If we talk about battles of the Second World War, the names of some that are already inevitable references will come to mind, from Stalingrad to Berlin to El Alamein, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, the Bulge and several more very famous ones. But there were others that are not so well known, even if some of them had a transcendental importance for the course of the war. This is the case with the Siege of Lille, which was part of a larger battle, that of France in the early stages of the conflict, and was instrumental in allowing the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Winston Churchill himself described it as vital in his book The Second World War, something that has been corroborated by many war correspondents and historians, considering that the tenacious resistance presented in Lille by the French Fourth and Fifth Corps entertained numerous German forces for almost four days, thus allowing the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) to gain precious time that meant the salvation, according to estimates by some authors, of up to 100,000 more soldiers than originally planned.
Lille is an inland city located in the Haute-France region on the Belgian border, about 65 kilometers from the coast of Dunkirk. When the joint attempt of the French Army and the BEF to stop the German advance into Belgium during the spring of 1940 failed, it became clear that a retreat into the interior of France would be too complicated due to logistical and geographical issues, so an original, though risky, alternative was chosen: to evacuate the troops by sea.
It was not easy either, since it was a matter of taking out a few tens of thousands of men (or so it was calculated; wrongly, since there would later be hundreds of thousands). And it had to be done in a hurry, before the enemy fell upon them, who were marching unstoppably in that direction. But the Royal Navy had already been assembling ships for this purpose, and what was called Operation Dynamo began. The weather helped the BEF, since the armoured units of General Heinz Guderian, the genius creator of the Blitzkrieg or lightning war, were hindered by the bad weather; also by the confrontation he had with Marshal Von Kluge, who ordered him to put the brakes on his impetus to push the Allies towards the coast following Hitler’s instructions.
All these events had passed in a dizzying way, in just eight months. The BEF landed in France in September 1939 with four divisions under the command of John Vereker Gort, a decorated veteran of the First World War who had argued strongly for the creation of such a force in the face of the conviction – rightly so – that France did not have the capacity to defend itself. The BEF entered Belgium, receiving another 13 reinforcement divisions in May 1940… and on the 19th of that month it was assumed that there was nothing to be done, on the 24th the plan to counterattack from the south was discarded and on the 26th the evacuation began.
On the night of the 27th, after King Leopold III surrendered Belgium, leaving the land to the Wehrmacht, most of the British had managed to concentrate on the River Lys, a river that rises in the French town of Lisbourg and flows into the Scheldt at the Belgian city of Ghent, after a course of 195 kilometres, of which 24.6 kilometres form the border between the two countries. However, only the Third Gallic Corps could join them, since the other two that operated in the area were trapped in Lille.
They were the aforementioned IV and V, led respectively by General Aymes and General Altmayer under the command of Jean-Baptiste Molinié (being the oldest graduate), which together with III were part of the 1st Army commanded by General René Prioux and were largely made up of native soldiers from the protectorates of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, including what would later become known as pied-noirs (Europeans living in North Africa). Both were hit and had to entrench themselves in Lille, which was immediately besieged by three Panzer divisions (4th, 5th and 7th) and four infantry divisions (11th, 217th, 253rd and 267th) under Kurt Waeger.
The disproportion was evident because the defenders numbered only 30,000 French plus 5,000 British and lacked sufficient armored units, so prolonged resistance was a chimera. In fact, attempts were made to break the siege on two occasions. One took place on the morning of the 28th and was double, as it was simultaneously led by the 2nd DINA (2nd Division d’Infanterie Nord-africaine) of Major General Pierre Dame, composed of Algerian riflemen and artillerymen, and the 5th DINA of Major General Augustin Agliany, composed of Moroccans and Tunisians. The former tried to cross the Deûle while the latter tried to cross the Moulin Rouge bridge. Both failed, although during these attempts they ambushed and captured numerous Germans, including General Fritz Kuhn.
On the 29th a second attempt was made, which was also unsuccessful because although two companies and some tanks managed to get past the bridge, they had to turn around in front of the curtain of fire that the Germans had thrown over them. So Molinié decided to give up the exits and prepared for an all-out defence in the city. The battle took place mainly in the suburbs of Lille, where the French forced the Germans to take house by house. However, the superiority of the attackers and the lack of food and ammunition for a position that, after all, had had to be improvised – and with the civilian population also trapped – led to an agreement to capitulate.
On the night of May 31, hostilities ceased and the next morning, Waeger honored the surrendered troops by allowing them to parade their weapons before his own troops in formation (which, by the way, cost him his dismissal by an angry Hitler).
The French had held out for four days. It does not seem much at first sight, but that time served to divert the German land divisions from the beaches of Dunkirk, where the pressure was only maintained by the Luftwaffe, allowing Gort to organise a defence to cover the evacuation. When Guderian was able to resume his operations he found a barrier hindering him, compounded by unfavourable terrain for his tanks.
The result was that Operation Dynamo, which ended on June 4, pulled no less than 224,000 British soldiers and 95,000 allies out of that rathole, even though tens of thousands of vehicles, guns and half a million tons of supplies were left behind. Sixty-eight thousand were also left behind but this could have been a catastrophe without parallel in military history and if it was not, it was due, in part, to the selfless defenders of the Lille siege.
This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 5, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en La resistencia francesa en Lille que ganó tiempo para que los británicos fueran evacuados en Dunkerque
Their Finest Hour. The Second World War (Winston S. Churchill) / The Battle for France & Flanders. Sixty years on (VVAA) / Dunkirk. Retreat to victory (Julian Thompson) / The war in France and Flanders 1939-1940 (Major L.F.Ellis) / Dunkirk. Fight to the last man (Hugh Sebag-Montefiore) /Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, 27 may-4 June 1940 (History of War) /Wikipedia