Towards the end of May 1940 during the Second World War, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) along with Allied troops, a third of them French, had been forced by the German army to make a fighting retreat to the coast of northern France.
Allied military commanders had fatally underestimated the strength and strategy of the enemy. Over 338,000 men were now trapped in the French port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) where they faced surrender and capture.
Immediate evacuation by sea was the only option. On 20 May Britain began planning Operation Dynamo (later popularly known as the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’).
Dover Castle: Masterminding the Dunkirk evacuation
The evacuation was masterminded and directed by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who Prime Minister Winston Churchill brought out of retirement, working within a network of deep subterranean tunnels under the castle.
From the outbreak of war in 1939, the tunnels had been extended and later deepened by two levels and now acted as the nerve centre for the new Combined Operations Headquarters for the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and the Army.
From 20 May 1940, Ramsay and his staff made urgent plans to rescue the thousands of exhausted BEF and Allied soldiers from Dunkirk – unilaterally and without reference to the French. The troops, short of food and water, some injured, were now trapped – crammed in Dunkirk’s streets, buildings and on the beaches – sitting targets for German air attacks and artillery.
Just before 7pm on 26 May 1940, Winston Churchill – who had been Prime Minister for only 16 days – ordered the start of Operation Dynamo.
933 vessels of all sizes took part in the evacuation, from the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and civilian owners, supported by French, Belgian, Dutch and Norwegian naval ships.
Dunkirk’s 10 mile beach shelved gently into the sea making it difficult for large warships to approach, except to pick up soldiers from the sea wall – the ‘Mole’ – that extended into deep water.
Time was of the essence as the massive German advance pushed towards the Channel ports. Ramsay and his team realised they needed to speed up the evacuation and use small boats that could get close to the shore.
An urgent Admiralty order went out for small civilian boats with shallow draft to help with the evacuation – pleasure steamers, private yachts and launches, lifeboats, sailing barges, fishing boats, passenger ferries. Many were requisitioned; others taken without their owner’s knowledge. These boats were dubbed the ‘Little Ships.’
Very few owners, except for fishermen, took their own vessels. The Little Ships were mainly crewed by Royal Navy personnel from Chatham and Portsmouth.
Operation Dynamo was no orderly evacuation. It was an extraordinary feat of military improvisation, but chaotic and dangerous.
The Luftwaffe and German artillery launched a ferocious assault to disrupt the evacuation, dropping high explosives and incendiary bombs on Dunkirk, strafing soldiers on the beaches and bombing the rescue ships. U-Boats attacked vessels. The sea was sown with enemy mines.
Fighters from the Royal Air Force flew over 3,500 sorties, engaging in dogfights with the Luftwaffe to protect the troops and vessels.
338,226 soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk in what was the biggest military evacuation in history. Most of the BEF – the only trained and experienced army Britain had – returned home, the majority via Dover and Folkestone. If they had been lost, the Allied cause would have collapsed. Germany would have triumphed.
But Operation Dynamo took a high toll. Around 68,000 men of the BEF were unable to escape during the retreat and evacuation – 11,000 were killed and many of the rest made prisoners-of-war, or were missing.
Around 40,000 French troops were captured by the German army when Dunkirk fell at 9.30 am, 4 June 1940.
236 vessels were lost – around one quarter of the over 900 that took part – including six Royal Navy and three French destroyers. Hundreds of soldiers and sailors drowned. Over 60 vessels were put out of action.
The BEF destroyed and abandoned colossal amounts of military equipment – nearly 64,000 vehicles including over 440 tanks, 2,500 guns including heavy artillery, 20,500 motorcycles, 76,000 tons of ammunition and over 400,000 tons of stores.
Dunkirk memorials and legacy
In the UK
Part of the plaque reads: ‘Dunkirk Veterans Association East Kent…This memorial was erected on the 16th August 1975 on the 35th anniversary of the Battle of Dunkirk…the memorial not only pays tribute to the bravery and discipline of the servicemen, but to the courage of the crews of the armada of little ships which assisted, and the people of the Port of Dover who received them.’
Pictured is one of the more than 100 Little Ships that endure today. She was formerly owned by the second officer of the Titanic, Charles Lightoller, who survived the sinking in 1912.
The Sundowner was requisitioned by the Admiralty on 31 May 1940 and Lightoller was one of the very few owners who participated in the evacuation of Dunkirk. He made one trip, rescuing 75 men who crammed into her cabin with 55 on deck, before returning to Ramsgate.
Today the Sundowner is a floating exhibit of the Ramsgate Maritime Museum, moored in the very harbour from where she left for Dunkirk 80 years ago.
The memorial takes the form of an avenue of square ‘pylons’ on which the names of the fallen are engraved, leading to a shrine of brick and stone with a copper roof.
Within the shrine is a memorial register of names. Behind is a great etched and engraved glass window.
Churchill’s historic Dunkirk speech, 4 June 1940
The following is an extract from Winston Churchill’s speech, delivered to the House of Parliament, at the successful conclusion of Operation Dynamo. The public heard key sections of it during the nightly news on the radio, read out by a BBC announcer.
In the speech he sought to curb the mood of national euphoria, while simultaneously boosting morale and, as Britain now stood alone against Germany, making a clear appeal to America for support:
‘…our thankfulness at the escape of our Army… must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster…We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations…’
But he went on to deliver these iconic words:
‘…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…’
Written by Nicky Hughes.
Header Image – Stretching as far as the eye can see, lines of Allied soldiers wait to be evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk © IWM NYP68075.