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The Dunkirk Evacuation

The vast majority of days in human history are relatively inconsequential, that is to say, if they had gone differently, it would have had very little impact on the course of events that followed. Even something as important as a presidential election is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively inconsequential. There are very few moments in human history that carry some very real and significant consequences for the future, but the Miracle of Dunkirk is one of those moments in history that we can look back at, point to and say that, if things had gone differently, if some factor had been just a little different the world today would be unrecognisable today.

While we can never know just how significantly the actions at Dunkirk affected the outcome of WW2, there are a few things we can say for certain. 338,226, that’s the number of men pulled from the beaches of Dunkirk over the course of the 8-day evacuation. That is 293,226 more lives saved than the initial estimates suggested possible. In one of the most stunning displays of bravery in history, the civilian public not only assisted the war effort from home but brought themselves from the safety of an unoccupied nation to the frontlines, an action that very likely changed the outcome of the war. Today on megaprojects we talk about the Herculean effort it took to pull off one of the most miraculous rescue missions in human history.

On the morning of the first of September, 1939, the silence hanging over the Polish Countryside was broken by the low hum of German bombers, making their way to the nearest Polish cities. With the climate at the time, many of those who stood outside to watch must have known that this could only mean one thing, war. Though many of them had lived though a war prior to this, none of them could have had the slightest idea of just how dark the path ahead was.

As you will undoubtably have heard before, the efficiency of the German war machine was unrivalled by any other army in the world. The Blitzkrieg thundered through Europe, crushing all that stood against it in a matter of weeks. At the invasions of Poland, Britain and France, declared war upon Germany, creating the British Expeditionary Forces and Grand Quartier Général (The general headquarters for the French military). Together, these two forces assembled along the Northern French Borders. The plan was for the French forces to man the France-Germany Border and the British Expeditionary Force would man the France-Belgium border.

After the end of WW1 it was decided that, were history to repeat itself and Germany were to invade again, France would be better prepared to defend itself, hence the construction of a supposedly impenetrable barrier between France and Germany called the French Maginot line, which we have done a video on already, if you would like to check it out. And what did the Germans do when faced this this state-of-the-art fortress? Well they simply went around.

In fairness the Maginot line did it’s job, the German’s recognised that it wouldn’t be possible to force their way through the line without taking unacceptable casualties. There is also the running joke that the French didn’t consider what to do if their enemy simply went around. But, in reality this was accounted for.

It was the job of the British Expeditionary and French forces to hold the northern part of the line, this was the Border between France and Belgium. Upon their arrival at their post along the Belgian-France border in September of 1939, they began frantically reinforcing the Maginot lines defences, in preparation for the German invasion. Then on the 10th of May the Germans launched their attack. The allied forces plan was that once the Germans had crossed into Belgium, they would lead an advance upon Dyle river, if properly enacted, this would halt or at least slow a German attack. However, the Allies had not counted on the speed with which the German’s were able to mount an invasion. Such was the ferocity of the German advance that the allied forces effectively made but a few steps into Belgium before having to beat a hasty retreat back to the French Border.

And only 2 days after the initial invasion the German forces had for the first time since WW1 crossed onto French soil once more. After this it was simply a matter of retreating as fast as the Germans could advance. Over the following days the Germans would Push British, French and Belgian forces all the way back to the coast. Finally, 11 days after the German invasion had begun, on the 21st of May a telegram was sent back to the German high command, from the general in charge of the German Western Front, Erwin Rommel. This telegram contained only 4 words reading, “am on the coast”. What this meant was the German panzer divisions had successfully flanked the Allied forces, cutting them off from the rest of France in a pincer movement.

Surrounded, on all sides, with their back to the British channel, the British and French forces set up a ferocious defence at the port of Dunkirk. Further North along the coast, the Belgian forces had set up their own defence however this was crumbling fast. British Commanders knew that once the Belgian defences fell the German forces would be able to advance from the North and if this were to happen they would overwhelm the British and French garrisons at Dunkirk.

By the 25th of May the allied Forces were well and truly hemmed in. it must have been a truly bewildering feeling, to have been feeling confident and even unperturbed by the impending invasion to being completely surrounded in a matter of only 15 days. Feeling the same numb shock each nation that had so far stood against the Nazi Blitzkrieg had been subject to. Watching their forces and defences get brushed aside as if they weren’t even there. On this day Winston Churchill made a speech in the British House of Commons, calling the efforts to repel the German attacks “a colossal military disaster”. Clearly something had to be done and it was now that the British began to send all available Royal Navy ships to the port of Dunkirk and begin the evacuation.

Operation Dynamo

Just after 7:00pm on the 26th of May, Winston Churchill ordered the beginning of the immediate evacuation of Dunkirk, calling it Operation Dynamo. As we already know, nearly 28,000 men had already been evacuated the day before. Some had simply taken ships left at the port, as a couple of British Navy vessels had been near enough to begin ferrying soldiers to Dover already but for the most part there was a catastrophic build-up of soldiers waiting on the beaches of Dunkirk.

It is here that we depart from our birds-eye tactical view of the Axis-Allied front lines and we zoom in, finding ourselves behind the eyes of an individual soldier, standing on the beaches, awaiting transport home. You’ve been just been retreating for last 15 days in little more than complete chaos and pandemonium is the order of the day. All around you commanders are calling for order while you try to find the other soldiers in your section, but it’s barely possible to stay within your own regiment. A cacophony of French and English shouts to order are vying to be heard but neither is audible over the other. And surrounding it all is the fear that every second you spend standing on the beach allows the seemingly unstoppable German forces to push their way nearer and nearer.

It’s a pretty stark image and it was only going to get worse, though the public was not made aware of it, the highest estimates for soldiers to be saved was at 45,000. We couldn’t find a specific number for how many soldiers were on the beaches, likely due to the chaos but it is thought to be as many as 400,000 men. In the UK the Archbishop of Canterbury was leading the nation in prayers for the soldiers. And on the first day only 7,669 soldiers were pulled from the beaches. The next day, one cruiser, eight destroyers and 26 other craft were called into service, however with the docks completely destroyed the allies were forced to use two long breakwaters called moles, as these were the only structures capable of docking the larger ships, drastically slowing the boarding process it made it nearly impossible for the larger ships to be filled to capacity.

Smaller ships were used to ferry soldiers from the beaches to the larger ships watiing to dock at the moles however this again was very time consuming and inefficient allowing only 15,000 men to escape on the second day. On the other side of the channel there was a feeling of despair, not only for the fear of the proximity of the enemy but the fear that many families were about to lose their children. The following day the 28th of may, there was further bad news, the Belgian defence, further North along the coastline had broken and the Belgian military had surrendered. Allowing the German panzer divisions to begin pushing forward towards the French rearguard that were guarding against a German advance from the North.

At this point you’d be forgiven for getting a little exasperated, seemingly nothing was going to plan, certainly the individuals on the beaches weren’t too happy about the proceedings. And neither were the families and friends of those soldiers, separated by just 40 miles of water. The feeling must have been like watching someone drown while being just out of reach of a life preserver. Fortunately, the tide was about to turn.

29th May – 4th June

For the last 3 days the Luftwaffe had been attacking the last remaining pockets of Allied resistance at other ports, up and down the coast. However once the evacuation had begun in earnest they began to focus their bombing and strafing runs on the Docks, beaches, approaching boats and the town of Dunkirk itself. In response 16 RAF squadrons were called upon to protect the evacuation fleet, travelling too and from Dunkirk. This meant that the RAF was spending much of it’s time, engaging German fighters and bombers over the channel or further inland, to prevent them getting to the docks.

This means that despite the massive show of force brought out by the RAF, very little of it was seen by the soldiers on the beaches. Leading to the false belief that there was very little support from the RAF through the whole ordeal. However, thanks to poor flying conditions and the losses inflicted by the RAF only a fraction of the Luftwaffe’s aircraft sent to attack the beaches and evacuation fleet made it through.

Meanwhile on the ground, the 29th of May saw 47,310 soldiers pulled from the beaches and harbours. It is here that we begin to see the first little ships arriving. The day before, the British ministry of shipping had put out a call to marinas, docks, shipyards, in short anywhere that a boat might be, saying that they were looking for seaworthy vessels with a shallow draft. Up and down the British South Coast, ships were requisitioned by the government and sent to Dunkirk. Once the call was put out, the British Public, who had been watching the awful event unfold just over the channel, rose to the call. Fishing vessels, ferries, car ferries, lifeboats, pretty much every kind of boat you can imagine was called into action.

By the time end of the evacuation nearly 850 private vessels had assisted. And when they first began to appear on the 29th of May, the number of soldiers evacuated took a huge upswing. By the 30th of May the final British divisions had made it past the defensive lines that were holding the German’s at bay only 7 miles from the coast. Fortunately for the allied forces this was marshy land that was not suitable for tank advances. It was also on this day that a small jetty constructed by the royal engineers, consisting of abandoned cars and military vehicles, allowed for a much faster docking of the larger requisitioned boats.

With the evacuation in full swing, now 53,823 men were evacuated on the 30th and 68,014 were evacuated on the 31st marking the most people evacuated in a single day. As the beaches began to clear of British soldiers, Soldiers of other nationalities namely, French and some Belgian were beginning to get their turn on the boats. However by now the Luftwaffe was sending all they could at the evacuation fleet and the RAF was beginning to get overwelled. With the increasing attacks evacuations by daylight had to be halted on the 1st of June.

From then on there would only be evacuations by night, marking a significant drop in the numbers of those evacuated. Between the 2nd and 4th of June, British and French rearguard began to fall back towards the beaches as they were, by necessity the last to be evacuated. On the 3rd of June the British rearguard departed, leaving the remaining 115,000 French soldiers to fight off the advancing Germans, 75,000 of which departed with the British on the 3rd. The next day the Germans were finally able to close the gap and the remaining 40,000 French soldiers consisting of the 2nd mechanized and 68th infantry Divisions surrendered. Thus, marking an end to one of the most ambitious evacuations in History.

The Cost

Over the 25 day period, from the German invasion on the 10th of May to the French Surrender on the 4th of June, the cost to the Allied forces was truly staggering. In every sense of the word this should have been a death blow for every nation in Europe. Even the vast success of the evacuation was marred by everything that was lost. So lets have a rundown.

To the British Army, the campaign in France had lost them 68,000 men, either killed, wounded or captured. Nearly 2,500 guns were left as well as 76,000 tonnes of ammunition. 20,000 motorcycles and 65,000 military vehicles were left, often used as road blocks to slow the German advance. 162,000 tonnes of fuel for said vehicles were left behind as well as 445 British tanks. Even the basic supplies like, food, clothing, rucksacks, shoes, tents, everything, totalling a whopping 423,000 tonnes of supplies had to be left behind. Which was the vast majority of the supplies with which the British Army had planned to wage war with.

A total of 9 allied military destroyers were sunk, 6 British and 3 French, over the course of the evacuation. With 243 ships in total being sunk, including many civilan vessels. Although there is no way to say for certain what the number is many civilian ships partook in the evacuation without informing the Navy. With the exception of a few catastrophic malfunctions the majority of the ships that sank, did so as a result of either Luftwaffe bombing or attacks from German Navy vessels, mostly U-boats. Many of these ships were full of fleeing personnel some were picked up by other boats, however there was very little documenting of who was onboard the boats prior to their arrival in Dover so it is difficult to count just how lives many were lost this way.

As I have said many held the perception that the RAF had been mostly absent, during the evacuation, only due to the fact that they were not fighting over the beaches directly but inland and out to sea. Of the 16 Squadrons sent to the combat the Luftwaffe, 145 aircraft were lost to a comparable 155 German aircraft. It’s worth mentioning here that there were other pilots and aircraft available to fight in fact Churchill was planning on sending more however the head of RAF command, Lord Dowding, refused. It was this refusal to send further reinforcements that allowed the German Luftwaffe to break through on and put an end to daytime evacuation.

So why, you might be asking, did he do this? Refuse vital reinforcements when the priority was to get as many people as possible over the Channel. Well, his stated reason was that he refused to weaken the home front by sending precious squadrons to France. Many criticized this decision and said that he was simply unwilling to assist the other forces in their time of need. However, it took only a few months to see just how fortuitous this decision was when, during the Battle of Britain, every single remaining British fighter was called into service. A battle that was very nearly lost to the British had they not been able to summon such a large responding force. We can only hope that Dowding managed to get a few “I told you so’s” in there.

“We will never Surrender”

And now a quick aside before we wrap up today’s video. With literally 10s of thousands of men going along one of the piers everyday there was a risk of a crush forming, a significant danger considering that every single one of them was desperate to get off the beach. The unenviable job of pier master fell to a man called James Campbell Clouston. From the 27th of May to the 1st of June the job of regulating and organising the flow of men along the mole fell to Clouston. A Canadian Naval officer whose ship had been in Dunkirk port for repairs and was sunk by German bombing runs. After running the pier for 5 days, and presumably doing a good job considering the number of men leaving during that period, he was given the opportunity to head home and so on the 1st of June he returned to Dover. The next day, he reported to Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay and volunteered to return to the Dunkirk to further assist in the evacuation. This request was granted, and he was put on a requisitioned civilian ship the next day. Unfortunately, his boat was spotted a couple of miles from the French coast and sunk by German Ju 87 Stukas, killing all onboard.

The story of the Dunkirk is filled with tales of selfless servicemen and civilians putting their lives on the line and ultimately paying with their lives. Unfortunately, many will remain untold, but the story of James Campbell Clouston, is one that we can remember and hold onto as a stark reminder of all that people gave.

As for those that returned, the French and Belgian forces were moved to camps in the south of England where they were reorganised. British forces regrouped and resupplied and the nation collectively rejoiced and mourned for all that was returned and lost over the short campaign. On the 4th of June Winston Churchill gave his most famous speech to the house of commons, in which he encapsulates the resilience of the British spirit in the face of evil. While at the time it was a comment on the British spirit, looking back we can see that echoed in every nation and group that took part in resisting Axis powers. From the Shipyards in America to the underground resistance in Poland, the indominable spirit of all those who fight against evil is something that we should never forget.

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