Operation Cycle and Operation Ariel

Operation Cycle

After Dunkirk, some 100,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel still remained in France. These numbers were boosted by a further 60,000 by the arrival of the British 52nd Lowland Division (7-12th June) and the 1st Canadian Division (12-13th June), the so-called 'Second BEF'.

The Franco-British position, already precarious, was made untenable when their attacks on the German bridgeheads around the River Somme failed and the Germans launched their second major offensive of the Blitzkrieg campaign, 'Fall Rot' (Operation Red), on the 5th June, 1940. The Allied defenders were too thinly spread and after initial tough Allied resistance, built around defensive strong points, the inevitable German breakthrough came. The response of the Allied Commander-in-Chief, General Weygand, to the crisis was to issue increasingly hysterical and impractical orders which imperilled his forces and the remaining British units in particular. By this stage, the British commanders on the ground had lost all confidence in the ability of the French High Command to stem the German advance and were reporting these thoughts back to the War Cabinet in London.

The driver of a Bren gun carrier of 51st Highland Division, June 1940.

The German breakthrough had isolated a large number of British troops, including the 51st Highland Division under Major-General Fortune, in a rapidly shrinking triangular pocket between Dieppe and Le Havre in the north and Rouen in the south. With 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions moving rapidly northwards from Rouen, an improvised evacuation of the British troops needed to be undertaken.

Men of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, holding a position in the River Bresle area, 6 - 8 June 1940.

Operation Cycle was intended to evacuate these troops from the port of Le Havre and was under the command of Admiral James, Royal Navy and C-in-C of Portsmouth. He had rapidly assembled an evacuation fleet of 67 merchant ships and 140 smaller vessels (mostly fishing boats from the Sussex coast) for this purpose. Following a personal visit to Le Havre to assess the military situation, he correctly anticipated that the bulk of the 51st Division would be cut off from Le Havre by 7th Panzer Division and would need to be evacuated from the small port of St Valery-en-Caux.

Men of the 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 51st Highland Division, Millbosche, 7 June 1940.

On the night of the 11th June, the first wave of ships arrived off St Valery. However, valuable time had been lost in the first place by French prevarication in granting permission for the Division to retreat. Furthermore, the retreat to St Valery was slowed by the decision, for the sake of Allied solidarity, to retreat in concert with the French 9th Corps under General Ihler, which had inadequate transport at their disposal. While the combined Allied force did manage to get to St Valery slightly ahead of the Germans, the Panzer troops were successful in occupying the heights to the west of the port with artillery and heavy machine guns, effectively blocking the approaches to the port.

General Fortune, commander of the 51st Highland Division, and his staff surrender to Major-General Erwin Rommel, officer commanding 7th Panzer Division, St Valery-en-Caux, 12th June 1940.

As a consequence, the focus of the evacuation switched eastwards to the small seaside village of Veules-les-Roses. The geography between St Valery and Veules was challenging to say the least for those troops who made the journey. The rocky shoreline was covered by German guns and if making their way along the cliff top, the soldiers faced a descent down the sheer 300ft high cliffs on improvised ropes in the dark. Out at sea, the situation was little better. Heavy fog and the absence of radio communication meant that it was nearly impossible to re-direct the bulk of the rescue fleet. Whilst some ships did manage to land beach parties and embark troops, by 9.30am on the 12th June, German gunfire from east and west brought the evacuation to a premature close from Veules. French forces in St Valery surrendered at 8.00am with the British surrendering shortly afterwards. Only 2,137 British and 1,184 French troops had been evacuated, with the remaining force of around 40,000, including 8,000 British, being captured.

British and French troops taken prisoner at St Valery on 12th June 1940.

The evacuation from Le Havre, undertaken in the period 10th - 13th June, was altogether more successful, with 11,059 men being evacuated. The last ship left port as the Germans approached the town.

To view a plaque awarded to the MV Albion, click here.

 Operation Ariel

The burning docks at Cherbourg after the British evacuation.

This evacuation operation was undertaken against a very different political background. On the 13th June, the French Premier, Paul Reynaud, requested permission from the British Government to negotiate a separate peace agreement with the Germans. This finally led the War Cabinet to realise that they were not going to be able to keep the French in the war for much longer and the priority was now to extricate their forces as quickly and safely as possible.

British troops on the deck of a ship watch stores burning ashore during the evacuation of Cherbourg, 13 June 1940.

As with Operation Cycle, Admiral James was once again put in command of the evacuation. The plan was arguably more ambitious and strategically demanding given the quantity of personnel to be evacuated, the modest resources at his disposal and the distances involved. With insufficient resources to utilise a convoy system, he instead despatched a steady and organised flow of troop ships, store ships, motor vehicle vessels, coasters and schuyts to embark troops.

British and French troops on board ships leaving Cherbourg en route for Southampton, 13 June 1940.

An exhausted British soldier catches up on his sleep on board the steamer 'Royal Sovereign' en route to Southampton during the evacuation of British troops from Cherbourg, 13 June 1940.

Vessels were sent from Portsmouth, Southampton, Poole, Weymouth and Plymouth. Between the 15th and 25th June, 191,870 British, Polish and Czech troops and some equipment and stores were evacuated from the French coastal ports of Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire, Nantes, La Pallice, Le Verdon, Bordeaux, Bayonne and St Jean-de-Luz.

Troops on their way to the port at Brest during the evacuation of British forces from France, June 1940.

British soldiers board a destroyer at Brest to return to the United Kingdom.

Thankfully, the only major interference to operations was from the Luftwaffe and for the most part, air cover provided by RAF fighters (1, 17, 73, 242 and 501 squadrons) was effective. The very notable exceptions being the losses to air attack of the HMT Lancastria (estimates of personnel losses range from 2500 to 6000) and the French liner Champlain to an aerially-laid mine (personnel losses: 12).

Notwithstanding the overall success of the operation, the homecoming and public welcome for the returning troops was muted in comparison to those evacuated from Dunkirk. Many travelled alone or in small groups to railway stations and few in the general population seemed to know or care about the ordeal many of these men had been through. To many, these were not the fighting regiments of Dunkirk, but the 'useless mouths' of the lines of communication. Whilst such comparisons were of course entirely unfair, by this stage the nation's attentions were now wholly focussed on resisting the inevitable Nazi threat on Britain itself.

A Royal Navy demolition party returns from Brest having destroyed much of the harbour and key installations.

To read about the loss of HMT Lancastria, click here.

To read about the M.V. Albion (NN 68), please click here.

To read about and view the medals of Platoon Sergeant-Major John Clark 1st Battalion, Black Watch, 51st Highland Division, please click here.

To read about the 97th (Kent Yeomanry) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery at St Valery, please click here.

To read about British Army Nurses, click here.

To read about the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), click here.

To read about 2nd Lieutenant A J Webster RASC, click here.

To read about HMS Broke D83, click here.

To read about the part played by the TSS St Helier, click here.

To view the uniform of an Officer of the Royal Army Pay Corps. click here.

To return to the main museum menu, click here.

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