On 12th May, 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the invasion of France. The German Army employed 136 divisions and 2,500 tanks in its invasion of France. The French, supported by Belgian and British troops, had a total of 125 divisions and 3,600 tanks. The Germans were dominant in the air with 3,000 aircraft against the allies 1,400.
By 14th May, 1940, the German tanks led by General Heinz Guderian had crossed the Meuse and had opened up a a fifty-mile gap in the Allied front. Six days later they reached the Channel. When he heard the news, Winston Churchill ordered the implementation of Operation Dynamo, a plan to evacuate of troops and equipment from the French port of Dunkirk, that had been drawn up by General John Gort, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
General Gerd von Rundstedt had doubts about the agressive tactics of Heinz Guderian and argued that his tanks should halt until infantry divisions could catch up so that a conventional assault could be made on Allied troops. Adolf Hitler agreed and this decision stopped Guderian cutting off the escape of the British and French troops from Dunkirk.
Between 27th May and 4th June, 1940, a total of 693 ships (39 Destroyers, 36 Minesweepers, 77 trawlers, 26 Yachts and a variety of other small craft) brought back 338,226 people back to Britain. Of these 140,000 were members of the French Army. All heavy equipment was abandoned and left in France.
Ever since May 20, the gathering of shipping and small craft had been proceeding under the control of Admiral Ramsay, who commanded at Dover. After the loss of Boulogne and Calais only the remains of the port of Dunkirk and the open beaches next to the Belgian Frontier were in our hands. On the evening of the 26th an Admiralty signal put Operation Dynamo into play, and the first troops were brought home that night.
Early the next morning, May 27, emergency measures were taken to find additional small craft. The various boatyards, from Teddington to Brightlingsea, were searched by Admiralty officers, and yielded upwards of forty serviceable motor-boats or launches, which were assembled at Sheerness on the following day. At the same time lifeboats from liners in the London docks, tugs from the Thames, yachts, fishing-craft, lighters, barges and pleasure-boats - anything that could be the use along the beaches - were called into service.
18th May, 1940: Every hour is precious. F H.Q. sees it quite differently. Führer keeps worrying about south flank. He rages and screams that we are on the way to ruin the whole campaign. He won't have any part in continuing the operation in a westward direction, let alone to the south-west, and still clings to the plan for the north-westerly drive.
24th May, 1940: The left-wing, which consists of armoured and motorized forces and has no enemy in front of it, will be stopped dead in its tracks upon direct order from the Führer. The finishing off of the encircled enemy army is to be left to the Luftwaffe.
26th May, 1940: Brauchitsch is very nervy. I can sympathize with him, for these orders from the top make no sense. In one area they call for a head-on attack against a front retiring in orderly fashion, and elsewhere they freeze the troops to the spot where the enemy rear could be cut into at any time. Von Rundstedt, too, cannot stand it, and has gone up forward to Hoth and Kleist to look over the land for the next armoured moves.
30th May, 1940: Bad weather has grounded the Luffwaffe and now we must stand by and watch countless thousands of the enemy getting away to England under our noses.
Around 20th May I well remember John Perkins coming into my office and going up to the map on my wall and saying, "This is the situation. The Germans are here and here and here and our Army is cut off and retreating to the sea at Dunkirk. The Chiefs of Staff think that we shall be lucky if we get twenty thousand out." The position seemed hopeless and yet by the end of the month we had recovered three hundred thousand.
The country was fired by the epic of the small boats that had sailed, some as many as seven times, into the teeth of the Luftwaffe to bring back our Army; and among those who took their boats to Dunkirk was my cousin Reg Mytton. I heard of the Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gort, standing on the beach with two Guardsmen as loaders while he tried to shoot down German dive bombers with a rifle.
The whole front was one long continuous line of blazing buildings, a high wall of fire, roaring and darting in tongues of flame, with the smoke pouring upwards and disappearing in the blackness of the sky above the roof-tops.
Along the promenade, in parties of fifty, the remnants of practically all the last regiments were wearily trudging along. There was no singing, and very little talk. Everyone was far too exhausted to waste breath. It was none too easy to keep contact with one's friends in the darkness, and amid so many little masses of moving men, all looking very much alike. If you stopped for a few seconds to look behind, the chances were you attached yourself to some entirely different unit.
A group of dead and dying soldiers on the path in front of us quickened our desire to quit the promenade. Stepping over the bodies we marched down the slope on the dark beach. Dunkirk front was now a lurid study in red and black; flames, smoke, and the night itself all mingling together to compose a frightful panorama of death and destruction.
We were all flying around up and down the coast near Dunkirk looking for enemy aircraft which seemed also to be milling around with no particular cohesion. The sea from Dunkirk to Dover during these days of the evacuation looked like any coastal road in England on a bank holiday. It was solid with shipping. One felt one could walk across without getting one's feet wet, or that's what it looked like from the air. There were naval escort vessels, sailing dinghies, rowing boats, paddle-steamers, indeed every floating device known in this country. They were all taking British soldiers from Dunkirk back home. The oil-tanks just inside the harbour were ablaze, and you could identify Dunkirk from the Thames estuary by the huge pall of black smoke rising straight up in a windless sky. Our ships were being bombed by enemy areoplanes up to about half-way across the Channel and the troops on the beaches were suffering the same attention. There were also German aircraft inland strafing the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force fighting their way out to the port.
At Charleville, on 24 May, when the B.E.F. was absolutely ripe for the plucking, Hitler informed his astonished generals that Britain was 'indispensable' to the world and that he had therefore resolved to respect her integrity and, if possible, ally himself with her. Perhaps a less fanciful explanation of Hitler's attitude is supplied by Ribbentrop's representative at the Fuhrer's headquarters, who has left on record the comment: "Hitler personally intervened to allow the British to escape. He was convinced that to destroy their army would be to force them to fight to the bitter end."
On the military side the facts are clearer. On 23 May Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A, halted General Guderian's XIX Army Corps when two of its panzer divisions were heading for Dunkirk, not twenty miles distant and with little or no opposition ahead. The British counter-attack at Arras on 21 May, though undertaken by no more than two mixed columns, each comprising a tank battalion, an infantry battalion, a field battery, an anti-tank battery, and a machine-gun company, had caused him some concern. He therefore called the halt in order to "allow the situation to clarify itself and keep our forces concentrated". The panzers had just reached the Channel, and the success of this British counterattack engendered the fear of a larger operation that would cut them off from their supporting infantry. The next morning he received a visit from the Fuhrer, who confirmed the stop order. The panzers were not to be risked in a possibly flooded area but preserved for future operations-presumably against the French Army. On the other hand, the Luftwaffe's 'field of action' was not to be restricted.
Actually, on the available evidence, there can be little doubt that it was at the particular instance of the Luftwaffe's commander-in-chief, Field-Marshal Goering, that in the upshot the B.E.F. Was "left to the Luftwaffe". Guderian was to write, bitterly, of the first day of the evacuation, 26 May: "We watched the Luftwaffe attack. We saw also the armada of great and little ships, by means of which the British were evacuating their forces." Guderian's bitterness was shared by the whole of the German Army High Command.
For some time now we had been subject to sporadic bombing and machine-gun fire, but as the Sundowner is exceptionally and extremely quick on the helm, by waiting till the last moment and putting the helm hard over - my son at the wheel - we easily avoided every attack, though sometimes near lifted out of the water.
The difficulty of taking troops on board from the quay high above us was obvious, so I went alongside a destroyer where they were already embarking. I got hold of her captain and told him I could take over a hundred (though the most I had ever had on board was twenty-one). He, after consultation with the military C.O., told me to carry on and get the troops aboard. I must say that before leaving England, we had worked all night stripping her down of everything movable, masts included, that would tend to lighten her and make for more room.
I now started to pack them on deck, having passed word below for every man to lie down and keep down; the same applied on deck. I could feel her getting distinctly tender, so took no more. Actually we had exactly a hundred and thirty on board. They were literally packed like the proverbial sardines, even one in the bath and another on the WC, so that all the poor devils could do was sit and be sick. So that after discharging our cargo in Ramsgate at ten p.m., there lay before the three of us a nice clearing-up job.
If you ask anybody what they remember most clearly about theretreat to Dunkirk they will all mention two things - shame and exhaustion. Shame-as we went back through those white-faced, silent crowds of Belgians, the people who had cheered us and waved to us as we came through their country only four days before, people who had vivid memories of a previous German occupation and whom we were now handing over to yet another. I felt very ashamed. We had driven up so jauntily and now, liked whipped dogs, we were scurrying back with our tails between our legs. But the infuriating part was that we hadn't been whipped. It was no fault of ours. All I could do as I passed these groups of miserable people was to mutter " Don't worry-we will come back." Over and over again I said it. And I was one of the last British most of them were to see for four long years.
May 22, 1940: The darkest day of the war. Arras and Amiens fall to the German mechanised forces. Through the corridor between these two towns, large motor-cycle detachments roar on to Abbeville and seize it. The Germans claim that the fall of Le Touquet can be expected at any minute. The enemy, moving at incredible speed, has reached the Channel. The Allied Armies have been bitten in two. The Corridor between them, now thirty miles wide, is a charred thoroughfare for tanks and motorised divisions, patrolled by clouds of low-flying planes. The Germans, streaking on north up towards Boulogne and Calais, are making a bid for the total encirclement of the Northern Allied Army. Can that fatal corridor between Arras and Amiens be closed? The world waits for the answer on which so much depends.
In France, the weight of German planes is loading the scales against civilisation. At home, Lord Beaverbrook, the new Minister for Aircraft Production, asks aircraft factories to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day. At last it is being realised that minutes saved mean planes gained. And that only planes mean survival.
May 22, 1940: Arras is recaptured by the French. The British counter-attack between Arras and Douai. The Belgians are holding the line. But the German thrust towards the coast continues, spreading terror and destruction behind the Allied lines.
The answer comes. In a little under three hours. Parliament passes the most revolutionary measure in its history. The Government is given complete control of all persons and all property in the country. Banking, munitions firms, wages, profits, hours and conditions of service are all brought at once under Government control.
Herbert Morrison, the new Minister of Supply, subsequently announces that the Government is taking over full control of all armament works. For these concerns the-Excess Profits Tax is raised to 100 per cent.
There was one young man with a neatly trimmed fair moustache and a quiff of very fair hair. His hands gripped the black rail just above his head, and sweat glistened on his pallid face. He was only partly in this world, for a mortar shell had removed his leg and shattered his hip. He had had what we call a hindquarter amputation. He had also lost part of his colon. He was suffering acutely; morphine had not helped. As I approached, his eyes looked searchingly into my face, and he made a feeble attempt to move his position. A doctor came to my side and said in a low voice, 'Give him heroin, Sister.' I looked into the doctor's lined, strained face and knew that this was one patient who would not leave France. An hour later I passed his bed again to accompany the first batch of wounded back to the boat. I saw him lying there, arms now by his sides, completely relaxed, lost in a dream world where the lotus-eaters smiled and pain was never known.
The battle around Dunkirk is still raging. The city itself is held by marines and covered by naval guns. The British Expeditionary Force has continued to fall back toward the coast and part of it, included wounded and those not immediately engaged, has been evacuated by sea. Certain units, the strength of which is naturally not stated, are back in England.
On the home front, new defence measures are being announced almost hourly. Any newspaper opposing the prosecution of the war can now be suppressed. Neutral vessels arriving in British ports are being carefully searched for concealed troops. Refugees arriving from the Continent are being closely questioned in an effort to weed out spies. More restrictions on home consumption and increased taxation are expected. Signposts are being taken down on the roads that might be used by German forces invading this country. Upon hearing about the signposts, an English friend of mine remarked, "That's going to make a fine shumuzzle. The Germans drive on the right and we drive on the left. There'll be a jolly old mix-up on the roads if the Germans do come."
One of the afternoon papers finds space to print a cartoon showing an elderly aristocratic Englishman, dressed in his anti-parachute uniform, saying to his servant, who holds a double-barrel shotgun, "Come along, Thompson. I shall want you to load for me." The Londoners are doing their best to preserve their sense of humour, but I saw more grave solemn faces today than I have ever seen in London before.
Fashionable tearooms were almost deserted; the shops in Bond Street were doing very little business; people read their newspapers as they walked slowly along the streets. Even the newsreel theatres were nearly empty. I saw one woman standing in line waiting for a bus begin to cry, very quietly. She didn't even bother to wipe the tears away. In Regent Street there was a sandwich man. His sign in big red letters had only three words on it: WATCH AND PRAY.
Our losses in men (at Dunkirk) have been 30,000 killed, wounded and missing. Against this we might set the far heavier loss certainly inflicted upon the enemy. We have lost nearly 1,000 guns and all our transport and all the armed vehicles that were with the army in the north.
The best of all we had to give, has gone with the B.E.F. and although they had not the number of tanks they were a very well and finely equipped army. They had all the first fruits of all our industry had to give, and that is gone.
An effort the like of which has never been seen in our records is now being made. Work is proceeding everywhere night and day, Sundays and weekdays. Capital and labour have cast aside their interests, rights and customs, and put them into the common stock.
Already the flow of munitions has leapt forward. There is no reason why we should not, in a few months overtake the sudden and serious loss that has come upon us without retarding development of our general programme.
What an extraordinary thing. That now explains something I have never understood. The Division I was then commanding, the 48th, was defending the flank of the British Army as it was retreating into the Dunkirk perimeter and to do that we were holding, amongst other places, the position on Cassel Hill, which has a wonderful view over the whole surrounding plain of that part of Flanders.
From the heights of the hill a number of German armoured vehicles could occasionally be seen probing along our extended front, but they turned away whenever actively engaged by us; particularly so after the very severe handling they got in their first attempt on Cassel. The one thing I feared, of course, was a massed attack by German armour. What astonished me was that this was never made, when success was almost assured, and Dunkirk would have been at their mercy.
Immediately after Dunkirk, I visited a number of camps in different parts of the country in which the returned troops of the B.E.F. had been hurriedly quartered. I had half expected some questioning or complaint, for there was enough to criticize. Our infantry had had no armour to support them; even its equipment had revealed some woeful shortages. But the mood of the officers and men showed none of this.
On the contrary, their temper was that of victors, with no sign that they had had to retreat during days of continuous fighting before an overwhelmingly stronger enemy. I felt that having measured their opponent in these conditions, they were convinced that, given the weapons, they could match and outfight him. Even those brigades which had suffered the heaviest casualties, notably the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Division, were as confident and resolute as their more fortunate comrades. For me the hours I could spend among these men were a tonic, for there was in them the temper of those who knew they could not be beaten, whereas in Whitehall I had only too much reason to reckon how heavy must soon be the odds.
The escape of the British Army from France has often been called "the miracle of Dunkirk". For the German armoured forces had reached the Channel coast behind the back of the British Army while this was still deep in the interior of Flanders. Cut off from its own bases, and from the bulk of the French Army, it seemed likely also to be cut off from the sea. Those who got away have often wondered how they managed to do so.
The answer is that Hitler's intervention saved them when nothing else could have. A sudden order stopped the armoured forces just as they were in sight of Dunkirk, and held them back until the retreating British had reached the port and slipped out of their clutches.
But although the British Army thus escaped from the trap in France, it was in no state to defend England. It had left most of its weapons behind, and the stores at home were almost empty. In the following months Britain's small and scantily-armed forces faced the magnificently equipped army that had conquered France with only a strip of water between them. Yet the invasion never came.
At the time we believed that the repulse of the Luftwaffe in the "Battle over Britain" had saved her. That is only part of the explanation. The last part of it. The original cause, which goes deeper, is that Hitler did not want to conquer England. He took little interest in the invasion preparations, and for weeks did nothing to spur them on; then, after a brief impulse to invade, he veered round again and suspended the preparations. He was preparing, instead, to invade Russia.
Mr Churchill said tonight that Britain now stands alone. Did he tell you that on 3rd September, 1939? On the contrary, then he said that Germany stood alone, to be throttled by the British blockade without even the sacrifice of a single British soldier. How many of the BEF, how many of the British Navy and the RAF have already been sacrificed only that your Prime Minister could tell you that you now stand alone? Was it worth it? Surely not. Surely the time has come to meet the bill, the bill that Mr Churchill and his accomplices ran up for you, and which you will be called upon to meet if you do not force your Government to meet it.
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."