La Bataille De France, Phase Deux: Dunkerque


As the first of the Swallows that herald the English summer arrived, so began “Operation Dynamo”, on 26th May. The beleaguered BEF and surviving allied soldiers had now to be hurriedly evacuated from the beaches and port of Dunkerque and Vice Admiral Ramsay RN, based at Dover in Kent, was the man upon whose shoulders the task had been placed.

At first, the British public were not exactly kept informed of what was happening across the Channel. British newspapers had reported some of the reverses and setbacks suffered by the BEF and their allies during the German offensive of course; but the true picture of just how grave a situation it really was, had been carefully kept from the public, for fear of panic.

Time was now so obviously of the essence, but initially, only naval vessels were employed in ferrying the allied troops back to Britain. It was thought that the speed of the Royal Navy’s destroyers made them the ideal evacuation vessels. This was fine, except for three key points. Point one proved to be that the sleek destroyers simply couldn’t carry a worthwhile number of evacuated troops. Point two was that the destroyers could not get close enough to the beaches without running aground. The third point of course, was that the Germans were not about to sit quietly by, whilst the ships of the Royal Navy went about this herculean task.

It was at this point however that Hitler, in a roundabout way, could almost be said to have come to the aid of the British and French Allies. At first, the German artillery pounded the beaches mercilessly and German troops gradually closed the narrow corridor through which the allied soldiers were retreating to Dunkerque. After consulting with his field commanders, Hitler uncharacteristically allowed himself to be persuaded by the somewhat vainglorious leader of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Herman Goring, to order the German army to halt. Goring, in a monumental display of his own personal bombast, faithfully promised his Fuhrer that the Luftwaffe would be more than capable of destroying the remaining allied armies on the beaches and Hitler took him at his word. To their chagrin, the German army were virtually forced to stand by and watch, as the Luftwaffe went about their self-appointed task.

The respective tasks for both sides, was not easy. From Goring’s self-elected point of view, the Luftwaffe actually had too many important targets spread over too large an area. Should they concentrate on destroying the ships that were trying to evacuate the troops, the troops waiting on the beaches, the troops queuing in the water in lines to be ferried to the destroyers, or port installations and facilities that might enable more rescue ships to come in? The German army continued to close the corridor, thus cutting off the route to the beaches from within France and shrinking the pocket, but they would most certainly have been far better employed in taking the allied beachhead in the first place. But the rotund Reichsmarschall had got his way.

From the point of view of the British, the prospect of trying to evacuate more than half a million men under near constant air attack was proving to be difficult in the extreme. The waiting destroyers were being bombed and sunk because it simply took too long using small rowing boats ferrying a handful of troops out to them, to get anything like a full load. The stationary warships were of course sitting targets for the Luftwaffe’s Stukas, just as the lines of patiently waiting soldiers were sitting targets for the strafing actions of low-flying Me 109’s. Chaos, death and destruction reigned supreme.

RAF Fighter Command, seriously depleted in strength as they were, nevertheless flew countless sorties and patrols in their attempts to cover the evacuation, but despite flying an average of more than 250 fighter sorties per day over the Dunkerque region, they simply couldn’t be everywhere at once. Inevitably, there were sizeable gaps in the RAF’s fighter cover and the Luftwaffe exploited them to the full.

From the point of view of the battle-weary Tommy waiting in the endless line of soldiers for a place in a boat and being constantly strafed by German fighters, the RAF should have been over the beaches at all times. From the point of view of the strained British fighter pilot, he wanted to prevent the German aircraft from reaching the beaches in the first place, so naturally their fighting, for the most part, started inland, behind the constantly changing lines, often at high altitude and out of sight of the troops on the beaches. Whilst a number of British soldiers later berated “the Brylcreem boys” for their perceived absence over the beaches, other soldiers saw in full the fierce dogfights taking place high above them and more than a few witnessed an RAF pilot making the supreme sacrifice on their behalf. In the end, which viewpoint a British soldier eventually took merely depended upon where in the confusion and chaos of the beachhead he was located at the time and what his individual experience of that time was.

Day of the Defiant

On 29th May however, an RAF fighter unit, 264 Squadron, who were equipped with the Boulton-Paul Defiant, that curious retrospectively designed fighter aircraft mentioned somewhat earlier, had an unexpectedly successful day over Dunkerque. Believing the aircraft of 264 Squadron to be Hurricanes, a large formation of Messerschmitt 109’s attacked them from above and behind. For the gunner in the Defiant, this was precisely the type of attack for which his aircraft had been designed and he’d been trained. In that one action, the Luftwaffe lost over thirty 109’s. It was a costly mistake for the Germans, but it was one that they would not repeat. It did not take the Luftwaffe’s fighter pilots long to find and exploit the Defiant’s inherent weakness.

For the British, what was evidently needed if there was to be any hope at all of saving a worthwhile number of men, was a greater number of large ships and a faster means of getting the waiting men out to them; but larger ships could not even get as close to the beaches as the Navy’s destroyers could without running aground.

There were two piers, or moles, at Dunkerque and of course it made sense to use them as boarding points for the troops being evacuated. Unfortunately, the Germans saw this too and repeatedly singled them out for strafing by low flying fighter aircraft. But amazingly, no determined attempt appeared to be made by the Luftwaffe toward bombing them, so the British suffered the innumerable German fighter attacks and continued to embark troops from the moles, but it was still a painfully slow and supremely hazardous operation.

As many of the port’s bombed oil storage tanks discharged the thick, acrid, billowing pall of black smoke that came to symbolise Dunkerque into the sky, Churchill decided that it was time to trust the British public. The lid was lifted off the secrecy pot, the public were told more of the desperate situation in France, and were actively asked for their help in the rescue of the stranded troops from the very jaws of Hell. So was born the legend of the “little ships”.

The Admiralty requested or requisitioned just about anything that would float. The response was immediate. The Southern Railway sent their cross-channel ferries, light cargo ships and their Isle of Wight ferries, as the Navy were of course, particularly interested in large, shallow-draught vessels. Other owners of smaller, shallow-draught vessels could either surrender them to the Royal Navy, or take them over to Dunkerque in person with their own crew and at least one naval rating. All crews who volunteered for the operation would receive naval pay at the appropriate grade, for the duration of the operation; or until said vessel was sunk, of course.

One such “other” vessel was a former Admiralty steam Pinnace. Though fairly small, this customised Bermudan-schooner rigged craft, named Sundowner, was the property of a former First World War naval officer, Commander Charles Herbert Lightoller. Prior to his naval service in the Great War, Lightoller had been a Merchant Navy officer and in 1912, he had in fact been the Second Officer aboard the ill-fated White Star liner RMS Titanic. He was the most senior officer to survive the Titanic disaster. Upon being told of the desperate situation and of the Admiralty’s intention to requisition his boat, Lightoller unhesitatingly volunteered his vessel, crewed by himself, his eldest son Roger, who was a Lieutenant in the Royal Naval Reserve, and a young Sea Scout named Gerald Ashcroft. Although she was now minus her original steam engine and rigged as a Schooner, Sundowner had a modern diesel engine. Also, her owner/skipper was no stranger to action; Lightoller sank a German U-Boat when he was in command of a destroyer during the First World War and he was certainly an expert navigator.

On the morning of 1st June, in company with 5 other little ships, Sundowner set out from Ramsgate across the Channel. Sundowner didn’t stay in company for long though. Being slightly faster than her consorts, she soon left them behind. The outward voyage looked likely to be uneventful at first, but as they gradually neared their objective, Charles spotted something sinister in the water. Realising what it was, he shouted to Roger to put the helm hard over, pointing to starboard. Sundowner’s response was quick because Roger’s had been. The floating mine that Charles had spotted, now bobbed away on Sundowner’s port side, barely a few feet away.

Soon afterwards, they came across a casualty, the small motor cruiser Westerly, which had stopped and was on fire. Moving swiftly alongside, Lightoller quickly took Westerly’s crew and the three naval ratings that Westerly had rescued, aboard his own boat and then proceeded on, toward Dunkerque.

Just as Sundowner left the scene, Westerly’s stock of petrol blew up. The huge fireball drew the attention of two of the Luftwaffe’s Stuka pilots, high above. Seeing Sundowner heading rapidly away from the burning wreckage, both dive-bombers came screaming down toward her. Once again that combination of Charles’ diligent observation and timing, coupled with Roger’s quick responses to his father’s orders, meant that they were able to dodge the bombs that were aimed at them. Sundowner had arrived at the scene of Operation Dynamo.

Lightoller had initially planned to take his vessel right up to the beach to pick up troops, but the chaotic scene presented to him upon his arrival at Dunkerque made it clear to him that to do so would be the utmost folly. The whole area was literally full of vessels of every description, busily to-ing and fro-ing, whilst the waters near the beach itself were strewn with the half-submerged wrecks of bombed warships, other loose wreckage and corpses. Lightoller headed for one of the moles and began embarking troops from there. Loading proved to be the easiest part of the whole trip.

Sundowner embarked 130 men, literally packing them in like sardines. On the way back, with his vessel dangerously low in the water, Lightoller found himself dodging more determined attacks, this time from enemy fighter planes. On arrival back at Ramsgate, Sundowner was nearly capsized by the weight of the troops hurriedly moving to one side of her to disembark. Roger shouted to them all to lie down and not to move. He then organised a more stately disembarkation. Charles and Roger were eager to return to Dunkerque, but by then only ships capable of making 20 knots were permitted to go. However, in that one twelve-hour round trip Charles Lightoller, the 66-year old former Second Officer of the RMS Titanic had, with the help of his son and a sea scout to crew his sixty-foot Sundowner, succeeded in rescuing a total of 133 people under near constant fire. Lightollers it seemed, were born survivors.

Medway Queen at Dunkirk. From a painting by Roy Gargett

The exploits of another of the Dunkerque ships also need to be singled out for attention here. Already serving with the Royal Navy since the Admiralty requisitioned her earlier in the war, was a former Thames and Medway paddle steamer, the Medway Queen. She was based at Dover as part of the Dover Patrol, and was then in service as a minesweeper, commanded by Lieutenant Cook RN. Gone from her now was the gay black, white and yellow paint scheme of the “New Medway Steam Packet Company”. Now she was “battleship grey” all over and bore the number N48 on her bows. She was also armed.

On her first trip over to Dunkerque, her gunners had shot down a German aircraft that was intent upon sinking her. On her first return trip, the heavily laden Medway Queen encountered another former pleasure steamer, the equally overloaded Brighton Belle.

Unfortunately for those aboard the Brighton Belle, she was sinking, having sustained mortal damage in an earlier encounter with the Luftwaffe. Although his own ship was heavily laden with rescued troops, Lieutenant Cook brought Medway Queen alongside the foundering vessel and her entire compliment of rescued troops as well as Brighton Belle’s crew, were swiftly transferred before the stricken steamer sank. Now dangerously low in the water, Medway Queen headed slowly back to Dover, where she arrived safely, offloaded her desperately weary human cargo, and was then refuelled and readied for another return trip to the evacuation scene.

Medway Queen, like Charles and Roger Lightoller, also seemed destined to be a born survivor. As the Germans closed in and the situation at Dunkerque grew more and more desperate, it was decided that 3rd June would be the last day of Operation Dynamo. Over the past few days, daylight evacuations had been curtailed, due to the high loss rate among the ships evacuating the beleaguered troops. The final evacuations were taking place under the cover of darkness.

The evening of 3rd June found Medway Queen moored at one of the moles in Dunkerque harbour, which itself was being subjected to a rather belated bombardment from German artillery. She was in the process of embarking French troops when a destroyer moored astern of her was hit by a shell and thrown forward. With a sickening crunch, the destroyer rammed Medway Queen , badly damaging her starboard paddle-box and the paddle wheel’s outer bearing holder. The starboard paddle wheel was now apparently out of action and so Medway Queen appeared to be trapped.

Not to be defeated, Medway Queen continued with the embarkation whilst her engineering crew worked frantically into the night, cutting the twisted steel and splintered wood away in order to clear the starboard paddle wheel. They then had to make a temporary repair to the bearing holder.

At 01:00 on 4th June, Lieutenant Cook gingerly eased his battered ship away from the mole with just over 400 French soldiers aboard, and a somewhat battle-weary Medway Queen began limping slowly home across the Channel toward Dover, at a greatly reduced speed. On the way home, her crew heard the BBC Home Service list the Medway Queen as being one of the ships that had been lost in the previous day’s action. When she finally limped safely into Dover harbour, it was to a tumultuous welcome from all the other ships in the port. Vice Admiral Ramsay sent her a signal that simply read: “WELL DONE MEDWAY QUEEN!” and the BBC were more than happy to correct their earlier news bulletin.

Thus did Medway Queen well and truly earn for herself the title “The Heroine of Dunkerque” for of all the ships that had taken part in Operation Dynamo, she had in fact rescued the greatest number of allied troops all told; she brought back over 7,000 in her seven return trips, and she had shot down a German aircraft in the process. Bruised and battered from her Dunkerque ordeal, Medway Queen was duly dry-docked for repairs before eventually resuming her role as minesweeper N48 with the Dover Patrol.

Once the rescued troops were safely landed, it fell to the Southern Railway to transport them all away from the ports to whichever destinations the military authorities decided they were subsequently bound for. This inland exodus proved to be almost as monumental a task as the seaborne evacuation was.

Although the Southern Railway was quite used to laying on special services such as those required in peacetime for gala events like the Naval Review, the Schneider Trophy races, the Derby, or Ascot, etcetera; there was simply no precedent for the sheer scale of train services that the Dunkerque evacuation called for.

Anyone looking at such a mammoth logistical problem might well be forgiven for thinking the task would produce nothing but chaos. In the event, all was in fact quite calm and fairly orderly. Initially, organised improvisation seemed to be the way it was largely carried out. At first, Engine drivers were typically given such instructions as “Stop at Guildford (or Ashford, or Paddock Wood, or Tonbridge, or Haywards Heath, or Maidstone, or Strood) and ask where you go next.” This soon stopped as the organisation kicked in.

The managers at Southern had previously set up sub-control offices at all major rail junctions as soon as Operation Dynamo had started. They had to plan a non-stop rotation of trains, all of which had to be cleaned, coaled, lubricated and watered. The rotation was essentially a clockwise loop around the region to the London termini, stopping only at major junctions with other cross-country lines or actual destinations.

The first trains went straight to the major ports, places such as Ramsgate, Dover Marine, Folkestone, Portsmouth, Newhaven, Southampton etc. The other empty trains were held in North Kent at places such as Queenborough, Faversham, Margate and Ramsgate. As the first trains were loaded and began their clockwise journeys, the empty trains were fed into the loop behind them, to take their places at the port stations, whilst other empty trains moved into the holding stations. Eventually the first trains delivered their human traffic and then went back into the holding stations as empties, there to begin again the round the clock rotation that was to last twelve days.

The hub of this rotation was Redhill Junction on the London to Brighton Line, as a lot of the Southern Railway’s network could be easily accessed through there. In fact, an amazing eighty percent of all the Dunkerque evacuation trains from the south coast ports were routed through there. Being a major junction station, it had facilities for coaling, watering, lubrication and locomotive cleaning and changing. Over 300 tons of ashes were accumulated from locomotive cleaning at Redhill Junction alone over the Dynamo period!

It wasn’t just the engines that needed provisioning of course, as there was the human freight these trains were hauling as well as the train crews, station staff, military officials and the army of volunteers who’d turned out by the hundreds to help. Platforms were turned into Army field kitchens supplying thousands of cups of tea, sandwiches and cakes. There were nowhere near enough cups to go round so tea was served in tin cans. On the Mid-Kent main line, as each train came to a halt at Headcorn Junction, there was a four-minute break whilst teas and munchies were quickly served to the soldiers, the Engine driver, fireman and Train Guard. Nobody got off the train during this time. Four minutes later, at the Guard’s whistle, the platform staff shouted “Chuck ‘em out!” and as the train slowly pulled out of the station, the tin cans (and any remaining tea contained therein!) were thrown out of the windows onto the platform, where the station staff and the volunteers quickly gathered them all, washed them up and refilled them, as the next train was due in eighteen minutes.

At Tonbridge (next brief stop after Headcorn), chocolate bars were provided. At Penge East, (not far from Crystal Palace in London), it was music that was provided, by the local Salvation Army Band, as well as further refreshments to help speed the troops on their way and to welcome them home. This same sort of routine was carried out at many of the other junction stations on the Southern’s network. Everybody just wanted to let the returning troops know that they were with them in heart and mind. Such is the indomitable spirit of the British people!

So, after eight days, Goring’s promise to his Fuhrer had proved utterly worthless. His “leave it to my Luftwaffe” stance had permitted a total of 338,226 allied soldiers to be successfully evacuated from the beaches and harbour of Dunkerque alone. For the British, it was nothing short of a miracle of deliverance, though Churchill quite rightly pointed out that whilst offering thanks for the success of the operation was in order, it should in no way be hailed as a victory. Wars, he said, were not won by evacuations.

With the conclusion of the main part of Operation Dynamo, the Allies abandoned Dunkerque. The BEF had also been forced to abandon most of their equipment and nearly all of their wounded. Having finally taken Dunkerque, the Germans pressed on with the Battle of France. Weygand certainly gave the Germans a run for their money, and what remained of the British and French armies on French soil gallantly fought on; but at best it was forlorn hope that kept them going during what inevitably remained a fighting retreat toward a “mini-Dunkerque” situation at other ports such as Cherbourg.

As Dunkerque itself was being abandoned, Winston Churchill made one of his momentous speeches to the British public. He rose in the House and told the nation:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans. We shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air. We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender!

For France however, despite Churchill’s stirring words, the writing was clearly on the wall. Gamelin’s earlier “sit and wait” policy, followed by his indecisive running around in all directions like a headless chicken, had cost his country; literally. It is to their credit that the French fought on in the face of such adversity and Weygand certainly made the Germans fight for every last kilometre of French soil. Their continued actions bought more in the way of extremely valuable time; time during which a further 220,000 British and French troops were ultimately successfully evacuated from the other northern French ports such as Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Dieppe, Brest, and Saint-Nazaire. This brought the final total of Allied troops evacuated from France to just over 558,000; but the success of Operation Dynamo had come at a heavy price.

Throughout the whole of the evacuation, the Luftwaffe had attacked whenever the weather allowed. Luftwaffe bombs had all but reduced the town of Dunkerque to rubble. On the water the Luftwaffe had succeeded in destroying 235 British vessels. The Southern Railway alone had lost seven of their twenty cross-channel ferries, three of their nine light cargo ships and two of their Isle of Wight ferries; twelve out of their fleet of forty-two vessels, to enemy action.

In the air, the German fighters had shot down 106 RAF fighters during the Dunkerque period alone. On the ground, at least 5,000 British and French soldiers had lost their lives on the various beaches and almost one million men were ultimately taken prisoner by the Germans, to face the next four years in captivity.

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