Chapter 15: The Defence of the Bridgehead, 30th May and 31st May, 1940
By midday on the 30th practically all our retiring forces were within the perimeter with the enemy pressing round them. From now on all interest is focused on the Dunkirk bridgehead, and to form a true picture of the operations their double aspect must be kept in mind. First, as being fundamental to all else, is the army’s fighting to hold back the German forces while evacuation takes place. Only as that succeeds can the scene be enacted on the quays and beaches and at sea.
The map facing page 238 shows who they were that held the bridgehead on this day. I Corps were now responsible for the western half of the British sector, from Dunkirk to the French frontier; II Corps for the eastern half from the frontier to the sea at Nieuport. III Corps was moving to the beaches for evacuation or had already gone home. But the map cannot expose the fact that none of the divisions marked on it were complete, that all were greatly reduced in strength. Of I Corps the 1st Division was short of three battalions which had been taken to help II Corps in the battle of the Ypres front (page 194). In the 42nd Division only the 126th Brigade was still capable of operations and only six battalions of the 46th Division had ever come effectively under Lord Gort’s command during the battle. Of the 2nd Division only a composite company formed from men of the 5th Brigade was now left. In II Corps the 5th and 23rd Divisions were no longer capable of further fighting and some battalions had now little more than the strength of a normal company.
As the last of the divisions entered the bridgehead the enemy followed up quickly and before the day was over they were in close contact with our defences and were shelling and mortaring them with mounting violence. They reported that ‘the bridgehead is held by British troops who are fighting back very stubbornly’.1(2) In many places the waterlogged state of the ground made it impossible for the defending troops to dig in, and as a consequence some units had heavy casualties from the bombardment. But the enemy were only ready to make one serious attempt to break our front on this day.
After artillery preparation they tried to cross the canal just north of Furnes, where the front of the 3rd Division was held by the 7th Guards Brigade and the 8th Brigade. The attack was beaten off, but the 4th Royal Berkshire (now about the strength of one company) suffered heavily and a company of the 1st Coldstream Guards was sent to take over part of their position. About ten o’clock at night the attack was renewed and the enemy succeeded in breaking across the canal. But the Coldstreamers counter-attacked, drove them back across the water and restored the front.(3)
The confusion and loss of grip on the German side which is noticeable at this time (page 214) had not been resolved. On the 29th of May Army Group A War Diary had noted that their Fourth Army could make little headway ‘owing to very stubborn enemy resistance’(4) They now asked the Fourth Army whether Dunkirk could not be attacked through Bergues by mobile forces, but fear of a possible heavy loss led to this proposal being dropped. Instead the Fourth Army directed Kleist Group to close in, so as to be able to shell Dunkirk with 10cm guns. It is recorded in Fourth Army War Diary that the operations officer at Army Headquarters complained to the Kleist Group:’ there is an impression here that nothing is happening today, that no one is any longer interested in Dunkirk. Town and harbour must be bombarded, embarkation prevented, panic caused’.2(5) About three o’clock in the afternoon, Army Group A informed Fourth Army that OKH had sanctioned an attack on Dunkirk; to which the officer receiving the message replied that the Fourth Army was ready to attack by Army Group B’s Sixth Army must also take part, and the Sixth Army had apparently pulled out to rest! Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff then asked whether Fourth Army knew that Kleist Group had informed Richthofen’s VIII Air Corps that they intended to attack Dunkirk that afternoon. He was told that this was now known; on the contrary, Kleist Group had asked for Dunkirk to be bombed. However, the Fourth Army ordered Kleist group to ‘attack Dunkirk on both flanks, penetrate right up to the coast, and then continue the pursuit eastwards’.3(6) Kleist Group Chief of Staff replied that their formations were unstable, since tanks could not be used there. He was told that ‘By higher orders an end must finally be mad of the embarkation at Dunkirk. …’ And the Fourth Army commander intervened personally to order: ‘All forces to the coast east of Dunkirk immediately. … The Divisional Commander is to be told that he is to reach the coast without fail today.’4(7) Later, Kleist Group reported that their 20th Motorised Division was ‘advancing towards Bray Dunes. … The left wing is in
front of Bergues and in Gravelines, on the Canal and is unable to get on. The fortified bridgehead of Dunkirk lies in front of them’.5(8) Attempts would now be mad to fire on Dunkirk with light artillery, for the medium artillery had run out of ammunition the day before.
At this point the whole of the operations against Dunkirk were put under the command of Army Group B’s Eighteenth Army. It had been engaged in Holland and against the Belgian Army; it was now mad responsible for the destruction or capture of the Allied troops in the bridgehead. The forces which came under its command were the IX, X, XIV and XXVI Corps, comprising the 14th, 18th, 56th, 216th, 254th, 256th Infantry Divisions plus the 61st which was moving up; and also the 9th and 11th Motorised Brigades, the motorised Regiment Grossdeutschland, with the 20th Motorised Division and the SS Adolf Hitler Regiment in reserve.(9) The changeover was to take effect at 2 a.m. on the 31st.
Army Group A ceased from now on to have any responsibility for the attack on Dunkirk; Rundstedt had got his wish. He had regarded his real task as accomplished when his forces reached the coast, cut British communications and seized the channel ports. Thereafter it was his policy (confirmed by Hitler though disliked both by the Commander-in-Chief, Brauchitsch, and at first by his own subordinate commanders) to husband his armoured formations for the coming offensive southwards. and though it is clear that he missed an opportunity by not attacking the Canal Line in rear of the British Expeditionary Force before Lord Gort could move back divisions for its defence, it was a sound and soldierly policy not to use his armour afterwards for an attack on Dunkirk. As already pointed out (page 178) the beditched ground is unsuited to the use of armour. In less than a week, moreover, Rundstedt had to be ready to attack southwards over the Somme–Aisne line. There, as he believed, a major part of the French Army had still to be brought to battle. The German forces must break and defeat this army if they were to conquer France.(11) They had proved that for such a task the quick-thrusting armoured divisions were the most effective weapon, and already Rundstedt had lost nearly fifty percent of his armoured strength (page 151). To waste more in attacks on Dunkirk would have shown bad judgement.
The entry on the 31st of May in the War Diary of Army Group A concludes with a long post-mortem in which Rundstedt’s success is attributed:
1. to initial surprise and speed of operations which ‘led the enemy to take steps which only appear comprehensible if one assumes that the decisive point of German operations—lying with Army Group A—was not realised or was realised too late’;
2. to the work of the air force whose cooperation was ‘ideal’;
3. to all the army formations on the ground ‘where alone the annihilation of the enemy’s fighting power can be achieved’;
4. to the fact that mobile formations ‘overwhelmed the enemy at a tempo to which neither his leaders nor the training of his troops were equal’.6(12)
Few will question this assessment of the factors which contributed to Army Group A’s ‘success’. But that success was hardly as complete as Rundstedt imagined and his complacency was not altogether justified by facts. For what is open to criticism is his own conduct of the latter part of the northern battle. Success is a relative term. The measure of success gained by Army Group A up to the 19th of May was gained by fighting the French Army no a front for which the British Expeditionary Force was not responsible and with which this history is therefore not directly concerned. The detail of that fighting has not been studied and it cannot therefore be appraised here. but after the 19th the British Expeditionary Force was involved, with results which had been described. On that day five of Rundstedt’s armoured divisions reached the Canal du Nord; two more were just behind them; and other armoured, motorised and infantry divisions were moving up. And in front of them there was virtually no opposition. In these circumstances the leading divisions reached the coast next day and cut our communications in doing so. The mere threat of our small counter-attack at Arras was enough to slow down their progress on the 21st, but by the 22nd that threat had been mitigated and Rundstedt had by then seven armoured divisions, six motorised divisions and four infantry divisions in the rear of the British Expeditionary Force.(13) At that time Lord Gort had only the 5th and 50th Divisions to guard his right rear at Arras, and some scratch formations scattered thinly along the Canal Line. Yet in the days which followed, all that Rundstedt did with his greatly superior force was to take the lightly garrisoned ports of Boulogne and Calais, to harry our divisions in their retreat to the coast, and then to stand by, preparing for the next offensive, while they embarked to refit in England. Was his success so complete after all? After the 19th of May he advanced quickly through country in which they were no one to oppose him, but after hesitating to strike eastwards at our rear while it was virtually undefended, he thereafter advanced only as fast as our retiring army allowed, in spite of the fact that without the help of Army Group B he had stronger forces at his disposal than the whole of the British Expeditionary Force. It is arguable that after the 19th of May his part in the northern battle should be regarded as a very qualified success if not actually a failure, in that having won a
good opening he was unable to exploit it. The extent to which Hitler was responsible is discussed in the Supplement on the ‘Planning and Conduct of the German Campaign’; but it may be said here that there is no contemporary evidence to indicate that Rundstedt was conscious of any interference or that he was ever persuaded from following the course which he wished to adopt.
Meanwhile, Army group B, whose Eighteenth Army had now taken over responsibility for the final capture of Dunkirk recorded the following telephone message from the German High Command.
The Commander-in-Chief, Army [Brauchitsch], would like to make some person suggestions for overpowering the enemy around Dunkirk.
For instance, the following points have been considered:
1. The landing of units from the sea in rear of British forces.
2. The withdrawal of advanced infantry units from the bank of the [perimeter] canal in order to allow unobstructed and effective air support.
3. The use of anti-aircraft shells with time fuses for fighting in the dunes in order to compensate for reduced effectiveness of artillery. (Suggestion made by the Führer and Supreme Commander.)7(14)
So much for the story, propounded later, that Hitler wished to let the British Expeditionary Force escape.
At British General Headquarters in La Panne there was an almost continuous exchange of messages with England. Someone was almost always on the telephone to the War Office, explaining the situation in France or receiving information or instructions from England. A few minutes after midnight on the 29th/30th May the War Office were told that the perimeter could not be held for long and asked that as many boats as possible should be sent over quickly, for enemy action had died away with nightfall and was not causing trouble during hours of darkness.(15) And more ammunition for Bofors guns to deal with aircraft by day was urgently needed.
Four hours later the War Office replied that the Vice-Admiral Dover would get as many small craft as possible across and that an ammunition barge was ready to sail and would be directed to La Panne. It would be followed the next day by other barges containing approximately 75 tons each in the proportion of one-third food, one-third water and one-third ammunition in each barge.
Once in the bridgehead Lord Gort came under the immediate command of Admiral Abrial, the French commander of the Dunkirk area. On May the 29th General Weygand had ordered General Blanchard to ‘establish with all available forces a bridgehead south of Dunkirk–Nieuport … to provide for progressive evacuation
by sea’,8 but there was still ambiguity about how the policy was to be carried out. In a long conversation with the War Office Lord Gort asked that the position might be made clear both to him and to the French High Command. Did the British Government with him to make good the escape of the British Expeditionary Force or was he to hold Dunkirk so long as the French Admiral wished him to do so. ‘He think that we can hold on indefinitely, but I believe that as soon as we are encircled and the full force of artillery and other arms is brought to bear the position will become untenable.’(17) If his object was to extricate the British Expeditionary Force it was important that this should be mad clear to the French.
Subsequently he received from the War Office the final instructions of the Government: they had been dictated by the Prime Minister.
Continue to defend the present perimeter to the utmost in order to cover maximum evacuation now proceeding well. Report every three hours through La Panne. If we can still communicate we shall send you an order to return to England with such officers as you may choose at the moment when we deem your command so reduced that it can be handed over to a Corps Commander. If communications are broken you are to hand over and return as specified when your effective fighting force does not exceed the equivalent of three divisions. This is in accordance with correct military procedure and no personal discretion is left to you in the matter. On political grounds it would be a needless triumph to the enemy to capture you when only a small force remained under your orders. The Corps Commander chose by you should be ordered to carry on the defence in conjunction with the French and evacuated whether from Dunkirk or the beaches, but when in his judgement no further proportionate damage can be inflicted on the enemy he is authorised in consultation with the senior French Commander to capitulate formally to avoid useless slaughter.(18)
Various estimates of the number and timings of withdrawal were given to the War Office. The British troops remaining were about 60,000; the rear-guard should leave in the early morning of June the 2nd and might number 15,000. About 45,000 should therefore be lifted on the night of the 30th and on the night of 31st May/1st June.(19) But the position was complicated by the question of French evacuation. French troops in large numbers were now in the bridgehead and ‘evacuation in equal numbers’ was laid down as the British Government policy.(20) Comparatively few French ships had arrived, and though Lord Gort had arranged for two ships to be put at their disposal, only a few thousand French soldiers had so far sailed. However
the Prime Minister spoke to him at midnight, emphasising the importance of evacuating French troops and asking him to see that General Blanchard and General Fagalde were enabled to sail.(21)
It was decided that II Corps (except for the 50th Division) should withdraw for evacuation on the night of 31st May/1st June. At that point the Belgian sector of the bridgehead would be abandoned and only the sector stretching from Dunkirk to the French frontier would then be held. The 50th Division would withdraw behind the frontier (where the remains of the French 12th Division were deployed) and come under the command of I Corps. General Brooke, with most of his staff and other personnel of II Corps who could be spared, embarked for England that afternoon, and the corps, which was to follow next night, was put under the command of Major-General B. K. Montgomery, whose division (3rd) was in turn taken over by Brigadier K. A. N. Anderson.(22)
Meanwhile evacuation proceeded in face of great difficulties. Rear-Admiral W. F. Wake-Walker arrived early in the morning to take charge of all evacuation ships off the coast, and the shore staff under his direction was strengthened.(23) When the Admiral first saw the scene by daylight, long dark lines of men stretched to the water’s edge and larger groups of men were gathered on the sands. Off Bray the Bideford was aground with her stern blown off. The Crested Eagle was high and dry—burnt out. Lying off the beaches were destroyers and other vessels to which men were making their way in small craft. A light swell made beach work difficult and many boats lay stranded by the tide. The troops, orderly and under control, continued to file down from the dunes and ‘at the back of our minds all this time’, he says, ‘was the question of how long the defence line could hold and the weather remain fair’.(24) The need, still, was for boats and more boats. Small craft were hastening from Portsmouth, Newhaven and Sheerness. six tugs were plugging along from Tilbury towing twenty-three motor and forty-six rowing lifeboats; five others were coming from Gravesend towing barges; car ferries, coasters and cockle boats, speed-boats and picket boats, seaplane tenders, pleasure craft, private yachts and a Thames fire-float were heading for the coast in increasing numbers, all desperately anxious to help. But they had not yet arrived off the beaches.
There was a time in the morning when troops were crowding down to the water’s edge but could not yet be taken off, though the build-up of shipping continued and thirty-one miscellaneous vessels arrived with a most valuable dozen of the long-awaited motor boats to ply between them and the shore.
One weakness in the organisation of Dynamo was the failure to establish any effective system of communications between the various beaches, reliance being placed on messages carried by car or motorcycle.
Until the afternoon of the 30th there was no communication between the beach controls at La Panne and Bray, and in the morning an absence of sufficient shipping off the former had seriously held up work there.(25)
During the morning sappers and troops of the 1st Division built a long pier of lorries stretching into the sea at Bray and decked it with planks.(26) it was not strong enough to be used by heavy craft but it proved invaluable later for embarking men into boats and a similar pier was built at La Panne. At Bray evacuation went better as more shipping arrived there and divisions who had waited patiently for many hours were taken off. In Dunkirk, seven destroyers, a passenger ship and three drifters arrived in the shore end of the east mole felt that ‘a great opportunity was missed that morning, for mist and low visibility restricted enemy activity’.
More shipping came in the evening and even quicker loading did something to compensate for the time lost. A naval officer rigged up a loudspeaker and appealed to the troops moving slowly up the mole: ‘Remember your pals, boys, the quicker you get on board the more of them will be saved!’(27) On this the troops broke into a double and kept it up along the whole length of the eastern arm for more than two hours, and over 15,000 were embarked in that time. It was, however, the only day on which more men were lifted from the beaches (29,512) than from the harbour (24,311), and in spite of all difficulties and disappointments the day’s total was the largest yet reached. By midnight 53,823 had been landed safely in England.(28) Shipping losses, on the other hand, were much smaller, only two destroyers being damaged.
Fifteen French vessels also arrived and entered Dunkirk—two destroyers, three torpedo boats, two minesweepers, four trawlers, a tug and three fishing vessels.
In spite of the fact that cloud and poor visibility made air operations very difficult, Fighter Command patrols at three- or four-squadron strength operated at frequent intervals throughout the day and the only enemy bombers they met were driven off. South of Dunkirk our Blenheims bombed enemy troops and at night Wellingtons endeavoured to interfere with enemy movements towards Dunkirk, but their efforts were limited by adverse weather conditions.(29)
During the day Lord Gort sent two telegrams to the Secretary of State expressing the Army’s thanks for the work of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.(30) He had already asked the War Office over the telephone to pass on to the naval authorities ‘our unbounded admiration’ of the magnificent way they carried out the evacuation
on the previous day, when conditions could not have been more difficult. Operation Dynamo had now been in progress for four days. In that time—that is by midnight of May the 30th—a total of 126,606 had been borne to England. Of these 77,412 had come from the harbour and 49,194 from the beaches.
A few hours later, on the morning of May the 31st, a message of General Weygand was received by the War Office through the Howard-Vyse Mission.(31) It asked for the cooperation of four or five British divisions in defence of Dunkirk. It was not clear whether the divisions were to cover evacuation or to hold out indefinitely, but after consultation with General Georges it was learned that only the former was intended, and as Lord Gort had already been instructed ‘continue to defend the present perimeter to the utmost in order to cover maximum evacuation’ (page 230) General Weygand’s request did not involved any change of policy and it was not necessary to vary the orders given on the day before.
During the morning Lord Gort visited Admiral Abrial at his headquarters in the bastion at Dunkirk to coordinate plans for the evacuation of British and French forces. Among other French Service representatives at the meeting were General Fagalde and General de la Laurencie, and after other details had been agreed Lord Gort invited the two generals to accompany him when he left for England.(32) To his regret they declined, though it was arranged that some of the French III Corps Staff should sail with the remaining officers of the British General Headquarters Staff.
Having tried vainly to get permission to remain to the last, Lord Gort now issued his final operation order, of which the following are the most important paragraphs:
2. It is intended, after consultation with French authorities at Dunkirk, that both Corps and Dunkirk base should continue the withdrawal of troops, maintaining the defence of Dunkirk in cooperation with our French allies, in accordance with orders already issued. It is further intended that the final withdrawal of II Corps shall be completed during the night 31st May/1st June. Shipping resources will be allotted accordingly, and action taken as in following paras. II Corps will not finally abandon the perimeter before 2300 hrs, 31 May.
3. I Corps will assume command of 5 and 50 Divs. from 1800 hrs. 31st May. I Corps will use these divisions to main the frontier defences and will issue orders, after consultation with II Corps, for their withdrawal to the frontier defences. 5 and 50 Divs. reps. report H.Q. I Corps forthwith. An outpost line will be maintained, to be selected by I Corps.
4. II Corps will be responsible for the evacuation of the beaches at La Panne.
5. When the withdrawal of II Corps is completed GHQ will be withdrawn and command will pass to Command I Corps. In default of further instructions command will pas at 1800 hrs. 31 May.(33)
Lord Gort had decided that Major-General Alexander (1st Division) should take command of I Corps for the final phase, and he now sent for him and handed him his instructions:
1. You have been selected to command the I Corps of the British Expeditionary Force and to assist our French allies in the defence of Dunkirk.
2. The responsibility for the defence of Dunkirk rests with the French Admiral Commanding-in-Chief, the Naval Forces of the North; you will act under his orders, but should any orders which he may issue to you be likely, in your opinion, to imperial the safety of the Force under your command you should make an immediate appeal to His Majesty’s Government, through the Secretary of State for War, at the same time notifying the Admiral du Nord that you are doing so.
3. In addition to any sector of the defence of Dunkirk for which you may assume responsibility you will also occupy yourself with arrangements for the evacuation of the Force under your command. This you will do in collaboration with the Admiral du Nord and also in accordance with the policy which may be laid down from time to time by H.M. Government.
It is important that the troops of the French Army should share such facilities for evacuation as may be provided by H.M. Government. The allotment of facilities for evacuation in accordance with this policy will be mad by the authorities at Home; if at any time you consider that the allotment is unreasonable, you should represent the matter to the Senior Naval Officer, Dunkirk, without delay.
4. If at any time in your judgement no further organised evacuation is possible, and no further proportionate damage can be inflicted on the enemy you are authorised in consultation with the Admiral du Nord to capitulate formally to avoid useless slaughter.(34)
There is a revealing description of the preparation of these instructions in the personal record of a staff officer who took part in it:
The Chief said that he had placed General Alexander in command of I Corps and was going to give him his instructions. I took them down. They were a replica of his own … He then told me to go through them and see if there were any corrections to be made … This was a little embarrassing because he had left out the words of the [Government’s] telegram making him the judge of the necessity for surrender. I did not like to mention the word, so I asked if I could compare it with the telegram which I went downstairs to fetch. Then I showed him the telegram and asked if he wanted those particular words reflected in the instruction. He said he did, so I added them to draft, which I had typed, and the Chief signed it.
He adds ‘I have recollection of him sitting in his room and cutting ribbons off a jacket which he would have to leave behind, for he took no more kit him than any private solider.
Though there was fighting all along the southern front and especially near Bergues, the enemy’s attack on this day (31st May) was concentrated mainly on the Belgian half of the bridgehead, which was to be evacuated in the coming night but most be held till the time to leave arrived. On the 50th Division front between the frontier and Bulscamp, on the 3rd Division front near Furnes, and in the 4th Division sector at Nieuport, the enemy attacked heavily. Ground was lost and recovered by counter-attack and only small local gains remained to the enemy at the end of the day. And in the night II Corps withdrew to the beaches, leaving only the 50th Division in reserve behind the French troops holding the frontier.(36) All the bridgehead was now within reach of the German artillery and though our own artillery retaliated, shortage of ammunition severely limited what they could do.
One of the really successful examples of close cooperation with the Royal Air Force took place late in the evening. There had been fighting all day at Nieuport and while attack and counter-attack had led to no great change, the enemy were moving up additional troops and the threat of a real break-through was serious. In the early evening six Albacores of the Fleet Air Arm and eighteen Blenheims bombed the enemy in Nieuport and troops behind the town massing for a further attack.(37) The enemy’s concentration there was broken up and no further attack was made before the 4th Division retired to the beaches. There were other successful sweeps by bombers of Bomber Command which attacked enemy columns moving towards the bridgehead from east and south and both Bomber Command and the Advanced Air Striking Force continued all night to attack enemy supply lines and communications.(38) The German situation report notes that fighter and anti-aircraft defences were strong over the battle area and that one of their attacks was stopped by fifteen Spitfires ‘which approached at a great height from the south-east’.9(39) In addition to the patrols of Fighter Command, Hudsons, Blenheim fighters, Skuas and Rocs of Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm patrolled the sea routes between Dover and the French coast. The enemy’s return to the Quartermaster-General admits to the loss of seventeen aircraft destroyed and damaged during the day. The Luftwaffe reports that one Spitfire was shot down, but twenty-eight of our aircraft of all types (including bombers) were in fact lost that day.(40)
And in spite of all this air protection, the enemy delivered three
major attacks on our shipping in the afternoon and early evening and small sporadic attacks throughout the day. In the morning there was an onshore wind with an unpleasant sea breaking. Reports reached Admiral Ramsay that beach embarkation was practically impossible and that enemy artillery fire made it dangerous to remain offshore or at loading berths beside the harbour mole for any length of time.(41) The dispatch of passenger ships was therefore suspended till darkness but as compensation for this the small boats were now arriving in hundreds and in spite of less favourable weather and enemy action evacuation proceeded steadily. One or two examples of the experiences of larger ships have been given. It will be well to illustrate the experiences of the small craft.
There were six bawleys, which normally fish for shrimps or cockles off the Essex coast. ‘The conduct of the crews of these cockle boats was exemplary. They were all volunteers who were rushed over to before and certainly none of them had ever been under naval discipline. These boats were Thames Estuary fishing boats which never left the estuary and only one of their crews had been further afield than Ramsgate before. In spite of this fact, perfect formation was maintained throughout the day and night under the control of a Sub-Lieutenant, RNVR, in command of the Unit and all order were carried out with great diligence even under actual shell fire and aircraft attack.’10 One, the Renown, was disabled by a mine on the way home and her skipper was killed. She was taken in tow by the drifter Ben and Lucy, who was already towing a disabled drifter, three lifeboats and the bawley Letitia. An hour later the Renown was blown to pieces and a hail of wood and splinters fell on the Letitia, whose skipper says: ‘in pitch darkness we could see nothing, and after the explosion we heard nothing and we could do nothing except pull in the tow rope …’(42)
The motor-boat Triton reached La Panne at about five o’clock on the morning of the 30th and from then until two o’clock on the following morning she towed boat-load after boat-load of soldiers to the destroyers lying offshore. Then she grounded but refloated at about four o’clock and carried on rescuing a number of men who were in danger of drowning. During the night the eastern sector of the bridgehead was abandoned, but Lieutenant R. H. Irving, RNR, in command, did not know this. All he knew was that enemy shelling grew increasingly heavy and because of this the destroyers moved west to Dunkirk. He followed them and in harbour took a boat-load in tow. A heavy air attack was in progress and bombs and shells were falling thickly. He saw a ship hit, closed her and took off two officers
and two ratings who had all been wounded. ‘I now had a full load of soldiers, a full boat-load in tow and soldiers clinging to the stern.’ Bombs were still dropping and at this point a rope got round the propeller of the Triton so she closed a yacht and was herself taken in tow for England. When his activities ceased Lieutenant Irving had been on his feet for nearly thirty-six hours. he says in his report that he had eaten a tin of bully beef, some tinned herring and bread, ‘also four cups of tea, each without sugar’. He adds ‘the crew sent with me knew nothing of making fast ropes or steering but under fire were A.1 and exhibited, on and off, great interest in all that was happening’.(43)
Before the eastern sector of the bridgehead was abandoned the situation at La Panne had become serious. Far more men were there than ships to take them off and the enemy’s artillery fire on the beach and on the ships at sea steadily increased. It was therefore agreed with Major-General Johnson, commanding the 4th Division, that about 6,000 men remaining at La Panne should march to Dunkirk.(44) The men of that division will not forget their ten-mile tramp along the loose sands though they remember thankfully the ships they reached when it ended at least on the mole of Dunkirk. Towards evening the weather had improved and, though a number of boats were lost or damaged during the day from one cause of another, naval casualties were not so heavy as on some other days and a further 68,014 men were landed in England by midnight(45)—the largest number for a single day during the whole operation.
There was of course an element of good luck in these grim days—‘We had a bit of luck over a steamer which had been bombed and sunk on the way into Dunkirk, but as she was in very shallow water she only settled a few feet and kindly remained on an even keel. On one of the worst days, when there were very numerous dive-bombing attacks on the mole and the ships approaching it, no less than twenty-four of these attacks were made on this derelict ship, sitting on the sand bank. We reckoned she was worth about a million pounds to the country in shipping saved.’(46)
There was the further good fortune that throughout the evacuation the weather was fine and the sea calm; only on three days did a little swell at sea raise surf on the shore which made boat work difficult and for a time impossible. Had the weather been stormy and the sea rough ‘Dunkirk’ might well have been remembered as a great tragedy.
Lord Gort had had one further conversation with the War Office during the afternoon in which he reported that pressure along the whole front had increased. He told of his decision (noted above) to shorten the front by withdrawing from the Belgian portion of the bridgehead so that the line held would swing northwards to the
coast, marching with the French frontier.(47) Then his headquarters closed down and Lord Gort and the staff who had remained with him left for England.
By midnight 194,620 of the men he had commanded and of their Allies had already landed there.