Chapter 16: Last Days at Dunkirk, 1st June to 4th June, 1940
The most critical phase of the operations at Dunkirk, both for the Army and for the Navy, had now been reached. The withdrawal of II Corps for evacuation left few British troops for the defence of the bridgehead sector for which they were responsible. Though the reduction of the front was of advantage to the Army, it made the Navy’s task more difficult, for it allowed the enemy to move his artillery to positions from which the harbour, the beaches, and the sea approaches could all be covered by fire from the east.
On the morning of June the 1st about 39,000 of the British Expeditionary Force remained in the contracted British sector. The French held a reduced sector to the west, their forces joining up with the British on the Bergues Canal. From there the British held the southern face of the bridgehead while the east face, following the French frontier to the sea, was now held by the French 12th Division with the British 50th Division in support. Other French troops were in position on the intermediate line behind the British defence of the Bergues–Furnes Canal. There were on this date about 50,000 French troops in defensive positions. In addition 80,000 had been assembled for evacuation in the dunes, of whom 30,000 had already sailed. It has been calculated since that there were also about 20,000 in detached small groups not included in the French reckoning.1
After Lord Gort had handed over command on the previous day General Alexander had conferred with Admiral Abrial.(1) The latter thought it possible to contact the bridgehead still further and to hold a front (on the east of Dunkirk) running roughly from Bergues, through Uxem and Ghyvelde to Basse Plaine and from there by the French frontier to the sea—which is called above the intermediate line.
General Alexander thought that this proposal was impracticable. The danger of the naval and military situation was increasing hourly; in his view if the bridgehead were thus further contracted the line held would be so near to Dunkirk and the beaches that the enemy’s close-range artillery-fire would make continued evacuation impossible. On the other hand he thought that the British rear-guard
could hold their present position for another twenty-four hours (but no more) and he proposed that the evacuation of all remaining troops should therefore be completed in the coming night of 1st/2nd June. Admiral Abrial reported these opposed views to General Weygand, and General Alexander to the British Secretary of State for War. The latter replied ‘You should withdraw your forces as rapidly as possible a 50–50 basis with the French Army, aiming at completion by night of 1st/2nd June. You should inform French of this definite instruction.’(2)
When shown this message Admiral Abrial agreed that the existing British front should be held till midnight of the 1st and that the troops should then be withdrawn to the beaches under cover of darkness.(3) In the meantime while French evacuation would also continue French troops would man the intermediate position which he had named (Uxem–Ghyvelde–Basse Plaine) through which the British could retire, leaving only anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns and any troops who could not be get away.
General Alexander’s view that the intermediate line could not be held was based on his knowledge that few British troops were left to hold it and on his ignorance of the number of French troops still available for defence. In the event, as will be seen, French troops fought for about two days and held off the German attacks while about 10,00 British and some 70,000 French troops were evacuate to England. General Alexander, therefore, underestimated the time for which the immediate position could be held, but he delayed the enemy’s attack on that line by holding the forward position on the Bergues–Furnes Canal for twenty-four hours after Admiral Abrial had proposed its abandonment.
Much has been written of the scene at Dunkirk during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force, and much that has been written is almost inevitably out of true perspective. To the uninformed observer, especially in the early days, it seemed that ships came and went at unexplained intervals, boats struggled between ship and shore apparently without order and often with little skill, and on shore the apparent confusion suggested that the troops acted mainly on their own initiative. The ultimate success of the operation appeared to these observers as a triumph of improvisation. Such a reading of the scene is largely mistaken. It had been foreseen on May the 19th that evacuation might become necessary. When Operation Dynamo began on the 26th the Royal Navy had had six days in which to frame preliminary plans and, as already told, Sir Ronald Adam’s organisation of the bridgehead had been well worked out. In the first few days before the fighting troops arrived, lack of military training, the absence of adequate direction, insufficient naval beach parties and shortage of small boats led to scenes of confusion among
the men from rearward areas and the confusion was increased by French troops unwilling to conform to British orders. The ineptitude of men with no experience of boats, and shortage of skilled seamen, at times led to a wasteful loss of small craft, and there were mistakes and setbacks in plenty. But all were overcome. In general ships sailed on Admiral Ramsay’s orders, though especially in the early days much was left to local initiative and personal enterprise, both in England and on the scene of operations. On shore the troops moved as they were ordered and embarked where and when they were directed. To the very end General Headquarters and corps and divisional commanders issued detailed and written orders. The Army Postal Service even delivered letters and parcels to some units waiting on the shore. In the execution of orders much depended of course on individual enterprise, and unforeseen circumstances combined with enemy action to upset plans on occasion. But the apparent absence of plan was deceptive, the visible confusion was but skin-deep. Beneath the surface operations both on land and sea were astonishingly well controlled. Only thus could so many have been brought away. The triumph of Dunkirk was not the element of improvisation but the display of discipline and good organisation.
Without full knowledge of all the back-stage planning the drama on the stage itself might well mislead observers, for the scenes enacted were so deeply moving that they were apt to absorb all attention. Many thousands of men had reached painfully the goal they had been set to reach. Their fight was finished. Of those who were to leave from the beaches, some stood in long queues which wound across the sand to the water’s edge, moving slowly into the sea to be ferried to the waiting ships; others whose turn to leave had not yet come slept the sleep of exhaustion in the sand-hills. Units who had orders to embark from the harbour trudged wearily through the loose sand towards Dunkirk, where smoke from shell-bursts and exploding bombs mingled with the black and billowing pall that rose and spread from burning oil tanks. The wide sea-washed shore was in places dirtied and disfigured by the inevitable litter of a large crowd, by abandoned equipment and broken-down lorries and by personal belongings which had been carried doggedly for many miles but now must be cast away. And among the groups of the living, blanket-covered bodies of men killed on the beach showed darkly against a background of pale sand.
A large part of Operation Dynamo was conducted in darkness. Some dangers from enemy action were then reduced but all other difficulties and dangers were enhanced. It was hard enough in daylight to manoeuvre ships in a crowded seaway and a cramped port; it was infinitely harder and more dangerous to do so in the night. It was harder to load boats in darkness and to ferry the troops to ships
but dimly seen. And it was harder in darkness to find units and to keep them together, to lead them to the appointed place and ensure that none was left behind.
There were times when many ships lay off the land and boats plied tirelessly between them and the beach; when the harbour was busy, with ships entering to fetch men gathered on the mole and quays or leaving to bear them home to England. There were times when bombs were falling, when the sky was smudged by the trails of weaving aircraft and the bursts or anti-aircraft shells, when the air was filled with clamour as the guns on ship and shore roared at low-flying bombers and a more distant crackle of machine-guns told of the Royal Air Force fighters fighting up above.
There were other times when the sea was a cheerless blank and there were intervals of strange quiet. Then the sound of distant firing was a reminder that behind the scenes there were divisions which still fought, without rest or respite, to hold the enemy at bay while their comrades sailed for home, divisions which still turned their backs on the sea in order to confront the enemy—the soldiers of the Allied armies who made evacuation possible.
The British troops had bitter fighting during this, their final day on the canal. Shelling and mortaring continued without pause and all units had heavy casualties. The enemy’s main attacks were at Bergues and Hoymille on the sector held by the 46th Division; and on the 1st Division front in the sectors held by the 1st East Lancashire, and 2nd Coldstream Guards, and the 1st Duke of Wellington’s regiment. At Hoymille the attack penetrated the front held by a company of the 2nd Warwickshire and, by brigade orders, the 1st Loyals on their right withdrew from Bergues itself to the canal on the northern outskirts of the town. From there in the afternoon the counter-attacked the enemy who had crossed the canal in the Warwickshire position. The ground was waterlogged through flooding and only slow movement was possible. Enemy machine-gun fire was severe. The country-attack failed and the companies were back on their start-line by five o’clock. But the commanding officer of the Loyals was not satisfied. He ordered a further attack ‘with more vigorous action’. At five-thirty the companies advanced again and this time they drove back the enemy and re-established the line on the canal bank.(4)
Further east the 1st East Lancashire Regiment could not prevent some of the enemy from crossing the canal, but they were stopped from making progress till the East Lancashire had retired to the Canal des Chats. Captain H. M. Ervine-Andrews of the East Lancashire Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action on this occasion.(5) The Coldstream were not attacked, and held the original front on the canal with both flanks refused, i.e. drawn back. For on their right the 5th Border Regiment were also withdrawn to
the Canal des Chats and on their left the 1st Duke of Wellington’s Regiment were forced to fall back behind the nearby dyke as a result of heavy fighting. So the day passed, and after dark the British troops were all withdrawn behind the intermediate line held by the French. By the morning of June the 2nd they were all on the coast ready for evacuation.
The Royal Navy, meanwhile, had one of the most dangerous and yet one of the most successful days since Operation Dynamo began. From dawn and all day long heavy gunfire was brought to bear on the harbour, and the only beach (Male les Bains) which now remained in our hands, and on the shipping off shore.(6) The German Air Ministry situation report says that ‘Throughout the day waves of aircraft attacked troops assembled for embarkation, the harbour of Dunkirk and warships and merchant vessels off the coast and in the sea area between Dunkirk and England’.2(7) Both German air fleets were employed in these attacks.
The Royal Air Force flew eight fighter sweeps at a strength of three to four squadrons and Coastal Command flew patrols over the route between the North Goodwins and the French coast, but no one could foresee the timing of the enemy’s attacks and there were inevitably spells when none of our aircraft could be over the area.(8) The enemy’s air attacks began soon after four o’clock in the morning—they had, indeed, endeavoured to bomb ships using the harbour during the night.
Our first patrol had been ordered to be over the area soon after five, and they were heavily engaged on arrival. Others followed shortly after six, nine, ten and eleven o’clock and all were involved in fighting. There was then a lull in air activity by both sides during the middle of the day, but soon after three o’clock in the afternoon our patrols was again in action and Coastal Command’s patrol intervened to help. At four o’clock our aircraft found the enemy engaged in a renewed attack and again Coastal Command’s patrol joined in the fight. The light was beginning to fail but further seeps soon after five, six and eight o’clock all engaged the enemy after which failing visibility led to a decline of air operations. It was the heaviest day’s fighting and though our fighters could not keep the Luftwaffe away they did much to scatter and destroy attacking aircraft and to disrupt the enemy’s plans. The Royal Air Force lost thirty-one aircraft on this day, but the German return admits that ten of their fighters and nineteen bombers were lost and thirteen aircraft seriously damaged, making a total of forty-two enemy aircraft destroyed or put out of action in this day’s operations.(9)
Throughout the day the Royal Navy pressed on with evacuation
under cruel conditions and in spite of heavy losses from bombing and gunfire, E-boats and mines. The destroyer-leader Keith, flying Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker’s flag, the destroyers Basilisk and Havant, the minesweeper Skipjack with many troops on board, the French Foudroyant, the passenger ships Brighton Queen and Scotia, both heavily laden with French soldiers, were all sunk; the Prague, with 3,000 troops on board, and many others were seriously damaged.(10) Yet the work went on without pause, and on June the 1st 64,429 men were landed in England, 47,081 from the harbour, 17,348 from the shore.(11) In spite of all the enemy could do it was the second largest number transported on a single day during the whole operation.
Inevitably shipping losses involved also some loss of life, but this was not so heavy as might be expected. As soon as a ship was hit or in trouble other promptly—almost instinctively—went to her rescue. There could be no roll of the men who had been crowded on board from the long queues on the harbour mole or the beaches, and it is not possible to know the number of those who were lose. But a few of the reports by ships mentioned above lift for a moment the veil which shrouds this unmeasurable drama. There were about 700 French and Moroccan troops on the Brighton Queen when she was sunk. The minesweeper Saltash picked up about 400 survivors and reported that: ‘The French troops behaved steadily and intelligently though nearly half of them were killed by the explosion.’ The Scotia had about 2,000 French troops no board when she was hit by at least four bombs. The destroyer Esk came out from Dunkirk and took off nearly 1,000 and the Worcester and small craft rescued many others. But twenty-eight of the crew and between two and three hundred of the troops were lost. Thus of the 2,700 men on these two ships something like 2,100 were saved. But sometimes the proportion of loss was greater. The Skipjack had been embarking troops from the Malo beach for over three hours when she was sunk; she had been continuously bombed and machine-gunned and nearly all the 275 men on board were under cover below decks.(12) They had no chance to escape when the ship sank and only a few survivors were rescued by two nearby ships. So the story goes on, but from it comes the conviction that a large proportion of the men on ships which were saved by others and brought to England.
Throughout the early hours of June the 2nd the night’s evacuation continued and many of I Corps who had reached the beach during the night were got away. But Admiral Ramsay stopped daylight evacuation in order to avoid a repetition of the previous day’s losses.(13)
French troops holding what has been called the intermediate position had been attacked at a number of points, and although the right of their line had been forced back, counter-attacks had stopped the enemy’s advanced for the time being.
During the day a naval demolition party carried out its work on the port equipment and arrangements were made to block the harbour entrance after the last evacuation.(14) The coming night’s work (which was expected to be the last) was planned with great care. Movement across the Channel began about five o’clock in the evening, and eleven destroyers, thirteen passenger ships with minesweepers, drifters, schuyts and a host of small craft were sent over with French and Belgian contingents added.
Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker now controlled the ships from a motor boat in the harbour, while Captain W. G. Tennant, who had acted as Senior Naval Officer in Dunkirk through all these gruelling days, directed operations on the shore.(15) The ships as they arrived loaded quickly and took off all the men who reached the harbour or the beach during the night; but fewer French troops came than had been provided for and many of the ships that had been sent to fetch them returned empty.
Evacuation went on during the early hours of June the 3rd and when daylight put an end to the night’s operations at about three o’clock there were no more British troops to be brought away. In the early hours of the 3rd General Alexander and Captain Tennant themselves sailed for England.
There was more fighting during the day that followed. The situation report of Army Group B records that French tops were fighting for every house and for every foot of ground,(17) but in spite of counter-attacks their defence was forced back to the line of the Dunkirk–Furnes Canal. There the enemy were less than two miles from the beach and that afternoon Admiral Abrial, in a conference with General Fagalde, General de la Laurencie and others, decided that the coming night must see the final French evacuations.(18)
Naval operations duly restarted with the fall of darkness, fifty vessels being used. The harbour was very congested but order was achieved and every effort was made to embark the remaining French troops quickly. Some arrived late at the jetty and owing to the general confusion were unable to make contact with the control.3 Up to midnight, however, 26,476 were embarked, and a further 26,175 in the early hours of the 4th when daylight put an end to operations.(19) The fine discipline of the French troops left behind when the last ship sailed noted by Commander H. R. Troup who ha been directing evacuation from the centre pier:
About 1,000 men stood to attention four deep about half-way along the pier, the General and his staff about thirty feet away; and after having faced the troops, whose faces were indiscernible in the dawn light, the flames behind them showing up their steel helmets, the
officers clicked their heels, saluted and then turned about and came down to the boat with me and we left at 0320.(20)
Admiral Abrial, General Fagalde, General de la Laurencie and general Berthélemy had crossed to England during the night, and at Dover Admiral Ramsay discussed with Admiral Abrial the possibility of continuing evacuation during yet one more night, notwithstanding the strain of the past nine days was telling severely on men and ships.(21) The French Admiral held, however, that further evacuation was impossible, for the enemy was now closing in on every side. In fact the remaining French troops surrendered at nine o’clock that morning, June the 4th. No authoritative record of their number is available. The most detailed estimate is that there were approximately 40,000.4
During the night three blockships had been led to Dunkirk by the destroyer Shikari. One was mined outside Dunkirk, the others sank themselves in the channel near predecessors sunk during the previous night. The Shikari, after embarking 383 French troops, was the last ship to leave Dunkirk.(2)]
At ten-thirty in the morning of June the 4th the fleet of rescue ships was ordered to disperse and Operation Dynamo was officially ended by an Admiralty message timed 2.23 p.m. on that day.(23)
It marked the failure of Allied operations in the north, yet it also marked a triumph for all three Services. While Dynamo was in progress the Allied armies had fought off the enemy not for two days but for nine: the Royal Navy had brought home not 45,000 troops but more than a third of a million: and the Royal Air Force had defeated the Luftwaffe’s intention to make evacuation impossible. But all had paid a heavy price. In the land fighting of those last nine days and in the passage home the Army had heavy casualties, and lost all except their personal equipment. In the naval operations many seamen lost their lives and 228 ships were lost and 45 badly damaged in addition to a considerable number of smaller vessels and boats.(24) And the Royal Air Force lost 177 aircraft destroyed and damaged during the nine days from May the 26th to June the 3rd. Since the enemy attempted only minor interference at sea, there is no comparable enemy figure to set beside the price paid by the Navy; but German air losses in operations over France and Belgium, from all causes and in the same period, amounted to 240 aircraft destroyed and damaged.(25) A fuller analysis of the costs of the campaign is given in the final chapter of this volume.
In Operation Dynamo 58,583 British troops and 814 of our Allies had already been brought back when, three days after it had started, General Weygand authorised the general evacuation of French
troops and the British Government ordered facilities to be shared equally. Thereafter a further 139,782 British troops and 139,097 of our Allies were brought away. When the operation ended 338,226 had been evacuated—308,888 of them in the ships under Admiral Ramsay’s orders. Nearly 100,000 had been lifted from the beaches. Of the British 8,061 were casualties; of our Allies 1,230.(26)
National pride in this remarkable feat and abiding thankfulness for the British foresight, skill and courage which delivered so many men from death or captivity and brought them home in safety must not lead us to forget or undervalue the part played by France. Once the bridgehead was surrounded French troops held the smaller western part from Dunkirk to Mardick almost to the end; and although British divisions were chiefly responsible for defence of the larger eastern sector, which enclosed the precious beaches, until June the 1st they were French troops who covered evacuation during the two succeeding days. The Royal Navy was responsible for the planning, organisation and conduct of Operation Dynamo with the essential aid of the Royal Air Force, but French ships and French sailors also played a part. It was a very much smaller part, but in playing it the French Marine paid its inevitable cost.
Throughout the operation British staffs who directed operations and all men who toiled and fought afloat, on shore and in the sky were uplifted by the thought that British soldiers were coming home. But to Frenchmen Dunkirk meant something different. The French soldiers who were borne to England did avoid the major calamity of surrender to the enemy, but in order to do so they left home and France behind them to face, as they thought, indefinite exile in a strange if friendly land. One Frenchman who sailed from Dunkirk expressed the thought of many when he wrote:
La France sous nos pieds, comme une étoffe usée,
C’est petit à petit à nos pas refusée.
Les parfums du printemps le sable les ignore:
Voici mourir le mai dans les dunes du Nord.5
The Dynamo figures alone do not give the whole picture of what had so far been achieved. It will be recalled that on May the 20th Lord Gort had ordered the evacuation of non-fighting troops and men of services no longer needed when the British Expeditionary Force was finally separated from its bases south of the Somme. Five days later General Weygand had issued a similar order that the French First Army were to embark in returning supply ships ‘all superfluous Staff elements’.6 As a result of these orders 26,402
British troops (including 4,992 casualties) and 1,534 of our Allies were evacuated in British ships before Operation Dynamo started. To the Dynamo total of 338,226 there must therefore be added 27,936 making the grand total of those evacuated by this date 366,162.(27) Included in this number are 224,320 men of the British Expeditionary Force. The military significance of this achievement is discussed in the final chapter of this history, for the campaign did not end with Dunkirk and the full story is not yet told. A new German offensive opened on the following day and the British part in the fighting south of the Somme has still to be described. But first there is yet something to be said about the operations of the past nine days.
‘Dunkirk’ is a classic example of cooperation by three Services. The Army’s fight to hold off the enemy and the desperate battle of the Royal Air Force with the Luftwaffe were the culmination of continuous fighting which had started on the Dyle. But for the Royal Navy ‘Dynamo; was a distinct operation; as such it holds a unique place in naval history. There have been considerable evacuations before and since. There has never been any other like this when, from a half-destroyed harbour and few miles of open beach, a third of a million men were brought away in spite of all the strongest army and air force int he world at that date could do to stop it.
As a feat of naval organisation, evolved under the stress of emergency, it has no parallel. At a few days’ notice 765 British ships of all sorts and sizes were assembled from diverse sources and devoted to a single end. About a third were warships or craft in regular naval employ. The rest came from the merchant marine and the fishing fleets and from other callings of the sea and inland waterways. Naval skill brought these heterogeneous vessels under effective control and ordered their movements but for the most part they were worked by their own civilian crews. It was a naval affair—destroyers brought home more men than even the passenger ships—but a naval affair in which civilians played so large a part that the people of England felt it to be also a family affair in which they were involved. Because of this, and not only because so many men of the Army were brought home, ‘Dunkirk; holds a unique place in the hearts of British people.