Finland, Norway and Dunkirk

The Soviet Union invaded Finland on 30th November 1939 with 21 divisions, totaling 450,000 men, and bombed Helsinki, inflicting substantial damage and casualties. The following day the Soviet Union formed a puppet government, called the Finnish Democratic Republic and headed by Otto Willie Kuusinen, in the parts of the country occupied by the Red Army. (1)

The Manchester Guardian reported: "Russia invaded Finland early yesterday morning, and at once began to try to enforce submission by air attacks. The Finnish Government resigned early this morning. It is reported from Copenhagen that Dr. Tanner, the Finnish Finance Minister, who was one of the Finnish delegates to Moscow, will form a new Government to open negotiations with Russia... The invasion of Finland without any declaration of war has cause the greatest indignation throughout the world, especially in other Scandinavian countries and in the United States, Italy, and Spain." (2)

Soviet-Finnish War

Winston Churchill later pointed out: "It is probable that the Soviet Government had counted on a walkover. Their early air-raids on Helsingfors and elsewhere, though not on a heavy scale, were expected to strike terror. The troops they used at first, though numerically much stronger, were inferior in quality and ill-trained. The effect of the air-raids and of the invasion of their land roused the Finns, who rallied to a man against the aggressor and fought with absolute determination and the utmost skill.... The country here is almost entirely pine forests, gently undulating and at the time covered with a foot of hard snow. The cold was intense. The Finns were well equipped with skis and warm clothing, of which the Russians had neither." (3)

Marshal Carl Mannerheim, the Commander-in-Chief of the Finish Army, was responsible for the construction and defence of the Mannerheim Line, that stretched across 65 miles of Finland's south-eastern frontier. Tomas Ries has pointed out: "Few at the time expected the tiny Finnish nation of 3.6 million to survive. But despite the odds Finland reacted with desperate determination. On the one hand the country was determined to fight, and the full field army of some 160,000 men had been mobilized and sent eastwards into position along the front during the fall. On the other hand Finland also was grimly prepared for the worst, and began sending her national treasure - her children - to safety in Sweden, to cover the possibility of a Soviet victory and Stalin's national extermination programmes." (4)

Although the advance of Soviet troops was halted at Kemijarvi, Suomussalmi and most spectacularly in the south at the Mannheim Line on the Karelian isthmus, was a great surprise to observers and a costly embarrassment for the Soviet forces. (5) Winston Churchill argued that the British government should send military help to Finland. This desire reflected the Conservative view that the real enemy was not Nazi Germany but the Soviet Union. Lord Halifax agreed: "One important result of the Nazi-Soviet Agreement was the danger of Bolshevism spreading to Western Europe... It was the danger however we had to face, and we had to make up our minds whether we should tackle it by drawing apart from Russia or even declaring war upon her... The alternative policy was to concentrate first on the German menace, and it was this policy which the United Kingdom Government had decided to adopt." (6)

David Low, First casualty (27th February, 1940)
David Low, First Casualty (27th February, 1940)

John Boyle, 14th Earl of Cork, the director of plans at the Admiralty responsible for Scandinavia policy, told Churchill, that "British aid was perhaps the last of mobilizing the anti-Bolshevik forces of the world on our side." This reflected not only strong ideological dislike of the Soviet Union but a disdain for Soviet military strength. "The idea of attacking the Soviet Union was justified in on the grounds that it was helping Germany economically, but there may well have been the hope in ministers' minds that Germany (under another government) would still see sense and unite against the common enemy." (7)

Neville Chamberlain disagreed with this view and still thought it was possible to negotiate a peace agreement with Adolf Hitler. Chamberlain wrote on 3rd December, 1939: "Stalin's latest performance, which seems to have provoked far more indignation than Hitler's attack on Poland, though it is no worse morally, and in its developments is likely to be much less brutal... I am as indignant as anyone at the Russians' behaviour, but I am bound to say that I don't think the Allied cause is likely to suffer thereby. It has added a great deal to the general feeling that the ways of dictators make things impossible for the rest of the world, and in particular it has infuriated the Americans, who have a sentimental regard for the Finns because they paid off their war debt. (8)

The British and French governments eventually decided to send an Anglo-French expeditionary force of 100,000 men was hastily assembled. The government wanted to show Great Britain's impartial hostility towards dictatorships, Communist and Fascist, if she took on both Soviet Russia and Germany at once. Churchill had a more subtle intention. The expeditionary force would have to cross Norway and Sweden before reaching Finland. On the way it would seize Narvik, the Norwegian port from which the iron ore was shipped to Germany, and would then go on to wreck the Swedish iron mines. In this was successful, German industry would be crippled. (9)

The British Chiefs of Staff warned that, as a military operation, the expeditionary force would not work; even mild opposition from Sweden, as now seemed likely, would make it impossible for the Anglo-French force to reach Finland in time to be of help, or even to reach the iron ore fields en route, "before a German force could get there". The government was warned that by sending aircraft to help Finland would "weaken ourselves against Germany." Hitler, aware of the danger of British involvement in the war, issued details of a plan to occupy Norway and Denmark that "would anticipate English action against Scandinavia and the Baltic, would secure our supplies of iron ore from Sweden, and would provide the Navy and Air Force with expanded bases for operations against England." (10)

Anthony Eden, prepared the way for government action with a speech on 29th February, 1940: "Not Russia only but Germany also, bears a terrible responsibility for what is happening in Finland at this hour. Hitler and Ribbentrop, these men and their policies alone made Stalin's aggression possible. Stalin is the aggressor in Finland, Hitler the abettor. It seems strange to think now how many hours I used to spend listening to the present German Foreign Secretary when he was Ambassador in London, when he used to expound to me, as indeed he did also in public many times, the dangers and horrors of Bolshevism. He was never tired of expatiating on this theme. Soviet Russia, this untouchable with whom Nazi Germany could not sit down at a conference table, this leprous thing, this cancer. Many a time the British people were taken to task because we, it was alleged, did not understand the extent of our peril. We did not appreciate, we were told, the realities of the European situation. Only Hitler could do that. He, alone, we were assured, stood as a bulwark between Britain and Red Russia." (11) .

When the government announced it had agreed to send the expeditionary force to Finland. "British expectations rose high, encouraged by confident utterances from Chamberlain and Churchill." (12) The action was criticised. According to one historian: "The motives for the projected expedition to Finland defy rational analysis. For Great Britain and France to provoke war with Soviet Russia when already at war with Germany seems the product of a madhouse, and it is tempting to suggest a more sinister plan: switching the war on to an anti-Bolshevik course, so that the war against Germany could be forgotten or even ended." (13)

On 4th March, 1940, Soviet forces launched a massive attack on the Finnish city of Vyborg. One Soviet column crossed thirty-four miles of ice, attacking the Finnish coastline in the rear of the city's defenders. Soviet artillery set up its positions offshore, bombarding Vyborg. The Finnish Government, unable to resist the renewed military onslaught, accepted the Soviet Union's offer of peace talks.As the Finns had lost more that 20 per cent of their 200,000 soldiers in three months they accepted the offer. On 12th March, Finland agreed to the Soviet demands and made peace. (14)

The Fall of Neville Chamberlain

The British and French governments were humiliated. At a Cabinet meeting on 8th April it was agreed to send help to Norway. However, it was too late and Germany took over Denmark unopposed and seized every important Norwegian port from Oslo to Narvik. Chamberlain received a hostile reception in the House of Commons. Chamberlain complained about being "continually interrupted with shouts, sneers, and derisive laughter" and "my depression is increased by the partisanship and personal prejudice shown by the Labour Party". (15)

Chamberlain wrote in his diary: "This has been one of the worst, if not the worst, week of the war... We hadn't reckoned on the way in which the Germans had poured in reinforcements of men, guns, tanks, and areoplanes. In particular, this brief campaign has taught our people, many of whom were much in need of teaching, the importance of the air factor." (16)

Criticism increased when British troops were forced to retreat from Norway. Chamberlain wrote: "I am thankful that at least we got our men out of Norway... We could not give them what they wanted most, namely fighter aircraft, because we had no aerodrome from which they could operate. I rather doubt whether our experts realised before the power of an unopposed air arm... We have plenty of man-power, but it is neither trained nor equipped. We are short of air power. If we could weather this year, I believe we should be able to remove our worst deficiencies." (17)

In a debate in the House of Commons on 7th May, 1940, Admiral Roger Keyes, the Conservative Party MP for Portsmouth North, attacked the government's military strategy including the role played by Winston Churchill as First Lord of Admiralty: "I came to the House of Commons today in uniform for the first time because I wish to speak for some officers and men of the fighting, sea-going Navy who are very unhappy. I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not their fault that the German warships and transports which forced their way into Norwegian ports by treachery were not followed in and destroyed as they were at Narvik. It is not the fault of those for whom I speak that the enemy have been left in undisputable possession of vulnerable ports and aerodromes for nearly a month, have been given time to pour in reinforcements by sea and air, to land tanks, heavy artillery and mechanised transport, and have been given time to develop the air offensive which has had such a devastating effect on the morale of Whitehall. If they had been more courageously and offensively employed they might have done much to prevent these unhappy happenings and much to influence unfriendly neutrals." He then went on to compare the operation with Churchill's failure at Gallipoli. (18)

Leo Amery, another Tory MP, argued in the House of Commons: "Just as our peace-time system is unsuitable for war conditions, so does it tend to breed peace-time statesmen who are not too well fitted for the conduct of war. Facility in debate, ability to state a case, caution in advancing an unpopular view, compromise and procrastination are the natural qualities - I might almost say, virtues - of a political leader in time of peace. They are fatal qualities in war. Vision, daring, swiftness and consistency of decision are the very essence of victory." Looking at Chamberlain he then went on to quote what Oliver Cromwell said to the Long Parliament when he thought it was no longer fit to conduct the affairs of the nation: "You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go." (19)

The following day, Clement Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party demanded a vote of no confidence in Chamberlain. In his speech Chamberlain claimed he had the support of the Cabinet. At this point, the 77-year-old David Lloyd George, made an important intervention: "It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister's friends. It is a far bigger issue. He has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at, and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing the best... I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office." (20).

The government defeated the Labour motion by 281 to 200 votes. But over 30 Conservatives voted against Chamberlain and another 134 abstained. This indicated the extent to which the government had haemorrhaged authority. It was clear that drastic changes were essential if the government was to restore its authority. Chamberlain invited Attlee to join a National Government but he refused and said he would only accept if the prime minister resigned. (21)

Chamberlain told King George VI that he thought he should resign. In his diary Chamberlain wrote: "The Amerys, Duff Coopers, and their lot are consciously, or unconsciously, swayed by a sense of frustration because they can only look on, and finally the personal dislike of Simon and Hoare had reached a pitch which I find it difficult to understand, but which undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the rebellion. A number of those who voted against the government have since either told me, or written to me to say, that they had nothing against me except that I had the wrong people in my team." (22)

The King and Chamberlain wanted Lord Halifax to become prime minister. Halifax had the support of some Labour MPs like Hugh Dalton and Herbert Morrison, but not Attlee who wanted Churchill. With the Labour Party unwilling to serve under his leadership, Chamberlain had little option but to resign. The King attempted to insist on Halifax but eventually he agreed to ask Winston Churchill to become prime minister. As Martin Gilbert pointed out: "Churchill, the principal critic of the pre-war policies, and a man whom the Labour leaders believed would have the will and ability to direct the war with energy and zeal." (23)

Clive Ponting, the author of Winston Churchill (1994) has argued: "It was perhaps the crowning irony of his career that he should become Prime Minister because of the need to bring the Labour Party, which had so far only formed two minority governments, into a national coalition. One of the main motivating forces of his political life in the previous twenty years was his outright opposition to the claims of Labour and the trade unions, reflected in his often expressed belief that not only were they unfit to govern the country but that they were engaged in a campaign to subvert its political, economic and social institutions." (24)

Churchill wrote in his autobiography that he offered Attlee and the Labour Party "more than a third of the places (in the Cabinet)" and "two seats in the War Cabinet". This was accepted: "During these last crowded days of the political crisis my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 a.m., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial." (25)

David Low & Adolf Hitler
David Low, All Behind You, Winston (14th May, 1940)

The Daily Telegraph reported: "Winston Churchill takes up the duty of national leadership at a great hour in the life of our country. By the inspiration of a bold and fertile genius, by long study and aptitude for the direction of war, by experience in administration hardly to be rivaled, and above all by force of will and hearty understanding of that stubbornness and fire which have made the British Nation great in arms, he has the qualities to make his arduous task glorious... Socialist leaders were quick to realise their duty. Their position was not without its difficulty, for their party has been sensitively jealous of association with any other in a Coalition Government... They will now do their part - as the part which both the political and the industrial wings of Labour can play is of high importance - to ensure that the new Government holds and keeps the complete confidence of the nation." (26)

Western Offensive

In February 1940, Adolf Hitler began making plans to send 30 divisions of the German Army through Holland and Belgium, hold the Allied armies and stop them disengaging. The German military strategy of using of fast-moving tanks, with motorized infantry and artillery supported by dive-bombers, and concentrating on one part of the enemy sector, became known as Blitzkrieg (lightning war) had been highly successful in the invasion of Poland in 1939. The strategy relied on the independent operation of mobile armoured units striking forward of the main armies to achieve surprise and swift tactical success. (27)

The main force of 45 divisions, including seven Panzer divisions, would attack in the centre, focused on Sedan, and move across northern France to the Channel, cutting the Allied armies in two. The remaining units would be deployed opposite the Maginot Line from the Ardennes to the Swiss border to hold the French troops in their positions. The German attack began on 10th May and Holland was quickly overrun and the key Belgian defences were captured by glider-borne troops. (28)

The opposing forces in the campaign were of roughly equal strength, with German forces of two and a half million men in 128 divisions (of which 104 were infantry), arranged in three army groups under General Gerd von Rundstedt, General Fedor von Bock and General Wilhelm von Leeb. They faced 100 French divisions deployed on France's north-eastern border with the support of 11 British, 22 Belgian and 10 Dutch divisions (148 in all). Although the two sides also employed roughly the same number of armoured vehicles (about 4,000), many of the Allied tanks were slow and unmanoeuvrable. In aircraft, the Luftwaffe had a qualitative as well as quantitative advantage (3,000 aircraft against 1,400) and, most importantly, was organized to support the Army's tactical operations. (29)

Field Marshal Paul von Kleist later wrote: "My first encounter with the British was when my tanks came upon, and overran, an infantry battalion whose men were equipped with dummy cartridges, for field exercises. This was a sidelight on the apparent unexpectedness of our arrival... Our advance met no serious opposition after the breakthrough. Reinhardt's Panzer Corps had some fighting near Le Cateau, but that was the only noteworthy incident. Guderian's Panzer Corps, sweeping farther south, reached Abbeville, thus splitting the Allied armies. (30)

The British newspapers gave a very positive view of the situation. "British and French troops, having raced across Belgium, are now fighting alongside the Dutch in repelling the German invasion of the Low Countries. R.A.F. planes have heavily bombed the airport of Rotterdam, which had been seized by German air-borne troops. A great battle is taking place in Rotterdam itself, where the Dutch are busy mopping up more German air-borne troops who have been succeeded in reaching the centre of the city." (31)

On the evening of 12th May, Churchill was told that 76 British aircraft had been lost in the two days of fighting. At five o'clock that morning King George, asleep at Buckingham Palace, was woken by a police sergeant to be told that Queen Wilhelmina, wished to speak to him. "I did not believe him, but went to the telephone and it was her. She begged me to send aircraft for the defence of Holland. I passed this message on to everyone concerned and went back to bed... It is not often that one is rung up at that hour, and especially by a Queen. But in these days anything may happen, and far worse things too." (32)

In a speech to the House of Commons the prime minister said: "I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government: 'I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.' We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope." (33)

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. The advance towards the Channel was largely unchallenged. Guderian now wanted to cut off the escape of the British Army from Dunkirk. However, Adolf Hitler was preoccupied with the possibility of a French counter-attack from the south, and personally intervened to halt the advance which had reached the Oise on the night of the 16th. (34)

Franz Halder, the Chief of General Staff in the German Army wrote in his diary: "The Führer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he is afraid to take any chance and so would rather pull the reins on us." (35) The following day he added: "Every hour is precious, Führer's 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." (36)

The halt was only temporary, the motorized infantry was quick in following up, and on the evening of the 18th May, 1940, Hitler was persuaded to allow the tanks to resume their advance. Guderian now headed for the Swiss frontier, which produced the collapse of the remaining armies in France. (37) Paul Reynaud telephoned Winston Churchill that a French counter-attack on the German forces had failed, but "the road to Paris was open" and the "battle was lost". Churchill now sent a telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt: "The small countries are simply smashed up, one by one, like matchwood... We expect to be attacked here ourselves, both from the air and by parachute and air-borne troops in the near future, and are getting ready for them." (38)

Hitler still refused to give orders to advance on Dunkirk. Franz Halder could not understand the hesitation and on 26th May he wrote in his diary: "The 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." Later that day he wrote: "Brauchitsch summoned to Führer. Returns beaming. At last the Führer' has given permission to move on Dunkirk to prevent further evacuations." (39)

General Günther Blumentritt, who worked very closely with Hitler during the invasion of France, gave a very interesting interview to Basil Liddell Hart after the war about the Führer's decision about Dunkirk. " He (Hitler) admitted that the course of the campaign had been 'a decided miracle', and gave us his opinion that the war would be - finished in six weeks. After that he wished to conclude a reasonable peace with France, and then the way would be free for an agreement with Britain. He then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world... He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church - saying they were both essential elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany's position on the Continent. The return of Germany's lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere. He remarked that the colonies were primarily a matter of prestige, since they could not be held in war, and few Germans could settle in the tropics. He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept." (40)


The Allied troops retreated to the sea. They were spared an immediate German onslaught, because Hitler decided that the major target should be those French troops falling back towards Paris. The Germans were unaware of just how many men were trapped towards the coast. The estimate of men trapped towards the coast was only 100,000, a quarter of the real figure. Hitler had also been assured by Hermann Göring that the German Air Force could prevent the British forces from being evacuated. (41)

The information that Churchill was receiving made it clear that he would have to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). He went to see the King at Buckingham Palace who recorded in his diary that he had little hope that the strategy developed by General Maxime Weygand, the Commander in Chief of the French forces was likely to be unsuccessful: "He told me that if the French plan made out by Weygand did not come off, he would have to order the BEF back to England. This operation would mean the loss of all guns, tanks, ammunition and all stores in France." (42)

On 24th May, 1940, General Franz Halder, the Chief of General Staff, with the support of Hitler, finally sent General Gerd von Rundstedt permission to attack Dunkirk. Rundstedt refused, telling Halder: "the mechanized groups must first be allowed to pull themselves together". Hitler reinforced Halder's order with Directive No. 13: "The next object of our operations is to annihilate the French, English and Belgian forces which are surrounded in Artois and Flanders, by a concentric attack by our northern flank and by the swift seizure of the Channel coast in this area." (43)

The British soldiers on the front-line in France had very little experience of warfare. Even the regular battalions had only known counter-insurgency campaigning in Palestine whilst the Territorial battalions were without any experience of real war. The problems were increased by poor leadership and a lack of adequate equipment. Once the army realised that it was outclassed and no one had any effective military response except endless retreat. (44)

Winston Churchill now ordered the plan to evacuate troops and equipment from the French port of Dunkirk. "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." (45)

Operation Dynamo, that had been drawn up by General John Gort, the Commander in Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). It began on 27th May and on the first day 7,000 men were moved. The forces of fighter command were thrown in without reserve and tempered the weight of German bombing on the beaches. Destroyers and minesweepers, which brought off most of the men, were aided by every sort of vessel - trawlers, yachts, barges and pleasure boats. (46)

Reginald V. Jones who worked for British Scientific Intelligence was one of those involved in the planning of Operation Dynamo. "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...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." (47)

Given the situation it was not surprising that there were more than a few instances of blind panic and bad behaviour. It was reported that "groups of men, deserted by their officers, prowling the town in a mood of savage violence; of a major shot dead through the head by another because it was the only way of preventing hi9m from capsizing an already overloaded rowing boat; a senior officer refusing to leave a foxhole he had dug in the sand; a corporal of the Guards who kept order in his boat, filled with fear-crazed troops, by threatening to shoot the first one who disobeyed him." (48)

David Low & Adolf Hitler
David Low, Message from Flanders (28th May, 1940)

Douglas Bader, a member of 222 Squadron, was attempting to protect Allied forces leaving Dunkirk. "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." (49)

Charles Lightoller, a retired naval officer who served on The Titanic, took his yacht Sundowner to help bring soldiers back from Dunkirk. "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." (50)

By the end of May the situation looked very serious. Edward Murrow, who worked for American radio, was in a position to be more honest than British journalists. "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.... 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." (51)

Soldiers returning from France were full of admiration of the British Navy and the Royal Air Force. Their only hint of bitterness was when they spoke about the lack of planes on the front-line: "In seven days in Belgium," said a R.A.F. man, "I saw far too few British planes and far too many Germans. And the Germans are afraid of us in the air. If you see three Spitfires you won't see any German planes about for long." (52)

The Daily Telegraph reported on 3rd June: "The evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk and the adjacent beaches was approaching its climax this evening. All through the the weekend thousands of the troops continued to pour into this port, to vanish into the waiting trains for unknown destinations at camps and barracks all over England. I am not permitted to estimate the number of those who are still left. By dusk this evening it was safe to state the numbers still remaining, apart from the rearguard and the casualties, are surprisingly small." (53)

The following day, Winston Churchill, made a speech in the House of Commons on the evacuation at Dunkirk. "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." (54)

In fact, Churchill had underestimated the losses. The total casualties of the British Army in France between 10th May and early June was 68,111. In all, 338,226 men were brought to England from Dunkirk, of whom 139,097 were members of the French Army. Left behind in France were 2,472 guns, 20,000 motorcycles, and almost 65,000 other vehicles. Almost all of the 445 British tanks that had been sent to France with the BEF were abandoned. Six destroyers had been sunk and nineteen damaged. The RAF had also lost 474 aircraft. (55)

David Low & Adolf Hitler
David Low, Very Well, Alone (18th June, 1940)


(1) William R. Trotter, The Winter War: The Russo–Finnish War of 1939–40 (2002) pages 58-61

(2) Manchester Guardian (1st December, 1939)

(3) Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (1953) page 428

(4) Tomas Ries, Lessons of the Winter War, National Defence Collegeof Finland (2001)

(5) Elizabeth-Anne Wheal & Stephen Pope, The MacMillan Dictionary of the Second World War (1989) page 437

(6) David Charlton, Anthony Eden (1981) page 156

(7) Clive Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality (1990) page 48

(8) Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1970) page 427

(9) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 416-417

(10) Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (1989) pages 46-47

(11) Anthony Eden, speech in Liverpool (29th February, 1940)

(12) Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1970) page 437

(13) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pages 572-573

(14) Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (1989) page 47

(15) Keith Feiling, The Life of Neville Chamberlain (1970) page 430

(16) Neville Chamberlain, diary entry (27th April, 1940)

(17) Neville Chamberlain, diary entry (4th May, 1940)

(18) Roger Keyes, speech in the House of Commons (7th May, 1940)

(19) Leo Amery, speech in the House of Commons (7th May, 1940)

(20) David Lloyd George, speech in the House of Commons (8th May, 1940)

(21) John Bew, Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee (2016) page 240

(22) Neville Chamberlain, diary entry (11th May, 1940)

(23) Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (1989) page 62

(24) Clive Ponting, Winston Churchill (1994) page 431

(25) Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (1953) pages 526-527

(26) The Daily Telegraph (11th May, 1940)

(27) Elizabeth-Anne Wheal & Stephen Pope, The MacMillan Dictionary of the Second World War (1989) page 61

(28) Clive Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality (1990) pages 81-82

(29) Elizabeth-Anne Wheal & Stephen Pope, The MacMillan Dictionary of the Second World War (1989) page 502

(30) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948) page 183

(31) The Observer (12th May, 1940)

(32) King George VI, diary entry (13th May, 1940)

(33) Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (13th May, 1940)

(34) Alan Bullock, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny (1962) page 585

(35) Franz Halder, diary entry (17th May, 1940)

(36) Franz Halder, diary entry (18th May, 1940)

(37) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948) page 62

(38) Winston Churchill, telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (15th May, 1940)

(39) Franz Halder, diary entry (26th May, 1940)

(40) Basil Liddell Hart, The Other Side of the Hill (1948) pages 200-201

(41) Martin Gilbert, The Second World War (1989) page 72 (37)

(42) King George VI, diary entry (23rd May, 1940)

(43) Adolf Hitler, Directive No 13 (24th May, 1940)

(44) John Ellis, The Sharp of War: The Fighting Man in World War II (1980) page 258

(45) Winston Churchill, Their Finest Hour (1953) page 275

(46) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pages 592

(47) Reginald V. Jones, Most Secret War (1978) page 132

(48) Phillip Knightley, The First Casualty (1975) page 232

(49) Douglas Bader, Fight for the Sky (1973) page 15

(50) Robert Fox, We Were There: An Eyewitness History of the Twentieth Century (2010) page 155

(51) Edward Murrow, CBS radio broadcast from London (30th May 1940)

(52) The Observer (2nd June, 1940)

(53) The Daily Telegraph (3rd June, 1945)

(54) Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons (4th June, 1940)

(55) A. J. P. Taylor, English History: 1914-1945 (1965) pages 592

John Simkin