The Dunkirk Story, May-June 1940, and A French Perspective

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Senior Archivist at the National Archives at College Park.

During early May 1940, British, French, Dutch, and Belgian forces were fighting to stem the German advances, which had begun May 10, into France, Belgium, and the Netherlands. During May 11, much of the Dutch Army was put out of action and four days later it surrendered.  By May 18, the German Panzer divisions, having regrouped round Saint-Quentin, instead of heading in the direction of Paris, started to swing north towards the Channel.  They reached the coast at Noyelles, near Abbeville, on May 20, and soon took Boulogne and Calais. At the former city, the Royal Navy was able to evacuate at least 1,400 soldiers, before the city surrendered; the Germans capturing 5,000 Allied troops, the majority of whom were French.

The British on May 19 begin considering the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from mainland Europe, and Vice Admiral B. H. Ramsay, Flag Officer Dover, was put in charge of the transport for Operation Dynamo, the code name given the evacuation.  On May 21, following an unsuccessful BEF counterattack, and with dwindling supplies and the imminent collapse of the Belgian forces, the French First Army and four British divisions moved back to Dunkirk, a northern French seaport close to the Belgian frontier. On May 23, because of the British retreat from Arras, a planned counteroffensive was postponed.  That day British generals in France came to the conclusion that an evacuation by sea was probably going to be necessary.

British forces on May 24 continued to fall back to Dunkirk.  The following day both the British and French commanders called off planned offensives.

The order for the evacuation of troops through Dunkirk was given on the evening of May 26. It was estimated that up to 45,000 men could be evacuated from the French coast before the whole area was overrun. The scope of the operation, at first, was not made clear to the local French commanders.  When they learned of it, they felt abandoned.

The British Admiralty on May 27 issued orders implementing Operation Dynamo.  By this time a diverse armada was collected in ports along the English Channel coast to take part in the evacuation operation.  The armada included Royal Navy destroyers, minesweepers, sloops, and, patrol boats.  They would soon be joined by Dutch, French, and Belgian vessels, as well as upwards of one thousand privately-owned pleasure boats, fishing vessels, cabin cruisers, tugs, and ferries.  The armada’s job was to carry off soldiers from inlets, jetties, and beaches around Dunkirk, and from the 10 miles of beaches to the east of Dunkirk. Taken from Dunkirk to Great Britain on May 27, were some 8,000 men.

King Leopold of Belgium agreed on May 28 to capitulate his country, as the evacuation from Dunkirk began in earnest.  That day some 17,800 men were brought off Dunkirk, at a cost of one destroyer and several other vessels.  The next day, May 29, Dunkirk was encircled by German artillery and pounded by the German Luftwaffe, which increased the strength of its attacks despite the efforts of the Royal Air Force (RAF) to give protection. The Allied defensive perimeter steadily gave ground and contracted. The evacuation continued with French troops joining the exodus. By the end of the day 47,310 more soldiers were evacuated.  The destroyers HMSS Wakeful, Grafton, and Grenade were lost on the Dunkirk run that day. On May 30, 53,823 men were evacuated. One destroyer, the French Bourrasque, was sunk during the day and at least nine of the smaller ships were also sunk.

On May 31, RAF Spitfires begin to take a more active role in the air battle over Dunkirk, claiming to have shot down 38 German aircraft for the loss of 28.  During the day 68,014 men were taken off the Dunkirk beaches, apparently half of whom were French.  That day saw the loss of another destroyer sunk and six more damaged.

The Luftwaffe increased its attacks on June 1, and sunk four destroyers and damaged five more as well as several of the Channel ferries and other ships. Despite the losses, 64,429 men were evacuated as German forces tightened its grip on the shrinking Dunkirk perimeter. During the following day, the Dunkirk perimeter, then manned entirely by French forces, was driven in, but the Germans, against the valiant fighting on the part of the French, were unable to capture the city.  The beach area available to the Allies by the end of June 2 was but two miles long.  Both before dawn and after dark the evacuation continued, with 26,256 men taken off, including the last British units to leave.  Just before midnight June 2-3, the evacuations died to a trickle.  While there were still plenty of ships to assist in the evacuations, the French troops were not given proper orders about where to go and which piers were in use.

On June 3, the German forces reached positions only two miles from the Dunkirk harbor. Despite this imminent threat to the evacuations as many as 53,000 soldiers, mostly French, were evacuated that day and night and the following morning. By mid-morning on June 4, the German forces entered Dunkirk.  There they captured most of the BEF equipment, including trucks and artillery pieces, and the remaining French forces, taking 30,000 to 40,000 prisoners.

Despite this German military success, the Allies were able to rescue 338,226 military personnel from the Dunkirk perimeter.  This included 139,997 French, Polish, Dutch and Belgian troops. They had been rescued by nearly 900 vessels. The loss in ships was heavy. One estimate was that 243 were sunk during the operations, including nine destroyers, three of which were French.  Another nineteen destroyers were damaged.  These losses were the result of German surface craft (E-boats), submarines magnetic mines, as well as attacks from the air and gunfire from shore-based batteries which had the Dunkirk harbor within range.  The RAF also suffered losses during the evacuations. Over the nine days of Operation Dynamo, the RAF flew 651 bombing and 2,739 fighter sorties. RAF Fighter Command claimed 262 enemy aircraft, losing 106 of their own.  It should be noted that the French Air Force played a role during the evacuations.

In the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with the evacuation of the British Forces from Dunkirk completed and still hoping that the French, and the British forces still in France, would not surrender to the Germans, gave on June 4, 1940, perhaps, his most famous wartime speech.  In closing he said:

The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. 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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

An interesting perspective on the Dunkirk story is provided in the National Archives records in a study entitled “The Battle of France (May-June 1940)” authored by Roland Schoch de Neuforn, a former Reserve Lieutenant, 24th Battalion, Chausseurs d’Alpes, of the French Army.  He served with an artillery regiment during the Battle of France, escaping to Unoccupied France after the French surrender.  He reported for duty at Vichy, and, being a journalist by profession, he used all of his spare time around headquarters towards the gathering of notes on each move in the Battle of France.  Much of his information was gathered from the officers and enlisted men stationed at headquarters during the battle, who told him of telephone orders.  He also relied on the Commander-in-Chief General Maxime Weygand’s marginal notes on reports and orders, and other documentation.  A copy of this study interestingly enough ended up in the San Francisco Office, Military Intelligence Service, where it was translated and disseminated.  The copy I saw was in File 6910-France May-June 1940, in the Military Intelligence Division Regional File, 1922-1944 (NAID 1560885), Records of the War Department General and Special Staffs, Record Group 165. From the table of contents that occupies this blog, as well as the map showing the disposition of French troops on May 24, 1940, readers will get a sense of the information contained in the study.

Table of Contents, “The Battle of France” (NAID 1560885)
Disposition of French Troops, May 24, 1940 from “The Battle of France”

A wonderful 12-minute video of the Battle of Dunkirk, from a French perspective, entitled “The Battle of Dunkirk: How the French Army Saved Great Britain,” can be found here: Dunkirk 1940 – How the French Army Saved GB

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