Wargaming: Boulogne-sur-Mer: May 23, 1940

10 October 2022
Straight Into Action

Words and pictures by Jon Sutherland.

Each Command Decision aims to offer a series of playable options in timeless military scenarios. Command Decision is designed so you can read the situation and figure out your own command decisions if you were leading the troops on the ground. You can either work through the various options or use the mechanics to create the precise circumstances of the tabletop engagement. The scenarios may have particular historical themes and settings, but you can easily adapt the mechanics to suit your own preferences and collections.



France is being overrun by the Germans with the Allied forces desperately trying to hold the Channel ports to evacuate the beaten men. You are peering through the gloom and black smoke at Boulogne harbour on HMS Whitshed. The destroyer is protecting the rest of a hastily assembled force of the steamer Biarritz and the SS Queen of the Channel. You can see a French oil tanker ablaze just offshore, the skies are alive with German Stukas and low-level bombers; soon your reinforcements will be ashore and amongst the chaotic scenes in the seaside town.

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You are Brigadier William Fox-Pitt, commanding the 20th Guards Brigade with orders to hold the port and ensure the supply lines remain open. You must not risk your force, if there is a chance that your men will be captured by the Germans you are to withdraw from France. You command 972 men of the 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards and 720 men of the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards. You can expect the support of local French forces and 1500 men of the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps.

You know that the German advance is spearheaded by fast moving armour, but your anti-tank capability is limited with just four 2pdr AT guns and some Boys anti-tank rifles.



No sooner are you ashore then you realise that this mission is not really to hold open the supply lines at all; it is to hasten the evacuation. The harbour is overwhelmed with panicked French civilians; there are wounded men everywhere and piles of dead abandoned by the roadside. You are to establish a perimeter around the port and hold it until the wounded, broken units and refugees have been ferried to England.

It is clear that trying to hold a perimeter in open country is suicidal, so you determine to dig in around the suburbs. You order the Welsh Guards to take up positions to the east and the Irish Guards to the southwest. Your other men are assigned to cover road blocks as well as key road junctions and any obvious choke points that the Germans would use.


You are General Heinz Guderian commanding the 2nd Panzer Division, the leading element of the German XIX Army Corps. You have been steadily making progress towards Boulogne, constantly harassed by British aircraft still operating from French airfields. Your advance scout units have run into the British defence forces around the port part way through the afternoon.



The enemy are well positioned, your men tell you that there is a mix of French and British AT guns, your armour is bogged down and taking unacceptable losses. Luckily, your motorcycle units have found a way around the outlying enemy AT units and by sunset the first line has been compromised and your men continue to engage isolated pockets through the night.



This is an ideal scenario for fans of either Bolt Action or Rapid Fire and perhaps the best way of approaching it is to focus on the early morning on May 23 before the defensive ring collapsed.



Use army lists from Bolt Action Campaign: Battle of France

The Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps can count as inexperienced infantry. The unit consists of 1 NCO and four other ranks. Up to 5 more figures can be added to make the unit up to 10. You can arm them with rifles and give them anti-tank grenades. The unit can build a roadblock in two turns.

The following table suggests how the game should be structured:


These rules lend themselves to rather larger actions with a more movement options. The game can be played in more open country as the Germans can deploy more armour and mobile troops:



The following table suggests how the game should be structured:


This typical delaying action would work extremely well in a variety of different settings. For the American Civil War, any of the actions in the Atlanta Campaign of 1864 would work well. The Confederates made good use of abbatis in their attempts to hold back the Union forces whilst the evacuation of the city was underway. Great examples are Ezra Church (July 28); Utoy Creek (August 5–7); Dalton (August 14–15); Lovejoy’s Station (August 20) and Jonesborough (August 31 – September 1).

Other actions include Lieutenant Thomas Thackeray’s actions around Peacock Hill in 1814 when the East India Company’s army invading Nepal came unstuck after a vigorous Nepalese counterattack. In the Peninsular War, both Salamanca and Corunna provide good backdrops.

In 1914 from August 25-26, the Battle of Le Cateau was a vital rear-guard action fought by the British against an overwhelming German offensive. It cost the British over 7800 casualties, but it probably prevented the Germans from capturing Paris. The actions of the Ten Thousand after the Battle of Cunaxa in 401BC are a great example from ancient times.

One I would love to recreate dates back to 1877 when the Nez Perce Indians under their charismatic Chief Joseph carried out a staggering 1400 mile fighting retreat with 200 warriors and upwards of 500 dependents against over 2,000 US Cavalry. They fought innumerable actions across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana as they tried to escape into Canada. After 15 weeks they were cornered at the Battle of Bear Paw, beaten and taken off to a reservation. Chief Joseph and his people were just 40 miles from the Canadian border.


The German armour hit the Guards line just after first light supported by motorcycle units attempting to breakthrough into the rear. Slowly, but surely, the Guards fell back into Boulogne. French forces holding Fort de la Creche, an ageing fort dominating the harbour were forced to surrender after an intense bombardment and assault by German motorcycle units.

At around 1000, Fox-Pitt was given orders to evacuate all non-essential men from the port, but to hold the line for as long as was practicable. The Guards continued their stubborn defences, fighting house to house as they fell back on the harbour itself.

By late afternoon, the harbour was littered with abandoned vehicles and there were hundreds of wounded, while civilians and others crowded into the shrinking space. There were constant embarkations on a variety of vessels with Allied warships coming into shore as close as they dared to engage the advancing mass of German forces.

PM Winston Churchill authorised the full evacuation at around 1800, but by this stage the Germans were so close to the harbour that men on board the evacuation ships were being picked off by snipers. The Germans also brought the old guns of Fort de la Creche to bear on the ragged fleet, nearly sinking the destroyer HMS Venetia before the Royal Navy bombarded the fort into silence.

By the time the evacuation was complete, in excess of 4300 British, French and Belgian personnel and civilians had been snatched from capture. It was at a terrific cost. The Guards had lost a third of the force. Boulogne would remain in enemy hands for over four years until late 1944. The Canadian 3rd Division spearheaded the liberation and took the port and 9500 prisoners. 



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