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Dunkirk: ‘The Most Magnificent Sight of A Generation’

Photo: The iconic image of the evacuation, a Royal Navy gunner covers troops at Dunkirk.


The Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo, and famously heralded as a ‘miracle’, saw the evacuation of more than 338,000 Allied troops trapped with their backs to the sea at Dunkirk.

A large mass of British, French, Belgian, and some Commonwealth troops had become stranded around Dunkirk in the latter stages of the Battle of France, where, despite the odd moment of brilliance, such as at Arras, or the heroism displayed by the defenders of Lille, the British Expeditionary Force and the armies of its Allies were in full flight.

Sent to aid in the defence of France and the Low Countries, the BEF represented approximately 10% of the Allied force in France, and had been building up throughout the period known as the ‘Phoney War’. With the German invasion of Norway, and then, on 10 May, the invasion of France and the Low Countries, the war quickly became real.

British artillery tractors and limbers abandoned during the retreat to Dunkirk, June 1940.

Concentrated formations of well-supported German armour smashed through Allied lines, most decisively at Sedan, which the French were unable to hold, and Hitler’s Panzer’s raced for the sea. If the German’s could trap the BEF and capture it in its entirely, Britain would be at her most vulnerable.

While rapid and decisive, the German advance would not be easy. Across the entirety of the campaign, more than 1,000 German aircraft would be lost, 800 tanks knocked out, and at least 157,000 German troops became casualties. In places, the German advance was blunted and occasionally (albeit temporarily) reversed, most notably at Arras, the British and French were able to counterattack and generate initial surprise and success. A force of around 70 British tanks, in particular 16 of the tough Matilda II infantry tank, shook an overstretched German line and broke through in several places.

Viscount Gort VC, C-in-C BEF (centre) with General Joseph Georges, Commander, French Ninth Army after being decorated at Arras, 8 January 1940.

However, the Allies suffered from a limited capability to coordinate other assets with the armour, from poor communication, and severely lacked in concentrated armoured strength. While German losses were substantial, including in their Panzer divisions, at least half the British tanks were lost in heavy fighting between Mercatel and Tilloy, most to a line of 88mm anti-aircraft guns and 105mm field guns urgently pressed into the anti-tank role. The tanks which survived, had no reserves to consolidate or press their gain, and the advance halted. By the end of the battle, 60 British tanks were lost.

A French counterattack to the south, at Cambrai, also failed. However, German High Command was still concerned. The attack at Arras panicked some senior officers. And the commander of Army Group A, von Rundstedt, ordered a halt to the German offensive, and would later be responsible for the eventual resumption of operations. The order to halt was subsequently approved by higher officers, and Hitler, to the amazement of some German divisional commanders eager to keep on the heels of the retreating Anglo-French force.

A wartime photograph of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, as Naval Commander in Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Forces.

The time was well spent, leading Panzer divisions had advanced at a great pace and outran their own supporting assets, and many of their vehicles required maintenance. Generals Guderian and Rommel were among this number, the latter’s advance is even occasionally seen as reckless. While ultimately the British failed at Arras, they had temporarily gained up to 10 miles of ground and highlighted how precarious the German situation could be. Therefore, units were taken from the leading formations to form an armoured reserve in case such a breakthrough was repeated. This weakened the increasingly vulnerable elements of the leading Panzer units, some of which had sustained 50% losses in armoured strength, necessitating they wait for reinforcements and resupply to arrive and for their flanks to be stabilised. The German advance resumed in earnest 48 hours later, on 25 May.

Meanwhile, early on 23 May, General John Vereker (Viscount Gort), the BEF’s commander, ordered a retreat toward the closest town with adequate port facilities – Dunkirk. To him, evacuation was the only option open to him. Beneath the Cliffs of Dover was Admiral Ramsay, C-in-C Dover Patrol. Meticulous and a great organiser, Ramsay had already begun planning for the operation, and took full advantage of the time created by the 48 hour German halt and the defence of Lille (28-31 May) to plan ‘Dynamo’. On 20 May, a British Brigadier, Gerald Whitfield, had arrived at Dunkirk to initiate the evacuation of some 25,000 non-essential personnel. As British, the remains of three French armies, and what was left of the Belgian Army, fell back toward Dunkirk, Ramsay’s plan was put into action and the evacuation began on 26 May, tasked with saving 45,000 men in two days.

The Royal Navy provided an anti-aircraft cruiser and 39 destroyers, as well as many other craft while the Merchant Navy supplied ferries, hospital ships, and other vessels taken from trade. Belgian, Dutch, and French ships, both taken by the British ahead of the German advance and those crewed by their indigenous navies, were also involved. Thousands of copies of charts were copied and distributed by Ramsay, who also organised the laying of buoys along each of the three evacuation routes.

‘Dynamo’ reached a climax between 31 May and 1 June. Overall, some 800 to 1,000 ships, boats, and other craft were involved, including several British and French destroyers and as many as 400 civilian craft, the first of which arrived on 28 May, only on 30 May, were more troops were lifted from the beaches by the ‘Little Ships’ than by larger ships and destroyers from Dunkirk’s harbour facilities. Larger ships were able to carry about 900 men, but the loss of 22 large ships on 29 May forced the Admiralty to withdraw several warships in a bid to preserve them.

Dunkirk’s beaches were not well suited for even the small craft, and two jetties were improvised at Bray and De Panne, whilst elsewhere soldiers queued patiently in the sea, stretch out as much as 100 metres. Several RAF Squadrons protected the town and port, flying 3,500 sorties, they downed many German aircraft, but in actions largely unseen by those waiting to be lifted from the beaches. By 28 May, all British units were inside the defensive perimeter, along with half of the French First Army. However, the situation grew increasingly precarious as the Belgian units on the easternmost flank surrendered that day.

A Lewis Gunner covers troops as they are plucked onto a ship from a small boat.

Although the British were unable to lift the desired 45,000 men inside two days, the efforts of the rear-guards meant that the operation could continue for nine days, and a vastly larger number of troops than ever expected were successful returned to Britain. On 29 May, nearly 50,000 troops were lifted, and the following day the first French soldiers began to be evacuated. On 31 May, Viscount Gort was lifted along with 68,000 troops, leaving Major-General Alexander and a 4,000 strong holding force as the last British troops inside Dunkirk. Luftwaffe attacks meant that form 1 June it was impossible to evacuate the stranded troops by day, but on the night of 2/3 June Alexander and his men were successful taken home along side a strong component of French troops. It was left to 35,000 French soldiers to defend Dunkirk. They held until 4 June, allowing a total of 75,000 French troops to be rescued (26,000 on 4 June alone), the last troops to be plucked from Dunkirk.

Date: Evacuated from harbour: Lifted from beaches: Total:
27 May 7669
28 May 11874 5930 17804
29 May 33558 13752 47310
30 May 24311 29512 53823
31 May 45072 22942 68014
1 June 47081 17348 64429
2 June 19561 6695 26256
3 June 24876 1870 26746
4 June 25553 622 16175
Total of British and French Troops Evacuated from Dunkirk’s harbour and beaches, although exact figures for 27 May are unknown, it is presumed nearly all troops that day were evacuated from the harbour.

Later that day, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, addressed the House of Commons, and heralded the evacuation of 338,000 troops as a “miracle of deliverance”. In the famous 3,794 word ‘We Shall Fight on the Beaches‘ delivered to the House that day, he said that “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been spared.

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.

Ramsay had effectively saved the bulk of the BEF, though most of their 450 tanks, and the majority of their vehicles, artillery and equipment had been lost or abandoned. Much of it destined to be pressed into service in German divisions, who captured 80,000 vehicles and motorcycles, nearly 2,500 pieces of artillery, and 640,000 tons of fuel, stores, and ammunition. Nine British and French destroyers were lost, with a further 19 damaged. 400 smaller craft were sunk or damaged. The RAF lost 145 aircraft covering the evacuation, including at least 40 Spitfires. Though 156 German aircraft were also shot down, 35 by the Royal Navy.

The French destroyer Bourrasque sinks off Dunkirk 30 May 1940. She is fully loaded with troops.

The BEF lost 68,000 men during the Battle of France, 3,500 killed, 13,000 wounded, and the rest captured. However, even with the conclusion of ‘Dynamo’ thousands of troops and British nationals were still stranded in France. Further evacuations by sea took place to lift the ‘Second BEF’, and these resulted in the rescue of a further 192,000 in Operations Ariel and Cycle alone. Of all the troops evacuated from France, 400,000 were from the BEF, while some 120,000 were French.

Needless to say, without any of the combined tri-service elements of the British and French militaries and the strong leadership of Admiral Ramsay, the aftermath would have been far more bitter.

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