Dunkirk was either a crushing failure or a period of miraculous deliverance, depending on the way you look at it and whose story you are listening to. One thing is for sure, though, a lot of brave people risked their lives to make sure that over 366,131 French and British troops made it to safety.
The evacuation of Dunkirk, which has been called the ‘miracle of deliverance’ by Winston Churchill, was nothing if not epic. As Robert Jackson describes in his ‘Dunkirk: the British Evacuation, 1940’, the battle raged inland, on the beaches, across the sky and into the sea, with all hands working to the absolute limits of their endurance to ensure that as many men as possible were carried away from danger and returned across the Channel to British shores. For the 366,131 men saved, 226 British and a further 168 Allied ships out of 683 were sunk, 177 aeroplanes were destroyed or damaged, including 106 fighters, and 68,111 men of the B.E.F. were killed or captured, with a further 40,000 French troops being taken prisoner. ‘Operation Dynamo’ was far from small.
Oddly, preparations for the evacuation began as early as 14th May 1940, as an order was broadcast at 9am that day, requiring all owners of ‘self-propelled pleasure craft between 30-100 feet in length’ to register their boats with the Admiralty within 14 days. The strange part is it was not, at this juncture, thought very likely that an evacuation would be needed, and nobody is quite sure who anticipated this possibility and set the wheels in motion. Anyway, by the time the small boats were needed they had already been logged and a register compiled, with the owners ready to spring into action when called.
The first wave of uneasiness didn’t hit the admiralty until 19th May. The German troops and Panzers were rapidly pushing through the Ardennes into France, and Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey, based at Dover, was given the job of brainstorming how an evacuation would be actioned in case of need, with the aim being to remove 10,000 men per day from each of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk (in the end only Dunkirk was used). The next day Churchill suggested amassing small ships for just such an instance, not realising the process had already begun. Small boats, of course, would be better able to cope with shallow water, avoid numerous obstacles and creep as near as possible to the beach, acting as a ferry service to run troops to larger destroyers and minesweepers waiting out at sea.
On 26th May things took a turn for the worse concerning the B.E.F.’s position. The Belgium army, which had been fighting gallantly alongside General Brooke’s II Corps, collapsed. A dangerous gap in the Allied defences was thereby opened, leaving just the 143rd Brigade of the 48th Division between the Germans and passage into France along the coast, where the B.E.F. was waiting. The German troops who had already entered the country circled round south of the B.E.F., 25 miles north of Paris, and the hapless Allied army found itself trapped in the centre of a pincer movement. The Ypres-Comines canal became the Front Line, as troops were dispatched to hold off the German advance down the coast at all costs. If the Germans surged forward and reached the beaches before the B.E.F., the claw would slam shut and the Allies would be crushed. It was time to evacuate while they still could; ‘Operation Dynamo’ was given the go-ahead to commence.
While everyone else hurried for the coast, General Sir Robert Forbes Adam was tasked with organising the defence of the British line, and General Franklyn was given the unenviable job, along with the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 50th Divisions, of moving to intercept, and effectively ‘hold off’, the Germans looking to advance from Ypres, while the French IV and V Corps fought alongside them at Lille. The troops fought hard for two full days, giving their comrades the time they needed to strike out for the escape point, but were soon forced into a ‘fighting withdrawal’, destroying bridges as they went. Many men would lose their lives in this gallant endeavour, and the French units were essentially cut to ribbons before they surrendered on the 31st. Eventually the British troops, and what was left of the French army, retreated right back to surround Dunkirk, now considered the only possible route of escape, and remained to defend the perimeter. Every hour would now make a massive difference in determining how many men would ultimately make it home.
Meanwhile, the 1st, 2nd, 42nd, 44th, 46th, 48th and 1st Armoured Divisions were ordered to head to the Dunkirk beaches and embark for England. The retreating troops had mixed feelings; they were dismayed, as they had expected to stand and fight rather than to retreat, but also relieved to be ordered out of harm’s way. That order was easier for some to follow than others; General Alexander’s 1st Division, for example, faced a gruelling 55 mile march to make it to Dunkirk, with the Luftwaffe pummelling them as they went. As they hurried forward, they were painfully aware that they were last in the queue for evacuation, and might have a long wait ahead of them, if they made it off the beach at all.
They weren’t the only ones who were worried. Captain William Tennant and the other on-the-spot organisers of the evacuation found themselves with a massive administrative headache. The sheer numbers of troops arriving at the beach all at once – which, while very long, was only a mile wide – meant that the men were forced to spread out further and further away from those in command, making it difficult to transmit orders, and the Germans had completely destroyed the nearby port. That being the case, there were only two loading points to place troops into the boats from, a jetty to the west of the beach and a mole to the east. Lots of men became separated from their units, so it was hard to know who they should listen to and where they ought to be, and the sick and stragglers had to be sorted and cleared before the organised units got a look in.
Even assuming the orders made it to the men, and they understood where they were headed, they faced a long journey over the pocked and debris-laden beach to get to the exit points, risking attack all the time from German planes that knew exactly what location they were aiming for. There was some respite from the Luftwaffe on the 30th May due to bad weather, and nights were safer, but otherwise the men were sitting ducks, especially as many had been told to destroy all weapons. The R.A.F. were there too, and working hard – apparently they flew 171 reconnaissance missions, 652 bombings and 2,739 fighter sorties – but their numbers were swallowed up by the far more numerous Luftwaffe, especially as Churchill, knowing France was lost, held back many planes that could have been sent in order to preserve them for home defence. Twice as many men remained to be evacuated as had been originally thought, and the waiting crowd continued to swell. Eventually the organisers, in sheer desperation, created a third jetty out of trucks parked deeper and deeper into the surf to speed the loading into small ships. The captains of those ships risked their lives time and again, running the gauntlet of bombs and obstacles to reach the beach, then risking being capsized or sunk by the frantic troops and heavy equipment.
The waiting troops suffered keenly from hunger and thirst, no rations having been provided, and became less and less alert as time went by. They huddled down miserably into their self-dug foxholes, watching the destruction spread around them, and prayed for it all to be over. ‘Dunkirk: the British Evacuation, 1940’ quotes Sergeant A. Bruce, 7th Field Company Royal Engineers, as saying, “Men were lying there in grotesque attitudes of death, eyes and mouths wide open. It was hard to believe that they had ever been human beings. I could not help thinking, as I half fell, half walked through the wet sand, of the funeral those boys would had at home, with tenderness and flowers. Yet here they lay where they had died, like dogs that had been run over in the street.”
Eventually, as the Germans advanced, the key generals were pulled back to Britain, with just General Alexander being left to cover the rear of the retreating army. The battalions holding the perimeter, too, were ordered to make haste to the beach. Some would make it before the Germans seized a bridgehead and advanced to within sight of the sand, some would not. Many of the bravest men of all, who had resisted the temptation to flee and turned their backs on the retreat routes in order to follow orders and work to protect the evacuating troops, were left behind and would endure a life of imprisonment for the remaining 5 years of the war. Others, of course, were struck down, their lifeless bodies joining those of countless comrades. When the Germans finally gained control of the beach, it was littered as far as the eye could see with dead men and broken or burned equipment, covered in potholes and smoking like the very depths of hell.
However, the operation was largely hailed to have been a success. The British commanders were able to do what Hitler never did learn to; admit when they were beaten, and take every precaution to pull their men back to safe ground, that they might live to fight another day.
You can read about the Dunkirk campaign and evacuation first-hand in our Historic Documents library here: