Stories of the Battle of Britain 1940 – Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo

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27 May 1940 is today regarded as the beginning of Operation Dynamo - the final evacuation from Dunkirk. Ironically, Operation Dynamo very nearly ended on that day.

27 May – 3 June 1940

27 May 1940 is today regarded as the beginning of Operation Dynamo – the final evacuation of British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk with the use of hastily assembled fleet of 850 vessels.  As we have seen in the previous week’s post, fierce action at sea and in the air started already during the preceding days.

Ironically, Operation Dynamo very nearly ended on that day.

On 26 May the German Army seized Boulogne and Calais. This left Dunkirk as the only remaining harbor in the hands of the BEF, and both sides concentrated their aerial activity on it.

Early in the morning on 27 May the French on the western side of the perimeter were forced back to within five miles of Dunkirk. With the enemy’s guns dominating the town and the normal approach from Dover, British ships were forced to approach the port by a roundabout route from the East until a more central channel could be swept clear of mines. As this eastern route was over twice the length of the direct passage, the number of journeys made by the ships was correspondingly reduced.

Then the Luftwaffe, concentrating its attacks against the town and harbour, wrought such havoc that all British troops were ordered outside the town. The newly arrived Senior Naval Officer, Captain Tennant, had to inform Admiral Ramsay that the Dunkirk harbour would have to be abandoned, and evacuation henceforth conducted solely from the beaches. It was a devastating blow. The importance of keeping the harbor open to shipping may be underlined by the fact that 80% of the evacuated troops were embarked at the quays of Dunkirk harbor directly onto large ships.

On top of all these calamities the Belgians capitulated with only the briefest notice, leaving a twenty-mile gap on the left of the BEF perimeter. Fortunately this had been anticipated, and appropriate movements had been ordered by the commanding officer of the BEF, Lord Gore.

All this contributed to a worrying result of the day – only 7,010 men were evacuated, of almost 200,000 British soldiers remaining on the French soil.

The map showing the shrinking BEF perimeter at Dunkirk
[Crown Copyright, via HMSO publications]

The Fighter Command, with its limited resources found itself quite unable to prevent the destruction of Dunkirk. The initiative throughout lay with the Luftwaffe, which could strike when it was pleased. While the Admiralty and troops on the ground expected continuous cover over Dunkirk throughout the day, Keith Park of No. 11 Group could secure continuity only at the expense of strength.  All he could not provide for the Dunkirk evacuation was an aerial cover in strength of a single squadron at a time. Units took off from British airfields at approximately fifty-minute intervals from 4:30 in the morning till 7:30 at night.

Although such cover was not sufficient to prevent the bombers from coming through, it posed significant danger to the Luftwaffe. On one occasion, 12 unescorted Dorniers Do 17 of III/KG 3 were jumped by Spitfires and in quick succession lost half of their number. On other occasions, the British fighters found themselves greatly outnumbered. Eleven Spitfires of No. 74 Squadron, for instance, gave battle to thirty Do 17s and Messerschmitt Bf 190s; five Hurricanes of No. 145 Squadron attacked the rear section of a Do 17 formation only to find themselves set upon by twenty or thirty Bf 110′s; twenty Hurricanes and Spitfires of Nos. 56 and 610 Squadrons, trying to pick off a single He.111, at once ran into thirty or forty Me.110′s.

To everyone’s relief, the following day brought some respite from Luftwaffe attacks, mainly thanks to the worsening weather and the pall of black smoke from the burning oil tanks that hung over the town. Indeed, the greatest danger on 28th May came not from the Luftwaffe, but from the confusion on the beaches, to which evacuation had now been confined. The small craft at work that day were far too few for the tremendous task of ferrying the troops to the ships offshore. A sense of chaos at the beaches lead to wild scrambles to get abroad the small boats which were often swamped in the surf.  Worse still, many rescued groups cut their boats adrift after reaching the waiting vessel, instead of arranging for their return to shore.

The Royal Air Force was in no doubt of its responsibilities. Chief of the Air Staff  Sir Cyril Newall signalled that day to the chiefs of all RAF commands:

“Today is likely to be the most critical day ever experienced by the British Army. The extreme gravity of the situation should be explained to all units. I am confident that all ranks will appreciate that it is the duty of the R.A.F. to make their greatest effort today to assist their comrades of both the Army and the Navy.
(…)
[Fighter Command shall] ensure the protection of Dunkirk beaches (three miles on either side) from first light until darkness by continuous fighter patrols in strength and have due regard to the protection of bomber sorties and the provision of support of the B.E.F. area.”

Meanwhile, Coastal Command was ordered to maintain a continuous daylight patrol from the North Goodwins to Gravelines and thence along the coast to Ostend. It was asking much for formations of no more than three Blenheims, Hudsons, Skuas and Rocs to fly over waters where the very thick of the enemy’s single-engined fighters would be found, but the duty was faithfully performed until the end of the evacuation.

Lockheed Hudson of RAF Coastal Command approaching the beaches of Dunkirk, with “little ships” in action below
[Crown Copyright, via HMSO publications]

The 321 sorties flown by No. 11 Group in the course of the day allowed a force of up to two squadrons over the evacuation area, but still left short intervals when there was no fighter cover. During the morning the Luftwaffe was up in force, and British fighters intercepted many powerful formations, one of which was estimated to no less than 150 aircraft; then the weather closed in, and the Lufwaffe all but ceased the operations in the afternoon. Six ships were sunk and others damaged during the day, but the Navy was reporting that ‘Fighter protection has been invaluable, and … bombing only sporadic’.  The sense of renewed hope was strenghtened towards the evening when  it became clear that the Dunkirk harbour could still be used.

By 29th May the greater part of the BEF was inside the organized defences of the perimeter. And ships were again being directed to the port by day.

Keith Park, who had protested strenuously against the policy of continuous but weak air cover, was now authorized by the Air Ministry to operate less often but at greater strength. From this day onwards he accordingly arranged the No. 11 Group patrols so that up to four squadrons — sometimes in two separate formations — were over the Dunkirk area at the same time.  The result on 29th May was stronger protection for eleven of the seventeen daylight hours, though during the other six there was no cover except by the small Coastal Command patrols. In the morning, when the enemy’s attacks were light, these intermissions had no serious results; but we were not so fortunate during the afternoon and evening, when the Luftwaffe succeeded with a new and devastating series of attacks against shipping.  Despite the temporary confusion when the harbour was again reported blocked and the Admiralty withdrew the most modern destroyers, the balance of the day was considered a success. Admiral Ramsay signalled to Fighter Command:

“‘I am most grateful for your splendid cooperation. It alone has given us a chance of success …”

On 30th May, weather turned again in favour of the British, with solid cloud cover hanging low over the beaches.  Sporadic air actvity occurred in the afternoon, without much profit to either of the sides.

At sea, the immortal flotilla of the ‘little boats’ had finally arrived. The embarkation went much smoother than during previous days. The troops had built a pier of lorries at Bray; powered craft were employed in rounding up the boats which had been cut adrift. By the end of the day hopes ran high that the night of 31st May/1st June would see the last of the BEF brought to safety.

That day Hitler recorded:

“The consequence of the blunders forced upon by Supreme War Headquarters (OKW){ is beginning to be felt now.… The pocket would have been closed at the Coast if only the armour had not been held back. As it is, the bad weather has grounded our air force and now we must stand by and watch how countless thousands of the enemy are getting away to England under our noses”

After early morning haze, 31st May cleared into a fine day, prompting new fierce attacks which concentrated on shipping, omitting the town and harbour installations. Despite the immense pressure of the attacks which during the afternoon were conducted with half-hour intervals, their real success was very limited. With hundreds of small vessels at sea, the Germans had a hard time hitting suitable targets to inflict any significant damage.

On 1 June, Stukas appeared once again over the beaches, succeeding in sinking 30 larger and smaller vessels and wreaking havoc among the troops wading in water waiting for their boats. Furious fighting marked the rest of the morning—on one occasion twenty-eight Hurricanes were in combat with fifty or sixty German Bf 109′s and 110′s. During the afternoon, the weather mercifully closed again. But the majority of the troops were now safely in Britain and it was decided that further evacuation would be conducted by night, thereby depriving the Luftwaffe of their bombing targets.

Operation Dynamo ended on 3 June with the fall of Dunkirk. Although losses were considerable, the operation as a whole was a great success. 338,000 men were rescued against the initial assessment of 45,000. Fighter Command losses over Dunkirk during the operation amounted to 113 aircraft, no less than 67 of them being Spitfires.

Burned out British lorries left behind at the French beaches
[Bundesarchiv]

Sources
Dennis Richards, ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939–1945, VOLUME I: THE FIGHT AT ODDS, LONDON 1953 HMSO

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