By May 1940 the British contribution to the Allied forces was minuscule - just seven per cent of the total. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in northern France totalled nine divisions (less than the Dutch army and only forty per cent of the size of the Belgian) compared with the French army of eighty-eight divisions, raised from a population smaller than Britain's. The discrepancy confirmed long-standing French suspicions that Britain expected its allies to bear the brunt of the fighting and made for strained relations even before the events of May 1940. Under the pressure of war and the sudden prospect of defeat, conflicting national interests came rapidly to the fore. The French, quite naturally, regarded the battle in northern France as the decisive moment of the war and took the view that every effort should be made first to contain and then defeat the Germans. For the British this was not the crucial battle and they believed it was more important to preserve their forces so that they could continue the war on their own. During the last three weeks of May the inter-Allied conflicts centred on two key issues: the involvement of the RAF in the defence of France and the British evacuation of their forces from Dunkirk at the end of the month...
On 19 May Gort rejected a French request to fight alongside the 1st French army and the BEF retreat continued. The British did not have to fight their way back to the coast (they sustained only 500 casualties in the first eleven days of the campaign), leaving the bulk of the fighting to the Belgians and French. On 20 May the war cabinet ordered Gort to attack southwards to disrupt the Germans moving towards the coast and link up with the French armies on the other side of the German salient. This led to the limited British attack around Arras on 21 May (the only BEF offensive action of the campaign), but when this failed Gort placed all the emphasis on evacuation through the Channel ports. The withdrawal from around Arras was made without consulting the French and it convinced them that the British were interested only in saving themselves. This view was reinforced by events at Boulogne. The British occupied the port on 22 May but were evacuated by sea within twenty-four hours (when armed sailors had to stop drunken troops rushing the ships) and left the French to defend the port against the Germans for another thirty hours. The British, on leaving, sank a ship in the harbour, which stopped the French evacuating any of their troops before the port finally fell. On 24 May there were similar scenes at Calais. British stevedores refused to work under sporadic German shelling and had to be dragged out of hiding by armed troops. But with the British about to abandon the port after holding it for forty-eight hours, the French formally protested. The British commander was ordered not to surrender `for the sake of Allied solidarity' and received a message full of Churchillian rhetoric and designed primarily for publication. In private Churchill was scathing about the performance of the British army and telegraphed to Gort: `Of course if one side fights and the other does not, the war is apt to become somewhat unequal.' Churchill omitted this sentence when he published the text of the message in his war memoirs.
British interest in withdrawing the BEF from the continent began very early in the campaign. On return from his 16 May visit to Paris Churchill asked Chamberlain to start planning for evacuation and the military were also instructed to begin preparations. Gort had his first plans ready by 19 May and a week later, before the start of the Dunkirk evacuation, the British had already brought 28,000 troops back to the UK. As the surrounded Allied armies retreated into a pocket around the port of Dunkirk, the British relied on their Allies to hold the Germans without offering to evacuate their partners. The Belgians were encouraged to keep fighting and on three occasions held positions to enable the British to retreat, though from 24-26 May the British rejected five appeals from the Belgians to counter-attack. The British showed little respect for Belgian military prowess and still less interest in their fate. General Pownall, Gort's chief of staff, described them in his diary as "rotten to the core and in the end we shall have to look after ourselves".
When asked about the possible evacuation of the Belgians, Pownall replied, "We don't care a bugger what happens to the Belgians." Early on the evening of 25 May Gort told Eden, Secretary of State for War, that he was moving the BEF back to the coast for evacuation. Eden replied, "It is obvious that you should not discuss the possibility of the move with the French or the Belgians." The next day Gort ignored a French order to attack southwards and break out of the pocket, relying instead on the strong resistance put up by the 1st French army around Lille, which lasted until 1 June, to hold off the encircling Germans. On the evening of 26 May Gort asked for the Canadian division in Britain to be sent to France to hold the bridgehead while the British were evacuated. This move was rejected after strong Canadian pressure against the sacrifice of their only trained troops.
The large-scale evacuation of troops from Dunkirk began on 27 May. The British were given only a small part of the bridgehead to hold because the French did not expect them to fight. When the Belgians surrendered late that evening the French took over their part of the front. The senior Royal Navy officer at Dunkirk, Captain Tennant, commented on 29 May: "The French staff at Dunkirk feel strongly that they are defending Dunkirk for us to evacuate, which is largely true." On that day French troops were manhandled off British ships and soldiers from the two armies came close to shooting each other. By 29 May 73,000 troops had been evacuated but only 655 were French. One of the reasons for this was that the French had not been informed about the evacuation. Churchill had not told Reynaud of the decision when he visited London on 26 May and did not do so until 29 May. On the next two days another 83,000 British troops left Dunkirk but only 23,000 French. At the Supreme War Council meeting in Paris on 31 May, Churchill, after French protests about the situation, offered them half the future evacuation places. Since at that stage there were only 50,000 British troops left compared with 200,000 French, this was a less generous offer than it appeared. Only in the last few days, when virtually all the British troops had been evacuated, did the French numbers exceed the British. At the 31 May meeting in Paris Churchill had insisted that the British should act as the rearguard for as long as possible. However, at Dunkirk the British commander, General Alexander (who had taken over after Gort left), though nominally under French command, agreed with Eden that evening that the British should not be left behind and would pull out within twenty-four hours. The French held the bridgehead for another two days after the final British withdrawal, until they surrendered on 4 June.
One of the myths of Dunkirk is that the troops were evacuated from the beaches by an armada of small boats manned by volunteers from all over England. In fact two-thirds of those evacuated were lifted directly on to Royal Navy ships from the east mole of Dunkirk harbour. No public information about the evacuation was given until the evening of 30 May when nearly three-quarters of the BEF had already been rescued. Only then could volunteers come forward and play a part in the operation. Over the last four days of the operation the small boats helped lift 26,000 troops from the beaches, about eight per cent of the total evacuated from Dunkirk.
As part of the myth surrounding the operation it also came to be represented as an heroic episode in British military history. Like that of other armies in retreat, the morale and cohesion of the BEF was poor as it moved through France and Belgium towards the coast. The problems began on 10 May when the German attack caught the BEF by surprise and with many key personnel on leave. This confusion was compounded by Gort's decision to move his headquarters near to Lille while leaving his operational and intelligence staffs at Arras. This confusion was made worse by the almost total collapse of communications during the retreat: the wireless system broke down and the telephones did not work. Within ten days there were only three days' rations left (although plenty of ammunition because of the lack of fighting) and the troops looted what they required from the locals. In the panic about 'fifth columnists' there were a large number of shootings of 'suspicious' characters, many of whom had done nothing worse than possess fair hair. British troops were also using dumdum bullets, banned under the Geneva convention, and had orders not to take prisoners except for interrogation. The Germans replied with two massacres by the SS of a total of 170 British prisoners. When the first troops arrived at Dunkirk discipline nearly broke down altogether and for the first two days of the evacuation order had to be kept by armed naval personnel until more disciplined regiments arrived on 29 May. Even then men were rushing the boats in their anxiety to get away and General Alexander was shocked by the behaviour of the soldiers. Later in the year, during a secret session of the House of Commons, several MPs told how a large number of officers had run away and deserted their troops so as to get on to the earliest boat. Privately, the War Office was alarmed at the state of the army. As the Director of Statistics later told one newspaper editor: "The Dunkirk episode was far worse than was ever realized in Fleet Street. The men on getting back to England were so demoralized they threw their rifles and equipment out of railway-carriage windows. Some sent for their wives with their civilian clothes, changed into these, and walked home." In private, Churchill told his junior ministers that Dunkirk was "the greatest British military defeat for many centuries'".
None of this, the government and military decided, could be told to the public. They were able to enforce this decision because no journalists were present at Dunkirk. Once it was clear that the BEF was being evacuated, General Mason-Macfarlane, the head of military intelligence, summoned journalists on 28 May and told them: "I'm afraid there is going to be a considerable shock for the British public. It is your duty to act as shock-absorbers, so I have prepared ... a statement that can be published, subject to censorship." The journalists were also told to blame the French for not fighting and to say that the BEF was undefeated; both statements were travesties of the truth. No news of the events at Dunkirk was released to the public until the 6 p.m. BBC news on 30 May, five days after the evacuation had started and when nearly three-quarters of the BEF were already back in Britain. The public were then told, in a statement approved by the Ministry of Information, that "men of the undefeated British Expeditionary Force have been coming home from France. They have not come back in triumph, they have come back in glory."