For ten days in the early summer of 1940 the course of world history hung in the balance.
The German Military Behemoth had swept all before it, France was on the verge of total defeat and the British Expeditionary Force had been cut off and forced to flee towards the Channel Ports. It seemed only a matter of time before it too was destroyed – only a miracle could save it.
Since September 1939, Britain and France had been at war with Germany but with the exception of a brief campaign in Norway and the continuing war at sea hostilities had yet to be joined. Instead, the two sides continued to eye each other nervously through the worst winter France had experienced in years. Meanwhile, left shivering and idle in their trenches the morale of the poorly paid French army came close to collapse.
France as a Nation had suffered terribly during the Great Depression and was politically divided between Left and Right. It was also just 21 years since the end of the First World War and the nightmare of the Western Front which had mostly been fought on French soil and there was no desire among the French people or the Military High Command to fight, and the longer the so-called Phoney War continued the less inclined to fight they became.
The British Expeditionary Force sent to assist them was small in number and ill-equipped to engage in a major conflict.
On 10 May 1940, the Germans launched a major offensive in the Low-Countries and Dutch and Belgian resistance quickly collapsed as the French and British advanced northwards to meet them, just as the Germans had anticipated.
On the 14 May, they struck again through the supposedly impassable Ardennes Forest in north-eastern France.
The French had done little to reinforce the Ardennes and now they were slow to react and within a few days the Germans had broken through. Army Group A quickly captured Sedan and soon after turned west and in no time the Panzer Divisions of Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian were sweeping through open country.
The French and British Armies that had advanced northwards to meet the German threat in the Low-Countries were now in danger of being cut-off.
The Allied Commander, the 67 year old Maurice Gamelin with his Headquarters at Vincennes which had no radio or telephone communications and was reliant upon dispatch riders for information and the delivering orders found, himself incapable of responding in time to the rapidly changing situation.
His strategy all along had been a defensive one based upon the Maginot Line fortifications being able to hold up any major German advance but now the Maginot Line had been by-passed and the war had now become one of movement.
By 20 May, the German spearhead had reached the coast, that same day Gamelin ordered the armies in northern France to attack south to link up with the bulk of the French forces. Just a few hours later he was sacked by the French Premier Paul Reynaud and The 67 year old Gamelin was now replaced by the 73 year old Maxine Weygand. He now wasted three days conferring with his senior Commanders before issuing exactly the same orders as Gamelin had.
Despite the success of a British attack at Arras that had temporarily checked the German advance other French counter-attacks had been largely ineffective and on 23 May, Lord Gort, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who had lost all faith in the French High Command, ignored the order to advance south and instead issued orders of his own – to retreat towards the Channel Ports.
The British fought a desperate rearguard action as their forces retreated towards Dunkirk, the only port still available for evacuation following the fall of Calais on 24 May. By the following day the First Panzer Division stood at the gates of Dunkirk awaiting the order to attack.
The British hastily established a defensive perimeter keeping open a narrow corridor for the retreating army.
With no realistic prospect of breaking out of the encirclement the final decision to attempt an evacuation of the army by sea was taken on 25 May.
The decision to abandon their French allies at a time when their country was in such peril was a tough one for the Prime Minister Winston Churchill to endorse but the future defence of the Home Islands took precedence and so Operation Dynamo was put into effect.
It was a monumental task and a flotilla of 39 Destroyers, 36 Minesweepers, and 77 Trawlers were hastily assembled for the task.
The docks at Dunkirk however had been destroyed and could not be used and the approaches to the beaches were too shallow for most of the ships to navigate without running aground and on the first full day of the evacuation only 7,669 troops were rescued.
It had been estimated by Admiral Bertram Ramsay, in overall command of operations, that a maximum of 45,000 troops could be expected to be rescued but at this rate not even this modest total would be achieved. On 27 May, the Ministry of Shipping ordered that all craft of shallow draft were to be requisitioned with attention focused on small fishing vessels, pleasure boats, private yachts, and motor launches, and 561 were taken into service.
They were expected to be manned by Royal Navy personnel and would be used to ferry troops to ships waiting offshore. Many boat-owners were reluctant to cede control of their craft whilst others fired by patriotic zeal insisted on sailing their boats to Dunkirk themselves.
Leaving from Ramsgate the small ships had to take a circuitous route to Dunkirk to avoid mines that doubled the distance they had to travel. They were also under constant air attack and threatened by German Motor Torpedo Boats. Even so, many of the small ships were determined not to act just as shuttles but to bring the troops home themselves. The Mersey Ferry Royal Daffodil, for example, made 5 trips and picked up 7,461 military personnel.
Likewise, the Paddle-Steamer Medway made 7 trips and rescued more than 7,000 troops.
Charles Lightoller, who had been Second Officer aboard the Titanic, insisted upon skippering his own pleasure boat Sundowner and with his son and a local Sea Scout managed to haul aboard 130 exhausted soldiers and ferry them home despite the boat being so tightly packed it came close to capsizing.
On 28 May, 17,804 troops were successfully evacuated.
That same day King Leopold of the Belgium’s ordered his army to lay down their arms leaving a 20 mile gap in the British lines making an already precarious situation even worse.
Just the previous day 97 British soldiers who had held off a much larger German force and surrendered only when their ammunition ran out were murdered at Le Paradis by troops of the SS Totenkopf Division. The German Commander at Le Paradis, Hauptsturmfuhrer Fritz Knochlein was executed in 1949 for war crimes on the evidence of the only two survivors.
The day after the massacre at Le Paradis a further 80 British and French troops were executed at Wormhoudt by the SS Liebstandarte Division.
On 24 May, Adolf Hitler had visited General von Rundstedt at his Headquarters at Charleville where following discussions he ordered the Panzer Divisions to halt their advance.
Much has been made of Hitler’s “Halt Order.” It has been suggested that he wished for the B.E.F to escape intact, though shorn of their equipment, so he could negotiate a peace settlement with Britain as a potential ally but the truth is more likely prosaic. Hitler was unschooled in military tactics and incapable of understanding the overall strategic picture. The Battle for France had so far gone beyond his wildest dreams and now at the point of victory he feared a reverse – it was a loss of nerve.
The British and French around Dunkirk were fighting like tigers and the French Army to the south of them remained largely intact. The terrain around Dunkirk was also considered unsuited to mechanised warfare. Why should he risk his Panzers when the British were already trapped with nowhere to go?
In any case, had not Hermann Goering already assured him that the Luftwaffe would destroy the British on the beaches – there could be no, escape.
On 29 May, 47,310 troops were rescued.
The increase in the numbers being evacuated was down to the Commander on the ground, Royal Navy Captain William Tennant’s decision to use the Moles, the two sea walls protecting the harbour as embarkation points. Troops queued on the walls to board waiting destroyers. At the same time they also formed lines on the beaches to reach the small ships which would ferry them to the larger ones lying offshore.
The troops awaiting embarkation were also under constant air attack but the soft sand of the dunes tended to smother the impact of the bombs, even so there was little protection from the constant strafing.
Machine gun posts were set up to provide some defence and individual soldiers took pot-shots at the planes as they flew over but it made little difference.
The soldiers could not understand why the Royal Air Force were not tackling the Luftwaffe and the taunt that the “Brylcreme Boys” were too busy partying to lend a hand soon became a common refrain. It was unfair, the R.A.F was busy trying to keep the Luftwaffe away from the beaches and providing protection for the ships ferrying the troops back to Britain.
But simply getting aboard an evacuation ship was no guarantee of safety.
On 29 May, HMS Grafton was sunk by U.62 and HMS Grenade by air attack, that same night the destroyer HMS Wakeful was torpedoed by an E.Boat and sank with 631 troops aboard. All but 1 of the soldiers drowned.
In the meantime, the defence around Dunkirk was becoming increasingly desperate as on 30 May, Hitler had cancelled his Halt Order and his Panzer Divisions were now closing in on the Port. Senior Officers were by now having to fight alongside their troops and anyone who tried to retreat was forced back into the front-line at bayonet point.
Also, as the B.E.F was fast being evacuated the responsibility for the defence of the Dunkirk perimeter was increasingly falling upon the French First Army, which despite being surrounded and hopelessly outnumbered held up Erwin Rommel’s Panzers for four days.
In the last two days of May, 120,927 troops were evacuated but the French destroyers Sirocco and Bourrasque were also sunk.
The advance of the German Panzers meant that the opportunity for such large-scale evacuations was fast disappearing as there was no effective defence against them and General Alexander in overall command, and General’s Brooke and Montgomery, commanding the forces holding the perimeter knew this.
It was now simply a case of evacuating as many troops as possible in the little time they had left to them.
On 1 June, the British destroyers Keith, Havant, and Basilisk were sunk along with the French destroyer Le Foudroyant. Even so, a further 64,229 troops were successfully evacuated.
The 2 June, the final day of Operation Dynamo, saw and a further 54,000 troops plucked from the beaches.
The B.E.F had been saved but the following morning Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the ships back in to pick up as many of the remaining French troops as they could. The evacuation from Dunkirk would not have been possible without the determined resistance of the French First Army and he would not now abandon them but with the fighting taking place in the streets of Dunkirk itself many French troops had to be left behind. Even so, 26,000 were rescued.
As darkness fell on that final night General Alexander scanned the beaches from aboard the last ship to leave. He could see that they were littered with abandoned trucks, destroyed tanks, spiked guns, the corpses of the dead, and the detritus of war. With the remaining French troops in captivity there was no one left to be saved and as he glanced up he could see that the swastika now flew above the town – the Battle for Dunkirk was over.
The withdrawal from Dunkirk was a shattering defeat for the British Army but that the B.E.F had been saved at all was a miracle. But it had been a miracle earned. Through a combination of organisation, audacity, courage, good fortune (the unpredictable Channel weather had remained fine) and a fatal miscalculation by Hitler, Britain’s small professional army had been saved.
In total 338,226 troops were successfully evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, 198,229 of them British, the rest French, Dutch, Polish, and Belgian. But it had been achieved at a fearful price.
The British had lost 11,014 men killed and 14,000 wounded with the French enduring similar casualties and a further 41,338 men had been captured defending the perimeter.
Of the 861 vessels that took part in the evacuation some 243 were lost, more than 200 of them from among the small ships. The R.A.F lost 107 planes defending the beaches and protecting the ships as they crossed the Channel. All of the army’s heavy equipment had destroyed or abandoned.
Besides enormous amounts of ammunition this included 310 large calibre guns, 880 field guns, 850 anti-tank guns, 500 anti-aircraft guns, 11,000 heavy machine guns, 700 tanks, 20,000 motorcycles, along with 45,000 trucks and other motor vehicles.
Indeed, in the months immediately following the evacuation at Dunkirk there wasn’t a single tank on the entire south-east coast of England, the place where any German invasion could be expected to come.
Over the next two weeks a further 220,000 British troops were successfully evacuated from other French ports further south before the effective surrender of France on 16 June made any more such operations impossible.
On 4 June, Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons where describing the events at Dunkirk as a ‘Miracle of Deliverance’ he did not shy away from warning that wars were not won by evacuations before summing up in words that would echo around the world:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.
The Dunkirk Spirit would live long in the British psyche.