On the morning of 26 May key commanders assembled at the fourth floor of the Calais Opera House, on the Boulevard Leon Gambetta. It provided excellent observation, completely overlooking Nicholson’s perimeter. They gathered amid an air of tense expectancy. At SaintPol airfield Messerschmitt fighter pilot Leutnant von Kageneck with Jägergeschwader I recalled, ‘we were waiting ready strapped into our cockpits as the bomb-laden Stukas crossed over’. Three fighter Gruppen were to escort the Stuka fly-in, because ‘after yesterday’s unpleasant experience with the Spitfires, Corps HQ was determined to run no risks’. After forming up they flew on to the target, which ‘even without a compass one could not have missed, owing to the column of thick black smoke that showed the way’.35

Edwin Dwinger with the 10th Panzer staff watched the approach. He heard the excited warnings, ‘The Stukas are coming!’ and they all looked up. ‘Three Staffeln [over 30 aircraft] according to hearsay, like a flight school.’ ‘It was a most dramatic thing to watch,’ Second Lieutenant Philip Pardoe agreed:

I remember a drone in the distance, getting louder, and out of the sky in perfect ‘V’ formation, came these planes towards us. One by one, these Stukas peeled off, and dived vertically towards their targets. It was an absolutely breath-taking sight.

Oberst Fischer, looking on from the Opera House balcony, remembered:

with deafening crashes, bomb after bomb does destructive work…Red flames flicker in various places, thick smoke and sand cloudsrise skywards, and large chunks of masonry spin through the air. The effect is overwhelming.

Dwinger watched as ‘huge clouds of smoke rise skyward, and then the muffled clap of thunder passed over us’. Some Stukas dived so steeply they appeared to disappear into the smoke spurting up from the bombs of their predecessors.

British fighters appeared on the scene again and dogfights developed at high altitude, unseen from the ground apart from wispy trails of vapour. Dwinger saw at least one Spitfire shot down when some of the weaving dodging aircraft came down to low level. When Stukageschwader 2 appeared to conduct the second wave of the attack, the dust and smoke pall hanging over the citadel and harbour was such they could hardly distinguish the target area. Nevertheless, they tipped over and dived, adding their bombs to the seething cauldron viewed from the air.

The artillery barrage was under way at 8.30am, followed by 69th Regiment attacking from the south and 86th Regiment to its left out of the west. Phase two of the artillery preparation began working the citadel over from 9.30 to 10.15am. The last Stuka bomb landed 15 minutes later. Direct fire was opened up at the barricades on the canal bridges at point-blank range by 100mm guns firing directly over open sights from the edges of buildings. Aufklärungs Abteilung 90 provided intimate fire support from 20mm cannon mounted on armoured cars, shooting in three companies of infantry from the 69th Regiment advancing from the east, to complete the concentric nature of the attack.

Optimism reigned on the Opera House balconies at what looked like a series of successful assaults. But as Oberst Fischer recalled, ‘we hear increasing machine gun and rifle fire, the enemy had come back to life, and is fighting for his very existence’. They watched as the preliminary penetration of the citadel by 86th Regiment was ‘pushed back by a British counter-attack almost to their starting point’.39 The street network of the old town channelled German probes into British killing areas, wrecking the symmetry of the advance. The built-up area of the old town was shaped like a five-cornered island, separated from the mainland by canals to the south and west, with harbour basins to the south and south-east, and by the large Basin de Chasses outer harbour to the north. The Germans attacked from the modern outer periphery estates into a confusing network of enclosed streets and waterways. These watercourses, bordered by buildings, were bitterly defended.

‘I saw a fellow from the King’s Royal Rifles [near the Clock Tower] who had a bloody great hole in his back,’ recalled Edward Watson with the Queen Victoria’s Rifles, ‘probably from a lump of shrapnel’. He received scant sympathy:

This fellow was crying and laying on the floor. There was a Sergeant Major standing over him, shouting at him to get up. I was standing there aghast. I’d never seen anything like this before, and much to my  amazement, the fellow did get up, and was able to walk. I thought this Sergeant Major was a rotten sod – but he really made the fellow move!

Fischer was monitoring the attempts to breach the barricades blocking the three canal bridges into the old town. ‘Almost all the enemy’s machine guns are back in operation’ like phoenixes rising from the ashes. ‘Courageous and determined officers, NCOs and men trying to cross are shot up,’ he recalled. Slow-firing stuttering Bren guns were clearly distinguishable. Eventually they were drowned out by the ripping-canvas sounding bursts of rapid firing Spandaus and the steady thump-thump-thump of 20mm cannon, engaging muzzle flash at aperture slits on the citadel walls and ramparts. Nicholson’s men were running desperately short of ammunition.

German infantry began to clamber across the barricades. Rifleman Eric Chambers with D Company of the 2nd Rifles saw the spot where his captain, Bower, had been killed at the Pont Freycinet. Suddenly his Bren opened up again beneath the wrecked barricade truck where he lay. It swept away several Germans. It seems Bower’s finger had tightened on the trigger with the onset of rigor mortis.

Brigadier Claude Nicholson demonstrated remarkable psychological and physical resilience during this fight. He had fought a good battle despite competing distractions of ‘mission creep’ imposed on him by the War Office and Lord Gort’s BEF Headquarters that had stretched and reduced his force. Despite being outgunned, he had succeeded in keeping the port open, reassured that an ‘evacuation’ for his men ‘had been decided in principle’. This changed on the second day of the fight when French General Fagalde at Dunkirk insisted the Calais garrison should hold fast. There would be no dashing rearguard extraction by the Royal Navy, which had so upset the French at Boulogne. Nicholson’s dispositions for a fighting evacuation had then to transition to a Last Stand. The War Office insensitively directed ‘you must comply for the sake of Allied solidarity’ despite the ‘harbour being at present of no importance to the BEF’. Churchill, incensed by the tone of ‘this very lukewarm telegram’, wrote to General Ironside, the CIGS. ‘This is no way to encourage men to fight to the end,’ he admonished, suggesting, ‘Are you sure there is no streak of defeatism on the General Staff?’

Fischer was correct to assume he was up against the courage of despair. Nicholson’s promising career would now be at an end, with panzers against ports only the prospect of death or humiliation as a senior prisoner. He would now have to watch the rapid promotion of his contemporaries that would come with an expanded wartime army.

You can read more in Robert Kershaw's Dünkirchen 1940: The German View of Dunkirk