Second World War Experience Centre Reproduction of an article from the Centre’s website http://www.war-experience.org/history/keyaspects/dunkirk/default.asp The Second World War Experience Centre Website: http://www.war-experience.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org 1 Dunkirk The Centre is honoured to have care of Ted Stonard’s memoir
regarding life in the Royal Artillery during the retreat to Dunkirk, service in the North African campaign, and, following
fierce fighting and capture at Gazala, his experiences as a POW. The Centre also holds Bombardier Stonard’s photographs
and a tape-recorded interview. Here we are pleased to feature extracts from Ted’s recollections of service in the BEF
in 1939/40: 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.
at the 7th Field Training Regt. The Second World War Experience Centre Reproduction of an article from the Centre’s
website http://www.war-experience.org/history/keyaspects/dunkirk/default.asp The Second World War Experience Centre Website: http://www.war-experience.org Email: email@example.com 2 skilled and reserved occupations were also sent home, but with the approach
of spring, a rude and terrifying awakening was rapidly approaching. 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
The story of the Battle of Dunkirk is
one of heroic courage amidst untold tragedy. 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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 antiaircraft 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.