Dunkirk- The Evacuation

From the 26th May onwards, the Luftwaffe began to focus its attentions on Dunkirk. Many of the Allied troops sheltered in cellars in the town, or in the sand dunes behind the beaches where the sand helped to reduce the explosive impact of the bombing. Following a heavy raid on the 27th, the main docks were completely put out of action. With the main port closed, the focus of the evacuation transferred to the beaches and more importantly, the narrow 1400-yard eastern breakwater, made of concrete and wood, known as the Eastern Mole. The Mole allowed large vessels to tie-up and embark troops far more rapidly than was possible on the beaches. It was also partly screened from air attack, by the thick black smoke coming from the burning oil tanks in the port, a scene synonymous with Dunkirk.

While Vice-Admiral Ramsey in Dover was in overall command of operations, he was ably assisted by Naval commanders 'on the ground' in Dunkirk, notably Rear Admiral Wake-Walker and Captain Tennant. The former was in charge of controlling the flow of shipping in and out of Dunkirk, whilst the latter was responsible for directing the physical embarkation of troops using a naval shore party consisting of eight officers and 160 men.

The bad news continued, with reports that the Belgians were in the process of seeking an armistice, which would expose a 20-mile gap on the BEF's left flank. That night, the 13,000 men of General Montgomery's 3rd Division executed a giant side-step manoeuvre and were in position the next morning to plug the gap, following the Belgian surrender on the 28th May.

The air battle over Dunkirk intensified still further on the 29th as the skies cleared. The RAF, flying standing patrols from bases in Kent and Essex, were fighting a desperate battle to keep the Luftwaffe from gaining complete air superiority over the battle zone. However, the raiders were getting through and shipping losses began to soar. The British and French destroyers in particular, took a battering and ultimately on the evening of the 29th, the Admiralty made the decision to withdraw the remaining eight modern destroyers, even though this order was rescinded the following day. With the Dunkirk pocket now being steadily squeezed, the temporary loss of these fast vessels dramatically reduced the capacity of the evacuation effort. In a desperate attempt to speed up the operation, Vice-Admiral Ramsey ordered the famous flotilla of 'little ships' to set sail for Dunkirk. These small boats (fishing smacks, trawlers, drifters, motor yachts, launches and Thames Barges), largely manned by civilian crews, were particularly valuable in lifting men off the beaches and ferrying them to larger vessels waiting offshore. In this task, the small boats were greatly aided by the good weather and eerily calm sea, which was to be a feature throughout the operation. In addition, by this point several jetties constructed from abandoned lorries and motor vehicles had been created along the beaches, which allowed for quicker and safer embarkation of troops.

In the initial stages, the vast majority of troops evacuated were British. This was to change on the 31st May, when the French, at long last appreciating that evacuation was the only course open to them, requested to be included in the evacuation plan. Churchill, in an attempt to mollify the French, ordered that from this point on, both French and British troops would embark in roughly equal proportions.

With General Gort being ordered back to England, command of the remaining BEF units passed to General Alexander. His orders were to hold the perimeter until the night of June 1-2 and then evacuate his forces under cover of darkness. However, on the morning of the 1st of June, there were still 39,000 British and 100,000 French personnel within the perimeter. In order to save more of the allied forces, Admiral Abrial (the French commander of the port) and General Alexander agreed to extend the evacuation plan for one more night, to the 2-3 of June. With the mounting losses in shipping, all evacuations would now be carried out at night. The plan was for the British to progressively 'thin out' their forces in the evening, then fall back onto the port and a massed fleet of waiting ships. The French would then take over the manning of the whole of the perimeter, with the remnants of four divisions, the 12th, 32nd, 37th and 68th Infantry Divisions, who would then also steadily pull back and be rescued. The British part of the plan went relatively smoothly and by 10.50pm on the 2nd of June the naval shore party was able to send its final signal to Dover,"BEF evacuated".

However, French plans were put into disarray by a strong German attack and by morning there were still over 60,000 French defenders left in Dunkirk. Both morally and politically, it was unacceptable for the British to abandon the French rearguard without making one last effort. Hence, on the morning of the 3rd of June, British naval units received orders to make one final rescue bid on the night of 3-4 June. That night, under the noses of the Germans, 26,000 of the rearguard were rescued. However, this still left 30-40,000, mainly French defenders, to fall into German hands when the town of Dunkirk was eventually surrendered at approximately 10am on the 4th of June. Operation Dynamo had successfully evacuated 338,000 allied servicemen (including 123,000 French and Belgian troops) in the space of 11 days and can, with hindsight, be seen as one of the turning points of World War II.

To read about a Spitfire MkIa shot down over Dunkirk, click here.

To read about Private Challoner KORR, click here.

To read about Lieutenant Yeo RCS, click here.

To read about Signalman Cyril Mutimer, click here.

To read about Sergeant Henry Wilfred James Spice Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), click here.

To view the walking out dress of an Adjutant Chef of the 8eme Regiment of Dragons (Dragoons), click here.

To return to the main museum, click here.

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