Operation Dynamo took on another dimension when the Admiralty asked private citizens to take their boats to France and help with the evacuation. Eagerly the British people responded. Pleasure yachts, paddle steamers, fishing boats, and even dories were among the 800 ships that made up this strange armada. Some of these ships were manned by their owners, while others were put under the command of a Navy crew or volunteers.

On May 30, 1940, the English Channel was surprisingly serene, and a fog hung over the French coast. The "Little Ships," as they came to be called, played a crucial role in helping to rescue the troops at Dunkirk. They lifted over 53,000 troops on May 30. That night and the following day over 68,000 more troops were evacuated.

This powerful fleet of average people helped save the soldiers who would one day return to defeat Hitler. Without the brave actions of these citizens, the outcome at Dunkirk would have been very different. Miraculously, over 338,000 men were saved.

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On joining the 72nd Field Regiment RA as a reinforcement in 1939, I felt as though I had been transported to another world. Unable to understand the spoken word, just as they probably did not understand my accent, treated with suspicion, I came in for more than my fair share of guards, fire pickets and fatigues. It was not a very happy time.

It took the BEF and Dunkirk to be accepted as a worthy member of the Regiment and having acquired and mastered a ‘Geordie’ vocabulary, I was ordained as a ‘Temporary Geordie’. No man, in my opinion, could have had a greater accolade bestowed upon him! In January 1940, Ted and E troop of 286th Battery, having landed in France, were transported to Voutre: The men were billeted in ancient barns, on straw-lined floors and at night the rats would run through the barns.

The Sergeants found a disused chicken house and made it into a Sergeants’ Mess! Living was very basic and primitive; the officers were billeted in the farmhouses. The men wondered if it could get any worse than this – it did later on! Early one February morning the Regiment moved off when the whole 50th Division was moved nearer to the Belgian frontier.

The routine continued as before; endless fatigues, the digging of latrines and training and what spare time the men had was spent in buying eggs and potatoes from the farmers, who quickly set up ‘shop’ wherever troops were billeted.

The Regiment had been allocated a defensive position between Lille and Roubaix, a series of gun emplacements along the Belgian frontier. The Regiment dug and revetted these gunpits and trenches, the infantry doing the same a few miles in front of the artillery. The winter in France had been particularly cold and wet, most of the troops had received parcels of knitted socks and balaclava helmets.

These were most welcome. Apart from the weather and the restrictions of the Army, conditions on the whole were not too uncomfortable; the men were fitter and getting hardened to an outdoor life.

Ted Stonard’s memoir regarding life in the Royal Artillery during the retreat to Dunkirk

Royal Artillery during the retreat to Dunkirk

Early during the morning of 10 May, heavy AA fire was heard and seen in the direction of the Belgian frontier, it seemed much heavier than usual. Rumour began to circulate. The order was given to ‘prepare to move’ and immediately the Regiment became a hive of activity; guns and vehicles were made ready and formed up on the road. Orders had been received to advance into Belgium.

The 50th Division was destined to spend most of the next two or three weeks ‘swanning’ backwards and forwards getting hopelessly enmeshed with the tens of thousands of refugees who blocked most of the route along which the BEF was ordered.

The elaborate defensive positions that they had laboriously dug were never occupied. On reaching the frontier, the Regiment drove straight into Belgium, the inhabitants lined the roadside, waving and cheering. Bottles of wine were continuously being passed into the Gun Quads.

For the first week we moved around from one position to another without firing a shot. Distances of only a few miles would take hours and the roads became choked with the milling masses of refugees with their many means of transport. The sound of gunfire in the distance was heard, particularly at night when the sky was illuminated by the flash of gunfire.

During the day German aircraft dominated the sky, flying in large formations. Women and children, the old and the infirm made the majority of the refugees from the start. Later they were joined by French and Belgian deserters, or men trying to find their unit. It was pitiful to see women carrying their children, pushing a few belongings in prams or carts, the strain showing upon their faces.

The most saddening part which the British were forced to do was to try and keep the road clear for the military convoys. Military Police cleared a passage by pushing the people, along with their transport, aside, their ears deaf to the pleadings and curses of the refugees.

Frequently German aircraft flew over the congested roads, machine gunning. Ted’s troop was part of Frankforce, detailed to launch a counter-attack at Arras, with French forces. The attack had the effect of encouraging German High Command to over-estimate the strength of the BEF.

Two week later: Towards the evening the Troop pulled back several miles and came into action; it was here that everybody was informed of the seriousness of the situation. The Troop was to fire off their remaining ammunition and destroy the guns and vehicles. After everything had been destroyed they were to march towards the coast where it was hoped that the BEF would be evacuated. Orders were given for all surplus personnel to retire to the rear, leaving the Sergeant and one Gunner to destroy the gun.


Thompson called for a volunteer to stay with him. Ignoring the old saying of not volunteering for anything, I agreed to help him destroy the gun, giving as my excuse that having spent the greater part of the last six months polishing and cleaning the gun, I was entitled to the dubious ‘honour’ of blowing it up! Ted Stonard 1939, while at the 7th Field Training Regt.

All personal equipment was abandoned and the three remaining lorries joined the mass of vehicles all going in the same direction. There were no refugees now, only the BEF in one long mass of vehicles slowly moving along the road. A few miles out of Poperinghe the Batteries dismounted from their lorries and as they marched along the road the ditches along the side were filled with equipment: books, papers, smashed wireless sets and blankets.

The BEF marched in a disciplined order, carrying what equipment and weapons they could. Some of the officers and NCOs carried rifles which they had found discarded, some carried two! As the Troop approached nearer to Dunkirk, clouds of smoke and the incessant bombing could be seen and heard.

Passing through the outer perimeter of the first defence line where British infantry were dug in, we exchanged banter and insults in the typical British manner and threaded our way through barbed wire and road blocks. After about an hour the order was given to go back. Apparently with so many thousands of men blocking the road, it was becoming impossible for the town of Dunkirk to take any more. All marching troops were directed to La Panne, a summer resort about two miles away.

A beach café flew the Red Cross flag. Outside, lying on stretchers, were some fifty or more wounded. Some of the men were groaning, but most had been sedated and were swathed in bloodstained bandages, quietly waiting their turn to be carried into the café.

The tide was out and a long queue of at least several thousand men lined the water’s edge. Far out in the sea were ships of every description, too large to get any nearer. Rowing boats were ferrying men out to the ships. At first sight one gave in to despair and could not imagine how anyone could possibly escape. By now everyone realised how desperate the situation was, but amongst all this disarray one could recognise order and organisation.

A Major, immaculately dressed in his Service dress was giving orders and the long queues of men were responding to his discipline. The beach, which was flat and sandy, was about 400 feet in depth when the tide was out, reduced to half that distance when the tide was in. It was getting late in the evening. The boats were still taking men off the beaches but many were returning to the sand dunes and settling down for the night. Members of the Battery managed to find a place amongst the dunes.

Others were digging themselves deep slit trenches. Soldiers of several nationalities were continuously pouring into the area. There were shouts in French and English of men trying to locate their units or friends. No fires or smoking was allowed but many ignored this and smoked. Dozens of cigarette ends were glowing in the darkness; only after a lone aircraft dropped bombs at random were the cigarettes extinguished!

The anti-aircraft guns on the destroyer opened fire; the noise was deafening. The shriek of a bomb was heard above all this noise, followed immediately by an enormous explosion. The ship seemed to rise up out of the water and assumed a heavy list against the pier. I was flung against the pier. Gathering my senses, I climbed back, still clutching my rifle!

The several hundred men who were stretched along the pier were now joined by the crew and the soldiers from the stricken destroyer. Walking back along the foreshore, dozens of small boats of every description, fishing smacks, pleasure motorboats, yachts, were ferrying troops to the larger ships about a mile out. Many of these had an RN rating or PO in charge who, in the finest tradition of the Senior Service, ferried the ‘Pongos’ out to the ships with cheerful and humorous efficiency.

Our Battery Commander Major J Lyall, negotiated with the Captain of a Dutch Coaster to take the Battery off, so long as we unloaded the ship of its supplies by evening. Major Lyall immediately set about organising the men into a ‘chain’ starting on the beach and stretching out to the ship.

He stayed in the water many hours. Later in the afternoon the tide started to rise. The water was now rising to shoulder height for those alongside the ship. The Captain announced that he was prepared to receive the men and depart. After climbing aboard, boots squelching with water, many minus battledress blouse and with sodden trousers, those with rifles were directed to the stern and joined a number of men, some with Bren guns, firing at the aircraft which were now bombing the ships in-shore.

The bombs were dropping amongst the small boats; several were hit or overturned by the explosions. The sea was full of struggling men; among them were small boats of every description still picking up the survivors. The ship went full astern and gradually moved away from the beach, winding its way amongst the abandoned wrecks. Aboard, on the closely-packed decks, the survivors took stock, looking around seeking friends and members of their Regiments. Many, not having slept for days, fell asleep.

Most of 286th Battery returned home through Margate. After disembarking, and emptying rifle magazines, they were directed to the railway station. Every time the train stopped, fruit and cigarettes were showered upon the troops. Late in the afternoon the train pulled into Matlock where the Battery marched through the town, bedraggled, dirty and in various stages of undress, to be billeted in a school.

pudge Dunkirk

It was described by Churchill as “a great tide of vessels”. But of the 861 little ships that took part in the evacuation, 243 were sunk by German bombers and gunfire. They, and the men who crewed them, faced horrific dangers. Pudge, a Thames sailing barge which is still a familiar sight on the Medway, was one of many which narrowly escaped. Built in Rochester and operated by the London and Rochester Trading Company, Pudge was one of three barges being towed across by a tug.

Their shallow draught and capacious holds made them ideal for getting close to the beaches. But the tow tug hit a mine. Both it and two of the barges were sunk. Pudge survived.

After pausing to pick up survivors she carried on, taking 300 soldiers from the beaches before returning to Kent. Paddle steamer Medway Queen’s contribution to the evacuation is legendary. She made seven trips across and brought back 7,000 survivors. One man who was particularly glad to see her was John Howarth, who lived at Wainscott. John had already been rescued from the beach, but a Stuka dive bomber attacked the rescue boat which was sunk beneath him.

For two hours he floated in mid-Channel. “I was surrounded by bodies and almost resigned to death,” he told reporters. “Then over the horizon came the most amazing and uplifting sight. “It was the Medway Queen, and she was chugging her way back across the Channel to England, crammed with blackened and battle-weary troops. “Never was a sight more welcome.

I was very lucky she stopped that day.” Bob Viney, who lived at Lordswood, had gone to France as a driver with the Royal Artillery. After being cut off from his unit in Belgium, he found his way to the beaches at La Panne, just down the coast from Dunkirk, arriving on May 29 – his 20th birthday. “We were bombed and shelled all the way,” he said. “The town itself was on fire.

We were sent into a wood just inland from the beach. There were thousands of people there. “I finally got away on June 1. We paddled an oil drum raft out to the waiting boats. I was taken on board the destroyer HMS Worcester, and brought back to Dover.” Vic Knight, who lived in Beechings Way, Gillingham, was a regular soldier in the Rifle Brigade, having joined up in 1938 at the age of 19.

He was at Calais, part of a force sent to take pressure off the evacuation effort by stemming the German advance. Although his efforts helped others to escape, Vic ended up in captivity. “While we were at the quayside two hospital trains arrived,” he said. “I went to help get the wounded on board. “Stuka dive bombers kept up a continuous attack on the ships.

I took up a position on the beach and engaged the enemy until my ammunition ran out. “Then I buried the Bren breech block in the sand. Others buried their rifle bolts. The Germans came and took us prisoner.” Altogether 338,226 British and French troops were rescued from the beaches. It was an action that came to define the British spirit, and eventually turn the tide of the war.

Maginot Line

The war was already eight months old when the Germans finally launched the western offensive that would see Holland, Belgium and France subdued in little more than six weeks, and thousands of the British Expeditionary Force snatched dramatically from the beaches of Dunkirk only hours ahead of the German advance.

The French and British had used the months of ‘phoney war’ to prepare for the assault that was sure to come. Defences stretched from the Maginot Line to the sea and most of the ten division British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under the command of General Lord Gort had been on the Franco-Belgian border since October 1939. The Dutch and Belgians, though retaining their Neutrality, had also mobilised their armies and were prepared.

But the Allied defensive plans, which looked back to the last German invasion in 1914 and relied heavily on assumptions about pace and movement, would prove woefully inadequate in the face of the new German Blitzkrieg, or ‘lightning war’ tactics, with their innovative use of tanks and mechanised and airborne troops.

In the weeks before France fell on June 22, 1940, the remains of the English army on the mainland, called the British Expeditionary Force, were pushed back to the beaches of a French seaport called Dunkirk. Many in London nearly gave up hope of saving that whole army, but miraculously, a veritable armada of over eight hundred British boats, of all kinds and sizes, was able to ferry many of those troops across the English Channel to safety.

The Royal Air Force, or RAF, pilots, who’d also been fighting in mainland Europe, played a major role in the Dunkirk evacuation, keeping the majority of Luftwaffe fighters and dive bombers away from the troops standing exposed on the beaches and in the boats crossing the Channel.

According to the RAF-maintained Battle of Britain Historical Society, the British pilots shot down one hundred and fifty German planes, but at an irreplaceable loss of one hundred fighter planes and eighty experienced combat pilots (Battle of Britain History Site).

Though the Dunkirk evacuation couldn’t be called a British victory, it did halt the steady Axis advance, and it was the first time that the pilots of the Luftwaffe had ever been beaten at their own game. However, even though Britain had managed to save many of her soldiers at Dunkirk, the majority of her tanks, artillery, and other equipment had been left behind, and all branches of the military were exhausted, ill-supplied, and near the breaking point after the pounding they’d received in continental Europe.

William Shirer, an American correspondent in Berlin in the 1930s, states that if the Nazi dictator had sent his forces across the Channel right after Dunkirk, he probably could’ve conquered Britain. But instead of acting immediately,

Hitler hesitated, and this turned out to be a critical mistake for the Nazis. Another puzzling question is why Hitler did not allow his panzers to take Dunkirk? Before the Allies consolidated their retreating forces, the Wehrmacht could have extended its drive to Dunkirk and the escape route would have been cut off.

But Hitler ordered a stop at the Aa Canal on May 24, within sight of Dunkirk, fearful that his onrushing columns were exposed on the flanks. With perfect hindsight this appears to be a blunder; a more daring commander might have gone all the way to the coast to seal a complete victory.

At the time, Dunkirk had no significance and preserving the panzers to ensure the fall of Paris was the priority. For the Allies, it was the spirit of Dunkirk that had the longest and most profound effect. The seemingly invincible Germans could not crush the spirit of a people fighting for their freedom. Ringing calls to rise to the occasion "like Dunkirk" buoyed spirits throughout World War II and beyond.

The combined might of the French army, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Belgian army had failed to halt the German advance across France and the Low Countries. One German battle group raced through the Netherlands, another pushed through the defences in the Ardennes and swept across country in a curve that would bring them to the coast of Northern France.

The majority of the BEF was compressed into a shrinking semi-circle of land around the port of Dunkirk, all hopes of defending France at an end. The BEF was vital to the continuation of the war, and in the short term for the defence of Britain itself.

These were the trained professional soldiers who would be best able to resist the expected invasion following the rout in France. They also had the best of the British materiel, including armour and artillery. What had been a 30km perimeter around Dunkirk shrank as the days went on, and the withdrawal could be effected, until eventually only a strip of land 5km deep was defended. Admiral Ramsay just a few miles away in Dover hurriedly prepared and revised plans for the evacuation from Dunkirk.

The navy secured the English Channel – the German Navy, or at least the German surface ships made no incursions to hit the stranded forces from the sea, and to catch the evacuation vessels in transit. This was left to the Luftwaffe, whose Stukas dive bombed the beaches ceaselessly.

Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay

In the year 1940, at a time when World War II was in full rage, Hitler's army was winning against France, despite help from more than 300,000 troops sent by Britain to help them out. The German army had surrounded and trapped most of the allied forces in the northernmost corner of France. Despite severe causalities the British troops could not retreat as their escape routes were all blocked.

The person in charge of troop evacuation, Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who was stationed in the reinforced tunnels, which lay beneath Dover Castle organized a rescue operation called Operation Dynamo. However, the operation was riddled with innumerable major problems.

The troops had to be rescued within a week as the beaches they were crammed on were being mercilessly shelled. An exodus by sea was impossible because of the difficulty in navigating the seas that were full of sunken ships and also because of the constant threat by U-boats.

Nearer the beach the water was too shallow for the transport ships and destroyers to get close to the shore. What's more the British troops did not have enough vessels to transport the huge numbers of soldiers that were trapped on the beach. Despite all the setbacks, meticulous preparations were made and Operation Dynamo was mobilized.

Unfortunately they managed to rescue less than 8,000 troops, at which rate rescuing all the troops who were trapped would take about 40 days. In desperation Ramsay made a public call for help and asked anyone who owned any kind of boat to assist in rescuing the troops.

He got an overwhelming and instantaneous reaction and managed to organize a temporary flotilla comprising 850 "Little Ships" which was made up of lifeboats, yachts and fishing boats. Civilians joined British sailors in manning the boats across the 35 km crossing and a massive rescue mission was launched, evacuating almost 2,000 troops per hours.

Nine days later 338,226 trapped people had been rescued. Churchill referred to this story of heroism and courage as the 'miracle of deliverance'. This 'Dunkirk spirit' as it is often referred to quickly became a popular legend.

The evacuation of Dunkirk began when the Nazis lured the Allied Forces of Britain and France into a gigantic troop: they attacked the small Dutch countries of Holland (the Netherlands) and Belgium. The Allies rushed to defend them, and Hitler's army of tanks, infantry, and aircraft rumbled to France. The Allies were too slow and surprised to counter Germany's invasion.

Still worse, there weren't any French reserve troops to stop the Nazis. The Allies planned to evacuate troops by sea if they became trapped, but the Nazis got there first. The Allies were cornered and attempted to make an evacuation. to Dunkirk, France in May 1940. The British admiral, Bertrand Ramsay was to conduct the rescue operation.

It was Ramsay who decided to use civilian boats and freighters in the rescue operation, called Operation Dynamo because Ramsay set up headquarters in a place that had housed a diesel-driven dynamo. For nine days the boats traveled to and from Dunkirk and each time British and French soldiers watched out to meet them as they arrived.

The Nazis dive-bombed and shelled the boats, but didn't attack with tanks until the last day of Operation Dynamo, and no one knows why, because they could have prevented the rescue operation from continuing. 161 ships were available on the first day of Dunkirk. On the first day, 27,936 soldiers were saved. On May 27th only 7,669 soldiers were saved.

After this day many people thought that Operation Dynamo was going to be a failure. On May 28th, 17,804 soldiers were taken to Dunkirk. But sadly, two ships were sunk by German bombing. On May 29th, in the morning, three battle ships were lost, which was bad, but 47,310 soldiers were taken to England. On May 30th,53,823 soldiers were taken to England.

On this day there were over 800 small craft transporting soldiers. On May 31st, 68,014 soldiers were taken to England from Dunkirk. On this day, winds were bad and blew ships onto the beach, and when the tide fell, lots of ships were stranded on the beach. Despite winds, on this day the most soldiers were transported in one day.

On June 1st, 64,429 soldiers were taken from Dunkirk to England. But sadly, 31 ships were sunk. On June 2nd, some French troops did not come in a steady line and their boats had to leave with only a few soldiers. On this day, only 26,256 soldiers were taken to England instead of 36,256. On June 3rd, the allies surrendered at 9:00 in the morning. Even though the Allies had to surrender, 338,226 soldiers were taken to England.

HMS Shikari, departed at 3:40 AM on June 4.

With German air attacks intensifying, daylight operations were ended and the evacuation ships were limited to running at night. Between June 3 and 4, an additional 52,921 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches. With the Germans only three miles from the harbor, the final Allied ship, the destroyer HMS Shikari, departed at 3:40 AM on June 4.

The two French divisions left defending the perimeter were ultimately forced to surrender. All told, 332,226 men were rescued from Dunkirk. Deemed a stunning success, Churchill cautiously advised “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory.

Wars are not won by evacuations." During the operation, the British losses included 68,111 killed, wounded, and captured, as well as 243 ships (including 6 destroyers), 106 aircraft, 2,472 field guns, 63,879 vehicles, and 500,000 tons of supplies. Despite the heavy losses, the evacuation preserved the core of the British Army and made it available for the immediate defense of Britain. In addition, significant numbers of French, Dutch, Belgian, and Polish troops were rescued.

Small ships Dunkirk

In May 1965 to mark the 25th anniversary of 'Operation Dynamo' Raymond Baxter the famous radio and TV presenter organised and assembled a fleet of 43 of the original Little Ships of Dunkirk to return to Dunkirk to commemorate the epic of the evacuation of the BEF in 1940, in which they played such a significant role. It was decided that such a unique assembly should not be allowed to disperse into obscurity and the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships was subsequently formed in 1966.

The object of the Association is to keep alive the spirit of Dunkirk by perpetuating for posterity the identity of those Little Ships that went to the aid of the British Expeditionary Force during Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of Dunkirk) in 1940 by forming a registered association of their present-day owners and of those closely associated.

Qualification for full membership is simple; the current ownership of a proven Dunkirk Little Ship. Membership wins the right for that vessel to wear the Association's warranted House Flag, the Cross of St George (the flag of the Admiralty) defaced with the Arms of Dunkirk.

Little Ships are also entitled to display a plaque marked 'DUNKIRK 1940'. Over 100 Little Ships are presently represented by members of the Association. The Association organises several meetings 'on the water' each year where the Little Ships may be seen and appreciated by the public. Every 5 years the Little Ships, supported by the Royal Navy, return under their own power to Dunkirk. Considering the youngest Little Ship is now over 70 years old, this is no small undertaking.

The Ramsgate life-boat reached Dunkirk

The Ramsgate life-boat reached Dunkirk at eight in the evening. There the heavy black smoke from the burning oil-tanks hung low above the beaches and the sea. She went on another two miles to Malo les Bains and lay alongside a Dutch coaster until it was night. The coxswain then sent off three of his wherries, each with one life-boatman on board.

The men rowed ashore, called into the darkness until they were answered, and filled their boats with men. The coxswain now sent off three more of his wherries, with twelve of the naval men on board, some to man them, others to be landed and to help in pushing the boats off the beach. They were to follow the three life-boatmen, now pulling to the shore for the second time, but they must have missed them in the darkness and gone ashore elsewhere, for they never returned.

The coxswain then manned a seventh wherry with three more naval men, and the four wherries plied between beach and life-boat, gathering men, putting them aboard the life-boat, returning for more. Once, as they came ashore, a voice called to them, "I cannot see who you are. Are you a naval party?" He was answered, "No, sir, we are men of the crew of the Ramsgate life-boat." The voice called back, "Thank you, and thank God for such men as you have this night proved yourselves to be.

There is a party of fifty Highlanders coming next." It was slow and hard work, even to life-boatmen well used to managing small boats on a beach. They would take the wherries in stern first, and hold them in the surf until the soldiers came. There was no rush nor scramble. The soldiers moved into the sea to their officers’ orders, wading out waist-deep.

One man only could climb over the stern at a time. Eight were a full load. The life-boat herself could take on board, in a calm sea, 160 men close-packed. As the wherries filled her, she in turn put off to a motor ship that lay further out So all night the work went on, and before day broke the life-boat and her wherries had brought off some 800 men. By this time the motor ship herself was filled, and she made for England, but, her engines had only two cylinders working and her master was doubtful if she would arrive.

Two of the life-boat’s crew had been helping on board, and they went with her. As soon as it was light the coxswain took the life-boat inshore to look for his three missing wherries. He found only one, lying empty on the beach, one of many boats washed up and abandoned. With the coming of day the shelling and bombing increased. Now, too, the wind had freshened.

It had veered to north-west and was blowing right onshore. A swell was making and boats were capsizing in the surf. But over the sand-dunes the troops came in unbroken flow and the life-boatmen baled out their wherries and got to work again.

The sea, like the beach, was littered with wreckage and was thick with oil from bombed and broken motor-boats. With the rising wind and surf, with the wreckage, with the oil that clogged their oars, the men found it impossible any longer to row the wherries. Instead the life-boat, lying eighty yards off shore, dropped them down to it on ropes, each wherry with two men on board, and hauled them out again. They came loaded, shipping water, the soldiers baling with their steel helmets to keep them afloat.

Operation DYNAMO

In a miraculous operation, about 900 vessels, every civilian and military craft afloat in Britian, were sent to the Channel port of Dunkirk (or Dunkerque (Fr.) or Duinkerke (Dutch)), opposite Dover in northern France, a few miles from the Belgian border. Planning had begun as early as 20 May, called Operation DYNAMO by the Royal Navy.

The civilian population of England worked along side the Royal Navy in a mass movement of large and small craft that included America's Cup racing yachts as well as hard worn fishing boats. The Navy provided anti aircraft cover and general coordination, as well as the available larger and faster vessels, while merchant ships, sloops, tugs, pleasure boats, lifeboats, fishing boats, ferries and odd barks hard to classify made a life-bridge across the Channel.

They were manned by experienced salts as well as raw volunteers. They didn't need navigation skills -- you could see the fires or smoke of the Dunkirk battle on the French coast and steer by dead reckoning. They did need guts. Boats collided in blacked out conditions, German planes and subs made every attempt to attack, there were unmarked mines, and no one got any sleep, food, or even rest for days on end. At Dunkirk beach, over 1,300 nurses dressed the wounded out in the open. Long lines of bedraggled soldiers waded into the water and were pulled on board the next available boat as waves washed over them.

Often the bloody, dirty and famished soldiers fell asleep as soon as they were in the boat. The listing, overloaded craft carried the soldiers to the English shore where thousands waited to receive and care for them. The boat then returned to France, a cycle that went on around the clock for nine days. Only personnel were evacuated -- equipment and supplies were sacrificed to make maximum room for the men.

On the water, the Germans were held at bay by the Royal Navy with an intense barrage of anti aircraft fire, anti-ship and anti-submarine tactics. On the beach, the RAF, naval shellfire and a defensive perimeter kept the Wehrmacht at bay while over 338,000 men -- including 140,000 French and Belgians -- were evacuated to England.

On the beach and in the water the evacuation was under intense fire from artillery, dive bombers, and infantry machine guns. Still, it was possible to maintain order and conduct operations day by day until the swarming beaches were cleared.

Dunkirk beaches

Operation Dynamo took on another dimension when the Admiralty asked private citizens to take their boats to France and help with the evacuation. Eagerly the British people responded. Pleasure yachts, paddle steamers, fishing boats, and even dories were among the 800 ships that made up this strange armada. Some of these ships were manned by their owners, while others were put under the command of a Navy crew or volunteers.

On May 30, 1940, the English Channel was surprisingly serene, and a fog hung over the French coast. The "Little Ships," as they came to be called, played a crucial role in helping to rescue the troops at Dunkirk. They lifted over 53,000 troops on May 30.

That night and the following day over 68,000 more troops were evacuated. This powerful fleet of average people helped save the soldiers who would one day return to defeat Hitler. Without the brave actions of these citizens, the outcome at Dunkirk would have been very different. Miraculously, over 338,000 men were saved.

From a military viewpoint, Dunkirk was an utter defeat for the Allies. They had been beaten and were within an inch of annihilation. Yet many escaped. Winston Churchill said it was a "miracle of deliverance." Miracle seems the best word to describe the evacuation from Dunkirk.

Every event pointed to something out of human control. The calm sea during the nine days' operations was a miracle. The heavy fog on several days, the smoke from the oil refinery, and the halt order from Hitler were all miracles. Plus, the amazing part taken by the "Little Ships" made the impossible happen! Even though many of the troops were safe, nearly all their equipment was left in France.

As Churchill pointed out, "wars are not won by evacuations," but in this case the miracle at Dunkirk enabled the British to regroup and eventually defeat Germany. How would World War II have turned out if the Allies had been defeated at Dunkirk? We will never know, because the miracle did happen! It's comforting to know that we serve the same God who orchestrated this amazing miracle.

Luftwaffe fighter plane

The pocket around Dunkirk gradually shrank to nothing. On 4 June the Germans entered the city and began to round up French soldiers left at the docks. A few hidden stragglers managed to escape in the next few days until the Germans gained complete control. About 5,000 Allied troops were killed or captured at Dunkirk. The captured were marched to the east to be POWs for the entire war. The evacuation of Dunkirk has assumed almost mythical status and deservedly so.

The Germans thought the Allies were trapped and expected to annihilate them. The successful rescue baffled the Germans and heartened the Allies, preserving vital manpower for battles to come. Dunkirk was also a key demonstration of Luftwaffe fallibility. Although Reichmarschall Hermann Göring assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could turn the British evacuation effort into another Warsaw or Rotterdam, the Royal Air Force inflicted such heavy losses that the Luftwaffe ceased operations against Dunkirk by 2 June.

Valuable intelligence from this experience was used against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain a few months later.

German Panzers tank

Why the German Panzers were held back at the outset of the evacuation is not known. They had brushed aside the allied armour as they sped through the French and Belgian countryside, technically superior vehicles with greater firepower than the allies could muster, the Panzers were a formidable weapon. Some think that the blitzkrieg had almost exhausted fuel and other supplies.

Others that Hitler wanted to save them for completing the occupation of France. A third theory is that Hitler was saving his strength in the belief that having been swatted aside so easily, Britain would sue for peace, and that a slaughter of the BEF would make it impossible for British honour to accept peace.

The initial evacuation was through the port of Dunkirk, using ferries to take the troops to England or to larger naval vessels offshore. Passenger ferries from as far away as Glasgow were commandeered for the effort. It was not until May 31 that things had become so desperate that the famous ‘little ships’ were seen in action.

Troops from five allied countries were rescued from Dunkirk in what was code-named, with a certain irony, Operation Dynamo: Britain, Belgium, France, Poland, and even a few soldiers from the Netherlands. Their evacuation was covered by the 51st (Highland) Division, fighting against overwhelming odds. There were many tales of heroic resistance in this rearguard action, as well as some of cowardly officers abandoning their men to seek evacuation for themselves.

On May 27 almost 8,000 men were taken from Dunkirk to safety in Britain, the first of what would eventually be more than a third of a million fighting men rescued to fight another day. In desperation Ramsay made a public call for help and asked anyone who owned any kind of boat to assist in rescuing the troops. He got an overwhelming and instantaneous reaction and managed to organize a temporary flotilla comprising 850 "Little Ships" which was made up of lifeboats, yachts and fishing boats.

Civilians joined British sailors in manning the boats across the 35 km crossing and a massive rescue mission was launched, evacuating almost 2,000 troops per hours. Nine days later 338,226 trapped people had been rescued. Churchill referred to this story of heroism and courage as the 'miracle of deliverance'. This 'Dunkirk spirit' as it is often referred to quickly became a popular legend.

Dunkirk Harbour

Minefields and shelling from German batteries on the French coast forced evacuation convoys to take longer routes to Dunkirk. The first convoy, after sustaining heavy air attacks, found the port of Dunkirk and its oil tanks ablaze and only the passenger ferries ‘Royal Daffodil’ and later the ‘Canterbury’ succeeded in berthing. By the end of the first day only 7,500 troops had been rescued and it was clearly impossible to use the port. Captain Tennant, in charge of the naval shore party at Dunkirk, signalled for the rescue ships to be diverted to the beaches east of the town.

But here shallow waters prevented the large ships getting within a mile of the shore and troops had to be ferried in smaller craft from the beaches to the ships. There was an alternative, a spindly concrete pier with a wooden walkway, never designed to have ships docking against it but it was found that it could be used.

Differences in loading speeds were dramatic HMS ‘Sabre’ took 2 hours to load 100 troops from the beach, but from the pier it took only 35 minutes to board 500 troops. In London the Admiralty’s Small Vessels Pool had been collecting all available seaworthy pleasure craft.

With volunteer crews, many of whom had never sailed out of sight of land before, they were checked at Sheerness Dockyard and then sent to Ramsgate to await final sailing orders. The pleasure craft were joined by lifeboats, trawlers, Thames sailing barges, tugs and other small craft. The first convoy of ‘little ships’ sailed from Ramsgate at 10pm on 29 May and by the next day they were streaming across the Channel in seemingly unending lines.

The dangers were great, ships, both large and small, were targets for German fighters, bombers, submarines and coastal batteries plus the random danger of mines. Fortunately, throughout the evacuation, the seas remained abnormally calm.

Most of the small craft headed for the beaches to act as tenders, while some of the larger trawlers and drifters loaded troops directly in Dunkirk Harbour. On the evening of 2 June, with the German forces closing in, Ramsay despatched a large force of ships, including 13 passenger ships, 14 minesweepers and 11 destroyers. At 11:30 pm Captain Tennant sent the historic signal from Dunkirk “BEF evacuated.”

By now, the German forces were nearly in the outskirts of the town. Only one more night evacuation was possible. On the night of 3 June a final effort was made using British, French, Belgian and Dutch ships to bring out as many of the French rearguard as possible and over 26,000 were saved.

Between 26th May and 4th June 338,000 troops were rescued from Dunkirk, over 200,000 of them passing through Dover. During the nine day period the Southern Railway laid on a total of 327 special trains, which cleared 180,982 troops from Dover. 4,500 casualties were treated at the town's Buckland Hospital and all but 50 of these seriously ill men were saved.

death marches all the way to the camps in Germany

At 2am on the morning of the 3rd of June 1940, General Harold Alexander searched along the quayside, holding onto his megaphone and called “Is anyone there? Is anyone there?” before turning his boat back towards England. Tradition tells us that the dramatic events of the evacuation of Dunkirk, in which 300,000 BEF servicemen escaped the Nazis, was a victory gained from the jaws of defeat.

For the first time, rather than telling the tale of the 300,000 who escaped, Sean Longden reveals the story of the 40,000 men sacrificed in the rearguard battles. On the beaches and sand dunes, besides the roads and amidst the ruins lay the corpses of hundreds who had not reached the boats. Elsewhere, hospitals full of the sick and wounded who had been left behind to receive treatment from the enemy’s doctors. And further afield – still fighting hard alongside their French allies - was the entire 51st Highland Division, whose war had not finished as the last boats slipped away.

Also scattered across the countryside were hundreds of lost and lonely soldiers. These ‘evaders’ had also missed the boats and were now desperately trying to make their own way home, either by walking across France or rowing across the channel. The majority, however, were now prisoners of war who were forced to walk on the death marches all the way to the camps in Germany and Poland, where they were forgotten until 1945.

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