The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, S. W. Roskill. This first volume in the British official history of the war at sea covers the period from the outbreak of the war through to the first British disasters in the Pacific in December 1941. Amongst other topics it covers the Norwegian campaign, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the first two years of the Battle of the Atlantic. The text is meticulously researched, and is rooted in a detailed study of wartime records, both British and German. [see more]
'Out of the Jaws of Death': Read TIME's Original Report on the Evacuation of Dunkirk
I t seemed like a defeat. And, in some ways, it was. Yet the evacuation of Allied troops from the port of Dunkirk, France &mdash an operation that began 77 years ago, on May 26, 1940 &mdash remains one of World War II’s best known examples of heroic success.
With the capitulation of Belgium, British and French troops were left trapped between German forces &mdash hundreds of thousands of ground troops, plus their air force &mdash and the coast. The destination for many of those troops was Dunkirk, and so that was the destination for their pursuers as well. As TIME later explained, Britain and France managed to get more than 300,000 troops off the beach during the retreat (compared to an estimated 45,000 who’d been predicted to make it) and across the water with the help of 1,200 boats, many of which were civilian leisure and fishing boats put to unexpected use.
The operation at Dunkirk provoked one of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches (“We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air…”), and helped earn Churchill the title of TIME’s 1940 Man of the Year. It was clear almost immediately that what had happened was something that would be remembered for a long time to come.
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9 things you (probably) didn’t know about Dunkirk
In 1940, as British troops retreated through France under fire from an advancing German Army, a massive evacuation was launched to bring the soldiers safely home. Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, a mammoth 338,000 troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in the remarkable Operation Dynamo
This competition is now closed
Published: May 26, 2020 at 3:45 pm
Here, military historian James Holland shares some lesser-known facts about the evacuation at Dunkirk, and the fighting that led up to it…
Dunkirk: what happened?
On 10 May 1940, Adolf Hitler began his long-awaited offensive in the west by invading neutral Holland and Belgium and attacking northern France. Holland capitulated after only five days of fighting, and the Belgians surrendered on 28 May. With the success of the German ‘Blitzkrieg’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French troops were in danger of being cut off and destroyed.
To save the BEF, an evacuation by sea was organised under the direction of Admiral Bertram Ramsay. Over nine days, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, warships of the Royal and French navies together with civilian craft successfully evacuated more than 338,000 British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, in the remarkable Operation Dynamo.
The success of the evacuation strengthened not only Britain’s defences in the face of a German invasion threat, but also Churchill’s position against those like the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who favoured discussing peace terms. Seventy years later, Dunkirk is still synonymous with refusing to give up in times of crisis.
Britain had the only 100 per cent mechanised army in 1940
The reason for defeat in France in 1940 was not a failure in equipment, tactics or training, but the BEF’s small size: just 10 divisions. This meant they could only ever play a supporting role in the action. When Belgian and French forces on their flanks collapsed, the BEF had no choice but to fall back in line with their allies. For Britain, an island nation with a large seaborne empire, the Royal Navy was the senior service. Pre-war rearmament had sensibly focussed on naval and air power. After all, France was an ally with a vast army. The idea was that Britain would take the lead at sea, France on land, and both would contribute to air power.
There were no telephones at French Army headquarters
In contrast, the French had largely eschewed radio technology in favour of landline telephones and traditional dispatch riders. At his headquarters on the edge of Paris, Gamelin insisted there should be no telephones at all, such was his paranoia of a security break. This meant he was repeatedly and fatally out of touch with his commanders at a time when swift and rapid decision-making was essential.
With German artillery and the Luftwaffe also repeatedly cutting phone lines, the French were ever more dependent on dispatch riders, who were forced to battle through roads clogged with refugees. Often they became lost, took too long, or failed to return altogether. Inevitably, the French Army ground to a halt, unable to move or respond to the rapidly unfolding situation.
The Luftwaffe suffered its worst day
However, that first day of the campaign was the worst the Luftwaffe suffered for some three years. A staggering 353 German planes crashed or were shot down. (To put that in perspective, the worst day for the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain saw them lose 67 aircraft). Most were transports bringing in airborne troops, but these Junkers 52s had only been brought to bear by scouring training schools and their losses severely set back aircrew training. In fact, the Luftwaffe had still not made good on its losses by the time they invaded the Soviet Union the following June.
The game-changing ‘eastern mole’ was discovered purely by chance
A lifeline had been discovered and over the next five days and nights, the eastern mole not only remained intact but also undamaged by either the sheer weight of ships mooring alongside or by enemy bombs. Of the 338,226 men lifted from Dunkirk, 239,555 – the vast majority – were taken from the eastern mole.
Find Dunkirk ancestors
Over the course of ten days in 1940, nearly 65,000 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were rescued from the northern French port of Dunquerke, or Dunkirk.
Officially known as Operation Dynamo, the rescue mission was one of the most famous events of the Second World War and gave rise to the legend of the ‘Little Ships’ racing across the Channel to save an army.
The popular myth of lines of soldiers waiting on the beaches to be collected by pleasure craft, while Hitler’s forces held back to give them a chance to escape, largely came about from the propaganda spread at the time of the evacuation.
The reality of Operation Dynamo was far bloodier and far more hard-fought, and mythology has not been kind to those who were there.
The BEF had been sent to France after the German invasion of Poland and was to operate along the Franco-Belgian border.
Despite being commanded by General Lord Gort, a man decorated for bravery many times, the BEF were poorly trained and poorly equipped.
They were no match for the superbly organised German army and, when Blitzkrieg came, it was deadly.
German forces broke through the Ardennes on 14 May 1940 and immediately began to surround the opposing troops in the north and move towards the Channel ports.
The French, Belgian and British armies were powerless to stop this relentless push. Heavy fighting followed, but the Allies found themselves trapped in an ever-shrinking ‘sack’ around the coast.
On 25 May, General Lord Gort took the decision to evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk. Churchill insisted that the evacuation was to include French soldiers in an equal number to British troops, and it was originally hoped that 45,000 men could be evacuated in a combined operation by the Royal and Merchant Navy.
However, on the first day of the evacuation it was discovered that the harbour was far too shallow for many of the larger vessels to get close to shore and, as a consequence, ships were left sitting outside the harbour as a target for the Luftwaffe.
This meant that troops were forced to wade out, shoulder deep, to get to some of the waiting vessels. Consequently, on 27 May just 7,669 men were got away from the beaches, many of them on the passenger ferries used on the pre-war cross-channel routes.
Having now been made aware of the problem, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping contacted boat builders and owners from around the coast, telling them to make ready all vessels that could navigate shallow waters.
At the forefront of the mobilisation were boats moored on the Thames and in ports on the south coast.
All crews were offered ‘Navy Pay’ to take the vessels themselves, while others were requisitioned and manned by naval personnel.
The Little Ships started arriving at Dunkirk the next day. On 28 May nearly 18,000 men were evacuated and more small ships arrived, including merchant fishing vessels, private yachts and even a Mersey ferry!
Some of these vessels were large enough to take troops directly back to England, but most were used to carry soldiers to the larger waiting boats.
On 29 May more than 47,000 men were evacuated, but the day was marred by major losses to both Merchant and Royal Navy fleets. Just under 54,000 men were rescued on 30 May, and 68,000 a day later.
Among those leaving France as the month drew to a close was General Lord Gort. The approaching German army was dangerously close to Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe was in control of the air over the port and the harbour was constantly being bombed. If Gort had been captured, it would have been a propaganda coup for Germany.
The last day of May was also the point at which the British public were made aware of the events at Dunkirk. The operation was reported as an ‘undefeated army returning home’, in spite of the fact it was an army in full retreat.
On Saturday 1 June nearly 65,000 men were evacuated, despite the loss of four more Royal Navy Destroyers. More than 26,000 men were successfully removed on each of the following three days.
In total, 338,226 men made it back from Dunkirk. Over 100,000 had been ferried to larger vessels by the Little Ships and in excess of 6,000 had been brought directly home by them.
About 250 ships were sunk during the operation, including six Destroyers, and many more were damaged.
The Royal Air Force came in for a great deal of hostility from returning troops. The skies over Dunkirk had been full of Luftwaffe but the RAF had rarely been seen, and the returning troops had felt that the RAF had abandoned them.
In fact, this was far from the truth, as the RAF had flown 4,922 sorties over the operational area and lost more than 100 aircraft.
Their presence hadn’t been felt because they engaged the enemy away from the beaches to keep the evacuation routes open for as long as they possibly could.
They were also charged with patrolling the sea lanes, which would not have been witnessed by the men being evacuated.
For very many of the troops involved, the ‘Miracle of Deliverance’ tag applied to Operation Dynamo was far from the truth.
When General Harold Alexander called out “Is anybody there?” from the perimeter established around the beach at Dunkirk, many thousands of soldiers were not in earshot.
These unfortunate men were left behind when the last boats sailed from Dunkirk and forced to find their own way out of France.
Although some were evacuated in later operations, roughly 40,000 British soldiers became prisoners of war.
Among these prisoners were a great number from the 51st Highland Division, who, at the time of the evacuation, had been fighting a rearguard action alongside the French.
Once captured, these soldiers were subjected to a horrific forced march through the countryside of France, Belgium and Germany, suffering hunger, thirst and brutality. Any man that couldn’t keep up died at the side of the road or was shot.
Those that did survive found themselves in prisoner of war camps in Germany and Poland. For these men the war had been short but brutal, and five long years of captivity stretched ahead.
The sweeping legacy of First Lady Barbara Bush
Posted On January 28, 2019 18:45:10
Former First Lady Barbara Bush, wife of 41st President George H. W. Bush, passed away in Houston, Texas, on April 17, 2018. The mother of 6 and grandmother of 17 was 92.
Only two women in American history have both served as First Lady and raised a son who would become president. The first was Abigail Adams, First Lady to President John Adams and the mother of John Quincy Adams. The second was Mrs. Bush, whose son George W. Bush would serve two terms as Commander in Chief beginning just 8 years after his father left office.
Yet Mrs. Bush’s legacy extends far beyond her role as the matriarch of one of America’s most consequential political families. She served as a close and trusted adviser to her husband during the first Bush Administration, and she tirelessly championed the cause of literacy throughout her life. The New York Times reports that Mrs. Bush attended more than 500 events related to literacy just counting her husband’s time as Vice President in the Reagan Administration alone.
President Bush, Mrs. Bush, and Millie leave Marine One. (George H.W. Bush Library photo)
“Amongst [Mrs. Bush’s] greatest achievements was recognizing the importance of literacy as a fundamental family value that requires nurturing and protection,” President Donald J. Trump said in a statement. “She will be long remembered for her strong devotion to country and family, both of which she served unfailingly well.”
Easter at the White House. (George H.W. Bush Library photo)
The outpouring of deeply personal remembrances in the hours following Mrs. Bush’s death is a testament to both her force as a public figure and her warmth as a friend. “When I first met Barbara Bush in 1988 as she entertained spouses of congressional candidates at the @VP Residence, her sage advice and words of encouragement touched my life in a profound way,” Second Lady Karen Pence wrote on Twitter. “Since becoming Second Lady, she has become a trusted friend. I will miss her.”
Mrs. Bush takes Millie’s puppies out for a walk in the Rose Garden of the White House. (George H.W. Bush Library photo)
Those sentiments weren’t limited to public officials. “You were a beautiful light in this world and I am forever thankful for your friendship,” Houston Texans defensive end J. J. Watt wrote.
Remembering Barbara Bush
Mrs. Bush reads to children in the White House Library. (George H.W. Bush Library photo)
Mrs. Bush’s far-reaching work and plainspoken style made her a bipartisan symbol for women’s empowerment. She also embraced the value of accessibility in a First Lady. When she famously wore fake pearls to her husband’s Presidential Inauguration and throughout her time in the White House, her deputy press secretary quipped it was because “she just really likes them.”
(Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
Acutely aware of the public spotlight cast on First Ladies, Mrs. Bush served as America’s first hostess “with respect but without fuss or frippery,” Vanessa Friedman writes in The New York Times.
(Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)
The Bush family shared personal tributes of their own. “Barbara Bush was a fabulous First Lady and a woman unlike any other who brought levity, love, and literacy to millions,” former President George W. Bush wrote. “To us, she was so much more. Mom kept us on our toes and kept us laughing until the end. I’m a lucky man that Barbara Bush was my mother.”
President-elect andu00a0Mrs. Bush and Vice President-elect and Mrs. Quayle visit President and Mrs. Reagan at the White House the day after the election. (George H.W. Bush Library photo)
First Lady Melania Trump will attend Mrs. Bush’s funeral in Texas on April 21, 2018. President Trump has ordered that all U.S. flags at Federal locations fly at half-staff until sunset of that day.
“Throughout her life, she put family and country above all else,” Mrs. Trump said in a statement. “She was a woman of strength and we will always remember her for her most important roles of wife, mother, and First Lady of the United States.”
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Dunkirk 80th Anniversary: Ten-Minute History Lesson
Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) line up on the beach at Dunkirk awaiting evacuation. Credit: Shutterstock.
“Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Those were the chilling words Winston Churchill used to remind the country in 1940 that the successful beach evacuation of over 300,000 Allied soldiers did not represent a victory.
The Dunkirk Evacuation, although successful in the face of daunting odds, was the lowest moment for the British in both the world wars of the 20th century. A success, yes, but a victory, no.
But what exactly was the Dunkirk Evacuation, how did it come to be and what did it mean for Europe and the rest of World War Two?
Here, BFBS gives you the essential info on the Dunkirk Evacuation.
When Was The Dunkirk Evacuation?
The Dunkirk Evacuation occurred during the Battle of France, from May 26 to June 4, 1940.
The opening eight or so months of WWII were dismissively referred to by many as the ‘phoney war’. This was in reference to Britain being at war with Germany, but seemingly only on paper.
Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939 after it invaded Poland, but with such a period of no action following that declaration, many Britons wrongly assumed large scale fighting would not come to pass.
Ships sent to Dunkirk to evacuate the stranded soldiers were under an almost constant aerial and sea attack. Credit: Shutterstock.
Why Did It Happen?
On May 10, 1940, Hitler ordered the simultaneous invasion of Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and France.
The invasion of these countries is generally referred to as 'The Battle of France' because the low countries were technically neutral until Hitler's forces invaded them, whereas France had stood with Britain against Germany since September 1939.
Ahead of this, Britain had sent soldiers to France to sure up defences in the event of an invasion, but also to deter Hitler from invading in the first place.
In the weeks leading up to the German invasion of France and the low countries, there had been mounting pressure on the Prime Minster, Neville Chamberlain, to consider stepping aside. On May 10, this came to a head when the ailing leader resigned. He would be dead by the end of the year.
Neville Chamberlain's resignation paved the way for a different style of war time leadership… and the man chosen to provide that was Winston Churchill.
The soldiers sent to France ahead of its invasion formed part of the British Expeditionary Force.
When the Panzer tanks of the German Army began their Blitzkrieg over the boarders into Belgium, The Netherlands and France, aided by air cover from the Luftwaffe, day by day the soldiers of the BEF found themselves pushed further and further back towards the English Channel.
The ferocity of this new style of warfare – Blitzkrieg – was not matched by the Allied forces of Belgium, France and Britain.
By May 21, the BEF found itself cut off, isolated and surrounded by German forces on the Northwest beaches of France.
The situation was dire enough for the British Commander on the ground, General Viscount Gort, to concede the battle lost, and so he signalled a request to have his forces evacuated out of France as earnestly as possible.
Gort identified a coastal town to the north of Calais as the nearest place with a big enough Harbour to handle such an evacuation … the town was called Dunkirk.
The Evacuation of the standard British, French and Belgian soldiers at Dunkirk was named Operation Dynamo.
The plan was to use naval assets and any and all civilian vessels situated in the south of England to get across the English Channel and pick up the stranded Allied soldiers.
Operation Dynamo began on May 26 and continued until the last men got off the beach at Dunkirk on June 4.
While the soldiers waited to be evacuated either from the Mole (a long man-made concrete arm that ran out to sea from the Harbour for about a mile) or from the beach itself, the Luftwaffe subjected the hundreds of thousands of waiting troops to aerial bombardment and in the waters around Dunkirk, German U-boats attacked the rescuing vessels as they arrived and departed. The waters were also littered with mines.
In the skies above Dunkirk, the Royal Air Force engaged in an almost constant air battle with the Luftwaffe to help protect the men waiting on the beaches below.
Dunkirk: How Soldier Who Survived Torpedo Attack Was Taken Back To Hell
Civilian Boats and Vessels
To aid the evacuation, the Ministry of Shipping requisitioned approximately 800 “little boats” from areas across the south of England, including the River Thames. In many cases, the owners of the boats didn’t know their crafts had been commandeered for the operation.
The Navy tried to place military personnel on each of the crafts, but when the call came to sail across the channel and begin the rescue, hundreds set off crewed solely by civilians.
The flotilla of civilian crafts included speedboats, car ferries, motor lifeboats and pleasure craft.
The little boats were ideal for picking up the standard soldiers on the beach, freeing up the larger ships to collect men off the Mole.
Thanks to the little boats, 98,671 men were rescued off the beach at Dunkirk.
While the little boats crewed largely by civilians picked up the beach-stranded men, larger ships picked up the bulk of the BEF via the Mole at Dunkirk harbour.
The Royal Navy provided over 40 ships including HMS Calcutta, an anti-aircraft cruiser. It arrived with 39 destroyers and other crafts including minesweepers, gunboats, torpedo boats and hospital carriers. The Merchant Navy also played a vital role in the operation.
As the evacuation unfolded over the first three days, so substantial were the losses of naval vessels from the bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe and Nazi U-Boats, the Admiralty withdrew several destroyers from the operation for the future defence of the Britain.
By the end of Operation Dynamo, the larger ships had rescued 239,555 men from Dunkirk Harbour, mostly by mooring alongside the Mole from which the troops boarded. Ships also collected men from other crafts damaged by explosions, or by the transferring of men from the little boats.
British soldiers fire their rifles at German aircraft flying overhead during the evacuation of Dunkirk, 1940.#History#WWIIpic.twitter.com/G0C4N20kBR&mdash World War II History (@WW2Facts) December 1, 2019
During the Dunkirk Evacuation, The Luftwaffe dropped 30,000 incendiary and 15,000 high-explosive bombs on the trapped men stood on the Mole and on the beaches below.
The BEF had to abandon almost all its heavy equipment as it retreated towards the coast in France.
Included in this hardware write-off were 85,000 vehicles, almost half a million tonnes of stores, 76,000 tonnes of ammo and almost all of Britain’s tanks.
Nine destroyers were lost, including six that were British. And of the other vessels ordered over to take part in the rescue, 200 now sit on the seabed of the English Channel.
The Royal Air Force had engaged in the fiercest air-to-air fighting that had, at that point, ever been seen.
Churchill would later single out the RAF when discussing why so many men were able to get off the beach alive, many more men than had in fact been hoped for.
But in doing so, the RAF sustained the loss of 145 aircraft, 42 of which were Spitfires. Unbeknown to them was the extent of which these aircraft would be missed as the Blitz got underway just three months later.
The preceding weeks of the Dunkirk Evacuation and Operation Dynamo itself saw the loss of 68,000 men. It was a terrible outcome for the British.
The evidence of war remains vivid at Dunkirk today. Credit JumpStory.
The Dunkirk Evacuation is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. This is because of two key factors.
One, the weather conditions over the English Channel allowed the 800-strong civilian flotilla to cross the often-challenging waters of the Channel unimpeded. Had the weather turned bad, those crafts may not have reached the beaches of Dunkirk when they did. This would have resulted in the men on the beaches being exposed for longer, with German forces coming at them from all sides.
Secondly, and this proved crucial, by fluke Hitler ordered his ground forces to stop attacking Dunkirk for three days at the start of the evacuation operation, and instead instructed the Luftwaffe to finish off the job of destroying the BEF. In doing so, he failed to account for the skill and tenacity of the Royal Air Force, who put up a better fight than their German counterparts. But by halting the ground assault for three days, Hitler provided the BEF crucial time to sure up defences on the flanks of Dunkirk, which just about held out long enough for 338,226 men to be rescued.
This decision proved costly for Hitler and is often considered one his biggest mistakes of the war.
The flanks of Dunkirk were protected, thinly, by mostly French soldiers. As the evacuation came to an end, many of those men surrendered to the Germans and became Prisoners of War. Without their holding of the flanks, which they did knowing to an extent they were either going to be killed or captured, the evacuation would not have been a success.
The Battle of France continued for some weeks into June and ultimately ended in victory for Germany. It would be the high point of the war for Hitler, but for Britain it marked the start of what was referred to by Winston Churchill as “our darkest hour.”
Dunkirk Revealed: How The Brits Got Away
On June 4, 1940, Prime Minster Winston Churchill made his most famous speech of the war.
His address at the House of Commons was in response to some of his colleagues in government and other influential voices calling on him to offer terms to Hitler under a negotiated peace.
“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
“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…”
Battle Of Britain: The Inside Story Of How The Luftwaffe Was Beaten
The war time Prime Minster described the Dunkirk Evacuation as a “deliverance” from what looked at one point like the probable wipe-out of the British Expeditionary Force.
Instead, over three hundred thousand men were rescued and returned to England.
Britain would spend four long years preparing for the right moment to strike back and liberate not only France, but the whole of Europe.
Troops waiting at Dunkirk - History
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. Within the archives are stories of this event by Worcestershire people, recorded as part of our WWII oral history project carried our 20-25 years ago.
French and British troops on board ships berthing at Dover, 31 May 1940. Imperial War Museum. Used under Creative Commons
The operation, codenamed ‘Operation Dynamo’ which took place between 27 May and 4 June 1940, is one of the most celebrated military events in British history. The German and Allied armies had faced each other across the Franco German border for over six months, a period often known as the Phoney War. On 10 May 1940 the German army began its offensive in the West and within ten days it had reached the Channel at Abbeville, splitting the Allied armies in two and leaving the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in danger of being trapped in Belgium. In the event the BEF was able pull back and fight a series of rear-guard actions to the Dunkirk area, where a total of 338,226 Allied troops were dramatically rescued by a combination of navy ships and hundreds of little boats.
Memories of Dunkirk
Several Worcestershire residents were interviewed about their recollections of World War II to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the War as part of an oral history project run by the then Hereford and Worcester Record Office. Some recalled their experiences of Dunkirk. The following are just a small selection of those memories.
67th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
Amongst those rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk were men from Worcestershire’s 67th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Several men were interviewed in 1995 as part of the then Hereford and Worcester Record Office’s World War II oral history project, just ahead of some of them returning to the beaches to attend various ceremonies. The men vividly recalled their experiences on the road to Dunkirk, at the beaches and on board ship.
Fighting the rear-guard action
Frank Price’s gun crew were asked to take up anti-tank positions as part of the rear guard action and were then gradually pulled back to De Panne a town on the Belgian coast further up from Dunkirk and then into France. They eventually ended up at Dunkirk having spiked their gun so it could not be reused by the Germans
At the beaches
Tom Averill recalled that upon reaching the beaches he and his men marched up and down between Dunkirk and Bray Dunes trying without success to find a boat to take them home. Eventually they returned to Dunkirk to find a ship moored at the East Mole. The ship turned out to be HMS Worcester which Tom took to be a good sign. The ship was bombed on the journey back, but Tom and his men survived the journey, though others on board were not so lucky.
For Frank and his crew too the evacuation was far from plain sailing. Having finally reached Dunkirk they managed to board HMS Esk. The ship had to stop part of the way through their journey to rescue some French soldiers whose ship had been bombed.
The Little Ships
Hundreds of small privately owned boats took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk. Anything that could float and could cross the channel made its way to Dunkirk to aid the evacuation and ‘the little ships’ played a crucial role ferrying men from the shallow inshore waters to the larger vessels waiting off the beaches. Gordon, a schoolboy living at Twickenham, recalled seeing a flotilla of small boats assembling at Teddington but not knowing why.
Another interviewee, who was a schoolboy living at Broadstairs at the time remembered hearing rumours of soldiers coming off boats at Ramsgate and went down to the harbour to investigate. One of his friends disappeared for three days and he later discovered that the boy and his father had been out in their boat rescuing soldiers from Dunkirk.
Exhausted British troops rest on the quayside at Dover, 31 May 1940. Imperial War Museum. Used under Creative Commons.
Captain Tenant (later Admiral) as mentioned in interviews by T Averill and K Monk.
Tenant was a Worcestershire man, coming from Upton upon Severn. He was lauded for overseeing the successful evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940 and was nicknamed Dunkirk Joe by sailors.
Churchill’s ‘We shall fight on the beaches speech’
On 4 June 1940 the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, went to the House of Commons to report on the outcome of the Dunkirk evacuation and the military situation in general. Although the nation rejoiced that so many had been rescued, Churchill was keen to emphasise that the successful rescue of so many troops was not a victory and counselled that ‘Wars are not won by evacuations.’ As part of his report to the House he delivered his famous ‘We shall fight on the Beaches’ speech.
To read other stories about Operation Dynamo and the Dunkirk evacuations follow the link to the BBC’s WW2 People’s War website.
50th Anniversary commemorations 1990
Several of the 67th Field Regiment returned over the years to the area from which they were evacuated and took part in commemorations, especially those for the 50th anniversary of the evacuations. Frank Price recalled in particular returning to De Panne for many years as a member of the Dunkirk Veterans Association.
De Panne 50th anniversary commemorations, May 1990
March past in De Panne, May 1990
80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuations 2020
These weeks mark the 80th anniversary of the planning and execution of Operation Dynamo. Understandably public events have been cancelled, with some postponed until next year.
For more information about Operation Dynamo see:
Photographs copyright of M Tohill
Destroyers filled with evacuated British troops berthing at Dover, 31 May 1940. Imperial War Museum. Used under Creative Commons.
He was lauded for overseeing the successful evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. Tennant subsequently served as captain of the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, when it searched for German capital ships in the Atlantic….William Tennant (Royal Navy officer)
|Sir William Tennant|
|Years of service||1905–1949|
The Dunkirk Memorial stands at the entrance to the Birish war graves sections of Dunkirk Town Cemetery, which lies on the eastern outskirts of the town on the road to Veurne in Belgium.
The names of the men commemorated are engraved on Portland stone panels on a series of columns on each side of a braod walk, forming an avenue which leads to a shrine. At the entrance to the avenue are two columns surmounted by stone urns, and bearing on the front faces the inscription, on one in French and on the other in English:
Here beside the graves of their comrades
Are commemorated the soldiers of the
British Expeditionary Forces who fell in
The campaign of 1939-1940 and have no
The total number of names on the memorial is 4,534 of these, 6 were members of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, and all the others belonged to the land forces of the United Kingdom.
Their comrades of the naval and air forces and of the Merchant Navy who died during the campaign and who have no known grave are commemorated on the naval memorials in the United Kingdom, on the Air Forces memorial at Runnymede, and on the Merchant Navy memorial on Tower Hill in London.
Troops waiting at Dunkirk - History
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On June 6, 1944, Allied Forces stormed the beaches at Normandy as part of the D-Day operation that would soon beat back the Nazi forces in France and ultimately bring the European Theater of World War II to a close. It was the beginning of the end.
And as storied as that moment has always been, far fewer people (namely, Americans) recognize that D-Day and Allied victory in World War II itself may not have even been possible if not for one dramatic episode that had unfolded nearby years before.
Almost exactly four years to the day before the Normandy landings, some 200 miles southwest down France's northern coast, the Dunkirk evacuation saved 338,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian soldiers from the approaching Nazi forces and allowed the Allies to stay in the fight. But it could have been the end.
It was May of 1940 and the Nazis were sweeping through Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France within the span of mere weeks. Western Europe was falling like dominoes, the Soviets and the Nazis were not yet enemies, the Americans had not yet joined the fight, and it looked as if Hitler would take the continent and that would be that.
As the Nazis moved westward through northern France, the remaining Allied soldiers knew that they were overmatched. And when they were finally pinned against the coast at Dunkirk with nowhere left to backpedal except straight into the English Channel, the Allies knew that they had no choice but to evacuate.
The situation grew more dire still after the German army positioned themselves to take Dunkirk itself on May 24. But then, in the prelude to the "miracle" evacuation, salvation came from the unlikeliest of places.
Acting on the advice of air force commander Hermann Göring, Hitler decided to halt the German advance on Dunkirk and instead attempt to finish the British off with an aerial attack. So, with an improbable stay of execution on the ground and bombs raining from the sky, it was now or never.
On May 26, then, the British launched the biggest evacuation in military history. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers at a time waited on the beaches as Britain mustered every boat it could, from navy destroyers to civilian dinghies, in order to get 338,000 people across the English Channel within mere days.
And, somehow, it worked. Between May 26 and June 4, enough people to populate a major city passed from doom to salvation across just 39 nautical miles.
“From hell to heaven was how the feeling was," Dunkirk evacuee Harry Garrett later recalled, "you felt like a miracle had happened.”
And that's precisely how Britain viewed the Dunkirk evacuation. So popular was this notion of Dunkirk as a miracle that Prime Minster Winston Churchill was quickly compelled to declare in a speech to the House of Commons on June 4 that, "Wars are not won by evacuations."
That iconic speech has since become known as "We shall fight on the beaches," a phrase that would prove true on D-Day four years later and further down the beach. But if not for the ten fateful days of the Dunkirk evacuation, D-Day may never have come at all.
Next, discover 21 World War II myths that we all need to stop spreading. Then, see some stirring World War II photos that bring history to life.