Hitler and Dunkirk Blend 1

Dunkirk Revealed: How The Brits Got Away

Hitler and Dunkirk Blend 1

“May 26, 1940: On the Dunkirk beaches, nearly half a million men, British and French, face surrender… or the slim chance of rescue by ships from England.”

That’s how the BBC’s 1973 series ‘The World At War’ describes the dire prospects of Britain and her allies at the end of the Battle of France.

Those who hadn’t been killed, cut off, encircled or captured now huddled in a rapidly shrinking pocket in and around the beaches of Dunkirk, awaiting the terrible coup de grace.

The Fall Of France

Allied prospects hadn’t started out this badly, nor had morale been this low. In fact, having already fought two wars against Germany in the 70 years prior, France thought it might finally have its neighbour’s number.

After the joint invasion of Poland in September, 1939, by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, German forces had been largely reassigned to the west - and it was obvious to the French they might be the next target.

By May 1940, they were expecting, along with their British allies, either an incursion directly across the French and German frontier, reminiscent of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, or a re-run of the Schlieffen Plan.

Hitler with his generals in 1939
Hitler with his generals in 1939 (image: German Federal Archives)

This was the gambit used by Germany in the opening moves of World War 1. Knowing the French were likely to try and retake Alsace and Lorraine, territories lost in the 1871 Treaty of Frankfurt, German planners had used this to their advantage.

By leaving a token force in this area, the French were drawn into a trap as the bulk of the German Army outmanoeuvred them and ploughed through Belgium, then swung into northern France.

Having overcome unexpectedly fierce resistance from the Belgians and the relatively tiny BEF (British Expeditionary Force), the Germans had very nearly taken Paris. Were it not for ‘the Miracle on the Marne’, the war on the Western Front might very well have been over by Christmas, 1914 – and Germany would have won.

French Defence Plans

By 1940, the French answer to the problem of keeping the Germans at bay was the Maginot Line. This was, however, a bit of a misnomer. It turned out to be prohibitively expensive and therefore went unfinished, resulting in less of a ‘line’ and more of a network of forts and other defensive positions. 

This network ran along much of France’s eastern border and its strongest section was on the shared French-German frontier. Further north, less robust defences were dotted across the landscape, tracking along Luxembourg and Belgium and up to the Channel coast. 

Unlike the Germans, the British and French weren’t prepared to pre-emptively violate Belgian territory (this had been a large part of the justification for Britain going to war with Germany in World War 1, after all). However, if the Germans did cross into Belgium again (or Holland, for that matter), Britain and France were willing and ready to do so as well in order to help push the invaders out. This, however, was not formally co-ordinated with the Belgians. As much as they would have welcomed the extra help, they were also conscious not to provide Germany with a pretext to invade because they were working so openly with Britain and France.

As far as the French and British were concerned, this should have been fine anyway. Both routes into France, they reckoned, had been blocked. A repeat of the Franco-Prussian War would see the Germans smack right into a concrete wall along their border with France, whilst another Schlieffen Plan would spark an immediate Allied defence of Belgium (and/or the Netherlands), one that had a sturdy line of forts in northern France as backup, should it falter. 

The only question now was, when the attack came, would it be like 1870 or 1914?

the Ardennes by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT
The Ardennes (image: Jean-Pol GRANDMONT)

German Attack

The answer was 1914, sort of.

The Germans did attack the Maginot Line, but this was essentially a feint. Further north, a larger-scale attack was unleashed on Belgium and the Netherlands, but even this was not the heart of the operation. Unbeknownst to the Allies, the Nazis had also found, and taken, a third route into France.

The Ardennes region, located mostly in Belgium and Luxembourg, but also reaching into France and Germany, is thickly forested with rough, mountainous terrain. For this reason, it was considered to be largely impassable by mechanised forces. The Allies, therefore, had a lighter defensive footprint here, expecting to encounter a token force consisting only of German foot soldiers at best.

They were wrong.

Despite the British inventing the tank, the Germans had now become experts in deploying them. Surpassing all expectations, German Panzer divisions - consisting of not just the infantry that the French and British expected, but also motorised troops and tank regiments - came crashing through the Ardennes.

Air reconnaissance did establish this spear thrust was coming, but the thick foliage masked the sheer scale of the attack. The French moved two armoured, three infantry and one mechanised division (an infantry formation with transport) into the area from their pool of reserves further back, but these units would have been no match for the 45 German divisions. 

A Stuka Dive Bomber (image: Daderot)
A Stuka Dive Bomber (image: Daderot)

Operation Dynamo  

The Germans had already punched through the token forces in their path, and soon swept north and surrounded the British and French armies. Len Deighton’s ‘Blood, Tears and Folly’ gives an insight into just why this was so easy for the Germans:

“The tactical failing of Allied tank warfare was to send tank against tank; the Germans knew that armour should be used against vulnerable targets, while mobile batteries of high-velocity anti-tank guns dealt with enemy armour. Allied tank experts also knew all this, but tank experts were not consulted by the higher commands.”

Just as the military situation had fallen apart, many citizens performed their civic duties little better than the military men protecting them. German propaganda had taken full advantage of the political divide in France between communists, socialists and fascists. (Open divisions in Germany had of course largely disappeared since the Nazis had crushed their opponents).

Stirring the pot was fairly easy with a population so divided against itself and with the trauma of the last war still very much alive in the public memory. The French were reminded that Britain had persuaded (‘pressured’) them to go to war, and how terribly unfair it was that French soldiers were paid so poorly compared to their British counterparts. 

Beyond German prodding, the far ends of the political spectrum had also both done their bit to contribute to the disaster, with communists engaging in industrial sabotage, leading to substandard equipment here and there (as well as some accidents); fascists, meanwhile, often sympathised with the Nazis and, in Holland, even went as far as dressing up like military police so they could help German paratroopers take bridges.

The German advance was so rapid that French Premier Paul Reynaud was soon telephoning Winston Churchill, who had only just become the Prime Minister upon the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. Reynaud told him:

“We have been defeated… We are beaten; we have lost the battle.”

Following this bombshell, the British started planning and then executed ‘Operation Dynamo’ (the evacuate all the country's troops) on May 26, 1940. Walter Lord relates in ‘The Miracle of Dunkirk’ that the mission name had come from the room at Naval HQ in Dover Castle that contained the building’s electric generator - a dynamo - where the whole plan was put together.

After the capture of Calais by fascist German troops, wounded British soldiers are brought out from the old town by German tanks
Wounded British soldiers were taken out of Calais on German tanks after the city was captured

German Advance

Originally, the effort had called for the use of the ports at both Dunkirk (or Dunkerque) and Calais, but the Germans captured the latter early on May 26, following a three-day siege.

Their advance seemed unstoppable, and when Dynamo began, the expectation was that only 50,000 troops might be extracted from France and ferried back to Britain. To put that in perspective, the British had started out with roughly 400,000 men on the Continent in May of 1940. 

Osprey Publishing’s ‘France 1940: Blitzkrieg in the West’ tells us that when fighting had started on this front, the tip of the spear for Britain had been its 10 front line infantry divisions (it also had three Line of Communications, or Signals, divisions and one tank brigade); the French, meanwhile, had had 94 divisions, the Belgians 22 and the Dutch 10 (for a total of 136). Hitler had 157 divisions in total but was only able to commit to the same number as the Allies to his invasion of France. In any event, 93 of those took part in the invasion discussed (45 alone in the Ardennes) while the rest were available as reserves.

So both sides had numerical parity. What is less well known is that they also had armoured parity - French tanks were actually as good and as numerous as German ones. (Admittedly though, Germany had better aircraft and more of them). It was the brilliant and rapid Ardennes manoeuvre that won the day, cutting the Allies in half and allowing the Germans to rapidly overwhelm them.

Hitler face by Mario Sánchez Prada
Portrait of a dictator – a likeness of Hitler at Madame Tussauds (image: Mario Sánchez Prada)

'Golden Bridge'

 But there was a silver lining, one that would allow far more troops than the original 50,000 estimated to slip away.

On May 24, Hitler had unexpectedly halted the advance of his Panzer units. This incredibly fortuitous blunder gave the Allies time to organise a more comprehensive rescue. The question is, therefore, why did Hitler do it?

One theory is known as the ‘Golden Bridge’, suggesting that Hitler deliberately held back so the Britain could recover more of its troops. The idea is that he wanted to facilitate more congenial negotiations with the British, who he wished to settle his differences with and remove from the war diplomatically once the Battle of France was over. 

There is merit to this notion. Hitler was a kind of Anglophone, envious of Britain’s vast empire and keen to emulate it. It was also clear to anybody who’d read his rantings in ‘Mein Kampf’, first published in 1925, that he despised Russia as well as the Jews. Since the 1917 Russian Revolution had produced a Bolshevik government there, Hitler had come to consider leftists, Russians and Jews to be more or less synonymous enemies. 

Thus, any serious observer knew the military marriage between the far-right Hitler and far-left Stalin was one of mere convenience. As soon as France was taken care of, Hitler was always likely to want to deal with the British quickly so that he could get on and invade the east, killing, conquering or enslaving the ‘racially inferior’ Slavs in the process.

Combo evacuation
British troops depicted evacuating from Dunkirk in the US propaganda film ‘Divide and Conquer’ (right) and a genuine US picture of the evacuation (left)

But the BBC’s ‘The Other Side of Dunkirk’ dismisses the whole Golden Bridge concept. Rather, what the program reveals is that the Nazi war engine was not the terrifyingly efficient machine it appeared to be. Blitzkrieg, or ‘Lightning War’ - Germany’s principle combat and propaganda weapon - had come about partially by accident.

The Germans had certainly been more astute at learning to use and deploy their tanks, but there was not, at the beginning of the invasion of France, a broad consensus about just how independent Panzer units should be. 

One school of thought, in fact, the dominant mode of thinking, advocated a period of pause and consolidation once the German Army had burst out of the Ardennes and punched deeply into France. 

This instinct went right back to the beginning of tank warfare – the Germans, after all, had been on the receiving end of tank attacks both at the Somme in September, 1916, and, far more importantly, at Cambrai in November, 1917. 

During this battle, tanks that had infantry tucked up closely for support had been far less likely to be taken out by field artillery. But at the village of Flesquieres, the attack launched by the 51 Highland Division ground to a halt. Crucially, tanks here lacked that uniform proper infantry support. The result was that the tanks were more or less turned into 4-mile-an-hour sitting ducks as they were picked off by field guns (a battery specially trained to deal with tanks, one of few in the German Army, happened to be located at the village). Later on, in the cramped village streets of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, they also had tracks blown off by German soldiers using sandbags filled with grenades.

Soldiers and tanks with the 51 Highland Division approach the village of Flesquieres during the Battle of Cambrai in 1917 (image from ‘Fortifications of the Western Front’ by Paddy Griffith © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Hitler's Command

As a result of this, the instinct to integrate infantry and tanks appears to have been difficult to break. But XIX Corps commander Colonel General Heinz Wilhelm Guderian was innately rebellious. Believing in the principle of more autonomous panzers, he pressed his own tanks to push on once they’d emerged from the Ardennes, despite the consensus view that periods of consolidation were needed. 

Guderian’s idea worked spectacularly, kicking the advance into high gear and sending the British and French into headlong retreat. For all intents and purposes, he appeared to have won the argument.

Yet, as the Panzers approached Dunkirk, this earlier decision would now prompt a backlash from Hitler. This is because approval for the German tanks to continue onto Dunkirk from Calais had not been personally approved by the Fuhrer. Ever the icon of authoritarianism, Hitler insisted that ultimate command of the war would not reside with the generals, as it had between 1914 and 1918, but with him, and him alone. 

Opposing Forces around the Dunkirk-Lille pocket, 1800hrs 26 May
Map showing Allied forces – in blue – being squeezed by German forces, in red, on May 26, 1940 (image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dilby © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Military historian Colonel Dr Karl-Heinz Frieser put it this way:

“Hitler reacted with one of his famous outbursts of rage. The fundamental question was who should have control over military operations in the future, either the High Command, as in the First World War, or Hitler. This order to stop outside Dunkirk resulted in a kind of revolt, a power struggle between Hitler and the generals. Now who would win this? I repeat again: Hitler wasn’t interested in tactical, operational, strategic, political or ideological questions – he was only interested in a single question, the principle of power, the principle of leadership.”

In other words, Guderian may have won the ideological battle, but that made it all the more important for Hitler to win the war for command and control. 

Getting Off The Continent

Hitler’s dogma would pay considerable dividends for the Allies. They now had some time to organise a proper defence of Dunkirk, and most importantly, to evacuate more troops.

Not that this merciful reprieve was evident on the ground at the time, mind you. For those desperately trying to get out of France, and others working to help them, nothing was easy or straightforward. Even getting to the coast was a logistical nightmare, with staggered retreats having to be organised between the various units of the French, British and Belgian armies. Making matters worse was the intermittent obstacle of roads choked with refugee flows – if the soldiers weren’t sticking around, civilians certainly weren’t going to either.

Meanwhile, at Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo did not start well for the Allies either. On the mission’s first full day, May 27, there were 75 sorties* by German Stuka dive bombers, and 225 regular bomber sorties all aimed at destroying Dunkirk’s ports. Five miles of quays and 115 acres of docks and warehouses were knocked out just in the first wave of air attacks. 

(*Sorties are individual operational flights within an air mission flown by each aircraft involved).

In the next wave, the French steamers Aden and Cote d’Azur were struck, as was the British ship Worthtown – just like that, 11,948 tons of steel sank to the bottom of the Channel. 

On the surface, the destruction was every bit as complete:

“By noon the port was completely blocked… (the Luftwaffe having) set fire to the town and the Saint-Pol (oil) refinery… killing 1,000 civilians – the huge pall of oily black smoke, rising 3,500m (11,500ft) into the air, providing a beacon for both the raiders and defenders.”

For their part, the RAF provided 200 fighters (Spitfires, Hurricanes and some Defiants) spread across 16 squadrons for air defence over Dunkirk. They, of course, had taken several casualties in the fighting in France (56 pilots KIA and 18 who ended up as POWs). There was also a smattering of Bristol Blenheim IV bombers, although the fighters were the important component. 

Malo-les-Bains combo
Malo-les-Bains, the beach closest to Dunkirk harbour that was used during the evacuation, beachfront property shown in 1915 (left; image: whatsthatpicture) and the beach today (right; image: troye owens)

Stranded Troops 

These aircraft would augment the growing flotilla coming to the rescue of the stranded troops, itself to be augmented later by hundreds of civilian craft that would supplement the Royal Navy’s scores of destroyers, patrol ships, minesweepers, trawlers, anti-submarine boats, gunboats, anti-aircraft, hospital, store and assorted other ships. Yachts and fishing boats would come to be as much a part of this operation as giant naval vessels, for this was an all-out and all-arms operation to salvage Britain’s army and with it, her ability to keep fighting the war. 

Everyone would have to pull together as the BEF organised improvised defensive lines along canals and other waterways with its other remaining allies. They’d keep the Germans at bay whilst those on the beach organised assembly and embarkation points. Next, the baton would pass to the Royal Navy who would have to ferry the vast numbers of troops safely across the Channel, while the last link in the chain would need to come in the form of continuous air cover from the RAF. If any of the three arms failed in its overall mission, the whole operation, and quite possibly Britain’s entire war effort, would end in disaster.

Arriving at Dunkirk later that day, Senior Naval Officer (SNO-Dunkirk) Captain William G Tennant surveyed the carnage. Without ports to dock at for the large Royal Navy vessels, getting the hordes of men off the beaches would be impossible. (Larger vessels have bottoms that extend quite a long way below the water line, making them more stable on the high seas but also less-able to navigate shallower coastal waters). He needed smaller ships, and signalled Dover:

“Please send every available craft to beaches East of Dunkirk immediately. Evacuation tomorrow night is problematic.”

Using lighter, more flat-bottomed craft to get men between the beaches and the ships further out at sea was now essential. The beach in closest proximity to the dock at Dunkirk was Malo-les-Bains.

Others utilised for the evacuation were Bray-Dunes and La (or De) Panne, both further east (the latter just beyond the French-Belgian border), making the whole evacuation zone about 20 kilometres from west to east.

Google map again edit
The three beaches used during the Dunkirk evacuation – Malo-les-Bains is shown by the pointer in the left blue circle (image: Google)

While the Navy were frantically organising the beaches, the Army were continuing to fight a desperate rear-guard action to keep the Dunkirk pocket from collapsing.

This required dedicated professionalism and bravery from all involved, as units were either picked, mercifully for them, to be the next ones to leave, or alternatively to be those holding the line against overwhelming odds.

Major-General Bernard Montgomery and the 13,600 men in his 3 Division were some of the luckier ones, falling in and heading for the beaches while 4 and 5 Divisions held the line. Also involved in defence of the pocket were the men of 3 Battalion, the Grenadier Guards (of 1 Infantry Division). 

Their job was to counterattack on the evening of May 27 to help other British and Belgian units that were cracking under the pressure of the continuous German onslaught. 

Doug Dilby’s ‘Fall Gelb 1940 (2): Airborne Assault on the Low Countries’ describes what happened next:

“With the sun at their backs and a stout defence before them, the guardsmen began their attack… supported by barrages from five artillery regiments. However, soon they were subjected to heavy artillery and mortar fire themselves and were slowed by the cumbersome crossing of a deep, five-foot wide stream and ‘innumerable fences’.”

Machine-guns soon spat bullets at them from behind nearby trees while a farm burned in the distance:

“By the time 1 and 2 companies reached the (Comines-Ypres Canal), they had suffered such horrendous casualties they were unable to hold the line and fell back a quarter of a mile to where 3 and 4 companies had dug in – using their bayonets as picks and shovels – in a long field ditch. The battalion held out against German shelling and attacks through the night and all the next day.”

A mere nine officers and 270 men, from an estimated 412 who’d started the attack on May 27, finally withdrew to Dunkirk at 10:00 pm on May 28. (Total infantry battalion strength during World War 2 was over 800, a significant number of whom would have been auxiliary personnel supporting the front-line infantry with signals, transport and heavy fire. By this point in the battle though, many units would have already been understrength because of losses and the confusion of battle).

The 3rd Grenadier Guards counter-attack, 2000hrs, 27 May 1940 from Gelb 2 bk
3 Battalion, the Grenadier Guards, counter-attack on the evening of May 27 (image from ‘Fall Gelb 1940 (2)’ by Doug Dilby © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

While the British and French were fighting on, the Belgians were getting ready to wind things down. In Dunkirk 1940, Dildy relates that King Leopold had telephoned Lord Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, to say:

“The time is rapidly approaching when [we] will be unable to continue the fight. [I] will be forced to capitulate to avoid a collapse.”

Leopold really couldn’t do much more, what with his country swamped by German forces, hospitals stuffed with casualties and ammunition supplies rapidly running out. His only hope now was to capitulate and spare his people any unnecessary further suffering.

Fighting on alone, the French and English were given some respite by both the weather – it was particularly cloudy on May 28 – and the thick smoke of the oil fire started by German raids the previous day. This reduced visibility meant a comparatively light 75 bombing sorties from the Luftwaffe that day.

That didn’t stop the RAF engaging them, but the bombers were so effectively screened by fighter escorts of Messerschmitt Bf 109s that only one bomber was shot down. What’s more, only two Bf 109s were also lost to three Spitfires, eight Hawker Hurricanes and three Defiants (newer aircraft with turret-based rather than forward firing guns).

Bray Dunes plage
Bray Dunes, one of the evacuation beaches

Beneath the desperate air battles, Captain Tennant – frustrated by this point at the slow rate of extraction – was about to drastically improve the operation’s efficiency:

“At 2200hrs the night before, Capt. Tennant directed one of the personnel ships, the modern 1,162-ton Queen of the Channel, to try docking against the harbour side of the Jetee de l’est (known as the ‘east mole’ to the British). This was a rocky 1,280-metre long (4,200ft) breakwater extending from the base of old fortifications to the harbour’s mouth. Atop tall pilings set in the tumbled stone boulders was a wooden gangway about two metres wide.”

The west mole (in the green circle) and east mole (in the blue circle) on a contemporary map (image: Google)

This feature would become a vital and iconic part of the entire evacuation:

“While not designed as a docking or embarkation pier (breakwaters did just that, screening ports from rough seas), in the darkness Captain W. J. Odell eased the cross-Channel steamer to the jetty, the crew made fast a head rope and he warped alongside, secured with lines fore and aft. As Tennant watched, 600 troops shuffled down the makeshift dock and boarded Queen of the Channel via ladders and gangplanks.”

Realising the potential of this feature, Tennant next organised cycles of both human and naval traffic along and into the mole to minimise loading time and maximise the number of men piling onto each ship. Queen of the Channel would subsequently be sunk by a German bomber, but the newly-energised operation was now underway, with many more men now being plucked from the beaches than the mere 7,669 who’d been removed on the first day.

Unfortunately, Luftwaffe attacks were stepped up on May 29. Because they were operating out of Britain and not locally, the RAF were hamstrung by the greater range required of them, something that meant they couldn’t fly for as long as their opponents. 

These gaps in RAF activity were taken full advantage of by the Germans, who bombed a number of ships that day. 

Hell from above, 29 May 1940 from Dunkirk book
East mole, shown here on the centre-left of the picture, was damaged by air attacks but it was quickly determined that the feature was still useable (image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Weary troops hunkered down and endured the bombing, getting what sleep they could in the violence around them as they awaited their turn to be ushered onto one vessel or another.

One of these men was Charlie Brown, who was with the Royal Army Service Corps of the BEF at Dunkirk and recalled how terrifying things were:

“You’re in a ditch… and you say to yourself ‘For God’s sake, drop (your bombs) and get it over’. They (Stukas) come down one after the other, they had a whistle – oh, the most frightening noise.”

The “frightening noise” was not an accident. As terrifying as Stukas were, they had a significant vulnerability to anti-aircraft guns. Sirens that wailed as they plunged towards the earth were installed precisely so that they could cause psychological mayhem amongst those on the ground, and throw off the aim of anyone trying to shoot them down.

Alistair Horne reminds us in ‘To Lose a Battle: France 1940’ that shooting them down before they delivered their deadly payloads was vital:

“The explosive force of the heavy bombs literally turned batteries upside down, wrecked guns and filled the working parts of anti-aircraft machine-guns with earth and grit. Observers in concrete bunkers were blinded by the dust and smoke and everywhere telephone lines were ruptured.”

Not that those on the Dunkirk beaches even had bunkers to hide in, nor much in the way of anti-aircraft guns to shoot back with. Their only defence was an air offence. 

Dunkirk 3D Map 1
A 3D map showing the situation on May 30, with the Allies in blue and the Germans in red, as the Allied line tightened up (image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Despite the difficulty the RAF was having, 47,310 men still made it back to England on May 29, proving that, even with savage Luftwaffe assaults, Dynamo was still operating at a far-more efficient rate than it had been.

Beyond the beaches, the perimeter around Dunkirk had now largely been closed, with defensive lines getting tighter and stronger. However, the BEF’s 145 Brigade was still outside of it.

“As darkness fell at 2130hrs the dauntless defenders moved out north-eastwards in a single column. However, they soon stumbled into (the Germans)… and in a series of running battles through the night, the column fragmented into small groups. After sunrise (commanding officer Brigadier) Somerset, 40 officers and almost 2,000 troops were surrounded and surrendered near Watou. The remainder dispersed, finally straggling into the perimeter two to four days later.”

Realignment of German Forces attacking the Dunkirk Perimeter, 31 May
The situation on May 31 (image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dilby © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

By May 31, this line consisted of 92,000 British and 156,000 French troops arrayed against 120,000 Germans (though, of course, the conquering German Army consisted of many more troops – these were simply the ones immediately opposite those defending Dunkirk).

What’s interesting is that, because the Germans were still conducting their overall attack on France and the Low Countries, Dunkirk had not been their main focus. It wasn’t until this day that the various German operations there would finally come under the umbrella of one commander.

As troops readied themselves to try and penetrate the Allied line, preparing to cross pontoon bridges across the Nieuport Canal, they came under sudden attack from a number of bi-planes that had been thrown into the defensive effort – their 250lb bombs crashing into their ranks, ruining their preparations.

British POWs at Dunkirk (left) and vehicles deserted on the beach, these ones thought to be at Calais
POWs taken when Dunkirk fell (left) and vehicles deserted on the beach (right) – these are at Calais; during the evacuation enterprising engineers used lines of submerged trucks as makeshift jetties

Messerschmitts were soon dispatched to deal with the pesky counter-attacks, but a number of Hawker Hurricanes swooped in and shot down three of them in turn.

Sir Max Aitken, who served as a Hawker Hurricane pilot and squadron leader with the RAF during the battle (and was the son of the press baron of the same name) knew just how important his role was to the operation:

“Our job was to stop enemy aircraft getting to those troops (at Dunkirk). Believe me, if enemy aircraft had got superiority of the air at Dunkirk, they would have massacred those fellows on the beach. Nothing could have been done, they had no guns, they had no anti-aircraft (weapons), and German bombers and German dive bombers – the Stukas – would have just murdered them, and we couldn’t have got those troops off.”

And it wasn’t just about the beaches:

“Another thing the Germans tried to do, of course, was to sink the ships. They knew that the fellows would not be able to swim out to England. Therefore, they had to try and get on the ships, and if they could sink these ships, then the British Army would have been trapped.”

A number of soldiers at Dunkirk later grumbled that the RAF wasn’t doing its job because of the several planes that got through and bombed them. They felt their own pilots were conspicuous by their absence. 

What soldiers didn’t realise was that the RAF weren’t visible to them precisely because they were elsewhere, helping to hold the Luftwaffe off. As bad as things were at Dunkirk, they’d have been far worse if more German planes had got through. In the process of stopping them, and of fighting the campaign in France, the RAF’s Fighter Command lost half of all its aircraft, many of them around Dunkirk.

Dunkirk by Welleschik
The beach at Dunkirk (image: Welleschik)

Bombers weren’t the only problem though. German artillery had now got close enough to start shelling the harbour as well. Strong winds and violent surf were also testing the men evacuating on May 31, with a number of small boats that had joined the effort being capsized.

In the skies above, Messerschmitts continued to duel with RAF fighters as they attempted to protect their bombers, which attacked in three waves that day. They downed six of them, and four fighters, but suffered their biggest loss of the campaign for their trouble – six Spitfires, eight Hurricanes and five Defiants. Of course, the men on the beaches were also ‘defiants’, braving the air attacks and artillery fire to continue clambering aboard the vessels relentlessly sent to their rescue. 53,230 made it out that day.

June 1 was worse – in fact, the worst day so far, in terms of air attacks. Five major raids, featuring – as per the usual logistical impediments – big gaps in the RAF response. The result was, in many instances, hordes of Stukas diving out of clear blue skies, screaming at the hapless ships and men below as they dropped their payloads on them. 

For their part, when the RAF was able to be present and engaged the enemy, they lost 16 fighters to 14 enemy aircraft.

Escape routes across Channel dunkirk
A map showing the three escape routes from Dunkirk to Dover – X, Y and Z ((image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Ships were also hit, of course:

“Trapped in the narrow channel of Route X (Y and Z were the other escape routes) where manoeuvring was impossible, Foudroyant was ‘submerged in a cloud of Stukas’. Shattered by three direct hits and numerous near misses, the large French destroyer quickly capsized and sank. A French auxiliary minesweeper, tug, two trawlers and a motor yacht rescued 157 crewmen.”

Other ships were also hit, 2,000 survivors subsequently being rescued from the rapidly sinking Brighton Queen alone.

By the end of June 2, the Brits had largely gone from Dunkirk, save for the aircover and those left behind in the chaos of all the fighting still raging at the edges of the defensive pocket. French troops were now in line to be extracted, but in one instance, as exhausted troops under the command of General Barthelemy’s worked their way towards the sea, this went terribly wrong:

“As his ragged, weary warriors tramped towards Malo-les-Bains, ‘a vast crowd of troops materialised[d]… out of the cellars and holes streams of unarmed men appeared, emerging everywhere, converging on the Mole, until they became an immense river of men frozen almost solid at his approaches’.”

Dunkirk 3D Map 2
A 3D map showing the Germans in red and the Allies forces in blue between June 2 and 4 (image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

This mixed-up and disorganised mass was composed of auxiliary soldiers such as transport drivers and ordnance troops, and their very lack of discipline and order severely hampered the evacuation of Barthelemy’s more uniform (and some might argue, more deserving) men. French historian Jacques Mordal said that “No episode in the epic of Dunkirk caused more heartbreak.”

Despite this setback, 46,792 French troops were still evacuated that day.

As to the success of the operation as a whole, most sources state that around 338,000 troops were rescued. This is about right, but in reality, the situation was more complicated.

Dildy states that 308,888 troops were ferried back to England on British vessels, while 48,474 were evacuated from Dunkirk on French ships, though 26,314 of these men were taken to other French ports (remember that France had not fallen entirely to the Nazis at this point, even if it was looking increasingly likely that it soon would). Of course, the operation was not neat and tidy, and many French soldiers were taken on British ships, with 122,000 ending up in Britain. A handful remained whilst the rest were soon returned to areas of France that had not yet fallen to continue the fight.

More complicated still is the fact that, although it accounted for the bulk of the British troops evacuated from France, Dynamo was not the only operation of this nature being carried out. Of all the troops extracted from Dunkirk, 221,504 had been British. An additional 144,171 British and Canadian personnel who’d been south of the Somme escaped in Operations ‘Aerial’ and ‘Cycle’ three weeks after Dunkirk. This puts the total number of British and Canadian troops who escaped the Continent at 365,675 - an impressive figure given that, as noted, it was originally thought that only around 50,000 men would get out.

Ultimately, as is pointed out in the BBC’s ‘The Other Side of Dunkirk’, this better-than-expected result may have allowed the war to continue. Britain’s improved prospects not only helped it fight on alone, it could have also inspired the US to join the war effort later on.

As we know, it would be a long hard road to eventual victory, but Dunkirk had made the next step in that journey possible, outlined by Winston Churchill in one famous wartime addresses to the Commons:

“The Battle of France is over... The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”

Reconstitution and Redeployment of British and French forces
Map showing the situation after the fall of Dunkirk (image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dilby © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

There were, of course, many ‘finest hours’ in the fight against fascism. 

Back on the Continent, the French had continued fighting until most of the British and many of their own men had had a chance to get away. 

When the last ships had gone and the Dunkirk campaign drew to a close, French commander General Beaufrere met his opposite number, German General Lieutenant Cranz, at the red brick Hotel de Ville in Dunkirk. It was over.

In a formal ceremony, the two men exchanged Cranz’s steel helmet for the French general’s kepi (military cap). 

Accepting Beaufrere’s surrender, Cranz asked:

“Where are the English?”

Beaufrere responded:

“They are in England.”

For more on the Battle for France and the Dunkirk operation, read ‘Dunkirk 1940: Operation Dynamo’ and ‘Fall Gelb 1940 (1)’ and ‘Fall Gelb 1940 (2)’ by Doug Dildy. ‘France 1940: Blitzkrieg in the West’ from the ‘Battles of World War II’ series gives additional information. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

White_Cliffs_of_Dover_02 by Immanuel Giel
Home: The White Cliffs of Dover (image: Immanuel Giel)

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