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24 May 1940
Lieutenant John Randal stood on the deck of the S.S. City of Canterbury as the ship pulled into the empty war-ravaged port of Calais and prepared to dock. Surveying the wild scene before him, while keeping one eye cocked on the sky to track the Heinkle 111 bomber that had already made one attack run on the ship, he was wondering what he had gotten himself into.
The port city was in flames. Tall plumes of smoke rose from all points around the city. To the west, oil tanks were on fire, casting a cloud of black smoke that draped over the town like a shroud. Artillery fire or bombs had damaged nearly every building.
On the dock a full-scale riot was taking place. A rabble of mutinous French soldiers were in open revolt as they attempted to force their way to the head of the queue, desperate to board the Canterbury for her return trip to the UK and safety. A thin khaki line of determined-looking Royal Marines held back the mob with bayonets fixed on the business end of their Lee-Enfield rifles. “One riot, one Ranger, eh Lieutenant?” the ship’s first officer observed sardonically, making reference to his passenger’s regiment, the Rangers, as Lieutenant Randal prepared to make his way ashore armed only with a regulation swagger stick.
“You sailors read a lot of Westerns?”
“Skipper has a sea chest full of the bloody things.”
The mayhem grew as the Canterbury slipped into her berth and began lowering the gangplank. Her escort, the destroyer HMS Wessex, began laying down a pattern of depth charges just outside the entrance to the harbor, providing rear security. The speckled, blue-gray Heinkle 111 thundered over again, dropping a string of bombs off the starboard stern quarter of the Canterbury. The tremendous detonations sent white-topped geysers of dirty green seawater seventy-five feet into the air.
Lieutenant Randal watched the bomber roar past, regretting he did not have so much as a pistol to shoot.
Machine gunners from the Rifle Brigade, stationed on board for just such a contingency, were blazing away at the bomber. The Green Jackets, as members of the Rifle Brigade were often called, propped their Lewis guns on steel drums, the ship’s railings, or any other solid object that might serve as an expedient antiaircraft mount. Tracers crisscrossed the sky while hot brass danced across the steel deck. The Green Jackets did not hit a thing.
Down on the dock, a column of stretcher bearers carried up wounded soldiers to be loaded aboard for the short trip across the English Channel. Behind them, a tidal wave of panic-stricken civilian refugees and demoralized troops from a mishmash of routed allied units flooded the streets, making for the dock. The fleeing refugees and retreating soldiers were running out of real estate, and they were frantic to find any means to evade the German panzer juggernaut bearing down on Calais.
A boat was the only hope left, and the Canterbury was the only ship in the harbor. “The natives definitely look restless,” the first officer opined. “Enough of the blighters headed for us to swamp a bloody aircraft carrier.”
“Run many ‘repelling boarders’ drills?” Lieutenant Randal inquired, flicking his cigarette over the rail, never taking his eyes off the rapidly swelling mob.
“Negative. How do you suppose those blokes will take it when they find out this ship is under strict sailing orders not to allow anyone on board except the wounded?”
“Hope the Marines don’t take ten.” Intermittent long-range artillery shells started coming in and exploding randomly. When the shelling began, the French stevedores on the dock quickly determined that their services would be put to best use elsewhere, and they decamped, making the business of unloading the ship a challenge. The Heinkle 111 came back around to make another run. Outside the harbor the Wessex exploded, broke in half, and started to sink.
Meanwhile, the casualties on the stretchers stoically smoked cigarettes, ignoring the pandemonium swirling around them and tried to avoid looking at the bodies that had been stacked on the dock in a neat row and covered with greenish-gray cargo packing tarps.
Making his way down the gangplank, Lieutenant Randal glanced back across the Channel. He could actually see the faint white cliffs of Dover.
“Good luck, Yank.”
Lieutenant John Randal, an American volunteer, had been assigned as a replacement officer to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a regiment of the line that was in fact a battalion, frequently called the 60th Rifles. The KRRC was the parent unit of his territorial regiment, the Rangers. They were assigned to 30 Brigade, which also contained the Queen Victoria’s Rifles, the Rifle Brigade, and the Third Royal Tank Regiment—and that was the sum total of all he knew about the current military situation in Calais except for what he could see.
By any measure, the circumstances Lieutenant Randal found himself in on his first day in France could accurately be described, as it was to him by the harried brigade major he reported to, standing at the foot of the gangplank, as a “sticky wicket.” The 30 Brigade officer briefed him right there amid the bedlam on the dock. He did not mince words.
“Lieutenant Randal, you are to take command of a combined detachment of two twenty-man scout platoons—one each from the Rifle Brigade and the 60th Rifles—plus a five-man signals detachment of Royal Marines. Your mission, in short, is to screen the right flank of the approach to Calais.
“Here is the situation,” he continued, and throughout his explanation, he watched the young replacement officer for a reaction. “The Germans are driving hard on the port city with two divisions, the First and Tenth Panzers, supported by five squadrons of Stuka dive-bombers acting as aerial artillery. The panzers have raced two hundred fifty miles across France in a lightning advance and they’re closing fast on the roughly four hundred fifty thousand British, French, and Belgian troops who have fallen back on the coastal town of Dunkirk, thirty miles away to the east, in hopes of being evacuated by the Royal Navy. All the Germans have to do now is cut their way through 30 Brigade here at Calais, make a right hook to get at Dunkirk, and it is war over.
“When Calais falls, the fate of the British Expeditionary Forces not already rescued from Dunkirk will be sealed.
“Initially, 30 Brigade was ordered to re-embark and return home, then that order was countermanded, and we have now been ordered to dig in and hold here at Calais to prevent the Germans from getting through to Dunkirk. Our task is to buy time for the forces trapped there in order for them to be sealifted back to the UK. We are to be the Spartans to the BEF.
“Buy us as much time you can out there, Lieutenant. Every minute is precious. I do not care how you go about it. Shoot from behind trees, that sort of thing. You Americans are good at that, what? Anything you do will be a great help.”
Considering that the Spartans had died to the last man, it was not what Lieutenant Randal considered an auspicious analogy to use in describing his new combat command. But one thing came across loud and clear—the troops at Calais were expendable.
Given the mad way the British Army had of designating their units with the free use of the words “corps,” “brigade,” and “regiment,” it would have been perfectly understandable for the German commander to have the impression he was going up against a formidable fighting force at Calais. The truth was, give or take a few men, it was defended by approximately three thousand fighting men of a decidedly mixed lot, the Rifle Brigade and the Kings Royal Rifle Corps being two of the finest regiments in the army.
In the Wehrmacht a panzer corps was exactly what it said it was, thirty thousand men plus, and one of Germany’s toughest, XIX Panzer Korps, was storming in full blitzkrieg straight toward Calais. Spartans, hell, thought Lieutenant Randal as he headed off to locate his new command.
Lieutenant John Randal found his men on the outskirts of the bombed-out town. The troops were clearly not thrilled when they learned they were to be assigned an unknown officer of uncertain ability, and a Yank to boot, though in the 60th Rifles it was a tradition to have Americans serving. The men would have much rather been back with their regiments under their old trusted platoon commanders who had unceremoniously been pulled out, along with most of the senior NCOs, and reassigned elsewhere. A quick survey of his command revealed that the men had rifles, a scattering of revolvers, no transport, very little ammunition, and one day’s rations. Mortars had all been discarded because not one unit in 30 Brigade had anything but smoke rounds for them, and no one could think of any good reason to be firing smoke at German tanks.
Between the two Green Jacket platoons there were a total of six corporals and one baby-blue-eyed King’s Royal Rifle Corps sergeant, Mike “March or Die” Mikkalis, who looked as hard as you might expect of a man who had acquired his moniker during a previous tour in the French Foreign Legion The signals detail was in the charge of Corporal Micky Duggan, Royal Marines. All told, there were forty-five men.
Wasting no time, Lieutenant Randal assembled the troop, and taking note that the mood was ugly, said casually, “Well men, I guess you’re wondering why I called you here today.”
Behind him in the distance a mottle-camouflaged Messerschmit 109 raced low down the road at treetop level strafing the hardball—red tracers ricocheting off the asphalt—while a salvo of six artillery rounds screamed over and slammed into the burning town. The troops cut their eyes at each other in disbelief at the lieutenant’s opening remark and there were a few faint snickers of laughter—the first any of them had heard since landing in country.
“Our mission is to screen the right flank of the Calais defense zone.” Lieutenant Randal cut straight to it, all business now. “We will be operating against the Tenth Panzers. To accomplish that mission our only tactical option is to take up positions far enough out that we can trade space for time.”
The Riflemen and Marines sat in a semicircle staring holes through their new commander. They did not like the sound of the assignment. Every man present was a prewar professional soldier, and they all had an idea of what it meant for them.
Lieutenant Randal continued, unfazed by the open hostility. “I spent the last two years chasing Huk bandits in the Philippine jungles. My plan is for us to operate like guerrillas. There was a legendary American general called ‘The Swamp Fox’ who specialized in irregular tactics. He thought it was a good idea to ‘run away to fight again another day.’ We’ll call this lash-up ‘Swamp Fox Force.’ We’re going to hit and run.”
The men muttered among themselves, but there was a noticeable reduction of tension in their mood. “Maybe the Yank knows his stuff,” Lieutenant Randal overheard one of them comment hopefully.
“One can only wonder, mate. ’E don’t look like all that much to me.”
“’Ow do you trade space for time?” a troubled cockney voice inquired. “Sounds like one of ’em standard IQ questions.”
“Fire and fall back, you idiot,” Sergeant Mikkalis snarled. “Silence in the ranks.”
“Take charge of Swamp Fox Force, Sergeant,” Lieutenant Randal commanded paying no attention to the chatter. “Send a party to the dock to appropriate all weapons and ammunition from any troops re-embarking to go back to the UK.”
“All the ammunition. We won’t need many extra Enfields, but don’t let a single Boys antitank rifle, Bren gun, machine gun, or radio of any kind board the Canterbury. I want all the grenades and any explosives you come across.”
“Send another party into town to appropriate rations. I suspect you can forget about going through proper military channels. Send everyone else out to commandeer motor transport. We’ll need motorcycles for every man who can ride one; seize any lorry or civilian vehicle that looks like it might be useful. Scrounge as much fuel as it’s possible for us to carry with us.”
“People are not going to like it, sir.”
“Don’t take no for an answer. There’s no reason to be overly polite—if any foreign military or civilian attempts to interfere, shoot ’em.”
“Sir!” barked Sergeant Mikkalis with a gleam in his strange pale eyes. He had no idea if the new officer knew his job or not. He rather doubted it, but like all military men, he dearly loved to be given assignments with the words “appropriate, commandeer, and seize” in them. As icing on the cake, the men of Swamp Fox Force had been authorized to shoot to kill in the performance of their duties, and Lieutenant Randal had said it like he meant it.
The troops perked up. For the first time since arriving in France, they had been given clear, concise orders and a plan they could understand: one that fit the capabilities of the Rifle Brigade, the 60th Rifles, and the Royal Marines down to the ground.
“Assemble in one hour behind the sand dunes just south of here. I’ll be there making a map reconnaissance.”
Lieutenant Randal wisely elected not to mention anything about Spartans.
When the men trickled back from Calais, where they had executed their orders with a vengeance, they were in a higher state of morale. The simple act of doing something rather than sitting around waiting for the unknown had had a good effect.
Lieutenant John Randal assembled the troops, and with two Marines holding the map up for the rest to see, he used his swagger stick as a pointer to give a detailed briefing on the area in which they would operate.
“Our mission is to buy time. We’re going to accomplish that mission by attacking, inflicting casualties, and then immediately disengaging. Our objective will be to shoot bad guys from concealment, break contact, move out rapidly, find another concealed position, and shoot more. Under no circumstances will we ever stand and fight.
“We’re going to break Swamp Fox Force down into six teams, each with a designated sniper and led by a corporal. Sergeant Mikkalis make it happen. Have the automatic rifles and machine guns evenly distributed.”
“I’m planning to go kill some Germans,” Lieutenant Randal concluded, studying the semicircle of Riflemen and Marines coolly. “Any of you men who want to can come with me. Those who don’t are released back to your units.”
The announcement caught the troops of the British Army, a disciplined body of men not known for being a democracy, especially in the middle of a battle it was in the process of losing, off guard. There was a long, uncomfortable silence, and then three of them stood up and trudged back toward Calais.
“’E’s bloody crazy—Yank’s lost his ruddy marbles,” one soldier commented to the other two, loud enough for the assembled group to hear.
“Calais ain’t the bleedin’ jungle.”
“Anybody else?” Lieutenant Randal demanded; no one moved. “All right then; saddle up and prepare to move out.”
As the remaining men shook out their equipment, Sergeant Mike “March or Die” Mikkalis came up to Lieutenant Randal and handed him a Browning P-35 pistol with a lanyard attached and a tan leather pouch containing two spare magazines. “Thought the lieutenant might like a weapon. Took this off a Belgian officer wearing enough gold braid to be an admiral. He ran off before I could get the holster to go with it, sir.”
Pulling the lanyard over his neck, Lieutenant Randal racked back the slide of the pistol to chamber a 9-mm round, then carefully lowered the hammer and tucked the weapon into his leather belt.
The former Legionnaire carefully took in every detail of how his new officer handled the Browning. Sergeant Mikkalis knew you did not handle a pistol the way the lieutenant did without years of practice. “Brand-new sir, never been fired, only been dropped once,” he said straight-facedly.
“Thanks, Sergeant. Now, if you’ll pick out an Enfield rifle for me, I’ll feel fully dressed.”
“I would be delighted, sir.”
In the sergeant’s professional military opinion, the Rangers officer had pulled off a neat piece of soldiering. In a little over an hour, the lieutenant had managed to take a mixed lot of leaderless, dispirited troops and transform them into volunteers for a hazardous mission. Sergeant Mikkalis had never seen it done any better.
“Alright, listen up,” Lieutenant Randal ordered the men of Swamp Fox Force moments before they departed the assembly area. “Keep in mind a panzer division is not the solid phalanx of armor it appears to be when you see it drawn on a situation map. Lightly armed reconnaissance troops of motorcycle scouts, sometimes accompanied by armored cars, travel out in front of the main force. Behind them come light tanks, followed by heavier tanks with mechanized panzergrenadiers interspersed throughout the column to provide rapid infantry support.
“We’re going to force the tank units to stop and deploy the panzergrenadiers as often as possible. Dismounting a tank to check out a threat or deploying the accompanying mechanized infantry to conduct a road sweep takes up time and fatigues the troops—especially if they take casualties while doing it. And, we’re going to make sure they do.
“I want you to shoot down the motorcyclists and dismounted infantry from as long a range as possible. Use the Boys rifles to engage the armored cars and thin-skinned vehicles. Don’t bother shooting them at the panzers. No matter what they told you in training, the .55-caliber antitank rounds will only bounce off. However, the Boys are sure death to any command car, troop transport, or truck at up to a mile.”
The German Mark III tanks posed a serious challenge. Swamp Fox Force did not have any weapons able to knock one out at standoff range.
“We can’t kill a tank, but you snipers are going to go after the tank commanders. If the Germans are ever stupid enough to carry fuel cans strapped to the outside of the tanks, you Boys gunners can go for those.
“To get stationary targets, we’re going to bury steel helmets in the road, make them look like antitank mines. The tankers won’t be able to ignore ’em. When the column stops to investigate, you snipers take out the tank commanders standing in the turrets. The rest of you men, engage the troops on the ground with the automatic rifles and machine guns. We fire ’em up, break contact, pull out, and do it all over again.
“Any questions?” Lieutenant Randal wrapped up his briefing. “All right then; let’s go do it.”
Two hours after receiving the designation “Swamp Fox Force,” a fortysix- man gypsy caravan bristling with assorted weapons and trucks of British, French, and Belgian manufacture pulled out of the sand dunes and headed west, embarking on a vicious little private war where no quarter would be asked or given.
Swamp Fox Force moved directly into the attack, struck unannounced, hit as hard as it could, then disengaged quickly and departed the area at a high rate of speed to a preplanned, fallback position. At the designated rally point, Lieutenant John Randal’s men gathered around while he briefed them for their next mission over a 1:50,000 contour map and sketched out a new scheme of maneuver in the dirt with a borrowed bayonet.
Lieutenant Randal had a natural aptitude for tactics, a gift recognized in his first year of ROTC and later improved on at the U.S. Cavalry School. In the Philippines, while serving in the 26th Calvary Regiment, he had been carefully tutored by two long-service master sergeants, who appreciating his talent had expended the time and effort to put the final polish on those tactical skills. Now he simply married up his cavalry training with those guerrilla tactics. The combination was deadly.
The trick, Lieutenant Randal knew, was to find a way to pit his troop’s strengths against the enemy’s weakness. Swamp Fox Force’s strengths were surprise, speed, and violence of action. The Germans’ weakness was their predictability.
The Tenth Panzer Division was essentially road bound. The Calais area was laced with canals and soft marshy ground that channeled it. The terrain and the fact the Germans were driving on Calais as straight as an arrow made it easy for Lieutenant Randal to anticipate their moves. He assigned a sniper or Boys antitank rifle team to contest every crossing where the sunken roads intersected the channels. Had the Swamp Fox Force had any demolitions to blow the small bridges spanning the canals, they could have halted the German column or at least seriously slowed it down. As it was, Swamp Fox Force was little more than a speed bump to the mighty Tenth Panzers.
At night the Germans laagered, making inviting targets. Lieutenant Randal organized teams of his men, one of which he led personally, to infiltrate the laagers and attack the tanks with improvised Molotov cocktail firebombs.
“Takes a brave bloke to crawl into an enemy position in the dark and strike a match, sir,” one Rifleman remarked upon hearing the orders. “Anyone else want to say something stupid?” Sergeant Mikkalis growled.
Lieutenant Randal knew that the Tenth Panzer Division’s only real vulnerability was its tail. The Germans had an armored tip of tanks on their columns, immediately followed up by a stream of hundreds of thinskinned vehicles, mostly trucks, transporting all the fuel, fitters, and supplies necessary to maintain a tank force in the attack. Following behind the trucks, the next echelon of transport, to Swamp Fox Force’s surprise, turned out to be horse drawn, even in a modern panzer division. Horses are soft targets.
“A tank outfit is like a spear,” Lieutenant Randal explained as he drew a diagram of a long lance in the dirt with another borrowed bayonet. “All the steel is up here, on the point.
“What we’re going to do is leave one element here under Sergeant Mikkalis to harass the spearhead while the rest of us swing wide behind it and do our best to shoot the wooden shaft clean off.”
Immediately upon conclusion of the briefing, Lieutenant Randal set out on a long-range deep-penetration raid to attack the fifteen-mile-long supply train traveling along behind the Tenth Panzers. Mounted on the Norton model 16H motorcycles Swamp Fox Force had appropriated in Calais, they cut around far to the rear of the armored tip of the column, arriving unannounced and unexpected in the division’s soft, unprotected caravan.
The motorcycle raiders shot up whatever they happened across: bivouac areas, mess tents, truck convoys, POL stations, canteens, horsedrawn wagons, artillery caissons, motor parks, water distribution points, latrines—anything of military value. The Swamp Fox Force’s targets of choice were the five-ton fuel tankers that blew up with a satisfying orange mushroom fireball when strafed with tracers. The guerrilla fighters would appear out of nowhere, strike fiercely with guns blazing, and then tear away on their Nortons, leaving a trail of death and destruction in their wake.
Lieutenant Randal’s private little war was to hit and run, cavalry style—irregular warfare at its very best. His troops kept banging away at the enemy lines of communication long into the night and throughout the next day. The rear-area raids were devastatingly successful.
Although the Swamp Fox Force attacks were not much more than a minor annoyance to the Nazis, the raiders had nevertheless destroyed a few tanks, more than a few trucks, a fair number of horses, and enough troops to have the Germans glancing over their shoulders. The victorious storm troopers of the panzer divisions had been looking forward to wrapping up the campaign, going home, pinning on their medals to impress the Fräuleins, and enjoying the perks lavished on combat veterans by a grateful Third Reich. Not one of them wanted to get killed at the very end of the most brilliant blitzkrieg in modern history
The Tenth Panzer Division began to proceed with uncharacteristic caution. Understandably, the division had already begun to lose some steam, even without the harassment dished out by Swamp Fox Force. The German vehicles were at the point where they needed to take a pause to conduct a major refit. Two hundred fifty miles is about as far as an armored force can advance before hitting a maintenance wall.
The German high command’s reaction to Swamp Fox Force was swift. The order came down: “Speed up the advance. Shoot anyone who impedes progress. Do not take prisoners.”
ME-109 fighters flying at treetop level attacked first, firing their machine guns indiscriminately into the columns of civilian bumper-tobumper traffic clogging the few avenues leading into Calais. The wrecked civilian vehicles blocked the roads.
Next, gull-winged Junkers-87 Stukas, circling above like rabid bats, dive-bombed the massive traffic jams created at those choke points. Then Junkers-88s, operating in the role of high-level saturation bombers, zeroed in on the tall pillars of smoke caused by the dive-bombing, cruised over, and toggled their heavy bomb loads indiscriminately into the trapped masses of helpless civilians.
On the ground, elements of the Tenth Panzer Division rolled up as soon as the bombing stopped and machine-gunned anything not wearing a swastika. A wholesale massacre was taking place. Men, women, children, horses, cows, goats, pigs, chickens, dogs, and cats littered the roads. The civilians were dying in the tens of thousands. The western approach to Calais became a highway of death.
At night the Luftwaffe dropped parachute flares over the roads to allow the strafing, bombing, and machine-gunning to continue the slaughter without letup. Survivors of the onslaught lay screaming, hideously mutilated with appalling injuries. In the hot sun they suffered terribly and died badly. Terrified men, hysterical women, and traumatized children milled around in dazed confusion.
In the midst of this butchery, the remnants of the battle-tested Swamp Fox Force assembled in a small, isolated copse of elm trees. They had been fighting all day.
Lieutenant John Randal rapidly issued new orders. Concerned that the men might have started to become overconfident from their recent successes, he casually mentioned, “One of the Huks we captured bragged, ‘It’s hard to kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer.’”
“Bloody cheeky,” growled Royal Marine Corporal Mickey Duggan as he crammed fresh ammo into a Bren magazine. “But as we’ve been demonstratin,’ the bandit ’ad a point. What did you ’ave to say, sir?”
“Not if you hit him with it.”
The German Army swung a giant sledgehammer, and although they did not hit the mosquito, they smashed everything else.
Pressure can crush a stone or turn it into a diamond. Swamp Fox Force was down to fewer than twenty effectives. They were dangerous men.
On the morning of 29 May 1940, the word came through to try to escape if they could after completing one last task; it was to be every man for himself. The officer commanding 30 Brigade, Brigadier Claude Nicholson, was preparing to surrender the garrison to put an end to the slaughter. Calais was done for.
Incredibly, the lightly armed 30 Brigade, with help from a hardfighting Swamp Fox Force, had held up the First and Tenth Panzer Divisions for four priceless days. Because of their sacrifice, the evacuation of Dunkirk was assured. The Riflemen fought like cornered lions. Virtually every man had been killed, was wounded, or would soon be captured.
Lieutenant John Randal received orders to blow a humpbacked bridge over the last major canal west of Calais before escaping. A sapper sergeant arrived in a truck loaded with the first explosives they had seen. It took three hours for the sergeant in the Royal Engineers to place the guncotton demolition charges.
At that point, Swamp Fox Force attempted to halt the flow of refugees streaming over the bridge. They could not make them stop. First, shots were fired into the air, and then the few remaining Swamp Fox Force fired at the refugees’ feet, even wounding a few. Nothing worked. On they came: a press of old men and elderly women, mothers with small babies, families fleeing together, French and Belgian soldiers in uniform who had thrown their weapons away, and military-aged men of indeterminate origin with short haircuts in civilian clothes. The crush of desperate people stampeded, forcing their way over to safety, even though there was no safety to be had. No boats were waiting for them, and none were coming.
Stukas arrived and began strafing the fleeing column. German Mark III tanks advanced on the bridge, indiscriminately firing their cupolamounted coaxial machine guns into the packed crowd, chopping people down. Pandemonium broke out.
The beleaguered sapper sergeant appealed to the Swamp Fox Force commander. “What am I to do, sir? I was bloody well never trained for anything like this!”
“I bloody wired it. You bloody want it blown, you bloody do it, sir!”
Lieutenant Randal twisted the charging handle immediately. The bridge erupted in black smoke as the string of charges popped in rapid succession, dropping the structure, still jam-packed with screaming people, into the canal with an impressive splash. Even for the battle-hardened veterans it was a horrific sight.
Rounding up his surviving troops, Lieutenant Randal headed for the coast. When they reached the beach at dusk, they turned and drove straight toward Calais. An oily cloud of smoke obscured the city. Every building seemed to be burning. A lazy string of Junkers-87 Stukas curled in, releasing their ordnance, one after the other, rolling into their attack run with their dive sirens wailing. Artillery rounds were falling sporadically and panzers were randomly firing their main guns into the town. Every German soldier with access to a mortar was stonking rounds downrange as fast as he could drop them down the tube. Calais was coming apart at the seams.
Just outside of town, as night began to fall, the Swamp Fox remnant abandoned what was left of their vehicles and patrolled on foot to the dock in a tactical file formation, with Lieutenant Randal pulling point. Dangling from his neck was a pair of Zeiss binoculars he had taken off a dead Nazi colonel. A Luger P.08 and a Walther P-38 were crisscrossed on their black leather belts across his chest, and an MP-38 machine pistol on a strap was hanging muzzle down from his right shoulder. The Browning P-35 Sergeant Mike “March or Die” Mikkalis had given him was on its lanyard, stuck into his belt. German stick grenades were tucked into every pocket.
The Swamp Fox Force commander was unrecognizable as the young King’s Royal Rifle Corps replacement lieutenant who had strolled off the Canterbury, swagger stick in hand, only four days earlier. It would not have been possible to guess his age within ten years.
The night was pitch dark as the men approached the dock. No ships were visible in the harbor, and the dock was being swept sporadically by searching machine-gun fire. The odd artillery or mortar round plopped into the bay. As they made their stealthy approach march, Lieutenant Randal ordered his men to tear down a wooden fence.
“I want every man to carry the largest plank he can.”
In the dark they reached the west side of the dock, moved down under it, and waded their way out to the very end where they found about forty men from assorted 30 Brigade units hiding. Corporal Mickey Duggan, the last surviving Royal Marine in Swamp Fox Force, shone his flashlight to seaward and began to signal.
To everyone’s great surprise, a response came back right away. The Royal Marine and the unknown light blinked back and forth for a time. “Sir, I am in contact with the armed yacht Gulzar,” Corporal Duggan said. “She is willing to come in to try and pick us up, but the skipper says he is not going to come to a stop. He wants us to climb up on top of the dock and jump aboard as he sails past the end of the pier.”
“Signal ‘can do.’”
Each man dropped the plank he was carrying, and with some of the other men who elected to come with them, climbed up the wet, slimy, barnacle-encrusted wooden pilings, struggled up onto the dock, and lay prone, hoping to avoid the intermittent bursts from the German machine guns. They did not have long to wait.
HMY Gulzar’s skipper was a master mariner. True to his word, he brought the yacht in close, slow and steady, braving the automatic weapons, the artillery, the mortars, and the unknown. Forty-seven men made the leap. They were the last evaders from 30 Brigade to make it out of Calais.
Lieutenant John Randal slept the whole way back to Dover.
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Phil Ward is a decorated combat veteran commissioned at age nineteen. A former instructor at the Army Ranger School, he has had a lifelong interest in small unit tactics and special operations. He lives on a mountain overlooking Lake Austin with his beautiful wife, Lindy, whose father was the lieutenant governor to both Ann Richards and George W. Bush.