Bray Dunes, East of Dunkirk, 1940 (2 of 2)

Bray Dunes, East of Dunkirk, 1940 (2 of 2)

The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, S. W. Roskill. This first volume in the British official history of the war at sea covers the period from the outbreak of the war through to the first British disasters in the Pacific in December 1941. Amongst other topics it covers the Norwegian campaign, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the first two years of the Battle of the Atlantic. The text is meticulously researched, and is rooted in a detailed study of wartime records, both British and German. [see more]


This "Miracle" at Dunkirk Changed the Course of World War II

The evacuation of the BEF by civilian and military vessels during the fall of France in 1940 ensured the British Army would fight another day.

Captain William Tennant stood on the deck of the Wolfhound, grimily observing the progress of a German air raid as his ship approached Dunkirk. The port city in the northeast corner of France, which was not far from the Belgian border, was being brutally pulverized before his eyes. Bombs detonated, sending up fountains of smoke and debris, smashing buildings, and killing and wounding French civilians unlucky enough to be on the scene.

Fires erupted from different parts of the stricken city, merging until the whole port seemed engulfed in flames. But it was the burning oil tanks, hit earlier in the day, that commanded the most attention. Great columns of acrid smoke rose into the sky, the black and choking clouds so thick they obscured the normal blue of a bright spring day. It seemed a funeral pyre of British hopes, mocking their plans to escape the German juggernaut.

Tennant was on a special assignment, a mission that might well decide the outcome of World War II. The British and a portion of their French allies were trapped by superior German forces and faced with annihilation or capture. If they escaped, then the British Army would survive to fight another day. If not, well, Tennant was not going to waste his time on defeatist speculation. He had a job to do, and he meant to do it well. It was May 27, 1940, and Operation Dynamo, the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force, was shifting into high gear.

Tennant officially was senior naval officer ashore, ordered by his superior, Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, to supervise the evacuation and coordinate all the elements that were needed to achieve that end. Originally Dunkirk seemed like a perfect embarkation point. There were no less than seven docking basins, five miles of quays, and 115 acres of docks and warehouses. Pouring over maps and other related documents with his staff, one of Tennant’s main concerns was turnaround time. The challenge was to figure out how destroyers and other craft could nose into the quays, fill with troops, and depart fast enough for other ships to quickly take their place.

But in his mind’s eye he could see those plans going up in smoke, just as surely as the hoped-for quays and docks were blazing and sending their own black coils into the heavens. Tennant was accompanied by a dozen officers and 150 ratings. Since Wolfhound was an obvious target the shore party was landed and dispersed.

Tennant himself set out for the British command post. What was normally a 10-minute walk was a nightmarish hour-long journey through rubble-filled streets. Downed trolley wires festooned the avenues, burned-out vehicles were everywhere, and corpses of both British soldiers and French civilians sprawled about like bloodied rag dolls. A kind of thick, smoky haze enveloped everyone and everything, reminders of the oil fires that still blazed fiercely.

The Royal Navy officer finally arrived at Bastion 32, an earth-covered bunker that served as British headquarters in Dunkirk. He was greeted by Commander Harold Henderson, the British naval liaison officer, and representatives of the British Army. But there was one question that must have been paramount in his mind: How long would he have to do the job? In other words, how long would it be before the Germans arrived? The answer was swift and discouraging: 24 to 36 hours.

The task before him seemed impossible, but Tennant was a professional who was determined to do his duty to the best of his ability. The coming days would determine not only the course of the war but the fate of Britain itself.

The Dunkirk crisis began on May 10 when the Germans unleashed their blitzkrieg attack in the west. The operation, code-named Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), had two distinct phases. General Fodor Von Bock’s Army Group A, which totaled 29 divisions, suddenly thrust into Holland and Belgium. To the Allies, these moves were reminiscent of the old Schlieffen plan used the early weeks of the World War I. Although Holland’s neutrality was not violated in 1914, in other respects it looked as if the Germans were attempting to repeat history by thrusting into Belgium and turning south into northern France.

The Allies countered with a lackluster effort known as Plan D. In this scenario, the BEF and the French First and Seventh Armies would advance to Belgium’s River Dyle and dig in on its left bank. The Dyle was a good defensive position and would be an effective deterrent to any German attempts to move south.

The relatively weak French Second and Ninth Armies were posted farther to the southeast in the heavily forested Ardennes region. The area was thought to be safe because the densely forested hills and deep ravines were considered poor country for tanks. South of the Ardennes was the vaunted Maginot Line, a formidable, at least on paper, series of concrete and steel fortifications. It was manned by 400,000 first-rate troops. France had been bled white by World War I, and over time there was a misplaced faith in big guns and fixed fortifications, an attitude described as the “Maginot mentality.”

But the Germans had no intention of repeating 1914, nor were they going to waste lives trying to smash their way through an impregnable Maginot Line. Army Group A’s descent on Holland and Belgium was in part a ruse, diverting Allied attention from the main German thrust through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes. If all went well, the 45 divisions of General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A would punch through the Ardennes, cross the Meuse River, then drive to the sea.

If the Germans managed to get to the sea, they would effectively drive a wedge between the BEF and the First French Army in the north and French forces operating south of the Somme River. A panzer corridor could widen, making it harder for the separated Allied armies to reunite. At the same time, the BEF, northern French units, and possibly the Belgian Army would be trapped between Group A’s panzer “hammer” and Group B’s formidable “anvil.” The German planners believed the two powerful army groups could destroy the Allied forces.

There were no fewer than seven panzer divisions with Rundstedt’s Army Group A, a veritable mailed fist of 1,800 tanks. Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel, a commander who would later gain immortality in North Africa and earn the sobriquet Desert Fox, commanded the Seventh Panzer Division. But as events unfolded it was Lt. Gen. Heinz Guderian who took center stage in this effort. Guderian commanded the XIX Panzer Corps, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Panzer Divisions, and had long been a proponent of armored warfare.

From the first the Germans achieved a stunning success. Group A’s panzers successfully negotiated the forested slopes and rocky defiles of the Ardennes. They then advanced to the Meuse River where they established a bridgehead. Taken by surprise, the French tried to dislodge the intruders and throw them back across the river, but their attacks were half-hearted at best and ham-fisted at worst.

Some French soldiers fought courageously, but others were so demoralized they surrendered at the first opportunity or simply took to their heels. French generals, fossilized in their military thinking and often ancient in body, simply could not cope with this new style of rapid warfare. General Alphonse Joseph Georges, for example, was commander of the northeast sector, and technically the BEF was under his control. When news came of the German breakthrough he literally collapsed into a chair and began weeping uncontrollably.

Guderian and his tanks were having a field day opposition was either nonexistent or simply melted away. The French Ninth and Second Armies were pummeled unmercifully until they were effectively destroyed. General Edouard Ruby, deputy chief of staff of Second Army, movingly described the bombing by high-level German Dornier 17s and dive-bombing Stuka Ju-87s as nightmarish. Then, too, there was the terror of continued panzer assaults, with hulking metal monsters belching shells, their treads steamrolling over defensive positions with almost scornful ease.

Thousands of French soldiers shuffled to the rear as prisoners of war. Many of them were dazed automatons, their nerves shattered by relentless Stuka attacks and the sheer magnitude of their defeat. Scarcely glancing at these pitiful poilus, the German tanks sped on, at one point covering 40 miles in four days.

General John Vereker, 6th Lord Gort, was the commander in chief of the BEF. A no-nonsense professional, he was no military genius but was competent and very protective of Britain’s only field army. Communications between Gort and his French allies had almost entirely broken down. It was partly because of the rapidity of the German advance, and partly due to the sheer stupidity of the French high command.

When the war broke out in 1939, the French high command rejected the use of radio communication. Radio messages could be easily intercepted by the enemy, or so the argument ran. The French placed their faith in telephone communication, stringing lines with cheerful abandon, or using civilian circuits when possible. The British had little say in the matter after all, they had only 10 divisions, the French 90 divisions.

But when the German blitzkrieg struck, all dissolved into chaos. The Germans cut lines, but overworked signalmen just could not keep up with the ever-changing situation. Roads were clogged with retreating units and fleeing civilians, making their task that much harder. At one stage Gort’s headquarters moved seven times in 10 days.

The only way to keep communications open was by personal visit or by motorcycle dispatch rider. Maj. Gen. Bernard Montgomery, who would gain later fame defeating Rommel in North Africa, had his own unique way of sending messages. At the time Montgomery was commander of the BEF’s Third Division. Riding in his staff car, he would place a message on the end of his walking stick and poke the stick out the window. Sergeant Arthur Elkin would roar up on his motorcycle, grab the message, and speed down the country lanes in search of the addressee. It was no easy task.

Gort had his first real inkling of the true situation when General Georges Billotte, commander of the French First Army Group, visited his command post at Wahagnies, a small town south of Lille. Billotte was normally an ebullient man, but now he looked exhausted and depressed. He spread a map out and explained that no fewer than nine panzer divisions had broken through at the Ardennes and were even then sweeping westward. Worse still, the French had nothing to stop them.

Although there is no specific evidence of the fact, Gort probably started thinking about withdrawing the BEF to the Channel ports about this time. A German trap was closing, and half-hearted French talk about countermeasures was not going to assuage his growing concern. Some of Gort’s senior staff began to plan for just such an operation in the early morning hours of May 19.

Back in London, Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden was dumbfounded when he heard the news that Gort might want to evacuate. Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir Edmund Ironside also was not too pleased. It seemed to Ironside like alarmist rubbish. In any case, why couldn’t the BEF escape the closing trap by driving south to the Somme and joining the French forces that were supposedly gathering there?

Winston Churchill, Britain’s new prime minister, tended to agree with Ironside. Churchill’s fighting spirit was aroused. But if the BEF managed to link up with the French forces south of the Somme, the Allies might then mount a counteroffensive and turn the tables on the rampaging Germans.

But Churchill was being overly optimistic. Gort knew the situation better than London. Most of the BEF was still engaged with German Army Group B to the east. For that reason, they could not just suddenly shift and charge direction without serious consequences. If they tried to move south, the Germans would have a golden opportunity to pounce on their flank and rear.

Ironside travelled to France to personally convey Churchill’s opinion to the BEF commander. The entire War Cabinet in London also concurred with the prime minister. Gort respectfully stood his ground, explaining how most of the BEF was fighting to the east. Ironside conceded the point but suggested a compromise: why not use Gort’s two reserve divisions for a drive south? The French agreed to support the effort with some light mechanized units.

Gort agreed to the proposal. He was sure the effort would be stillborn, but he was a good soldier who was not about to defy the prime minister and seemingly half the British government. Accordingly, a mixed force of infantry and tanks, labeled Frankforce after their commander, Maj. Gen. H.E. Franklyn, was assigned to attempt a breakthrough to the south.

The French also had a new commander in chief, General Maxime Weygand. The septuagenarian had a youthful energy and sunny optimism that dispelled the defeatist gloom that had sunk French headquarters into the depths of despair. Weygand impressed Churchill, grandly unveiling a Weygand Plan that envisioned eight British and French divisions, aided by Belgian cavalry, sweeping southwest to link up with French forces farther south.

But the Weygand Plan was based in fantasy, not reality. The situation was deteriorating rapidly, with Allied forces scattered, fully engaged elsewhere, or simply nonexistent. Weygand grandly issued order after order, paper salvos that might boost morale but did little to counter the German threat. General Order No 1, for example, directed northern armies to “prevent the Germans from reaching the sea,” but in point of fact they were already there and had been for several days.

In the meantime, Gort dutifully proceeded with his promised attack. Frankforce was a hodgepodge, hastily assembled collection of tanks, infantry, field and antitank guns, and motorcycle reconnaissance platoons. The cutting edge of the offensive was provided by 58 Mk1 and 16 Mk II Matilda tanks. The British Matilda was one of the best Allied tanks of the early years of the war. It featured armor up to three inches thick, and mounted a high-velocity 2-pounder gun.

The British Frankforce offensive began near Arras on May 21. It was spectacularly successful at first. Rommel’s Seventh Panzer Division was surprised and initially thrown into confusion by the sudden assault. Even Rommel himself, a man not prone to panic, thought he was being attacked by several divisions.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mark II Matildas. The German 37mm gun, the standard Wehrmacht antitank weapon, was completely ineffective against the Matildas. It was said that one Matilda actually took 14 direct hits and yet emerged undamaged. On a literal roll, the British tanks advanced 10 miles before the Germans rallied and stopped the attack.

The British offensive was halted by a variety of factors. French support turned out to be weak or nonexistent. The British tanks had outdistanced their infantry and artillery support. But the Germans discovered they, too, had a surprise weapon. The 88mm antiaircraft guns turned out to be superb antitank weapons as well. The 88s of the German 23rd Flak Regiment were particularly effective against the British armor at Arras.

The British effort at Arras had been a forlorn hope. It was now Gort’s prime mission to save Britain’s field army. Soon contingency plans for the evacuation of the BEF were well in hand. By May 26, the BEF and elements of the French First Army were being squeezed into an ever-narrowing corridor 60 miles deep and 25 miles wide Most of the British were in the vicinity of Lille, 43 miles from Dunkirk the French were farther south.

Luckily, British government officials, including Churchill, finally were starting to come to their senses. They had been mesmerized by hopes of victory and Weygand’s elaborate fantasies, but now the spell was broken. The BEF had to be evacuated or it faced sure annihilation. Churchill sincerely insisted that, as far as humanly possible, any trapped French troops also be rescued.

It was with a growing sense of urgency that Operation Dynamo was born. It officially began with the arrival of Mona’s Isle, a British troop transport, the evening of May 26-27. Luckily Ramsey, operating from his headquarters at Dover, had a wide array of resources at his disposal, including 39 destroyers, 38 destroyer escorts, 69 minesweepers, and a host of other naval craft.

Tennant, Ramsey’s senior naval officer ashore, should see that the waters immediately in from of the Dunkirk beaches were too shallow for normal seagoing vessels. Even small craft could not get any closer than about 100 yards from shore, so the soldiers would have to wade out to their rescuers. Once the Tommies were aboard, the small boats would deliver them to the larger ships and then go back for another load.

Approximately 300 “little ships,” many of them scarcely more than boats, answered the call to duty. Every imaginable type of craft was used if it could float, it passed muster. There were motorboats, sloops, ferries, barges, yachts, and fishing boats. Most of the civilians taking part were fishermen, but incredibly one boat was manned by teenage Sea Scouts.

But this shuttle system was taking too long in practice. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Tennant started thing about the moles. The West Mole was unusable because it was connected to the oil terminal and that facility was in flames. The East Mole, 1,600 feet long, was connected to the beaches by a narrow causeway. But the mole was a breakwater, designed to protect the port from raging seas. It was not intended to serve as a dock for shipping.

Tennant experimented a little, and it was found that ocean-going ships could indeed use the mole as a loading dock. The evacuation process was considerably accelerated, and more men could now be taken away.

In the meantime, land evacuation plans were firming up. With French cooperation, a defensive perimeter was established around Dunkirk and its immediate environs, a bridgehead that protected the port during the BEF’s evacuation. The generally marshy nature of the terrain helped the defenders, and man-made waterways like the Berg Canal were incorporated into the overall plan. Dikes were opened in certain areas, transforming these quagmires into shallow seas.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bridgeman, 2nd Viscount Bridgeman, was responsible for planning the perimeter. Methodical, clear-sighted, and hard working, he was so absorbed in his task that he was subsisting mainly on chocolate and whiskey. The perimeter would be about 30 miles wide and up to seven miles deep.

To buy time, strongpoints were established to slow the German advance. Gort had established a Canal Line that used the Aa Canal and La Basee Canal to guard the forward approaches to Dunkirk. British units held these strongpoints for as long as possible, fighting with dogged determination and stubborn courage, until they were forced to withdraw yet again.

The Dorset Regiment was holding a strongpoint at Festubert when it became clear that it was cut off and virtually surrounded. When they received orders to withdraw, they waited until nightfall to make the attempt. Colonel E.L. Stevenson, the battalion commander, had no maps but did possess a compass. His party included about 250 Dorsets and a ragtag group of odds and sods who had lost their units.

It was a pitch black even the stars were shrouded by menacing dark clouds. At one point, Stephenson found himself confronted with a German sergeant who was out inspecting Wehrmacht outposts. Quickly drawing his pistol, he coolly killed the sergeant with one well-placed shot and motioned for the men to continue their trek.

Groping their way through the darkness, stumbling forward as best they could, the Dorsets suddenly came upon a road that barred their way. They had to cross this road to gain Allied lines, but at the moment it was filled with a convoy of German tanks and support vehicles rolling their way to some unknown destination. It looked like an entire panzer division was on the move, the Germans so confident they had their headlights blazing.

Stephenson and his men hunkered down in the shadows, hoping for a chance to cross the road. After about an hour the last vehicle passed, and the coast was clear. But the respite was temporary because another convoy of Germans could be heard rumbling up the road. The Dorsets scrambled across the road and hid in the underbrush just as the Germans came into view.

But the Dorsets’ odyssey was only just beginning. Guided by Stephenson’s trusty compass, they waded waist-deep through ditches stinking with garbage, groped though plowed fields, and crossed a wide and deep canal twice. They reached Allied lines around 5 am, dirty and exhausted, but triumphant.

The last few days had been a nightmare for the Allies, but the victorious Germans, perhaps a bit stunned by their own successes, were having their own set of troubles. Guderian’s panzers pushed on, with the Sambre River on their northern flank and the Somme on their left. On May 20 German tanks reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme, to all intents and purposes fulfilling their original mission. They had reached the sea and were the tip of huge panzer corridor that divided the First French Army and the BEF from French forces south of the Somme.

German panzers rumbled past bewildered French peasants, their treads kicking up clouds of dust plumes. They were followed by truckloads of motorized infantry, bronzed young soldiers who seemed to be in high spirits.

But now that they were on the coast, what would be the next course of action? At 8 am on May 22, the German high command sent a message in code Abmarche Nord. The plan now was to thrust north, taking the Channel ports and blocking the BEF’s last escape route. The Second Panzer Division would head for Boulogne, the Tenth Panzer Division for Calais, and the First Panzer Division for Dunkirk.

Lieutenant General Friedrich Kirchner’s 1st Division tanks set out around 11 am on May 23. Dunkirk was 38 miles to the northeast. By 8 pm that same day, advance units reached the Aa Canal, which was only 12 miles from Dunkirk. The waterway was part of Gort’s advance Canal Line defense, but at the moment there were relatively few Allied troops in the area to man it. Although Guderian and his advance panzer crews were in a state of euphoria, some senior officers were not so happy.

To Rundstedt, the long panzer corridor was far too vulnerable to counterattack. The panzers and motorized infantry were too far ahead of the unglamorous but vital regular infantry. It was the foot-slogging regular infantry what would shore up the corridor’s long and vulnerable flanks, not seemingly thin as an eggshell and liable to break under a determined Allied counterthrust.

The British attack at Arras had badly scared the Germans, who feared the Allies might be planning an even more powerful counterattack. The Dunkirk area was not really suitable for armor, which was something everyone knew. What is more, a few panzer units were down to 50 percent strength. Some were victims of enemy action, but many more were simply worn out and in need of maintenance.

Rundstedt ordered the panzers to halt, a decision that was supported by Fourth Army commander General Guenther von Kluge. Hitler concurred he was becoming nervous about the French coastal areas, which he had known firsthand as a soldier in World War I. The land was boggy and cut by numerous canals and certainly not ideal for armor.

The action at Arras might have been abortive, but it did manage to scare the Germans into a mood of excessive caution. Suppose the Allies were planning a new thrust, a counterattack even greater than the one at Arras? It was a possibility that haunted both Hitler and his senior officers.

Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring now put in his bid for glory. He told the Führer his aircraft could finish off the British, in effect driving them into the sea. Hitler gave Göring the green light in part because his eyes were gazing elsewhere. The panzers still had to defeat the French forces south of the Somme. As for Paris, the prize that had eluded the Germans in World War I, the objective seemed well within Hitler’s grasp.

But after two days Göring’s assurances were shown to be empty bombast. The BEF was far from destroyed, so the Führer lifted the halt order. The panzers renewed the advance on the afternoon of May 26, but the Allies had been given two precious days to continue the evacuation.

Time was running out if the BEF was going to pull off a successful withdrawal. The Belgian Army capitulated on the night of May 27, a situation the Germans were bound to exploit. King Leopold III of the Belgians had protested that his army could do no more, but the surrender left the BEF’s flank dangerously open. For a time, only German uncertainty about a renewed advance prevented a British disaster.

While Hitler and his generals debated, battered units of the BEF continued to arrive at Dunkirk. They had trekked for miles, their progress impeded by roads choked with fleeing refugee civilians. The Luftwaffe was having a field day, with German planes strafing civilian and soldier alike with cheerful abandon. Rations were scanty, and little food was found along the way. Fatigue was etched in their faces, and their battledress was dirty and soaked with sweat, but somehow they managed to put one foot in front of the other by sheer force of will.

Bridgeman had done his work well. To avoid unnecessary confusion, the three corps of the BEF were assigned specific debarkation sectors. III Corps would head for the beaches at Malo-les-Bains, a suburb of Dunkirk. I Corps would march to Bray-Dunes, which was six miles further east. II Corps was told to assemble at La Panne, which was just across the Belgian border.

BEF headquarters was at La Panne. The BEF had selected that location for its headquarters because it was the site of a telephone cable with a direct link to England. Lt. Gen. Sir Ronald Adam set up shop in the Maire, or town hall, of the seaside resort.

The bone-weary Tommies passed through the defense perimeter with a sense of relief, then entered a world that must have seemed almost surreal under the circumstances. Malo-les-Bains and the other towns were peacetime seaside resorts, where many French and Belgians had enjoyed summer holidays. There were bandstands where music once played, and carrousels where laughing children had ridden elaborately carved horses. Beach chairs lay scattered about and the colorful cafés still had stocks of refreshments.

The British soldiers seemed happy to be in this vacation spot and were going to make the most of it while they waited for deliverance. Dunkirk itself still blazed, the raging oil-fueled fires sending up columns of billowing smoke 13,000 feet into the air, but most of the troops were on the flat, sandy beaches that stretched toward the Belgian border.

German Stukas would appear occasionally, but after the terrors of the past weeks, some Tommies considered them more nuisances than objects of terror. The soldiers played games and swam, and some threw away their Enfield rifles and wandered aimlessly across the sands. Still others pilfered French wines and liquor and sat around the cafés chatting and drinking like tourists on holiday. One man even stripped to his shorts and sunbathed, contentedly reading a novel.

At times the German bombardment was more than just a nuisance, but the British had almost no antiaircraft guns because of a monumental mix up. In the original orders, spare gunners were to go to the beach, a directive that included wounded or incapacitated men. Maj. Gen. Henry Martin somehow misunderstood, thinking it meant that all gunners were to be evacuated.

Since all gunners were to leave, or so he thought, Martin ordered all his 3.7-inch artillery pieces to be destroyed, lest they fall into enemy hands. When Martin proudly reported to Adam that “all antiaircraft guns have been spiked,” the latter was incredulous. This was stupidity beyond words. Baffled and weary, Adam merely replied, “You fool, go away.”

Some Tommies complained that they saw little or nothing of the Royal Air Force. The RAF did its best, bombing enemy positions and sending up fighters during the daylight hours. At the end of Operation Dynamo, the RAF had lost 177 aircraft while the Germans lost 240. This was a foretaste of the Battle of Britain for the Germans, who were meeting an aerial foe equal, or in some cases, superior to them in equipment and personnel for the first time.

The English Channel, which is notorious for being capricious, “cooperated” with the British to a very remarkable degree. For nine crucial days it was flat calm, more like a millpond than a storm-swept waterway. This is not to say that passage to England was trouble free. Each route was in some way exposed to direct German attack or German-created hazards. Route Z was the shortest route, but it was within range of German batteries at Calais. Route X, to the southeast, avoided German artillery but was subject to shoals and mines. Route Y, which was 100 miles in a long, circuitous path, was subject to German air attack.

When their time came the British soldiers peacefully queued in long lines and walked into the surf. Arthur Divine, a civilian who was manning one of the little ships, remembered the British soldiers queuing up, “the lines of men wearily and sleepily staggering across the beach from the dunes to the shallows, falling into little boats, great columns of men thrust out into the water among bomb and shell splashes.”

“The foremost ranks were shoulder deep [in the water], moving forward under the command of young subalterns, themselves with their heads just above water,” said Divine. The BEF had no choice but to abandon all their equipment and vehicles, but some of the army trucks performed a final but nevertheless vital service. They were driven into the shallows and lashed together to form improvised jetties.

The evacuation would not have been possible without the sacrifice of British and French units outside the immediate Dunkirk region. Surrounded and under siege, the bulk of the French First Army held out at Lille until May 30. In the process, they managed to tie up no fewer than six German divisions. The First Army fought so well that the Germans granted them the full honors of war, including marching out into captivity preceded by a band playing lively martial airs.

The British garrison at Calais also performed heroically, although historians debate to what extent their defense held up the German advance. The Calais Force was led by Brig. Gen. Claude Nicholson and 4,000 men. Nicholson’s command included some well-trained regulars, the King’s Royal Rifle Brigade and 1st Rifle Brigade. There was also the 1st Queen Victoria’s Rifles and elements of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment

The Calais fortifications were outdated. The celebrated French engineer Vauban had designed some of the fortifications in the 17th century. Despite this defensive weakness, the garrison fought with great courage and tenacity for several days, but it finally succumbed to the enemy and surrendered on May 30. It probably bought some additional time for the evacuation process given the crisis situation, every little bit helped.

Operation Dynamo continued until June 4, when it was clear French rearguard defenses were finally crumbling. Tennant sent a laconic but succinct message back to England: The official totals were gratifying. No fewer than 338,226 men were evacuated of that number 139,000 were French. Earlier, more pessimistic estimates of the number of men rescued were as low as 45,000.

Great Britain was relieved that the BEF had escaped, but Churchill reminded the country, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” Still, the BEF was a professional core that future armies could be built upon. As one British newspaper put it, the deliverance at Dunkirk was a “bloody miracle.”

This article by Eric Niderost first appeared in the Warfare History Network on January 16, 2019.

Image: Three of the armada of 'little ships' which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk, to the safety of British warships and other vessels. 1940. Imperial War Museum.


Dunkirk evacuation underway – HMS Grafton sunk

The Royal Navy destroyer HMS VANQUISHER alongside a sunken trawler at Dunkirk, 1940. Troops under fire on the beaches of Dunkirk, as seen from a ship offshore. Men of the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940.

The evacuation was now getting under way from Dunkirk. Troops had to endure long waits on the beaches before being embarked. Yet the hazards of being bombed or machined gunned continued even after they found their way onto a ship. Three destroyers loaded with troops were sunk off Dunkirk on the 29th May. There was only one survivor from over 600 troops who were below decks on board HMS Wakeful when she was hit by a torpedo, and only 25 of her crew survived. HMS Grafton went to pick up survivors when she too was torpedoed. Basil Bartlett was one of the Army officers on board HMS Grafton:

There was a terrific explosion as the torpedo hit the destroyer. I suppose the force of it must have knocked me unconscious. First thing I knew I was stumbling around in the dark trying to find the door of the cabin. The whole ship was trembling violently, the furniture appeared to be dancing about. There was a strong smell of petrol. I heard someone scuffling in a corner and just had the good sense to shout: ‘For God’s sake don’t light a match.’ With the greatest of difficulty I found the door and managed to get it open it.

I pushed my way out on deck. Someone said: ‘Keep down. They’re machine-gunning us.’ I huddled against a steel door and watched the fight. Two dark shapes in the middle distance turned out to be German M.T.B.’s. The destroyer and another British warship were giving them hell with shells and tracer-bullets. The M.T.B.’s were answering with machine-gun fire. But one by one they were hit. We saw them leap into the air and then settle down’ into the water and sink. Everyone sighed with relief….

The deck was a mass of twisted steel and mangled bodies. The Captain had been machine-gunned and killed on the bridge. The destroyer had stopped two torpedoes. She’d been hit while hanging about to pick up survivors from another ship, which had been sunk a few minutes before. She was a very gruesome sight….

Wounded men began to be brought up from the bowels of the ship. I learned that one of the torpedoes had gone right through the wardroom, killing all thirty-five of our officers who were sleeping there. It’s pure chance that I’m alive. If I’d gone on board a little earlier I should have been put in the wardroom. I only slept in the Captain’s cabin because there was no room for me anywhere else…

There remained only one job to be done. We had to transfer our cargo. The men showed wonderful discipline. There was no ugly rush. They allowed themselves to be divided into groups and transferred from one ship to another with the same patience that they had shown on Bray-Dunes beach. It must have been a great temptation to get out of turn and take a flying leap for safety. But no one did …

HMS Wakeful sunk by torpedo off Dunkirk with over 600 troops on board on 29th May 1940. Only one man and 25 crew survived. 29th May 1940: The approaches to Dunkirk. A salvo of bombs dropped by 107 Squadron can be seen falling towards a German transport column. The vehicles can just be discerned on the road running down the middle of the image


Shipwrecks, Bray-Dunes

When the British left Dunkirk in June 1940 they left behind a huge amount of artillery, machinery and many damaged or destroyed ships. Some ships were repaired and reused by the Germans, and others cut up for scrap, but some wrecks were left in situ. Several can be clearly seen at low tide on the beach at Bray Dunes just outside Dunkirk. They can be reached on foot from the parking areas close to the seafront apartments at Bray, but can only be seen at low tides.

www.bray-dunes.fr Check tide times and local weather conditions before setting off.


Vic Viner obituary

Vic Viner, who has died aged 99, was one of the last remaining survivors of the Royal Navy Dunkirk rescue operation that saw the evacuation of thousands of trapped allied soldiers during the second world war. As a leading seaman, aged 23, he spent six days and six nights under heavy bombardment on the beach, marshalling troops off the sands and on to the flotilla of little ships during Operation Dynamo, between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

Viner was dispatched from Chatham in Kent aboard HMS Esk, one of four destroyers sent to rescue British, Belgian and French troops cut off and surrounded by the German army. His first orders were, with three others, to row the ship’s whaler to the beach and bring back soldiers. It was back-breaking work, as they picked up 15 soldiers, complete with kit, on each journey. After the fourth, his colleague noticed: “Vic, you’ve got blood all over your hands.” Both men had. “You’ve heard the expression sweated blood. Well we did. Literally sweated blood due to the rowing,” Viner recalled.

He was then tasked as a “beach master”, stationed at Bray-Dunes, just north-east of Dunkirk, with instructions to “create order out of chaos”, and was responsible for boarding on to the little ships men who were trapped, terrified, short of food and water and under constant attack from dive bombers. Some had been driven out of their minds entirely, walking into the sea to what looked like certain death.

Viner, in charge of a column of soldiers as the enemy flew over, was provided with a revolver. It was for anyone who tried to jump the queue, he was instructed. He drew it three times but never fired. Amid the chaos he tried to seek out his 25-year-old brother, Albert, who had been dispatched aboard HMS Grenade to help with the same effort. Just as he got to the harbour, “down came 12 Stukas” straight on to his brother’s ship, sinking it. The crew was picked up by the Thames paddle-steamer MV Crested Eagle, then it too was bombed, its fuel igniting a blaze that claimed more than 300 lives. On 29 May, Viner watched the inferno from the beach, not realising his brother was on board. “He survived one ship only to be killed on the next one,” he said later.

Viner remained on the beach for six days before the blast of a bomb from a Stuka dive bomber blew him into the water, knocking him unconscious. When he regained consciousness he still had on his tin hat and trousers, but no jacket. He had no memory of getting back to Britain.

Viner was born in Gillingham, Kent, the son of Albert, a fleet master at arms in the Royal Navy and later a foreman builder, and his wife, Ethel (nee Scutt). He joined the Royal Navy in 1933, and was part of the Australian squadron that served in the Mediterranean when Benito Mussolini launched his assault on Abyssinia in 1935. He was later posted to the China fleet, but came back to Britain to undertake extra training in underwater weapons and mine disposal shortly before Dunkirk. He married Winnie Simpson on 11 May 1940, two weeks before Operation Dynamo.

After recovering from Dunkirk, Viner was sent almost immediately to Cherbourg as part of a demolition party. He spent the remainder of the war on Atlantic convoy duties, and left the navy in 1947. He then installed tele- phones for the General Post Office and spent many years working as a quality inspector for an electrical firm in Dorking, Surrey. His final job consisted of working for the finance department of Surrey county council.

Only in his later years did Viner open up significantly about his war- time experiences, after answering an advertisement in 2009 by the Royal British Legion for Dunkirk veterans. He went on to become an active and significant member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (ADLS).

Ian Gilbert, past commodore of the ADLS, said Viner was thought to be the last known survivor of the Royal Navy’s “beach masters” team and the last surviving Royal Navy veteran to have taken part in Operation Dynamo. Last year, aged 98, Viner was guest of honour at a 75th anniversary service on the sands at Zuydcoote beach, not far from the rusted wreck of the MV Crested Eagle.

He contributed to several documentaries and historical works about Dunkirk, including BBC2’s Little Ships documentary, presented by Dan Snow, and the Imperial War Museum’s eyewitness video archive. He recently met the film director Christopher Nolan, who is making a film based on the Dunkirk evacuations, to share his memories.

His passion lay in informing children of his experiences and he was well known in Dorking, talking to schools, in local clubs and attending remembrance events. He was very keen for people to remember and to understand what happened.

Winnie died in 2010. He is survived by their son and daughter.

Harold Victor Viner, Dunkirk veteran, born 21 March 1917 died 29 September 2016


An Interesting Angle: The Nightmarish Reality of the “Miracle” of Dunkirk

Operation Dynamo or the “Miracle of Dunkirk” lasted almost ten days (May 26 to June 4, 1940) but had incredible results. The Allies tried to rescue their troops who were cut off after the German attack during the Battle of France.

The British Expeditionary Force had been sent there to help defend the country, but the Wehrmacht had succeeded in trapping its opponents along the northern coast of France by May 21.

The British commander, General Viscount Gort, immediately began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, which was the closest port. In Dunkirk, Allied forces constructed defensive works and tried to hold up their enemies. Gradually, many ships arrived in the port to evacuate it. A total of 338,226 men were rescued, which made Churchill very happy.

British Troops await evacuation at Dunkirk, 1940

The British Prime Minister is quoted as saying: “The safe homecoming of a quarter of a million men, the flower of our Army, was a milestone in our pilgrimage through years of defeat (…). Their joy at being once again united with their families did not overcome a stern desire to engage the enemy at the earliest moment.

British Cruiser Mk IV Cruiser Tank in Blangy, France 1940

Those who had actually fought the Germans in the field had the belief that, given a fair chance, they could beat them. Their morale was high, and they rejoined their regiments and batteries with alacrity” (Churchill, 295).

But was it true? Were the ordinary soldiers capable of fighting again so quickly?

Sir Winston Churchill in 1942

Arriving in Dover or Ramsgate, many of them faced a strange experience. As they got on trains and moved northwards, they met a crowd cheering their return.

Some of them felt shame. They did not believe that they were “Dunkirk heroes,” but “useless men” who had not beaten their enemies. People gave them gifts, and some soldiers took this as evidence of their lack of courage.

Dunkirk rescued French troops disembarking in England (1940). Screenhot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer.

For other soldiers, it was quite tough to realize what had happened in France. As they got home, they had nightmares. Sometimes, when they woke up at midnight, they were taking up fighting positions.

Such nightmares went on for many years and, in some cases, for the rest of their lives. Clearly, these soldiers faced a plethora of troubles in their daily lives, and their recovery was far from easy.

Evacuated troops arrive in Dover

In conclusion, Operation Dynamo was a Churchill victory. His army was now free to continue fighting and defending their homeland.

However, a lot of men who survived the evacuation of Dunkirk faced mental health problems: not only nightmares, but they also developed strange phobias as well as feeling isolated and ashamed.

Cruiser Tank A13 Mk I at Dunkirk in 1940

So it was that there were two different faces of battle. From the one side, the leadership victory from the other side, the defeat of the ordinary soldier. British forces were successful only in one thing: their evacuation from Dunkirk.

However, France was lost and the Nazis were dominant in the largest part of Europe. That was a fact that no one could forget. The British Prime Minister and his staff had a lot of work ahead of them in order to revive the army.

More photos:

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.

French troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive in the UK.

Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation.

The BEF evacuating Dunkirk, France between May and June 1940

British soldiers boarding a train during evacuation from Dunkirk, 1940.

French POWs being led away from the battlefield by the German army in May 1940.

Dunkirk 1940 Men of the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940.


Captain William Tennant stood on the deck of the Wolfhound, grimily observing the progress of a German air raid as his ship approached Dunkirk. The port city in the northeast corner of France, which was not far from the Belgian border, was being brutally pulverized before his eyes. Bombs detonated, sending up fountains of smoke and debris, smashing buildings, and killing and wounding French civilians unlucky enough to be on the scene.

Fires erupted from different parts of the stricken city, merging until the whole port seemed engulfed in flames. But it was the burning oil tanks, hit earlier in the day, that commanded the most attention. Great columns of acrid smoke rose into the sky, the black and choking clouds so thick they obscured the normal blue of a bright spring day. It seemed a funeral pyre of British hopes, mocking their plans to escape the German juggernaut.

Tennant was on a special assignment, a mission that might well decide the outcome of World War II. The British and a portion of their French allies were trapped by superior German forces and faced with annihilation or capture. If they escaped, then the British Army would survive to fight another day. If not, well, Tennant was not going to waste his time on defeatist speculation. He had a job to do, and he meant to do it well. It was May 27, 1940, and Operation Dynamo, the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force, was shifting into high gear.

British Captain William Tennant was entrusted with rescuing the British army from Dunkirk.

Tennant officially was senior naval officer ashore, ordered by his superior, Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, to supervise the evacuation and coordinate all the elements that were needed to achieve that end. Originally Dunkirk seemed like a perfect embarkation point. There were no less than seven docking basins, five miles of quays, and 115 acres of docks and warehouses. Pouring over maps and other related documents with his staff, one of Tennant’s main concerns was turnaround time. The challenge was to figure out how destroyers and other craft could nose into the quays, fill with troops, and depart fast enough for other ships to quickly take their place.

But in his mind’s eye he could see those plans going up in smoke, just as surely as the hoped-for quays and docks were blazing and sending their own black coils into the heavens. Tennant was accompanied by a dozen officers and 150 ratings. Since Wolfhound was an obvious target the shore party was landed and dispersed.

Tennant himself set out for the British command post. What was normally a 10-minute walk was a nightmarish hour-long journey through rubble-filled streets. Downed trolley wires festooned the avenues, burned-out vehicles were everywhere, and corpses of both British soldiers and French civilians sprawled about like bloodied rag dolls. A kind of thick, smoky haze enveloped everyone and everything, reminders of the oil fires that still blazed fiercely.

The Royal Navy officer finally arrived at Bastion 32, an earth-covered bunker that served as British headquarters in Dunkirk. He was greeted by Commander Harold Henderson, the British naval liaison officer, and representatives of the British Army. But there was one question that must have been paramount in his mind: How long would he have to do the job? In other words, how long would it be before the Germans arrived? The answer was swift and discouraging: 24 to 36 hours.

The task before him seemed impossible, but Tennant was a professional who was determined to do his duty to the best of his ability. The coming days would determine not only the course of the war but the fate of Britain itself.

The Dunkirk crisis began on May 10 when the Germans unleashed their blitzkrieg attack in the west. The operation, code-named Fall Gelb (Case Yellow), had two distinct phases. General Fodor Von Bock’s Army Group A, which totaled 29 divisions, suddenly thrust into Holland and Belgium. To the Allies, these moves were reminiscent of the old Schlieffen plan used the early weeks of the World War I. Although Holland’s neutrality was not violated in 1914, in other respects it looked as if the Germans were attempting to repeat history by thrusting into Belgium and turning south into northern France.

The Allies countered with a lackluster effort known as Plan D. In this scenario, the BEF and the French First and Seventh Armies would advance to Belgium’s River Dyle and dig in on its left bank. The Dyle was a good defensive position and would be an effective deterrent to any German attempts to move south.

The relatively weak French Second and Ninth Armies were posted farther to the southeast in the heavily forested Ardennes region. The area was thought to be safe because the densely forested hills and deep ravines were considered poor country for tanks. South of the Ardennes was the vaunted Maginot Line, a formidable, at least on paper, series of concrete and steel fortifications. It was manned by 400,000 first-rate troops. France had been bled white by World War I, and over time there was a misplaced faith in big guns and fixed fortifications, an attitude described as the “Maginot mentality.”

But the Germans had no intention of repeating 1914, nor were they going to waste lives trying to smash their way through an impregnable Maginot Line. Army Group A’s descent on Holland and Belgium was in part a ruse, diverting Allied attention from the main German thrust through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes. If all went well, the 45 divisions of General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A would punch through the Ardennes, cross the Meuse River, then drive to the sea.

If the Germans managed to get to the sea, they would effectively drive a wedge between the BEF and the First French Army in the north and French forces operating south of the Somme River. A panzer corridor could widen, making it harder for the separated Allied armies to reunite. At the same time, the BEF, northern French units, and possibly the Belgian Army would be trapped between Group A’s panzer “hammer” and Group B’s formidable “anvil.” The German planners believed the two powerful army groups could destroy the Allied forces.

Major General Erwin Rommel’s Seventh Panzer Division rolls toward the sea during the Battle of France in the spring of 1940. Allied counterattacks failed to stop the German juggernaut.

There were no fewer than seven panzer divisions with Rundstedt’s Army Group A, a veritable mailed fist of 1,800 tanks. Maj. Gen. Erwin Rommel, a commander who would later gain immortality in North Africa and earn the sobriquet Desert Fox, commanded the Seventh Panzer Division. But as events unfolded it was Lt. Gen. Heinz Guderian who took center stage in this effort. Guderian commanded the XIX Panzer Corps, consisting of the 1st, 2nd, and 10th Panzer Divisions, and had long been a proponent of armored warfare.

From the first the Germans achieved a stunning success. Group A’s panzers successfully negotiated the forested slopes and rocky defiles of the Ardennes. They then advanced to the Meuse River where they established a bridgehead. Taken by surprise, the French tried to dislodge the intruders and throw them back across the river, but their attacks were half-hearted at best and ham-fisted at worst.

Some French soldiers fought courageously, but others were so demoralized they surrendered at the first opportunity or simply took to their heels. French generals, fossilized in their military thinking and often ancient in body, simply could not cope with this new style of rapid warfare. General Alphonse Joseph Georges, for example, was commander of the northeast sector, and technically the BEF was under his control. When news came of the German breakthrough he literally collapsed into a chair and began weeping uncontrollably.

Guderian and his tanks were having a field day opposition was either nonexistent or simply melted away. The French Ninth and Second Armies were pummeled unmercifully until they were effectively destroyed. General Edouard Ruby, deputy chief of staff of Second Army, movingly described the bombing by high-level German Dornier 17s and dive-bombing Stuka Ju-87s as nightmarish. Then, too, there was the terror of continued panzer assaults, with hulking metal monsters belching shells, their treads steamrolling over defensive positions with almost scornful ease.

Thousands of French soldiers shuffled to the rear as prisoners of war. Many of them were dazed automatons, their nerves shattered by relentless Stuka attacks and the sheer magnitude of their defeat. Scarcely glancing at these pitiful poilus, the German tanks sped on, at one point covering 40 miles in four days.

General John Vereker, 6th Lord Gort, was the commander in chief of the BEF. A no-nonsense professional, he was no military genius but was competent and very protective of Britain’s only field army. Communications between Gort and his French allies had almost entirely broken down. It was partly because of the rapidity of the German advance, and partly due to the sheer stupidity of the French high command.

When the war broke out in 1939, the French high command rejected the use of radio communication. Radio messages could be easily intercepted by the enemy, or so the argument ran. The French placed their faith in telephone communication, stringing lines with cheerful abandon, or using civilian circuits when possible. The British had little say in the matter after all, they had only 10 divisions, the French 90 divisions.

But when the German blitzkrieg struck, all dissolved into chaos. The Germans cut lines, but overworked signalmen just could not keep up with the ever-changing situation. Roads were clogged with retreating units and fleeing civilians, making their task that much harder. At one stage Gort’s headquarters moved seven times in 10 days.

The only way to keep communications open was by personal visit or by motorcycle dispatch rider. Maj. Gen. Bernard Montgomery, who would gain later fame defeating Rommel in North Africa, had his own unique way of sending messages. At the time Montgomery was commander of the BEF’s Third Division. Riding in his staff car, he would place a message on the end of his walking stick and poke the stick out the window. Sergeant Arthur Elkin would roar up on his motorcycle, grab the message, and speed down the country lanes in search of the addressee. It was no easy task.

A British soldier moves to the battlefront past refugees headed the other way.

Gort had his first real inkling of the true situation when General Georges Billotte, commander of the French First Army Group, visited his command post at Wahagnies, a small town south of Lille. Billotte was normally an ebullient man, but now he looked exhausted and depressed. He spread a map out and explained that no fewer than nine panzer divisions had broken through at the Ardennes and were even then sweeping westward. Worse still, the French had nothing to stop them.

Although there is no specific evidence of the fact, Gort probably started thinking about withdrawing the BEF to the Channel ports about this time. A German trap was closing, and half-hearted French talk about countermeasures was not going to assuage his growing concern. Some of Gort’s senior staff began to plan for just such an operation in the early morning hours of May 19.

Back in London, Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden was dumbfounded when he heard the news that Gort might want to evacuate. Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir Edmund Ironside also was not too pleased. It seemed to Ironside like alarmist rubbish. In any case, why couldn’t the BEF escape the closing trap by driving south to the Somme and joining the French forces that were supposedly gathering there?

Winston Churchill, Britain’s new prime minister, tended to agree with Ironside. Churchill’s fighting spirit was aroused. But if the BEF managed to link up with the French forces south of the Somme, the Allies might then mount a counteroffensive and turn the tables on the rampaging Germans.

But Churchill was being overly optimistic. Gort knew the situation better than London. Most of the BEF was still engaged with German Army Group B to the east. For that reason, they could not just suddenly shift and charge direction without serious consequences. If they tried to move south, the Germans would have a golden opportunity to pounce on their flank and rear.

Ironside travelled to France to personally convey Churchill’s opinion to the BEF commander. The entire War Cabinet in London also concurred with the prime minister. Gort respectfully stood his ground, explaining how most of the BEF was fighting to the east. Ironside conceded the point but suggested a compromise: why not use Gort’s two reserve divisions for a drive south? The French agreed to support the effort with some light mechanized units.

Gort agreed to the proposal. He was sure the effort would be stillborn, but he was a good soldier who was not about to defy the prime minister and seemingly half the British government. Accordingly, a mixed force of infantry and tanks, labeled Frankforce after their commander, Maj. Gen. H.E. Franklyn, was assigned to attempt a breakthrough to the south.

The French also had a new commander in chief, General Maxime Weygand. The septuagenarian had a youthful energy and sunny optimism that dispelled the defeatist gloom that had sunk French headquarters into the depths of despair. Weygand impressed Churchill, grandly unveiling a Weygand Plan that envisioned eight British and French divisions, aided by Belgian cavalry, sweeping southwest to link up with French forces farther south.

But the Weygand Plan was based in fantasy, not reality. The situation was deteriorating rapidly, with Allied forces scattered, fully engaged elsewhere, or simply nonexistent. Weygand grandly issued order after order, paper salvos that might boost morale but did little to counter the German threat. General Order No 1, for example, directed northern armies to “prevent the Germans from reaching the sea,” but in point of fact they were already there and had been for several days.

In the meantime, Gort dutifully proceeded with his promised attack. Frankforce was a hodgepodge, hastily assembled collection of tanks, infantry, field and antitank guns, and motorcycle reconnaissance platoons. The cutting edge of the offensive was provided by 58 Mk1 and 16 Mk II Matilda tanks. The British Matilda was one of the best Allied tanks of the early years of the war. It featured armor up to three inches thick, and mounted a high-velocity 2-pounder gun.

The dejected Allies fought with determination against the advancing Germans, but the Nazis enjoyed substantial advantages.

The British Frankforce offensive began near Arras on May 21. It was spectacularly successful at first. Rommel’s Seventh Panzer Division was surprised and initially thrown into confusion by the sudden assault. Even Rommel himself, a man not prone to panic, thought he was being attacked by several divisions.

But perhaps the biggest surprise was the Mark II Matildas. The German 37mm gun, the standard Wehrmacht antitank weapon, was completely ineffective against the Matildas. It was said that one Matilda actually took 14 direct hits and yet emerged undamaged. On a literal roll, the British tanks advanced 10 miles before the Germans rallied and stopped the attack.

The British offensive was halted by a variety of factors. French support turned out to be weak or nonexistent. The British tanks had outdistanced their infantry and artillery support. But the Germans discovered they, too, had a surprise weapon. The 88mm antiaircraft guns turned out to be superb antitank weapons as well. The 88s of the German 23rd Flak Regiment were particularly effective against the British armor at Arras.

The British effort at Arras had been a forlorn hope. It was now Gort’s prime mission to save Britain’s field army. Soon contingency plans for the evacuation of the BEF were well in hand. By May 26, the BEF and elements of the French First Army were being squeezed into an ever-narrowing corridor 60 miles deep and 25 miles wide Most of the British were in the vicinity of Lille, 43 miles from Dunkirk the French were farther south.

Luckily, British government officials, including Churchill, finally were starting to come to their senses. They had been mesmerized by hopes of victory and Weygand’s elaborate fantasies, but now the spell was broken. The BEF had to be evacuated or it faced sure annihilation. Churchill sincerely insisted that, as far as humanly possible, any trapped French troops also be rescued.

It was with a growing sense of urgency that Operation Dynamo was born. It officially began with the arrival of Mona’s Isle, a British troop transport, the evening of May 26-27. Luckily Ramsey, operating from his headquarters at Dover, had a wide array of resources at his disposal, including 39 destroyers, 38 destroyer escorts, 69 minesweepers, and a host of other naval craft.

Tennant, Ramsey’s senior naval officer ashore, should see that the waters immediately in from of the Dunkirk beaches were too shallow for normal seagoing vessels. Even small craft could not get any closer than about 100 yards from shore, so the soldiers would have to wade out to their rescuers. Once the Tommies were aboard, the small boats would deliver them to the larger ships and then go back for another load.

Approximately 300 “little ships,” many of them scarcely more than boats, answered the call to duty. Every imaginable type of craft was used if it could float, it passed muster. There were motorboats, sloops, ferries, barges, yachts, and fishing boats. Most of the civilians taking part were fishermen, but incredibly one boat was manned by teenage Sea Scouts.

The Germans squeezed the Allies into a small pocket during the Battle of France. The British deployed vessels of all sizes to get their troops to the safety of English shores.

But this shuttle system was taking too long in practice. Necessity is the mother of invention, and Tennant started thing about the moles. The West Mole was unusable because it was connected to the oil terminal and that facility was in flames. The East Mole, 1,600 feet long, was connected to the beaches by a narrow causeway. But the mole was a breakwater, designed to protect the port from raging seas. It was not intended to serve as a dock for shipping.

Tennant experimented a little, and it was found that ocean-going ships could indeed use the mole as a loading dock. The evacuation process was considerably accelerated, and more men could now be taken away.

In the meantime, land evacuation plans were firming up. With French cooperation, a defensive perimeter was established around Dunkirk and its immediate environs, a bridgehead that protected the port during the BEF’s evacuation. The generally marshy nature of the terrain helped the defenders, and man-made waterways like the Berg Canal were incorporated into the overall plan. Dikes were opened in certain areas, transforming these quagmires into shallow seas.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert Bridgeman, 2nd Viscount Bridgeman, was responsible for planning the perimeter. Methodical, clear-sighted, and hard working, he was so absorbed in his task that he was subsisting mainly on chocolate and whiskey. The perimeter would be about 30 miles wide and up to seven miles deep.

To buy time, strongpoints were established to slow the German advance. Gort had established a Canal Line that used the Aa Canal and La Basee Canal to guard the forward approaches to Dunkirk. British units held these strongpoints for as long as possible, fighting with dogged determination and stubborn courage, until they were forced to withdraw yet again.

The Dorset Regiment was holding a strongpoint at Festubert when it became clear that it was cut off and virtually surrounded. When they received orders to withdraw, they waited until nightfall to make the attempt. Colonel E.L. Stevenson, the battalion commander, had no maps but did possess a compass. His party included about 250 Dorsets and a ragtag group of odds and sods who had lost their units.

It was a pitch black even the stars were shrouded by menacing dark clouds. At one point, Stephenson found himself confronted with a German sergeant who was out inspecting Wehrmacht outposts. Quickly drawing his pistol, he coolly killed the sergeant with one well-placed shot and motioned for the men to continue their trek.

Groping their way through the darkness, stumbling forward as best they could, the Dorsets suddenly came upon a road that barred their way. They had to cross this road to gain Allied lines, but at the moment it was filled with a convoy of German tanks and support vehicles rolling their way to some unknown destination. It looked like an entire panzer division was on the move, the Germans so confident they had their headlights blazing.

Stephenson and his men hunkered down in the shadows, hoping for a chance to cross the road. After about an hour the last vehicle passed, and the coast was clear. But the respite was temporary because another convoy of Germans could be heard rumbling up the road. The Dorsets scrambled across the road and hid in the underbrush just as the Germans came into view.

But the Dorsets’ odyssey was only just beginning. Guided by Stephenson’s trusty compass, they waded waist-deep through ditches stinking with garbage, groped though plowed fields, and crossed a wide and deep canal twice. They reached Allied lines around 5 am, dirty and exhausted, but triumphant.

The last few days had been a nightmare for the Allies, but the victorious Germans, perhaps a bit stunned by their own successes, were having their own set of troubles. Guderian’s panzers pushed on, with the Sambre River on their northern flank and the Somme on their left. On May 20 German tanks reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme, to all intents and purposes fulfilling their original mission. They had reached the sea and were the tip of huge panzer corridor that divided the First French Army and the BEF from French forces south of the Somme.

German panzers rumbled past bewildered French peasants, their treads kicking up clouds of dust plumes. They were followed by truckloads of motorized infantry, bronzed young soldiers who seemed to be in high spirits.

But now that they were on the coast, what would be the next course of action? At 8 am on May 22, the German high command sent a message in code Abmarche Nord. The plan now was to thrust north, taking the Channel ports and blocking the BEF’s last escape route. The Second Panzer Division would head for Boulogne, the Tenth Panzer Division for Calais, and the First Panzer Division for Dunkirk.

With little time to spare, the British showed great ingenuity in evacuating their troops for example, oceangoing ships loaded troops directly from the East Mole.

Lieutenant General Friedrich Kirchner’s 1st Division tanks set out around 11 am on May 23. Dunkirk was 38 miles to the northeast. By 8 pm that same day, advance units reached the Aa Canal, which was only 12 miles from Dunkirk. The waterway was part of Gort’s advance Canal Line defense, but at the moment there were relatively few Allied troops in the area to man it. Although Guderian and his advance panzer crews were in a state of euphoria, some senior officers were not so happy.

To Rundstedt, the long panzer corridor was far too vulnerable to counterattack. The panzers and motorized infantry were too far ahead of the unglamorous but vital regular infantry. It was the foot-slogging regular infantry what would shore up the corridor’s long and vulnerable flanks, not seemingly thin as an eggshell and liable to break under a determined Allied counterthrust.

The British attack at Arras had badly scared the Germans, who feared the Allies might be planning an even more powerful counterattack. The Dunkirk area was not really suitable for armor, which was something everyone knew. What is more, a few panzer units were down to 50 percent strength. Some were victims of enemy action, but many more were simply worn out and in need of maintenance.

Rundstedt ordered the panzers to halt, a decision that was supported by Fourth Army commander General Guenther von Kluge. Hitler concurred he was becoming nervous about the French coastal areas, which he had known firsthand as a soldier in World War I. The land was boggy and cut by numerous canals and certainly not ideal for armor.

The action at Arras might have been abortive, but it did manage to scare the Germans into a mood of excessive caution. Suppose the Allies were planning a new thrust, a counterattack even greater than the one at Arras? It was a possibility that haunted both Hitler and his senior officers.

Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring now put in his bid for glory. He told the Führer his aircraft could finish off the British, in effect driving them into the sea. Hitler gave Göring the green light in part because his eyes were gazing elsewhere. The panzers still had to defeat the French forces south of the Somme. As for Paris, the prize that had eluded the Germans in World War I, the objective seemed well within Hitler’s grasp.

But after two days Göring’s assurances were shown to be empty bombast. The BEF was far from destroyed, so the Führer lifted the halt order. The panzers renewed the advance on the afternoon of May 26, but the Allies had been given two precious days to continue the evacuation.

Time was running out if the BEF was going to pull off a successful withdrawal. The Belgian Army capitulated on the night of May 27, a situation the Germans were bound to exploit. King Leopold III of the Belgians had protested that his army could do no more, but the surrender left the BEF’s flank dangerously open. For a time, only German uncertainty about a renewed advance prevented a British disaster.

British soldiers wade out to a ship at Dunkirk.

While Hitler and his generals debated, battered units of the BEF continued to arrive at Dunkirk. They had trekked for miles, their progress impeded by roads choked with fleeing refugee civilians. The Luftwaffe was having a field day, with German planes strafing civilian and soldier alike with cheerful abandon. Rations were scanty, and little food was found along the way. Fatigue was etched in their faces, and their battledress was dirty and soaked with sweat, but somehow they managed to put one foot in front of the other by sheer force of will.

Bridgeman had done his work well. To avoid unnecessary confusion, the three corps of the BEF were assigned specific debarkation sectors. III Corps would head for the beaches at Malo-les-Bains, a suburb of Dunkirk. I Corps would march to Bray-Dunes, which was six miles further east. II Corps was told to assemble at La Panne, which was just across the Belgian border.

BEF headquarters was at La Panne. The BEF had selected that location for its headquarters because it was the site of a telephone cable with a direct link to England. Lt. Gen. Sir Ronald Adam set up shop in the Maire, or town hall, of the seaside resort.

The bone-weary Tommies passed through the defense perimeter with a sense of relief, then entered a world that must have seemed almost surreal under the circumstances. Malo-les-Bains and the other towns were peacetime seaside resorts, where many French and Belgians had enjoyed summer holidays. There were bandstands where music once played, and carrousels where laughing children had ridden elaborately carved horses. Beach chairs lay scattered about and the colorful cafés still had stocks of refreshments.

The British soldiers seemed happy to be in this vacation spot and were going to make the most of it while they waited for deliverance. Dunkirk itself still blazed, the raging oil-fueled fires sending up columns of billowing smoke 13,000 feet into the air, but most of the troops were on the flat, sandy beaches that stretched toward the Belgian border.

The beach at Dunkirk is packed with troops awaiting evacuation. As the threat of capture increased, the British altered their evacuation tactics.

German Stukas would appear occasionally, but after the terrors of the past weeks, some Tommies considered them more nuisances than objects of terror. The soldiers played games and swam, and some threw away their Enfield rifles and wandered aimlessly across the sands. Still others pilfered French wines and liquor and sat around the cafés chatting and drinking like tourists on holiday. One man even stripped to his shorts and sunbathed, contentedly reading a novel.

At times the German bombardment was more than just a nuisance, but the British had almost no antiaircraft guns because of a monumental mix up. In the original orders, spare gunners were to go to the beach, a directive that included wounded or incapacitated men. Maj. Gen. Henry Martin somehow misunderstood, thinking it meant that all gunners were to be evacuated.

Since all gunners were to leave, or so he thought, Martin ordered all his 3.7-inch artillery pieces to be destroyed, lest they fall into enemy hands. When Martin proudly reported to Adam that “all antiaircraft guns have been spiked,” the latter was incredulous. This was stupidity beyond words. Baffled and weary, Adam merely replied, “You fool, go away.”

Some Tommies complained that they saw little or nothing of the Royal Air Force. The RAF did its best, bombing enemy positions and sending up fighters during the daylight hours. At the end of Operation Dynamo, the RAF had lost 177 aircraft while the Germans lost 240. This was a foretaste of the Battle of Britain for the Germans, who were meeting an aerial foe equal, or in some cases, superior to them in equipment and personnel for the first time.

A line of evacuees snakes through from the beach into the surf at Dunkirk. The British pressed 300 “little ships” into service to help rescue the thousands awaiting evacuation.

The English Channel, which is notorious for being capricious, “cooperated” with the British to a very remarkable degree. For nine crucial days it was flat calm, more like a millpond than a storm-swept waterway. This is not to say that passage to England was trouble free. Each route was in some way exposed to direct German attack or German-created hazards. Route Z was the shortest route, but it was within range of German batteries at Calais. Route X, to the southeast, avoided German artillery but was subject to shoals and mines. Route Y, which was 100 miles in a long, circuitous path, was subject to German air attack.

When their time came the British soldiers peacefully queued in long lines and walked into the surf. Arthur Divine, a civilian who was manning one of the little ships, remembered the British soldiers queuing up, “the lines of men wearily and sleepily staggering across the beach from the dunes to the shallows, falling into little boats, great columns of men thrust out into the water among bomb and shell splashes.”

“The foremost ranks were shoulder deep [in the water], moving forward under the command of young subalterns, themselves with their heads just above water,” said Divine. The BEF had no choice but to abandon all their equipment and vehicles, but some of the army trucks performed a final but nevertheless vital service. They were driven into the shallows and lashed together to form improvised jetties.

British troops arriving in Dover, England, receive a warm welcome from their fellow countrymen.

The evacuation would not have been possible without the sacrifice of British and French units outside the immediate Dunkirk region. Surrounded and under siege, the bulk of the French First Army held out at Lille until May 30. In the process, they managed to tie up no fewer than six German divisions. The First Army fought so well that the Germans granted them the full honors of war, including marching out into captivity preceded by a band playing lively martial airs.

The British garrison at Calais also performed heroically, although historians debate to what extent their defense held up the German advance. The Calais Force was led by Brig. Gen. Claude Nicholson and 4,000 men. Nicholson’s command included some well-trained regulars, the King’s Royal Rifle Brigade and 1st Rifle Brigade. There was also the 1st Queen Victoria’s Rifles and elements of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment

The Calais fortifications were outdated. The celebrated French engineer Vauban had designed some of the fortifications in the 17th century. Despite this defensive weakness, the garrison fought with great courage and tenacity for several days, but it finally succumbed to the enemy and surrendered on May 30. It probably bought some additional time for the evacuation process given the crisis situation, every little bit helped.

Operation Dynamo continued until June 4, when it was clear French rearguard defenses were finally crumbling. Tennant sent a laconic but succinct message back to England: The official totals were gratifying. No fewer than 338,226 men were evacuated of that number 139,000 were French. Earlier, more pessimistic estimates of the number of men rescued were as low as 45,000.

French prisoners await instructions from their German captors. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could not guarantee that all of the trapped French troops would be evacuated in time.

Great Britain was relieved that the BEF had escaped, but Churchill reminded the country, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” Still, the BEF was a professional core that future armies could be built upon. As one British newspaper put it, the deliverance at Dunkirk was a “bloody miracle.”

Comments

MAJ Frank Oxford Hayward, my father, was at Dunkirk. His unit, 13th/18th Royal Hussars, consisting of light tanks fought in the sustained rearguard action for the BEF. I have no precise details. Still trying to determine his exact role.
The recent film “Dunkirk” constitutes an excellent portrayal of the miraculous events affording the escape of some 344,000 troops. The military book “Dunkirk” authored by Joshua Levine, published by William Collins: 2017 is also an excellent read.
CAPT David L O Hayward (Retd)
Defense Analyst
Founder: China Research Team Australia (2003)

To David L O Howard: Capt Howard: I am 87 YO, just a young boy during WW2, and have had very little interest in the details of the big war. I just wanted you to know that I got chills when I read your comment about your father and the fact that I was in touch with the son of a participant of this great event. Thanks.

I am resting in the hospital after surgery. I asked a student nurse what Dunkirk was. This Seattle student said she had no idea.


Dunkirk – ‘Operation Dynamo’

The Dunkirk evacuation refers to the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between the 26 May and 4 June 1940. It was run by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey and was code-named ‘Operation Dynamo’ because it was run out of the old dynamo room at Dover Castle.

The evacuation was decided upon when British, French and Belgian soldiers were surrounded by two large German forces known as Army Group A and Army Group B. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the events in France ‘a colossal military disaster’, saying ‘the whole root and core and brain of the British Army’ had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ speech of 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ and consequently the evacuation became known as the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’

After the Germans had invaded Poland in September 1939, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to aid the defence of France. For months nothing happened and this period became known the ‘Phoney War’. However, Germany began their invasion through the Netherlands and Belgium on the 10 May 1940 with Army Group B and with a main Panzer thrust through the Ardennes. They rapidly reached the coach at Abbeville and by 21 May had trapped the BEF, the remains of the Belgian forces, and three French armies in an area along the northern coast of France. The commander of the BEF General Lord Gort (John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, pictured left), immediately saw that an evacuation across the Channel was the best course of action and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest location with good port facilities. It also had good beaches and was surrounded by canals which would act as a defence against the Germans. On 22 May 1940, a halt order was issued by the German High Command stopping the Panzers when they were within reach of Dunkirk. Many believe this order to be issued by Hitler when it was in fact issued by von Rundstedt who did not want his tanks to outrun the infantry and believed that they needed to rest for the coming battle of France. This halt order gave the trapped Allied forces time to construct defensive works and pull back large numbers of troops toward Dunkirk, to fight the Battle of Dunkirk. From 28 to 30 May 1940, the remaining 40,000 men of the once formidable French First Army fought a delaying action against seven German Divisions of which three were armoured.

Lord Gort had also put in place a number of stops. These were towns that would be occupied by battalions of the BEF and would slow the German advance. At the commune of Le Paradis on 27 May, soldiers of the 2nd Battalion Royal Norfolks became isolated. They defended a farm house until their ammunition ran out and then surrendered. The Germans they surrendered to were members of the SS Totenkopf Division. The Germans led them across a road to a field and then into a farm yard next to a barn wall (pictured left). At that point machine guns opened up on them. 97 troops were killed in this massacre but two survived, Privates Albert Pooley and William O’Callaghan. They gave evidence after the war at the trial of the SS officer, Fritz Knochlein who was hung for war crimes.

This was not the only massacre committed by the SS. At Wormhout on 28 May SS soldiers of the 1st SS Liebstandart SS Adolf Hitler Division put almost 100 British soldiers, mainly from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, into a barn and threw in stick grenades. They them began to shoot the survivors five at a time and finally open fire with machine guns into the barn. Some managed to escape but in total 80 soldiers were murdered.

On the first day of the evacuation only 7,669 men were rescued, but by the end of the eighth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats. This is largely due to Captain William Tennant. Tennat was sent to Dunkirk by Admiral Ramsey to organise the evacuation. As the ‘Senior Naval Officer’ he noticed the Eastern Mole, a wooden break water at the harbour and from here many of the troops were able to embark onto 39 British destroyers and other large ships.

Others troops had to wade out from the beaches and wait for hours in the shoulder-deep water before being ferried to the larger vessels off shore by their ‘whalers’. This was speeded up by the ‘little ships’ of Dunkirk. A flotilla of civilian pleasure craft manned by their owners and aided by naval personnel. They crossed the channel and ferried the waiting soldiers to the larger ships. Many other vessels took part. These included merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats. All were called into service for this emergency and their efforts saved an army which would go on the fight in North Africa, Italy and eventually on the beaches of Normandy when we launched the invasion of Western Europe.

The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and had to abandon nearly all of their tanks, vehicles, and other equipment. In his speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, Churchill reminded the country that ‘we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations’. The events at Dunkirk remain a prominent memory in the United Kingdom. But was it a miracle? A miracle is the act of divine intervention and certainly a number of things went in favour for the British. Firstly the ‘halt order’ and small vessels that helped liberate an army. However if there was an act of divine intervention it was the weather. For the entire period of the evacuation the channel was calm. In fact, a storm that was due to enter the English Channel swung north into the Irish Sea.


French involvement

Crucial time was bought by those covering the retreat. At Lille, the French 1st Army fought German forces to a standstill for four days, despite being hopelessly outnumbered and lacking any armour. The French forces forming a perimeter defence around Dunkirk were all either killed or captured.

British forces covering the retreat also paid a high price. Those who were not killed in the fighting became prisoners of war. But even that was no guarantee of safety. At the village of Le Paradis, 97 British troops who had surrendered were massacred by the SS. At least 200 Muslim soldiers of the French army met with the same fate.

Men of the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940. Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia

As the quays of Dunkirk had been destroyed, evacuation had to take place from the shore itself, justifying the foresight of the Admiralty to co-opt the small ships. Troops were transported by these small craft to larger vessels of the Royal Navy and French Navy under frequent harassment from the Luftwaffe. Remarkably, however, Hitler was persuaded to halt the advance on land in favour of air strikes against the men on the beaches. The limitations of isolated air operations and the deteriorating weather that reduced the number of sorties (missions) flown probably saved many British and French lives.

The BEF was rescued, but this was far from a victory. More than 50,000 men had been lost (killed, missing, or captured) and an enormous number of tanks, guns, and trucks had been left behind, too.


The Dunkirk Project

‘The picture will always remain sharp etched in my memory – the lines of men wearily and sleepily staggering across the beach from the dunes to the shallows, falling into little boats, great columns of men thrust out into the water among bomb and shell splashes. The foremost ranks were shoulder deep, moving forward under the command of young subalterns, themselves with their heads just above the little waves that rode in to the sand. As the front ranks were dragged aboard the boats, the rear ranks moved up, from ankle deep to knee deep, from knee deep to waist deep, until they, too, came to shoulder depth and their turn.’

(David Divine, Miracle at Dunkirk)

The docks at Dunquerque could now only be used by small vessels, as ships had been bombed and sunk within the Main Basin… Ships could still go alongside the wall in the tidal Basin, but the approaches to it were made almost impassable by the intense heat and the continuous bombing. There remained only the [wooden] East Pier, which… might well give way under the strain of several thousand tons butting against it… Since embarkation from the pier alone would not suffice to lift the numbers in time, it was planned that the men should get into boats upon the beaches and be ferried to ships anchored in the channel off the shore… All ships coming near the coast were bombed. The losses in men were very great in ships severe, and in boats enormous… No ship returned from the beach undamaged. Nothing but heroic industry and utter self-sacrifice kept the ships steadily plying to and fro.

(John Masefield, Nine Days Wonder)

The beach was one vast sea of bodies. I had never seen so much dejection. Soldiers felt that they had been left there. Some seemed to have given up, but personally I didn’t. There was one place I was going, and that was back to England. There was panicking, but most of us managed to keep our heads. One chap scrounged a tin of bully beef and laid it out like a picnic, tucked his napkin in, then apologised that he couldn’t supply the wine because the butler happened to be away that day.

(Corporal Henry Palmer, 1/7th Batallion, Queen’s Royal Regiment, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Sub-Lt Alfred Weaver had no sooner left Ramsgate than the Quijijana‘s engine caught fire dousing it with the extinguisher, Weaver ploughed on, but the minute he sighted Dunkirk the old yellow-funnelled pleasure launch began shipping water. Finding the bilge pump inoperative, Weaver and his crew had to bale desperately with their service caps. For the first time, Weaver saw the brass plate affixed to the bulwarks – ‘Licensed to ply between Chertsey and Teddington’ – and understood. That stretch of the river Thames, he knew, measured only fourteen miles.

(Richard Collier, from The War at Sea, ed. John Winton)

There they stood, lined up like a bus queue, right from the dunes, down the shore, to the water’s edge, and sometimes up to their waists beyond. They were as patient and orderly, too, as people in an ordinary bus queue. There were bombers overhead and artillary fire all around them. They were hungry and thirsty and dead-beat yet they kept in line, and no-one tried to steal a march on anyone else. Most of them even managed to summon up an occasional joke or wisecrack.

(Ian Hay, ‘one of the volunteers’, from The Battle of Flanders)

Dunkirk Phossil 68 by Charlie Bonallack. Image of troops on beach and dunes near Dunkirk May 1940 interpreted from photo in IWM archive and hand-painted on porcelain. For more, see Dunkirk Phossils by Charlie Bonallack.

‘The situation of the British and French Armies, now engaged in a most severe battle and beset on three sides from the air, is evidently extremely grave. The surrender of the Belgian Army in this manner adds appreciably to their grievous peril. But the troops are in good heart and are fighting with the utmost discipline and tenacity…

I expect to make a statement to the House on the general position when the result of the intense struggle now going on can be known and measured. This will not, perhaps be until the beginning of next week. Meanwhile, the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings.’

(Winston Churchill, House of Commons, 28th May 1940, quoted in AD Divine’s Dunkirk. Churchill’s promised statement to the House on 4th June 1940 is quoted on that day’s page – Beyond Dunkirk.)

The Massey Shaw, the London fireboat moored at Blackfriars Bridge was among the first to arrive at Bray Dunes, east of Dunkirk – she made three trips altogether. All the lifeboats went, 19 of them, the brand-new Guide of Dunkirk lifeboat, funded by the Girl Guides Association went straight from the boat builders the Rosa Woodd & Phyllis Lunn , the Shoreham lifeboat paid for by a private legacy made three trips to Dunkirk the Lord Southborough lifeboat went from Margate with a civilian crew, and RNLI lifeboats from all round the south and east coast and the estuary went, including Louise Stephens from Great Yarmouth and Aldeborough No 21 from the Isle of Wight. Lady Haig , a 27′ clinker elm and oak boat used as a privately owned lifeboat on the Goodwin Sands, the Thomas Kirk Wright , the Countess Wakefield and the Cecil and Lilian Philpott from Newhaven all brought many men home.

(Ships’ stories from several sources including the website of the Association of Little Ships of Dunkirk. More little ships’ stories throughout the nine days, and more from the Massey Shaw tomorrow 29th May)

On the second night we went in, there was order. There was an officer at the head and he called out, ‘Coxswain, how many do you want?’ And I would tell him, and he would count them off. Any wounded they would pass over their heads, and you’d take the wounded off first.

(Coxswain Thomas King, HMS Sharpshooter, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Sapper Alexander Graham King, ‘the mad hatter’ played his accordion in his top hat to entertain the waiting troops on the beaches for seven days before he joined a queue himself. We do like to be beside the seaside, presumably.

(From the Imperial War Museum archive)

Words came tumbling from Rhayader now. He must go to Dunkirk. A hundred miles across the Channel. A British army was trapped there on the sands, awaiting destruction at the hands of the advancing Germans. The port was in flames, the position hopeless. He had heard it in the village when he had gone for supplies. Men were putting out from Chelmbury in answer to the government’s call, every tug and fishing boat or power launch that could propel itself was heading across the Channel to haul the men off the beaches to the transports and destroyers that could not reach the shallows, to rescue as many as possible from the Germans’ fire.

He said: ‘Men are huddled on the beaches like hunted birds, Frith, like the wounded and hunted birds we used to find and bring to sanctuary… They need help, my dear, as our wild creatures have needed help, and that is why I must go. It is something that I can do.’

‘I’ll come with ‘ee, Philip.’

Rhyader shook his head. ‘Your place in the boat would cause a soldier to be left behind, and another, and another. I must go alone.’

(from The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico)

‘The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico with line drawings by Anne Linton, based on photographs in the IWM archive, some of which were published in John Masefield’s ‘The Nine Days Wonder’, also shown here

Pudge, a 1922 barge of the London and Rochester Trading Company went to Dunkirk by sail-power alone, its captain Bill Watson an old chap with gold earrings. Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird and Bluebird II both went, and Cabby, a wooden sailing barge that usually plied between the London docks and Whitstable. The New Britannic, a 1930 passenger boat from Ramsgate brought back 3000 men altogether the Medway Queen, a 1924 paddle-steamer was one of the first to arrive at Dunkirk, bringing back 7000 men over seven runs. She picked up John Hayworth of Rochester in mid-channel, surrounded by bodies from his wrecked ship, and she was one of the last ships involved in Operation Dynamo, bringing back some of the troops from the rear-guard, including BG Bonallack.

(Ships’ stories from several sources including the website of the Association of Little Ships of Dunkirk. More little ships’ stories throughout the nine days, and more on the Medway Queen on 3rd June – Towards the end.)

A megaphone asked if there was anyone who would volunteer to crew up a fishing boat, where some of the crew had been machine-gunned. This boy of 17 – who’d been sunk twice that day – volunteered immediately. He got cheered by the sailors and the soldiers who were on board… When we got alongside at Dunkirk and secured, a file of Scottish soldiers who were wearing khaki aprons over their kilts, came along led by an officer who’d got his arm in a sling. He called out to the bridge, ‘What part of France are you taking us to?’ One of our officers called back, ‘We’re taking you back to Dover.’ So he said, ‘Well, we’re not bloody well coming.’ They turned round and went back to continue their war with the Germans on their own. It was something remarkable.

(Ordinary Seaman Stanley Allen, aboard HMS Windsor, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Not all the volunteers had signed T124 – the form that made them Royal Naval Volunteers for a month – for they prized their independence too much. Some in any case were there despite official qualms: Stewardess Amy Goodrich, the only woman to be awarded a Dunkirk decoration, swore that so long as the nurses sailed in the hospital ship Dinard, she’d sail too.

(Richard Collier, from The War at Sea, ed. John Winton)

The following day, we left again, proceeded to Dunquerque and this time went alongside the pier to take off troops. We returned to Margate without incident [!] and landed the men on the beach.

(Captain G Johnson of the Royal Daffodil – more tomorrow and every day until 2nd June)

Under bombs and guns, men are carried across the Channel, not only by troop-ships, but by private yachts, river tugs, harbour life-boats and coastal pleasure steamers – the ‘Saucy Sallies’ of the summer season. The rescuers are not wholly male. ‘Blast my sex!’ cries a girl who offers her private yacht, to be told that men alone are eligible. The powers-that-be turn a blind eye in her direction, and suspect that she finds her way to Dunkirk.

(Vera Brittain, from England’s Hour)

It was now that we saw for the first time the bombing of the beaches. The first wave of early evening bombers roared over us towards Dunkirk, two miles away. We watched them circle and dive. Then sounded the thud, thud of the explosions.

By now we weren’t altogether unaware of what was happening on the beaches. Our progress along the road had been at a snail’s pace… we picked up a very good idea of the horrors going on at Dunkirk from scraps of conversation with the infantry.

“Have you heard that they’re gunning ’em as well as bombing ’em?”…

“Some have been on the beach three days before they got a boat…”

“Got safely on a destroyer and it was bombed. Most of ’em blown to bits…”

“I’ve just been told that they gun the fellows as they are swimming to the lifeboats…”

“What will it be like when we get there?…”

“Shall we get there?…”

“What d’you think our chance is?…”

(from Return via Dunkirk by Gun Buster, whose story continues tomorrow 29th May)

Embarkation from Dunkirk (detail), drawing by EC Turner for jacket of Gun Buster’s ‘Return via Dunkirk’ (published in 1940 by Hodder and Stoughton)

fromOde Written during the Battle of Dunkirk, May 1940

barked into my ear. Day and night

they shook the earth in which I cowered

detonations of steel and fire.

One of the dazed and disinherited

I crawled out of that mess

with two medals and a gift of blood-money.

No visible wounds to lick – only a resolve

to tell the truth without rhetoric

the truth about war and about men

involved in the indignities of war.

In the silence of the twilight

I listen, no longer apt in war

unable to distinguish between bombs and shells.

searchlights begin to waver in the sky

the air-planes throb invisibly above me

There is still a glow in the west

and Venus shines brightly over the wooded hill.

Unreal war! No single friend

links me with its immediacy.

It is a voice out of a cabinet

a printed sheet, and these faint reverberations

and sink into a deeper oblivion.

(Herbert Read, from The Hundred Years’ War, ed. Neil Astley, Bloodaxe 2014)

12 Responses to 󈬌th May 1940 – Out there”

Captain G Johnson of the Royal Daffodil (whose account of his repeated trips continues every day this week until 2nd June) can be heard on the BBC’s brilliant archive of voices from Dunkirk, looking back from the 1950’s in a brief recollection of his experiences at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/dunkirk/14323.shtml

Listening to the lunchtime news headlines on Radio 3, there was a report on the little ships sailing to Dunkirk today on a memorial trip – interesting that on such a short news they included this very English re-enactment of a historical event. Also the Navy sends ships… (What would foreigners think?!)
This suggests to me that Dunkirk is central to a certain view of Englishness, and maybe that seems more important than ever?

Bolshibeast wrote to The Dunkirk Project on the BBC history message board at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbhistory

When I saw the film of the flotilla of little ships at Dunkirk yesterday – in a grey, slightly pearly mist, with melancholy pipes sounding – it was impossible not to imagine them as phantom vessels, revenants. But, though their fragility and age are very poignant, it’s their survival that is most moving it seems to represent a continuing connection with that innocent, gallant moment now so far in the past.

Yesterday we left Captain O’Dell and his excursion steamer the Queen of the Channel, setting sail with his cargo of 700 men at nearly 3am:

As it was already getting light the troops were sent below, and shortly afterwards the vessel was attacked by a single aircraft. Three or four bombs straddled the ship one near miss broke her back. There were no casualties among the troops but the ship was sinking and, having lost another lifeboat in the attack, had insufficient boats for those on board…

The elderly coastal tramp Dorrien Rose had already had an eventful trip to France and was approaching the beaches to ground and load more troops. This cannot have been an appealing prospect as the many of the merchant ships who were already beached there were under constant attack. Captain W Thompson saw that the Queen of the Channel was in trouble and, after a short discussion with Captain O’Dell, went to her aid. To prevent either vessel listing dangerously, the ships were secured bow to bow and in thirty-five minutes the wounded, the troops and the equipment were transferred. With more than 1,000 people aboard (her usual crew being thirteen) the Dorrien Rose made for Dover, and arrived intact. After discharging the troops the coaster again set sail for Dunkirk.

(For the next instalment in her eventful journey, see the comments on 30th May – The view from the air)

I also meant to say – I do love that Vera Brittain quote about the women! We sometimes hear a bit about the nurses or WRENS, or even the women in the services on this side of the channel, and of course all the women waiting to hear news, or helping with the returning wounded, but not so much about women with their boats. But when you think of people like Joe Carstairs with her racing boats, there must have been quite a few sailing women who contributed in one way or another.

Wonderful project and so pleased that so much has been recorded for posterity. My mother was a nurse at one of the casualty clearing stations on the coast for the arrival of the wounded. I wish I had recorded her talking about it all…

savannalady added to the thread about the Little Ships on the BBC message board at http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/archers

There are more stories about women at Dunkirk (with or without official sanction like the hospital ship Dinard‘s stewardess Amy Goodrich) throughout the rest of the days’ pages, including Jo Kenny on the hospital ship St Julien tomorrow, and Lillian Gutteridge driving an ambulance full of patients on 3rd June – Towards the end.

When I see the river of stories, I instantly think about the shores of a coast seen from the seaside when the ships had approached the coast to pick up the men, back then in 1940. The artwork looks very good as well…

Thomas wrote about The Dunkirk Project on the BBC history message board at
http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/mbhistory

Interesting that the lifeboat Lord Southborough was there. The Lady Southborough, a mud hopper, brought back 476 from Dunkirk. A family affair!

AD Divine, in his terrific book Dunkirk gives some insights into the conditions the ships and little boats faced, not only when they reached Dunkirk, but on the way there and back:
‘It is difficult to conceive of the ordinary, routine troubles with which these ships had to deal. The first of these was … the almost fantastically perilous navigation. The channels were quite inadequate for the amount of traffic they had to carry… between some of the most dangerous shoals off the coast of Europe… – in peace time admirably marked, but now… some of the light buoys had been sunk by the enemy, some by ships swinging wildly to avoid aircraft attack,… [Furthermore] black smoke blew off the beaches,… and there were new wrecks in the fairways, ships sunk by bombing or torpedo or collision. All these the navigators had to contend with, and added to them was the constant stream of small craft moving at different speeds without lights. These little ships had to be avoided, and somehow for the most part they were. Without machine-gun fire, without shelling from the shore, without bombing, these things alone were enough to shake the nerve of the stoutest seaman.’

Slightly inland in Kent lay the small village of Detling, nestled amongst the hop fields its inhabitants were suddenly overwhelmed with the arrival of men and women in RAF Blue in May, 1940. Now on this day 28 May 1940 the Coastal Boys took flight, to fight from dawn to dusk yet their deeds remain to this day 75 years later largely forgotten.

Station Chapel Detling

This is the place they seldom come,
Unless the Orders of that Day
Command that officers, men and women
Parade to pray

And yet the carven lectern’s oak,
And altar-rail and pulpit-stand,
Were built upon this very camp
With cunning hand

Did Love direct the chisel’s stroke?
Devotion speed the busy saw?
Or was it that the C.O.’s word
Was simply law?

Or was it the cry
Lord, let the hunting Blenheim fighters go

I know not. Though that name denied,
My comrades every day have seen
Such golden deeds that might befit
The Nazarene

Poem By Unknown Member of No. 235 Squadron
RAF Coastal Command
Detling – 28 May 1940

For the surviving crews many would have less than four hours sleep before they’d meet Adolf ‘Dolfo’ Galland JG27 on 29 May 1940.

See 30th May 1940 – The view from the air for more about the airmen of various nationalities at Dunkirk in 1940 – including some discussion about their vital contribution – yet another aspect that is open to differing interpretations and opinions.

Adolf Galland, German Luftwaffe General and flying ace was ‘the most famous and dashing of the Luftwaffe aces […who] made his mark immediately in the Second World war by destroying three Belgian Hurricanes on the same day, a score he had pushed to 12 by the time of Dunkirk.’ (From John Crossland’s obituary of Adolf Galland in the Independent, 14th February 1996)


Watch the video: Battle of Dunkirk 1940 - Germany vs United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Netherlands HD