9 things you (probably) didn’t know about Dunkirk
In 1940, as British troops retreated through France under fire from an advancing German Army, a massive evacuation was launched to bring the soldiers safely home. Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, a mammoth 338,000 troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in the remarkable Operation Dynamo. Here, military historian James Holland shares some lesser-known facts about the evacuation at Dunkirk, and the fighting that led up to it...
Dunkirk: what happened?
On 10 May 1940, Adolf Hitler began his long-awaited offensive in the west by invading neutral Holland and Belgium and attacking northern France. Holland capitulated after only five days of fighting, and the Belgians surrendered on 28 May. With the success of the German ‘Blitzkrieg’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French troops were in danger of being cut off and destroyed.
To save the BEF, an evacuation by sea was organised under the direction of Admiral Bertram Ramsay. Over nine days, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, warships of the Royal and French navies together with civilian craft successfully evacuated more than 338,000 British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, in the remarkable Operation Dynamo.
The success of the evacuation strengthened not only Britain’s defences in the face of a German invasion threat, but also Churchill’s position against those like the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who favoured discussing peace terms. Seventy years later, Dunkirk is still synonymous with refusing to give up in times of crisis.
But did you know...
Britain had the only 100 per cent mechanised army in 1940
The reason for defeat in France in 1940 was not a failure in equipment, tactics or training, but the BEF's small size: just 10 divisions. This meant they could only ever play a supporting role in the action. When Belgian and French forces on their flanks collapsed, the BEF had no choice but to fall back in line with their allies. For Britain, an island nation with a large seaborne empire, the Royal Navy was the senior service. Pre-war rearmament had sensibly focussed on naval and air power. After all, France was an ally with a vast army. The idea was that Britain would take the lead at sea, France on land, and both would contribute to air power.
There were no telephones at French Army headquarters
In contrast, the French had largely eschewed radio technology in favour of landline telephones and traditional dispatch riders. At his headquarters on the edge of Paris, Gamelin insisted there should be no telephones at all, such was his paranoia of a security break. This meant he was repeatedly and fatally out of touch with his commanders at a time when swift and rapid decision-making was essential.
With German artillery and the Luftwaffe also repeatedly cutting phone lines, the French were ever more dependent on dispatch riders, who were forced to battle through roads clogged with refugees. Often they became lost, took too long, or failed to return altogether. Inevitably, the French Army ground to a halt, unable to move or respond to the rapidly unfolding situation.
The Luftwaffe suffered its worst day
However, that first day of the campaign was the worst the Luftwaffe suffered for some three years. A staggering 353 German planes crashed or were shot down. (To put that in perspective, the worst day for the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain saw them lose 67 aircraft). Most were transports bringing in airborne troops, but these Junkers 52s had only been brought to bear by scouring training schools and their losses severely set back aircrew training. In fact, the Luftwaffe had still not made good on its losses by the time they invaded the Soviet Union the following June.
The game-changing ‘eastern mole’ was discovered purely by chance
A lifeline had been discovered and over the next five days and nights, the eastern mole not only remained intact but also undamaged by either the sheer weight of ships mooring alongside or by enemy bombs. Of the 338,226 men lifted from Dunkirk, 239,555 – the vast majority – were taken from the eastern mole.
The Battle of Britain began over Dunkirk
Logical military thinking played no part in Hitler’s decision to issue a halt order
An England cricket captain was among those rescued at Dunkirk
The last British soldier to leave Dunkirk was a Major-General
Many British vehicles abandoned at Dunkirk ended up in Russia
In fact, many of them went on to provide sterling service to the Wehrmacht and a large number ended up crossing into the Soviet Union a year later as part of the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa. By then, the German Army was using some 2,000 different vehicles, all of which required different parts, from gaskets and distributors to fuel pumps. Needless to say, of those British vehicles that did make their way to the USSR, very few ever headed west again.
James Holland is a historian, writer and broadcaster. His latest book is 'Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day' (September 2021)