By the 26th May 1940 it was painfully obvious to Lord Gort VC commanding the BEF that the only plausible solution to the dilemma that faced his encircled troops was to try and evacuate as many as possible. The road south was cut, Boulogne and Calais had fallen and the Belgian Army was on the verge of collapse.
The only available port was Dunkerque.
On the 27th May the British and French within the Dunkerque pocket began a withdrawal with the British forming a line passing through Cassel, Hazebrouck and St Venant in the north and along the canals from Béthune to Gravelines.
The week before, the possibility of an evacuation had been put forward and work began immediately to embark anybody who was not necessary to the defence of the port — much of the final defensive line was held (and would be held to the end) by French troops.
The town and port of Dunkerque had been bombed by the Luftwaffe, water was no longer available and the docking facilities hung in a precarious balance between being usable or not.
It became essential for all of the armed services to find the means to fight back to the beaches; embark as many men as possible from there and take them to safety and also to stop the Luftwaffe from having unopposed possession of the skies.
On the 23rd May 1940 Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay in Dover was placed in overall command of what he named Operation Dynamo. Three days later on the 26th May, and just before 1900 hours, he sent the signal : Operation Dynamo is to commence.
It sounds as though an order to jump on the boats was given and off they went. This is far from the truth. Reception areas had to organise the units as they arrived. Traffic had to be directed and units informed where they had to leave their vehicles and material behind. Above all the troops had to fight their way back, hounded from all sides by the German infantry and Luftwaffe readying for the kill.
On the 27th May the French units covering Gravelines to the south of Dunkerque were forced back to within 6 km of Dunkerque itself. The port was now easily within range of the German artillery.
To the north-east the British 48th Division was holding a line from Cassel to Hazebrouck. The Germans attacked the former throughout the day meeting stout resistance from the 2nd Bn Gloucestershire Regiment.
At Hondeghem a squadron of the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry arrived in time to save the day and hold the enemy at bay. Despite their efforts elements of the Panzer units managed to infiltrate the British lines near Hazebrouck.
At St Venant the 2nd Division had managed to recapture the town on the 25th May. It was now held by the 1st Bn Royal Welch Fusiliers and part of the 2nd Bn Durham Light Infantry. They put up a valiant fight but had been forced back out of the town by nightfall.
Not far away at le Paradis the 2nd Bn Royal Norfolk Regiment were overcome by the SS Totenkopf Division and 99 prisoners taken. All were marched in front of a barn and shot down by machine guns. Miraculously two of the men survived (Privates William O’Callaghan and Albert Pooley), and although subsequently re-captured by a different unit they survived the war and were able to give evidence at the trial of the perpetrator of the massacre.
Le Paradis was not the only reported massacre. At St Venant in 1942 the locals were ordered by the German authorities to relocate all of the British dead into St Venant Communal Cemetery. The detailed notes of the bodies at the time made reference to numerous fractured skulls and other injuries that would not normally be received in combat.
Despite Général Weygand’s resolve to fight it out there did not appear to be any indication as to how this was to be done, especially when on the night of the 27th the Belgians surrendered — leaving a huge hole in the northern left flank.
As Royal Engineers worked frenetically to destroy the bridges between Nieuwport and Diksmuide the British 5th, 50th and 3rd Divisions along the Ieper front line fought a long and important battle against German forces fresh from their defeat of the Belgians.
As the southern front along the canal line had been important beforehand it was now vital that the Ieper line held long enough to get every possible man inside the evacuation zone.
Whilst the northern flank was reasonably solid there were far fewer troops to cover the southern flank and it was inevitable that the German infantry and Panzers would be able to get in between the fortified strong points held by the 44th and 48th Divisions.
The 1st Bn Buckinghamshire Regiment held the garrison at Hazebrouck until their ammunition ran dry and the number of casualties meant that further opposition was impossible. Only Cassel was still in British hands on the 29th May with its reinforced garrison beating off all attempts to take the hill. But from the vantage point they could see the German forces far to their rear and when the time came at nightfall to fight their way out only a few of the garrison managed to get through the German ring and to safety.
The only good news (if it could be called that) was that General Guderian came to the conclusion that trying to advance tanks over the marshy ground would only incur further losses. The German armoured units had lost almost 50% of their vehicles (much of it in breakdowns) in gaining their swift advance across northern France, and the drive towards Paris had still to be undertaken.
On the eastern edge of the British line the French 1re Armée had been ordered to stand and fight at the Lys. Despite numerous attempts by the British commanders to get their counterparts to order the French units back and have them evacuated as well, the French remained firm. They would fight on. In the case of the garrison at Lille, they were by now surrounded with no chance of being relieved.
On the 29th May the French finally accepted that evacuation was a possibility. In the intervening three days 70,000 British troops had already been taken out of Dunkerque. Off the coast French boats had been available to assist the Royal Navy and much more could have been done.
By the 30th May the British troops had been pushed back almost to the coast. At Veurne the Germans made an attempt to cross the canal but were beaten off by the 4th Bn Berkshire Regiment (which was down to a company) and a company of the 1st Bn Coldstream Guards.
The end though was nigh, and a call was made to all boats of whatever capacity to come to the aid of the Royal Navy. Although we have the vision of the evacuation being made via the beaches in fact the majority of men were taken out from Dunkerque harbour.
As the Dunkerque bridgehead was within the jurisdiction of the French fleet the co-ordination of the evacuation was ensured through Amiral Abrial and the decision was taken that evacuation would now continue on an equal ratio between French and British soldiers.
Fifteen French warships arrived at the harbour and began working alongside the British flotilla — it would be unfair to all the civilians who so gallantly took part in Operation Dynamo to use the phrase: Royal Navy.
Lord Gort’s GHQ had been stationed at La Panne to the north of Dunkerque and the situation there became critical as the defensive line pulled back and the enemy closed in. It became clear that there were more men waiting to be lifted off the beaches than there were vessels to take them. 6,000 men were required to march the sixteen kilometres along the beach to Dunkerque.
That evening (The 31st May) Lord Gort and his staff sailed for England — their French counterparts remaining at Dunkerque. By then 194,620 British and French troops had been successfully transferred to England — a figure far beyond the hopes of the most rampant optimists.
As the evacuation continued and the perimeter became smaller and smaller so the German artillery gained ground and were able to fire in ever increasing efficiency on the boats waiting offshore.
The new British commander on the spot; General Alexander conferred with Amiral Abrial and it was agreed that the British Army would hold the exterior defences for a further 24 hours at which point they would pull back through a French defensive line.
Although he did not have a great deal of confidence in the French ability to defend their position, General Alexander didn’t complain when the French hung on for 48 hours allowing a further 10,000 British and 70,000 French troops to be saved.
As day broke on the 3rd of June the British had departed, only the remaining French soldiers fighting from position to position, and from house to house trying to hold back the Germans for as long as possible remained. That night the final evacuations began but it proved impossible to lift all of the remaining Frenchmen — about 40,000 or so having to be left behind at the harbour.
At 1423 hours on the 4th June 1940 Operation Dynamo officially came to an end. An operation that had hoped to save 50,000 men had in fact lifted 338,226.
Many of the French soldiers evacuated chose to return to France almost immediately regaining the forces preparing to fight the Battle of the Somme along the Weygand Line.
The German Panzers were however by then fresh from their pause and had been refitted. They struck with ease through the French defences. A political crisis followed in France and the veteran of Verdun, Maréchal Philippe Pétain was called to power.
On the 17th June he made a broadcast suggesting that an armistice should be sought to avoid further bloodshed. To all intents and purposes Hitler’s forces were victorious.
The irony here is that the thousands of Frenchmen who had been lifted from Dunkerque and who had subsequently departed for their homeland would, within a fortnight, be told that surrender was the only option.
The following day from London the almost unknown
Général Charles de Gaulle spoke on the BBC.
Moi, général de Gaulle, actuellement à Londres, j’invite les officiers et soldats français…
His broadcast may have only been heard by a few (Why would the French be listening to the BBC ?) but it was the stuff of legend. The real France would never give in.