Thursday, 26 May 2016

Remembering Dunkirk.

In May 1940, the "Phoney War" came to an end as German forces swept across northern France and Belgium. As the German forces advanced, the Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, General Viscount Gort realised that the Germans had the upper hand. The French Army fought desperately but it was no use. In a final desperate act, the French called on Gort to advance south and join them in the last stand, but Gort knew enough to realise that this could well mean the loss of all of his men.

So, on the 23rd May 1940, Gort gave the order to withdraw and for the troops to make their way to the port of Dunkirk. The Dunkirk evacuation was codenamed "Operation Dynamo" and took place between the 26th May 1940 and the 4th June. It was led by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. The codename came from the Dynamo room in the Dover cliffs where their operation HQ was based. Just before 7pm on May 26th, Churchill gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin.

Unbelievably, Hitler had ordered his tanks to stop pursuing the BEF on the 24th May for reasons that remain unknown, although he trusted the Luftwaffe to be able to prevent the evacuation. The BEF, meanwhile had to fight their way to Dunkirk and try to hold off the Germans long enough while they waited for the ships to arrive to evacuate them from the beaches. They were joined by a small number of French and Belgian forces.

Back in England, the call went out across Britain for anyone with a boat to spare and many boats were requisitioned by the navy to be used for the evacuation. Local fisherman and private boat owners answered the call, including some from the Isle of Man. Many other boats were offered voluntarily, and a number of boats were taken by the navy whose owners could not be contacted. On the eve of the operation, King George VI attended a special service at Westminster Abbey as a national day of prayer had been declared and services were held all around the country.

On May 27th, 1940, a flotilla of ships like no other set sail; a mix of fishing boats, yachts, ferries, motorboats and more flowed from the Thames and out into the English Channel heading towards Dunkirk. Smoke and flames filled the sky above the small port and the crew on these boats risked their lives as the Germans attacked. The beaches were filled with men. Lines of them tumbled along the pier to reach awaiting ships while others waded out into the sea, struggling in deep water, often lapping over their heads as they tried to reach the smaller vessels.

Meanwhile, German artillery continued to bombard them and the Luftwaffe strafed them overhead. Churchill thought they might rescue around 50,000 men but by the end of the operation, approximately 340,000 men had been saved. The operation was the largest evacuation in military history.

In the background, Dunkirk glowed red as the small port burned. Ambulances were abandoned on the beach by the shore having emptied out their casualties for evacuation. A British destroyer was on the beach, bombed and burning and the harbour was partially blocked by sunken ships. The scene was absolute carnage and chaos. The small boats would fill up with men and ferry them out to the larger British ships further out in the deeper water, and then turn around and go back again for more. Lines of weary soldiers continued to trudge down to the shore, out into the sea, like a swarm of bedraggled ants. Shells whistled overhead and bombs exploded all around as bodies floated in the sea.

There were around 900 little boats that took part in the evacuation, often with only one or two crew aboard. The men waited in orderly lines for rescue, patiently while under constant attack by the shelling and the Luftwaffe above. Signaller Alfred Baldwin said "they looked as if they were waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving."

The forces on the ground were also aided by the RAF, who flew around 3.500 sorties during the operation to defend the troops from the Luftwaffe. 145 RAF aircraft were lost and the Luftwaffe lost 156.

During the evacuation, there were over 200 ships and boats lost. HMS Wakeful was torpedoed on May 29th and sank in 15 seconds with the loss of 600 lives. There were around 90,000 British left behind, either killed at sea or on the beaches, wounded or prisoner's of war and more than 1,000 citizens of Dunkirk killed in the air raids.

While the evacuation was in progress, there were also atrocities. On May 27th, 97 men from the Royal Norfolk Regiment ran out of ammunition in the village of Le Paradis and surrendered to the Germans, only to be shot on the orders of the SS.

The little boats sailing up the Thames after Operation Dynamo
Churchill hailed the operation a "miracle" but he also warned the nation that "wars are not won by evacuations." He went on to deliver one of his most famous speeches in the House of Commons on the 4th June 1940, where he declared, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!"
Churchill also paid a special tribute to the RAF for their role in Operation Dynamo, in providing some protection to the waiting ships and soldiers.

Some of the returning soldiers worried about how they might be received back in Britain, and whether they might be thought of as cowards. They need not have fretted. Back in England they were given an orange, a sandwich, a mug of tea and a very warm welcome, with civilians flooding to the station to greet them and offer help.

It was an amazing success, and as Churchill declared, a "miracle" and it was a turning point in the war, a definite blow to the German war machine. This "miracle" enabled Britain to regroup, and to prepare for war while strengthening her forces and preparing for the possible threat of a German invasion.