Friday, May 26

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The long-awaited movie, Dunkirk, by Christopher Nolan, which tells the story of Operation Dynamo, will be released in July 2017. Today, May 26th 2017, marks the 77th anniversary of Dunkirk, the daring rescue mission Britain launched to bring as many of the British Expeditionary Troops home as possible. Why? Well, the German army had them cornered in a small pocket of northern France and to leave them was not an option. Not only was it a humanitarian mission, but equally a military one, as without those men, Britain would be severely depleted of ground forces, leaving Britain wide open to a German invasion, her military might severely depleted.

In early May 1940, the German army swept across northern France and Belgium, heralding a brutal end to the "Phoney War". They had the upper hand, moving with such a might that pushed the British Expeditionary Force back into a retreat towards the coast of northern France. Alongside the British, the French army fought fiercely, but it was no use. The German army at this time was a far greater force, with a superior fire power, greater number of men and the elite Panzer Tank Division.
In a final desperate act, the French called on General Gort, the British commander, to advance south and join them in one last stand, but he refused, realising this could result in the loss of all his men. The BEF were surrounded, beaten into a corner of France, and all seemed hopeless. 

On May 22nd, preparations to evacuate the BEF were in full swing, led by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. The codename for the Dunkirk evacuation was "Operation Dynamo", named after the Dynamo room in the tunnels beneath Dover Castle, where their naval operation HQ was based.
"Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now," said General Alan Brooke.

Churchill with Vice-Admiral Ramsay at naval HQ

On the 23rd May 1940, Churchill ordered Gort to withdraw and the troops then made their way to the port of Dunkirk. The BEF still had to fight as they headed to the coast, and do their utmost to hold the Germans back long enough for the evacuation to take place. As the army convoy made their way along roads, they encountered fleeing refugees - mothers pushing prams, children and elderly. Then the Luftwaffe attacked, diving low in their Stukas, often firing and bombing the civilians as opposed to the BEF, something which both surprised and horrified the troops. 

On May 24th, Hitler issued an order to "halt" stopping the Panzer tanks in their tracks. The reasons behind Hitler's actions remain unknown although military historians have their theories. However, this gave the BEF their best chance of retreat and evacuation back to Britain. All was not yet lost. The Luftwaffe continued, bombing the British destroyers, bombing the men on the beach, bombing those still fleeing. 
Calais fell on May 26th.
Just before 7pm on May 26th, Churchill gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin.
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.
While Britain sent ships to evacuate her men from Dunkirk, it seemed unlikely they would be able to evacuate all of the troops. At best they estimated they would rescue some forty-five thousand men over a forty-eight-hour period. 
The admiralty had already put a request out to all civilians, asking for boats to aid the evacuation. Many vessels were requisitioned by the navy who also took a number of boats whose owners could not be contacted. Local fisherman and private boat owners answered the call, including some from as far as the Isle of Man. There were fishing boats, fire ships, private yachts, barges and paddle steamers, many of which were captained by their civilian owners. One of the boats used was captained by the former second officer of the Titanic.

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, setting sail for Dunkirk. As the French coast came into view, smoke and flames filled the sky as the small port glowed red. 

The beaches were filled with men and littered with equipment and vehicles such as command cars, ambulances, and tanks, abandoned and sabotaged by the troops. The scene was one of absolute carnage and chaos. There were wounded and dead. The Germans were now close enough to shell the beach while Stukas and Messerschmitts bombed and fired from above. The RAF provided air cover, and did their best to fight the Luftwaffe and hold them at bay while the troops waited on the beach.
The little boats sailing up the Thames
Lines of men tumbled along the jetty to reach awaiting ships while others waded out into the sea, struggling in the deep water which lapped over their heads as they tried to reach the smaller vessels. As the boats took men aboard, the men in the lines moved forward, while hordes more made their way over the dunes and across the beach, forming new lines, awaiting their turn to board. 

In the distance, troops from the 51st (Highland) Division fought rearguard actions, trying to keep the Germans at bay in order to give the rest of the BEF their best chance of evacuation. Many would become prisoners of war, while some would successfully evade, fleeing to Marseilles. 
The first day of the evacuation did not go as planned and only around 7,500 men were rescued, due to heavy attacks by the Germans who launched a massive aerial raid on Dunkirk, killing around a third of the remaining civilians. The noise was infernal, continuous, and compounded by the roar of aircraft with firepower from the air. As ships were bombed, fires erupted, and flames raged across the water as leaking oil burned. 

Stuka bombers attack. Image courtesy of Getty Images.

A British destroyer rested on the beach, bombed and burning and the harbour was partially blocked by sunken ships. The small boats would fill up with the men waiting in the water and ferry them out to the larger British ships further out before turning around and returning for more. Lines of weary soldiers continued to trudge down to the shore and out into the sea like a swarm of bedraggled ants. Shells whistled overhead and bombs exploded all around, throwing shrapnel in all directions. 

There were around 900 little boats that took part in the evacuation, often with only one or two crew aboard. The men waited patiently in orderly lines on the 'Dunkirk Mole' - a long stone and wooden jetty - while under constant attack from the Luftwaffe above. Signaller Alfred Baldwin said "they looked as if they were waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving." These men had been deprived of sleep, food, and water, and yet still they obeyed commands and maintained ranks.

By the 4th June, the last of the men were rescued from the French port.

Around 338,000 men in total were evacuated, making this the largest military evacuation in history. 

Around 40,000 men were left behind, which included all those who were dead. Some evaded while the majority were taken prisoner and marched off to slave labour camps in Germany and Poland where they spent the rest of the war. 

Churchill hailed the operation a "miracle of deliverance" 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.

The miracle of Dunkirk afforded Britain time to re-group and to build up her defences.

  • Interesting Facts

    During the evacuation lorries were lashed together in the sea to construct makeshift jetties to help get soldiers aboard boats.

    The Medway Queen, a paddle steamer, made seven round trips to Dunkirk, rescuing 7000 men in total.

    The RAF flew 3,500 sorties over Dunkirk. 145 RAF aircraft were lost while the Luftwaffe lost 156.

    The destroyer Wakeful was torpedoed and sunk on May 29th, with the loss of 600 lives. 
    In all, it's estimated that 3,500 British were killed on the beaches or at sea while more than 1,000 civilians lost their lives in Dunkirk air raids.

    One of the little ships, 'The Crested Eagle' was bombed after picking up 600 men. 300 died in the flames while the Luftwaffe fired at those trying to escape. The remains of the wreck can be seen at low tide.

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