As British and French troops organise evacuation to Dunkirk and Cherbourg it is left to the stout British infantry to hold back the German advance. A safe haven must be maintained, roads kept clear, equipment left behind put beyond use and extraction of French gold reserves facilitated. It's grim work but hundreds of thousands of men's lives depend on it.
Our story takes us to early July 1940. Cut off and left behind as the last organised craft left the shores ten days ago, a small group of British soldiers and airmen have a choice - give themselves up to the encircling German forces or fight on and somehow get themselves to a port and find a boat to requisition. Their saving grace is that the disciplined Germans are not in a hurry and their organised military machine is slow to react to the activities of the plucky Brits...
5th July 1940
Sottevast, 9km west of Valognes, 19km east of Siouville-Hague, 14km south of Cherbourg, Lower Normandy.
A bruised and battered motley collection of Allied soldiers, whose stories of how they came to be left behind would fill a book several times over, have a tough decision to be made. Every organised evacuation event has long since gone. They are left behind with no command, no support and no hope of survival. The logical outcome would be to surrender themselves to the nearest mayor or police station and wait for the occupying German authorities to deal with them once that part of France had been militarised. And yet, while there is life there is hope - they had come so far already and the coast is but a few miles away. Perhaps they could persuade a fisherman at Cherbourg to take them across the channel? Or would a a boat ride to Alderney be a more viable option?
Having been so far in front of the Germans, travel up until this point hadn't been too much of a problem. Although the French had been very accommodating en route with offers of rest, food, drink and medical care, nothing could be taken for granted. Not all French thought the same way and there were plenty that were of a like mind to the Germans.
And so it was that they found themselves in a sheltered wood on the edge of Sottevest. A typical rural French village in many ways but, as luck would have it, had been a garrison of the BEF. Supplies abounded and while all kit useful to the enemy had been destroyed or removed there were still stocks of medical supplies and light ammunition and a little heavier stuff. Not only that, the locals were very positive to the soldiers, sharing food and the services of the local doctor. The French civilians became the eyes and ears of the lads, forming a network that reached to the coast. There was a way out of this mess and with the locals help and by following the railway line to Sain-Martin-le-GrÃ©ard it was just possible to reach Cherbourg before the Germans.
Yet this glimmer of hope was about to be dashed. A breathless lad, red in the face, cycled into the allies camp. The Germans were here! Word was that an advance party of German Army troops had arrived by train from Bayeux and disembarked at Valognes just 9km away. Carts and requisition lorries were being loaded with their supplies and they and the troops on foot were heading directly towards Sottevast.
The fact that they appeared lightly armed was of little consolation. And that they were mainly engineers and administrators wasn't realised of course but in any case, a jerry is a jerry. Worse was that, a few SS troops had been seen and that had to be bad news.
What wasn't realised was that as far as the new German arrivals were concerned all of the BEF had long since left, killed or been captured. If there were any left then they were bound to surrender in any case. Of course it didn't mean they weren't cautious. The locals didn't want them there and there were bound to be attempts to frustrate their occupation.
The Germans had express orders to open the way for the bulk of occupational forces, in particular to clear and protect the railway to Cherbourg, since the Germans held great store by the efficiency of moving men and equipment by rail. In addition, they were to extend the army telephonic communication network to Cherbourg. The local telephone system worked well enough but would be easily cut or tapped and in any case native switchboard operators were notorious gossips!
So there the allies were, in a glade beside the railway track, the sound of jackboots marching down the road. The instinctive reaction was to run for their lives and yet they hadn't survived this long without being enterprising, cunning and ruthless. Perhaps, just perhaps, they could make use of the few resources available to them to cause a bit of mischief before they left for the coast....