When the German Blitzkrieg in the west broke over Belgium and Holland, at 0535 on 10 May 1940, British and French troops who had been assembling during the ‘Phoney War’ period rushed to assist the Belgian army.
While the British were engaged on the river Dyle (in central Belgium), and the French concentrated their efforts on north Belgium, the Germans broke through the Ardennes, which had been considered impassable by the Allies. Spearheaded by armoured formations, Hitler’s forces burst out into a weakly defended eastern France and advanced on Cambrai, and then beyond to the Somme and the coast.
As a result of the lightning German advance, Lord Gort, commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), found his forces not only split in two but cut off from the bulk of his French allies. He therefore ordered troops to fall back to defences along the Lys and La Bassée canals in northern France. On 26 May, as fighting raged both in Flanders and along the thin corridor bordering on the canals, Churchill sanctioned the withdrawal of British forces from the continent.
The British selected Dunkirk as the last remaining port in their hands that could be secured and defended – and quickly formulated ideas for doing just that. Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, flag officer commanding Dover, was appointed to plan and direct the withdrawal. The name he gave the operation was Dynamo.
Operation Dynamo was nothing if not bold. The Germans were now in possession of Calais, and so, in many respects, commanded a whole section of the channel, making all proposed routes to Dunkirk from Dover circuitous. To make matters worse, as the Royal Navy despatched warships to Dunkirk, it soon became clear that there weren’t enough vessels to evacuate all the troops.
This led to the mobilisation of the now famous ‘little ships’. Everything from motor launches to fishing boats to paddle steamers were taken under admiralty control and sent to Dunkirk – the majority with their civilian crew at the helm.
The popular image of Dunkirk is of lines of soldiers queuing patiently on the beach, waiting their turn to board. Yet the truth is that only a third of the men evacuated from Dunkirk were actually taken off the beach. This is because most ships were too large to get near enough to allow soldiers to board safely – and those that did were vulnerable to air attack (several were badly damaged or sunk in the early days of Operation Dynamo).
Instead, it was from the Dunkirk Mole – a long stone and wooden jetty at the mouth of the port – that most soldiers (some 200,000) were evacuated. With deep water on both sides, the Mole was ideal for marshalling and boarding large numbers of men quickly. It may subsequently have been regarded as a less glamorous departure point than the beaches, but it was far more effective.
The navy appointed beach masters to organise the evacuation and ordered impromptu jetties to be made from motor vehicles, parked side by side to assist with boarding. Meanwhile, above the shipping lanes, the Royal Air Force kept the Luftwaffe at bay, a task it would continue to perform until the final day of the evacuation.
Inland, on the front line of the Dunkirk perimeter, Allied forces fought a desperate battle to keep the Germans from breaking through. Infantry units, greatly reduced by the fighting along the Lys and La Bassée canals, struggled to defend ground normally allocated to much larger formations.
As the siege progressed and the situation became more desperate, wounded soldiers with no chance of escape were increasingly used to man the front line. They would be left in France with scores of medical personnel, who volunteered to look after the wounded, offering them care in numerous châteaux and large buildings behind the perimeter.
At 10:30am on 4 June 1940, Operation Dynamo came to an end. The perimeter finally collapsed and the last small ships and Royal Navy vessels departed for England. They left behind them a scene of utter devastation.
The British were unable to evacuate any military hardware, and so support troops sabotaged everything from command cars to tanks so they could not be used by the enemy. The streets around central Dunkirk looked like a huge army equipment park.
The Allies paid a heavy price for their endeavours at Dunkirk: thousands of British and French soldiers went into captivity, while the operation’s official history put casualties at 8,061 British and 1,230 Allied troops.
Yet Dynamo resulted in more than 338,000 men being evacuated from the beaches or from the Mole. Dunkirk had been transformed from disaster to victory, and soon became a byword for the sacrifice and heroism of the 1940 campaign in Belgium and France.
1. Dover Castle, Kent
Where thousands of troops arrived home
Dover was a front line port in two world wars, and in May and June 1940 was an important reception area for troops of the BEF returning from Dunkirk. Many of the ‘small ships’ and larger naval vessels brought men in here, and then made a return journey for more. Part of the evacuation was also commanded from positions in the famous White Cliffs.
Dover Castle, now a National Heritage site and located on the high ground overlooking the harbour, has many of its Second World War features still in place, including anti-aircraft defences. Military exhibits abound in the newly restored main tower and neighbouring Queen’s Regiment museum.
In 2010, the castle will run a special exhibition to commemorate events in the Channel and France during 1940. It’s a good place to start a Dunkirk Trail before heading for the ferry or channel tunnel.
2. Memorial du Souvenir – Dunkirk War Museum, Dunkirk
Where the whole story is told
Any visit to the Dunkirk battlefield should start at the excellent memorial museum built into one of the port’s casemates (fort gun emplacements). The museum opened in 2000 and has developed extensively in recent times.
It follows the story of the Battle of France, the formation of the Dunkirk Perimeter and the events of Operation Dynamo. It explains the evacuation well with some great models of the Mole and beaches – and the walls are covered with contemporary illustrations.
Artefacts range from small items found on the beaches today, to artillery pieces, tank turrets and aircraft engines; all comprehensively explained and put in their context. The visit starts with a film in English and the helpful staff are always on hand to answer questions. For 2010, a special display will show some of the items featured in the BBC One series Dig 1940.
3. The Mole, Dunkirk
Where 200,000 men were evacuated
The famous Mole at Dunkirk was the point of evacuation for more than two thirds of those rescued in 1940. The Mole was a stone jetty running out to the harbour entrance. From there, a white painted wooden jetty extended out to sea. It was along this wooden jetty that most ships were moored, and it was from here that some 200,000 men were evacuated.
The wooden section was lost in a great storm in the 1970s, but visitors can still walk the stone section to a metal fence just short of where the last section once stood. It is one of the most evocative locations on the Dunkirk battlefield – on a clear day the whole stretch of the beaches to Bray Dunes and beyond can be seen.
Standing there, recalling the events of June 1940, it is worth pondering that the next time many of those evacuated soldiers would see France was on D-Day, four years later.
4. Dunkirk War Cemetery & Memorial, Dunkirk
Where the fallen are honoured
The Dunkirk Memorial – located in the British War Graves section of the Dunkirk town cemetery – bears the names of some 4,500 casualties of the British Expeditionary Force who have no known grave. It not only commemorates those who died at Dunkirk but also the missing from the Battle of France, covering actions as far apart as Ypres and Abbeville.
A high proportion of those killed in the campaign have never been recovered – in part, because many of them fell in and around the beaches of northern France. Unusually, corps units such as the Pioneer Corps and Royal Army Service Corps are heavily represented on the memorial, reflecting the losses of complete support units on board ships.
The war cemetery in which the memorial stands is south of the canal on the Veurne road. Of the nearly 800 graves sited here, the majority are casualties from May and June 1940.
Among them is a young gunner, Ralph Macdonald, who died of his wounds in German hands on 14 June, aged 17. The Reverend Geoffrey Hobson Matthews was 36 when he died on 31 May, one of the many non-combatants who volunteered to stay behind. The inscription on his grave reads: “… this monk and priest of Downside Abbey stayed with the wounded at Dunkirk”.
The dead from the fighting in and around Dunkirk were originally buried in isolated field graves in 1940. Some were never properly buried until the British had left. The local civilian population helped prepare several grave sites, and a number of the villages within the perimeter buried some of the fallen in their communal cemeteries.
Because of the siege of Dunkirk (German defenders held out against Allied forces from September 1944 until May 1945), the Imperial War Graves Commission could not gain access to the area until after the war, when work on a main Dunkirk cemetery began. Isolated graves were exhumed and moved in, adding to burials in the town that dated back to the First World War.
The site is always open, and there is limited parking in front of the main entrance on the N1, with the main parking area being within the entrance to the civil cemetery site, which is well-signposted.
5. Dunkirk Perimeter, Dunkirk
Where the British and French forces dug in and fought
Once Dunkirk was selected as the place from which the BEF would be evacuated, it was necessary to establish a defensive perimeter to keep the Germans at bay while the shipping came in to take men off. Around the town were a series of canals that offered perfect defensive lines, and both British and French units established positions along them.
The French held the ground between Dunkirk and the small fortified town of Bergues, and the British lines went east from Bergues along the Furnes (now Veurne) canal. In most cases, the defenders used hastily prepared slit trenches and foxholes, but occasionally they employed existing French bunkers, including some from the northernmost positions of the Maginot Line.
With a couple of hours to spare, you can explore the perimeter by car, or even on a bike. From Dunkirk, follow the D916 to Bergues. En route, you’ll pass Fort de Vallières, an old Vauban fort used by British and French troops in 1940.
The defensive walls of Bergues are worth a walk, and show signs of shell damage from the fighting. From here follow the Veurne canal through Hoymille to La Brouckstraete – remembering to cross from the north to the south side of the canal to see it from both perspectives.
Beyond that, at Rue des Trois Rois, just short of the Belgian border, is a Maginot Line bunker used by the 2nd West Riding Regiment in May 1940. It can be entered with care and shows signs of the fighting. Crossing into Belgium, the line can be followed via Houtem and Bulskamp to Veurne.
Where snipers fought for control
Veurne is an attractive Flemish town, with buildings dating back to medieval times – many of them showing signs of shrapnel damage from 1940. It was defended by the 7th Guards Brigade in May 1940, and held until the final stage of the defence when the perimeter was shortened. The Guards dug in along the canal – one unit even bayonet-charged the Germans in the streets.
The canal to the north along the N39 offers the best views of the area, while the small British cemetery in Oude Vestingstraat contains the graves of Belgian, British and French servicemen who died in the defence of the town.
Among the burials is Lieutenant Colonel John Arthur Lloyd, commanding 2nd Grenadier Guards, who was shot by a German sniper on 29 May while walking the streets of Veurne with his second in command and one of the company commanders. The colonel was killed instantly, and the other two wounded. It wasn’t possible to recover the wounded men until it was dark, by which time they had died.
The entire crew of a Wellington bomber from 38th Squadron is also buried here. It crashed on the edge of the town, returning from a mission on the coast while the battle in the streets was taking place.
7. Maritime Hospital, Zuydcoote
Where the wounded were cared for
Built in 1910, the Hôpital Maritime was a sanatorium where the sick could come to convalesce and enjoy the benefits of sea air. It was a large building with more than 1,400 beds built in red brick with many outbuildings. When the British established the Dunkirk Perimeter, the hospital was immediately commandeered by the Royal Army Medical Corps for the treatment of the wounded.
By 4 June, far more than 1,400 men were being sheltered here, along with them many RAMC personnel who hadn’t been wounded but who had volunteered to stay behind.
The German army used the building for the same purpose during the siege of 1944/45 and, by the close of the war, it was in ruins.
Today only the central section of the hospital is original, but many of its extensive outbuildings and walls still show signs of battle damage. Nowadays it is still in use as a sanatorium and as such is not open to the public. However, there is public access to the front of the building from the beach at Zuydcoote.
8. Wrecks, Bray-Dunes
Where the shipwrecks remain
When the British left Dunkirk in June 1940 they abandoned a huge amount of material, including many damaged or destroyed ships, now beached on the sand along the coast. Some were repaired and reused by the Germans, and others cut up for scrap, but incredibly the wrecks of several of them are clearly visible on the beach today. Indeed, some can easily be found using Google Earth.
The most impressive wrecks are the Devonia and Crested Eagle between Zuydcoote and Bray-Dunes. They can be reached on foot from the parking areas close to the seafront apartments at Bray, but can only be seen at low tides. Both were paddle steamers – the Crested Eagle worked the Essex and Kent coast and the Devonia the Bristol Channel.
The Crested Eagle caught fire after coming under German attack, It’s thought that more than 300 soldiers on board perished in the flames. Today both sets of remains and more than a dozen other small ships are largely used as mussel beds.
www.bray-dunes.fr. Be careful when visiting beaches. Check tide times and local weather conditions before setting off.
9. Nieuwpoort, West Flanders, Belgium
Where the end of the Dunkirk Perimeter was defended
The size of the Dunkirk Perimeter is often overlooked. It was, for example, larger than the Ypres Salient, which was defended by British and empire troops for four years during the First World War. The Dunkirk Perimeter’s eastern edge rested on Nieuwpoort, a Belgian town with a Mole that was used to evacuate soldiers.
The Mole remains intact, offering an insight into what its counterpart in Dunkirk once looked like. British troops from the 4th Division defended the town until the perimeter was reduced on 1 June. Those who died here are buried in the nearby Oostduinkerke communal cemetery.
Nieuwpoort is now a major seaside resort, and you may want to end a day spent exploring the battlefields in one of the bars overlooking its beaches.
10. Wormhoudt Massacre Site
Where the SS executed British and French prisoners
On 28 MAY 1940, soldiers from the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler massacred British and French prisoners between Esquelbecq and Wormhoudt, south of Dunkirk. This was one of a number of atrocities carried out by German forces during the Allied retreat to the coast.
This particular one was perpetrated against territorials from the Royal Artillery, Royal Warwickshire Regiment and Cheshire Regiment, all from the 48th Division.
You can access the large memorial to the massacre from Esquelbecq (which is also home to a communal cemetery containing the graves of those who died). The original barn in which the men were murdered was demolished some years ago, but veterans’ groups have since built a reconstruction of it, filled with poppy crosses and wreaths all year round.
Paul Reed is a military historian and the author of Walking Arras (Pen and Sword, 2007). He is historical advisor to an upcoming series on BBC One called Dig 1940.
We’ll be previewing the series on our tv & radio page.
This feature was first published in the April 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine. You can read more from our Where History Happened series – including the Gunpowder Plot and the Blitz – on our features page.