80th Anniversary of Operation Dynamo: The Evacuation of Dunkirk

As with towns and villages throughout the country, communities across our area rightly celebrated the 75th Anniversary of VE-Day (Victory in Europe) in May. Despite the muted nature of the celebrations in current circumstances, they have still almost eclipsed another equally significant anniversary, that of Dunkirk’s 80th.

This chapter in the nation’s history is well documented however, I believe it is worth considering Dunkirk in its wider historical context as the circumstances developed during May and June 1940.

The Siege of Calais was fought in France between the Allies and the German Forces. It was fought at the same time as the Battle of Boulogne, and it was the pre-cursor of what was known as Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force through Dunkirk.

The Allies were losing ground on the Western Front and were being driven back, eventually being trapped in the town and area around Dunkirk. A rescue plan inspired by Churchill (and well documented in The Darkest Hour film) swung into operation to achieve a withdrawal from and evacuation of BEF troops from Dunkirk.

Between 26 May and 4 June 1940 over 300,000 troops were lifted off the beaches and shipped back to England by a rescue fleet that included 20 warships and 850 small, civilian boats known as the Dunkirk Little Ships. The evacuating troops left behind vehicles and equipment, as well as comrades, many killed, many injured and many taken prisoner. Yet from comments made at the time, both in diaries and in the albeit censored Press, there was a consensus that the Allies would return to France, better prepared, better equipped, and ready for victory.

Calais’s role in the succses of Operation Dynamo

The defence of Calais succeeded in delaying the German attack on Dunkirk, helping to save the soldiers of the BEF. In 1966, Lionel Ellis, the British official historian, wrote that three panzer divisions had been diverted by the defence of Boulogne and Calais, giving the Allies time to rush troops to close a gap west of Dunkirk. The British Expeditionary Force was fighting a rear-guard action, it was in serious trouble and reinforcements were urgently needed.

For those reinforcements disembarking at Calais, their first sight of the town was a rude awakening. The docks area was reduced almost entirely to rubble and there were fires blazing in several buildings. Civilians and soldiers alike were wandering about in a somewhat dazed manner. The docks were littered with abandoned kit from those non-combatants who were rushing to get aboard the ships from which the disembarking troops were still vacating. They seemed battered and dishevelled, a sight that was disconcerting for the disembarking troops. Several parts of the town were on fire and there was an air of desolation. Enemy aircraft were dropping bombs and strafing everyone in the open.

Almost from the time the men landed it became obvious that there was disorganisation, a lack of effective communications and a breakdown in the provision of supplies. It was also obvious that the enemy was a hardened and vigorous force, they were not going to be easy to subdue. Constant bombardment and exchange of small arms and machine gun fire kept the men under pressure and under cover. Incidents of hand to hand fighting and a rising toll of dead and wounded Allied Troops, and despite the heroics of all involved, led, after a few days, to the eventual surrender of what was left of the Calais Force.

It was the summer of 1940 and it was the end of the fighting war for the survivors, but it was the beginning of personal battles to overcome the horrors that lay ahead. A forced march of hundreds of miles into captivity, hunger, thirst, lack of sleep, moving from camp to camp, seeing first-hand some of the atrocities the Germans metered out to POWs and concentration camp inmates.  Many men succumbed to hunger, illness, exhaustion, and beatings by their captors.

Fortunately, the tide of war was to change post D-Day 1944 and by January 1945 it was almost the beginning of the end of captivity for the POW’s. Yet before eventual liberation, camps were evacuated and prisoners were forced into death marches, led away from the advancing Russian Allies. For those that survived, liberation came in late April 1945 and in May, arrangements were made for the men to be evacuated by air, some to airfields in Berkshire

Dunkirk 1940 Museum

To put the history of Calais and Dunkirk into context, I was pleased to hear from the Dunkirk 1940 Museum in Kent. They provided the following statement ‘ The Dunkirk 1940 museum has in excess of 3000 items, many unique, and still growing. We first presented the collection publicly at Newhaven Fort in 2009-2010, as it seemed obvious that larger, established museums were more concerned about the usual suspects of World War Two, D-Day and the like with little attention being given to what was at that time the 70th anniversary of both the outbreak of the conflict and the pivotal events of 1940; we felt we had to redress this omission.

‘In 2016 agreement was reached for the creation of what is now the Dunkirk 1940 Museum. The Dunkirk story is book-ended completely within the proper context and presents a complete narrative without the compression which usually occurs. The later events of 1940 and the second British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and subsequent evacuations receive the correct coverage as a result. We have also displayed all our material on our website dunkirk40.org.

‘As we have celebrated VE-Day 75 so too we should remember Calais and Dunkirk. These events in 1940 were to become the catalyst for eventual success’.

Commemorative Returns to Dunkirk

The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships has organised Commemorative Returns to Dunkirk since 1965. This year up to 76 Little Ships planned to gather at Ramsgate Royal Harbour with HMS Medway Queen which alone rescued 7,000 troops in 7 trips to Dunkirk. The flotilla was then going to cross the Channel to Dunkirk with Royal Navy ratings and been accompanied by Royal Navy vessels. The Belgian and French would have had a military vessels in attendance. In Dunkirk the City authorities had planned a number of memorial events to mark this important event in their calendar.

The plans are now rescheduled for 2021 and it is hoped that the return in 2021 will attract the same interest and support both in the UK and with our allies in France and Belgium.

John Leete

May 2020

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