Dunkirk: Background Information

Operation Dynamo, or what has become more commonly known as the Dunkirk evacuation occurred between May 26 and June 4, 1940.  World War II Allied soldiers following the Battle of Dunkirk were stranded at Dunkirk, France and along its beaches.  Prior to the evacuation British, French and Belgian troops were cut off by the German army during the Battle of Dunkirk.  In a speech to the House of Commons,  "We shall fight on the beaches", Winston Churchill called the events in France "a colossal military disaster", saying that "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured.  He hailed their rescue as a "miracle of deliverance."  

Churchill speech to House of Commons

On the first day, only 7,010 men were evacuated, but by the ninth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French had been rescued by the hastily assembled fleet of 850 boats. Many of the troops were able to embark from the harbour's protective mole onto 42 British destroyers and other large ships, while others had to wade from the beaches toward the ships, waiting for hours to board, shoulder-deep in water. Others were ferried from the beaches to the larger ships, and thousands were carried back to England by the famous "little ships of Dunkirk", a flotilla of around 700 merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft and Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboats—the smallest of which was the 15-foot fishing boat Tamzine, now in the Imperial War Museum—whose civilian crews were called into service for the emergency. The "miracle of the little ships" remains a prominent folk memory in Britain.

Operation Dynamo took its name from the dynamo room in the naval headquarters below Dover Castle, which contained the dynamo that provided the building with electricity during thOperate war. It was in this room that British Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay planned the operation and briefed Winston Churchill as it was under way.

Due to war-time censorship and the desire to keep up the morale of the nation, the full extent of the unfolding "disaster" around Dunkirk was not publicized. However, the grave plight of the troops led King George VI to call for an unprecedented week of prayer. Throughout the country, people prayed on 26 May for a miraculous delivery. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers "for our soldiers in dire peril in France." Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout Britain that day, confirming the public suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.

 

Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the British Expeditionary Force within two days, at which time it was expected that German troops would be able to block further evacuation. Only 25,001 men escaped during this period, including 7,001 on the first day. Ten additional destroyers joined the rescue effort on 26 May and attempted rescue operations in the early morning, but were unable to closely approach the beaches, although several thousand were rescued. However, the pace of evacuation from the shrinking Dunkirk pocket steadily increased.

On 29 May, 47,000 British troops were rescued in spite of the first heavy air attack by the Luftwaffe in the evening. The next day, an additional 54,000 men were embarked, including the first French soldiers.  68,000 men and the commander of the BEF, Lord Gort, evacuated on 31 May. A further 64,000 Allied soldiers departed on 1 June, before the increasing air attacks prevented further daylight evacuation. The British rearguard left the night of 2 June, along with 60,000 French soldiers. An additional 26,000 French troops were retrieved the following night before the operation finally ended.

Two French divisions remained behind to protect the evacuation. Though they halted the German advance, they were soon captured. The remainder of the rearguard, largely French, surrendered on 3 June 1940. The next day, the BBC reported, "Major-General Harold Alexander [the commander of the rearguard inspected the shores of Dunkirk from a motorboat this morning to make sure no-one was left behind before boarding the last ship back to Britain."

The term "Dunkirk spirit" still stands for a belief in the solidarity of the British people in adversity.

 

Fishing Boats and Commercial Vessels Join in the Rescue


Most of the "little ships" were private fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, but commercial vessels also contributed, including a number from as far away as the Isle of Man and Glasgow. Guided by naval craft across the English Channel from the Thames Estuary and Dover, these smaller vessels were able to move in much closer to the beaches and acted as shuttles between the shore and the destroyers, lifting troops who were queuing in the water, some of whom stood shoulder-deep for many hours to board the larger vessels. Thousands of soldiers were also taken in the little ships back to Britain.

 

Dutch Ships Save Thousands

39 Dutch coasters had escaped the occupation of the Netherlands by the Germans on May 10th, 1940 and were asked by the Dutch shipping bureau in London or by the Royal Navy to assist. In total, the Dutch coasters managed to save 22,698 men, able to approach the beaches very closely due to their flat-bottoms.

The record is held by the ms 'Rian', a 35 metres (115 ft) ship measuring 300 ton dwt and built in 1934 in the province of Groningen, under captain D. Buining. The vessel had already saved the crew of the British coaster MS Highwave on 30 January, 1940. Between 28th and 31st of May, 1940, the Rian saved 2,542 persons. Seven other Dutch coasters saved more than 1,000 men each.


Still Losses Where High

Despite the success of the operation, all the heavy equipment and vehicles had to be abandoned, and several thousand French troops were captured in the Dunkirk pocket. Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with nine large boats. In addition, 19 destroyers were damaged. Over 200 of the Allied sea craft were sunk, with an equal number damaged. Winston Churchill revealed in his volumes on World War II that the Royal Air Force (RAF) played a most important role protecting the retreating troops from the Luftwaffe. Churchill also said that the sand on the beach softened the explosions from the German bombs. The RAF lost 474 planes, compared to 132 for the Luftwaffe. However, the retreating troops were largely unaware of this vital assistance, and many bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.

Before the operation was completed, the prognosis had been gloomy, with Winston Churchill warning the House of Commons to expect "hard and heavy tidings". Subsequently, Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle", and the British press presented the evacuation as a "disaster turned to triumph" so successfully that Churchill had to remind the country, in a speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." Nevertheless, exhortations to the "Dunkirk spirit", a phrase used to describe the tendency of the British public to pull together and overcome times of adversity, are still heard in Britain today.

Dunkirk POWs

The rescue of the British troops at Dunkirk provided a psychological boost to British morale; while the War Cabinet had discussed in secret surrendering to Hitler (and voted against it), to the country at large it was spun as a major victory. While the British Army had lost a great deal of its equipment and vehicles in France, it still had most of its soldiers and was able to assign them to the defence of Britain. Once the threat of invasion receded, they were transferred overseas to the Middle East and other theatres and also provided the nucleus of the army that returned to France in 1944. Several high-ranking German commanders (for example, Generals Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian, as well as Admiral Karl Dönitz) considered the failure of the German High Command to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to eliminate the British Expeditionary Force to be one of the major mistakes the Germans had made in the Western Theatre.

The more than 100,000 evacuated French troops were quickly and efficiently shuttled to camps in various parts of southwestern England where they were temporarily lodged before quickly being repatriated. British ships ferried French troops to Brest, Cherbourg and other ports in Normandy and Brittany, although only about half of the repatriated troops were deployed against the Germans before the armistice. For many French soldiers the Dunkirk evacuation was not a salvation, but represented only a few weeks' delay before being made POWs by the German army after their return in France.

In France, the perceived preference of the Royal Navy for evacuating British forces at the expense of the French led to some bitter resentment. The French Admiral Darlan originally ordered that the British forces should receive preference, but Churchill intervened at a 31 May meeting in Paris to order that the evacuation should proceed on equal terms and the British would form the rearguard. A few thousand French forces eventually surrendered, but only after the evacuation effort had been extended for a day to bring 26,175 Frenchmen to Britain on 4 June.

For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war (POW). The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany. Prisoners reported brutal treatment by their guards, including beatings, starvation, and murder. In particular, the British prisoners complained that French prisoners were given preferential treatment.  Another major complaint was that German guards kicked over buckets of water that had been left at the roadside by French civilians.  Many of the prisoners were marched to the town of Trier, with the march taking as long as 20 days. Others were marched to the river Scheldt and were sent by barge to the Ruhr. The prisoners were then sent by rail to POW camps in Germany. The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for five years.

The very significant loss of military equipment abandoned in Dunkirk reinforced the financial dependence of the British government on the United States.

 

Source: Adapted from Wikipedia, The History Place: http://www.historyplace.com/worldwar2/timeline/dunkirk.htm