one landed in the middle of the road, and then a steady rain of mortar shells began to pummel the village.
"Take cover!" Prescott shouted, "Get out of the street!"
The men who hadn't been riddled with shrapnel began breaking in doors and windows, desperate to get indoors. Farther down the road, Second Platoon began retreating from the alley where they'd been pinned down, rushing to escape the combined hail of mortars and machine-gun bullets before they were wiped out.
The French reinforcements had finally arrived, along with two machine-gun teams, but hesitated at the sound of the mortar barrage. The French captain chanced a look down the alley, and saw the British platoon withdrawing. He turned to face his troops.
"Two squads will stay here as reserve," he ordered, "The rest of you will push forward into the orchard and attack the Germans from the rear. If we're lucky, we'll be able to silence those mortars. Allons-Y!"
They raced forward through the small pasture on the west side of the village, reaching the fruit orchard that lined the west road just in time to see the Germans bringing up their own reinforcements.
"Open fire," Captain Guerin shouted, "Don't let them into the village!"
The French barrage cut through the advancing German column before they were able to take cover or spread out, killing or wounding half of them. But the survivors reacted quickly, taking cover behind low walls and garden fences.
Captain Guerin's company had the advantage of attacking from inside the fruit orchard, with plenty of evenly spaced trees to hide behind. But then the mortars began targeting the orchard, sending showers of wood splinters into the French ranks. Fortunately, the mortar teams couldn't see their targets, and missed by a wide margin.
It was the opening that Lt. Prescott needed to rally his company and get them moving further into the village. A vicious house-to-house fight ensued, with both sides resorting to bayonets in the intense hand-to-hand combat. Prescott quickly ran out of ammunition for his revolver, but the company pressed on, soon driving the Germans out of the village altogether.
Somebody spotted the mortar crews retreating, trying to carry the mortar tubes with them at a run. A steady barrage of bullets from their machine-guns, which had finally been brought forward, convinced the Germans to drop their mortars. But the Germans were still not defeated, and the battered remnants of two Grenadier companies took what little cover they could out in the field and began to shoot back.
The French and British companies both began to advance, but retreated back into the relative safety of the village as a Panzer Mk III burst out of the trees on a nearby ridge and began firing its main gun. Two more tanks quickly followed, and the Grenadiers rose to their feet and charged forward, encouraged by their reinforcements.
One of the houses on the edge of the village collapsed after a stray tank shell passed through, effectively blocking off the main road as a viable means of retreat. The men still outside the village began running back into the orchard, hoping the tanks wouldn't follow.
The three tanks were soon joined by a Panzer Mk IV, which began firing into the village, hoping to force another house to collapse onto the trapped companies. Lt. Prescott began weighing his options. They had no anti-tank weapons. Even if they could get close to one of the tanks in the narrow village streets, they had no hand grenades or other explosives to try and disable the Panzers. Despite the orders to hold the village, it looked like retreat might be the only option. But then one of the men from the far end of the village came running up to him, shouting with joy.
"We've got our own tanks moving up, sir! We're saved!"
In fact, there were only two tanks: a British Matilda and a French B1 Bis. But they were more than a match for the lighter-armored Panzers. As they cleared the outside edge of the orchard, the Matilda lined up a shot on the lead Panzer III. A two-pounder shell cut through the armor and destroyed the engine block. Crippled, the Panzer tried to move its turret, but a shot from the B1's 37mm gun finished it off.
The Allied tanks rolled forward, past the burning wreck of the German tank. The two remaining Panzer IIIs turned around to engage the newcomers, but their shells simply bounced off the heavier armor of the Matilda. Three more two-pounder shells found their marks, destroying the German tanks before the Panzer IV got in close to plant a 75mm shell into the rear of the Matilda, blowing off one of the treads.
Unable to maneuver, the Matilda rapidly spun its turret around to get off a shot before it was too late. The B1 came to the rescue, firing a round into the Panzer's turret. Then the B1 spun about in place, bringing the hull-mounted 75mm gun to bear. The heavy armor-piercing shell ripped through the front of the Panzer, just as the turret gun was reloaded. 35mm of high-explosive sailed through the hole in front, set the ammunition racks on fire, and the last Panzer's turret was blown off in the resulting explosion.
As the French and British soldiers cheered, the surviving German soldiers retreated back behind the ridge line, unwilling to continue the battle. The Matilda crew climbed out to try to repair the damage to their vehicle while the B1 stood guard, and Lt. Prescott set to work trying to organize a proper roadblock in the village.
Out of one hundred and eighty men in Lieutenant Prescott's company, forty were dead, twenty-three severely wounded, and ninety-seven wounded but able to keep fighting. Seventeen remained unaccounted for. Captain Guerin's company had fared slightly better. Twenty-five dead, thirty-one severely wounded, and sixty-seven walking wounded out of a strength of two hundred. Only seven men were still missing. The machine-gun teams had managed to escape injury, but the Matilda was beyond immediate repair, and the B1 Bis was dangerously low on fuel.
The Matilda crew set fire to the tank to prevent its capture by the Germans, and the French tankers backed the B1 into the village to serve as a roadblock and bunker. Lt. Prescott's surviving men dragged some of the heavy timbers from a destroyed house to barricade the other end of the main road, leaving only the road into Dunkirk open as a quick escape route.
The Germans would come again. Maybe later that night, maybe next morning. But at that little crossroads, the two British and French companies had managed to delay the unstoppable German tidal wave for a few precious hours, hopefully long enough for a few hundred men out of the thousands trapped there to be shuttled away to England.