Monday, 17 July 2017

Dunkirk: The Wider Picture

Christopher Nolan’s epic new movie, ‘Dunkirk’ has created a buzz and looks set to be a box office hit, but what do we really know about Dunkirk? The biggest evacuation of military forces. The ‘little ships’ whose owners bravely volunteered to aid the rescue. The British Expeditionary Force returning home, dirty, exhausted, hungry and wounded. Relieved to be home, and yet worried that the public would brand them as cowards for running away, leaving the Germans to claim a fallen France as the victors. They need not have worried. Upon their arrival on English soil, the men of the BEF were surprised and relieved to receive a hero's welcome. But Dunkirk is far more than this – the wider picture extends beyond the beaches, beyond any physical evacuation and involved many sacrifices.

When Hitler gave the order on May 9th, 1940 to invade France, Belgium, and Holland, the Blitzkrieg forces stormed through the front lines of the Belgian and French army and Holland capitulated. It soon became clear that the Germans had the upper hand, gaining ground, military targets and, ultimately, beating the men of the British Expeditionary Force into a harsh retreat towards the French coast, towards Dunkirk.

Meanwhile, a mass exodus of civilians was on the march along rural roads and lanes, as people packed up their possessions and tried to flee the advancing German army. They clogged up roads and hampered the retreating BEF as the Luftwaffe swept overhead strafing and bombing indiscriminately, forcing people to dive into roadside ditches for cover. For some, it would become their final resting place. Chaos swirled all around and for the refugees and troops, it was hell.

Back in England, from the streets of Dover, the sounds of warfare sailed on the breeze across the Channel, leaving people in no doubt about the barrage that was taking place less than forty miles away.
For Churchill and his commanders, the situation was clear. This was not to be their victory and the only option was to rescue their men. Churchill knew that survival of the BEF was essential for the road to victory. And so on May 22nd, from the Dynamo room in the tunnels beneath Dover Castle, preparations to evacuate the troops were in progress. The man in charge was Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay and the codename for the rescue was “Operation Dynamo.”

Churchill. Image courtesy of
On May 23rd, the order was given to evacuate. Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, ordered the majority to retreat and make their way to Dunkirk for evacuation, retaining a number of units behind to hold the Germans back long enough to enable the rescue of the troops. The Belgian and the French army also continued the fight, assisting the BEF.

However, on May 24th, Hitler made a surprising move, one that continues to thwart historians. He ordered the Panzer division to stand down, instructing them to “halt”, an order that was to give the BEF their best chance to retreat and evacuate. Despite this, the Luftwaffe continued to bomb and strafe the Allied forces, civilians, and the beaches. When the port of Calais fell on the 26th, Dunkirk became the only viable escape route.

Just before 7 pm on May 26th, 1940, Churchill gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin.

With the might of the German army and time upon them, Churchill and his commanders realised that the Royal Navy did not have the capacity to carry out the operation alone. Multiple trips would be required and they had to act quickly. Even though it had already been deduced that they would be lucky if they rescued around 40,000 men, the Admiralty reached out to civilians, asking for boats to aid the mission. Many answered the call, some allowing their small vessels to be requisitioned and manned by the Navy while others insisted on coming along themselves, willing to risk their lives to aid their fellow countrymen. The ‘little ships’ were around 900 in number and comprised of a mix of fishing boats, yachts, ferries and other vessels.

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation.Image courtesy of the IWM, in the public domain. Source:

For the British Navy who surveyed the port from their ships, the scene was one of total carnage. Smoke billowed upward as fires raged and the small port glowed red while the Luftwaffe buzzed all around bombing and strafing. In the days that followed, a number of ships would be sunk.
The Luftwaffe attacked relentlessly, bombing the town and the docks, taking out the water and power supply and killing civilians in the process.

Meanwhile, a sea of khaki continued to stream across the dunes and beaches. Men formed orderly lines on the Dunkirk Mole – a long, stone and wooden jetty – enduring attack after attack by the Luftwaffe. There was no pushing or shoving, according to one eyewitness, and the men obeyed commands and maintained ranks. At this point, the majority of the BEF was still outside of Dunkirk.
British troops embarking onto ships during the evacuation from France, June 1940. Image source: Press Agency photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
On the beach, the dead and wounded troops lay all around amid dead and decaying horses and abandoned military vehicles and artillery. Many dug holes for shelter while waiting and for some, it would be their final resting place. Even as night fell, the Luftwaffe did not rest. Stukas screamed overhead, illuminating the night sky with flares to lead them to their prey, releasing their bombs and strafing the helpless troops. Hospital ships, easily identified with red crosses, were also prey, and, according to one eyewitness, after one ship had just boarded wounded men and set sail, it was attacked by six Stuka dive-bombers. Within seconds it was an inferno, and the screams of dying men could still be heard an hour later.

British ships rescuing the Allied troops under German Stuka fire at Dunkirk (France, 1940). Image Source: Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3), directed by Frank Capra. Public Domain (U.S. War Department):

Beyond the beaches, Lord Gort’s troops were selflessly fighting, determined to hold back the Germans for long as possible. The 2nd Royal Norfolk’s HQ was at Cornet Farm, one mile north of Le Paradis. Across the road, men of the 1st Royal Scots hunkered down to fight alongside them. Cut off from the rest of their units, they had already been informed that they were on their own. They held out as long as they could against the 14th Company, 1st Battalion of the 2nd SS Infantry Regiment. By late afternoon, however, they were out of ammunition. The farmhouse had been destroyed in the heavy bombardment and the Royal Norfolk’s were forced to flee to a cowshed. The German commander of the Totenkopf Division’s third regiment was killed in the battle.

By now there were only 99 men left alive and Major Lisle Ryder, the commanding officer of the 2nd Norfolk’s, ordered his men to surrender. As they filed out of the cowshed waving a white flag, the Royal Scots did the same, but from their position on the other side of the road, they surrendered to the Wehrmacht and were taken as prisoners. The Norfolk’s, meanwhile, surrendered to the SS. The Deputy Commander, SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) Fritz Knochlein ordered his men to strip the British of their weapons after which they were marched to another barn. Two machine guns were set up as the British were lined up against the wall. The Germans opened fire and any survivors were subsequently bayoneted.

Miraculously, two men survived. Shot in the arm, William O’Callaghan played dead and so avoided being bayoneted. Albert Pooley was also alive although he had a shattered leg. O’Callaghan helped Pooley away where they survived for three days in a pig sty, eating raw potatoes and drinking muddy water before the farm owners found them. They were offered shelter and help but when the Wehrmacht later arrived, they were discovered and taken prisoner. Pooley was repatriated in 1943, after having his leg amputated in a Paris hospital. Both men survived the war.

William O’Callaghan and Albert Pooley arrive at war crimes tribunal in Hamburg after the war. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
When Pooley returned home, he told authorities what had happened, but was not believed. It was only in 1946 when he visited Le Paradis and was interviewed by the Nord Éclair, a local newspaper, that the British took note and investigated. Knochlein was eventually found, put on trial and found guilty. On January 28th, 1949, he was hanged. Tragically, this was not the only massacre during the Dunkirk evacuation, or indeed the war.

Image courtesy of BH Photography. Spitfire
©2015, Barry Henderson. All Rights Reserved.

As the BEF evacuated, the RAF was ordered to protect them, and over the nine days of Operation Dynamo, they flew around 3500 sorties, fighting vehemently to deny the Luftwaffe complete air supremacy and thus ensure the success of the evacuation.
They claimed 262 enemy aircraft and lost 106 aircraft and around 80 pilots were KIA, losses that were far greater than during the later Battle of Britain. 

The RAF’s part in the operation has often been unrecognised, underestimated and perhaps even unappreciated by many of the troops on the ground. However, Churchill at least attempted to correct any oversight in his speech on June 4th, remarking, “Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements. I have heard much talk of this; this is why I go out of my way to say this.” He hailed the fighter pilots as "noble knights", and referred to Operation Dynamo as a “miracle of deliverance.”

While we recognise the selfless sacrifice of the troops who stayed behind and the RAF's role, we will remember the Royal Navy and civilian sailors, moored at sea for hours each day and night amidst a hail of bombardments while troops boarded. They valiantly carried on even when attacked, and ships sank, and men died. Even the journey back to England was perilous as mines and enemy U-boats lurked in the Channel. For those manning the "little ships", it was a trying, harrowing journey. Some boats refused to return after the first crossing, but many returned, making multiple voyages until the last of the men were safe.

Image courtesy of the IWM & in the public domain. Source:

Only around 7,500 men were taken off the beach on the 27th May, as a result of the heavy aerial bombardment that day, but numbers would increase steadily until around 338,000 men had been rescued, ending Operation Dynamo on June 4th, 1940. Some of the troops ordered to stay behind and fight were either killed in action or surrendered, only to be brutally murdered in cold blood. Some managed to escape and evade, but the majority became prisoners of war.
Operation Dynamo was a combined effort involving the land, air and sea forces. Without it, and without the selfless sacrifice of some of Lord Gort’s troops who remained behind, the BEF would never have been able to escape, leaving Britain to face an even darker future, her history irrevocably altered. This was the wider picture.

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.

By Saidman (Mr), War Office official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Charlie Waite, a greengrocer from Essex said in an interview some years ago that he was sent to France in April 1940, having barely received any training. He was captured at Dunkirk and spent the rest of the war in captivity, returning to England finally in 1945. He spoke of his comrades after they returned home, saying, “It was humiliating for them. After the war, they suffered a sense of failure, and didn’t feel they’d shared in the great victory over Nazism.” Charlie was on the thousand-mile forced march in the harsh winter of 1944 during which a number of men perished.

Dunkirk Memorial at Dover. Image source: Eluveitie (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

When Dunkirk fell, around 40,000 French troops were taken prisoner. In the town of Dunkirk, around 1,000 locals were killed during the air raids while 126 merchant seamen lost their lives in the operation.
Around 40,000 men of the BEF were captured and marched away as prisoners of war, sent to camps and forced to work in the harshest of conditions with very little food and water. Some died there and many of those who returned home suffered psychologically for various reasons, including being largely forgotten by the British public and by a government who sent them to war. Their contribution should always be remembered, along with all those who gave their lives to assure our freedom today.

Hitler’s decision at Dunkirk undoubtedly set the course for the rest of the war which would ultimately result in Germany’s downfall. The majority of the BEF was saved. Britain was not lost and she would continue to defend her shores and be ready to fight another day.

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