Dunkirk was over. France left in its death throes and Britain shocked and confused in trying to apprehend what had just happened. Reactions of the time document a difficult mix of emotions, spanning from euphoria to deafetism – initiating a conflict of interpretations of Dunkirk which prevails until this day.
“Men of the undefeated British Expeditionary Force have been coming home from France. They have not come back in triumph, they have come back in glory.”
Official statement by the Ministry of Information
“Dunkirk at last abandoned”
Headline at the News Chronicle, 5 June 1940
“We watched the Luftwaffe attack. We also saw the armada of great and little ships, by means of which the British were evacuating their forces.”
Heinz Guderian, German Army High Command.
“The story of that epic withdrawal will live in history as a glorious example of discipline. Every kind of small craft – destroyers, paddle steamers, yachts, motor boats, rowing boats – have sped here to the burning ruins of Dunkirk to bring off the gallant British and French troops betrayed by the desertion of the Belgian king.”
“So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence. In that harbour, such a hell on earth as never blazed before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that had hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendour, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hi tler cannot command. It is in the great tradition of democracy. It is a future. It is victory.”
New York Times, 1 June 1940
“More cheering evidence of the success of this amazing military exploit is the presence in Britain of large numbers of French soldiers. They are showered with hospitality and find the tea of old England almost as refreshing as their familiar coffee.”
“We left Dover by train, and reached Redhill station just as the business crowds thronged the platforms for city trains. Everyone seemed hilarious – you would imagine that the evacuation of France, still proceeding, spelt victory, not defeat. (…) Soldiers were flinging French coins from the carriage windows, and the business crowds were scrambling for them.”
Arthur Davey, BEF evacuee
“I made straight for a barber-shop and was given first-class treatment – shampoo, shave, hot towel, everything. It was really super, and the barber said it was an honour to serve members of the BEF.
In terms of the welcome given to troops back from Dunkirk, that barber’s attitude was typical not just of Peterborough but also of Britain in general at the time. (…)
Churchill was speaking regularly on the radio. We had the navy, and most of the airforce was in tact. We all knew we would win the war. We just thought it would be a bit more difficult now.”
Reg Gill, BEF evacuee
“Immediately after Dunkirk, I visited a number of camps in different parts of the country in which the returned troops of the B.E.F. had been hurriedly quartered. I had half expected some questioning or complaint, for there was enough to criticize. Our infantry had had no armour to support them; even its equipment had revealed some woeful shortages. But the mood of the officers and men showed none of this.
On the contrary, their temper was that of victors, with no sign that they had had to retreat during days of continuous fighting before an overwhelmingly stronger enemy. I felt that having measured their opponent in these conditions, they were convinced that, given the weapons, they could match and outfight him. Even those brigades which had suffered the heaviest casualties, notably the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Division, were as confident and resolute as their more fortunate comrades. For me the hours I could spend among these men were a tonic, for there was in them the temper of those who knew they could not be beaten, whereas in Whitehall I had only too much reason to reckon how heavy must soon be the odds.”
Anthony Eden, Foreign Secretary in Churchill’s cabinet
“The Dunkirk episode was far worse than was ever realized in Fleet Street. The men on getting back to England were so demoralized they threw their rifles and equipment out of railway-carriage windows. Some sent for their wives with their civilian clothes, changed into these, and walked home.”
Director of Statistics at the War Office
“The greatest British military defeat for many centuries”
Winston Chruchill in private to his junior ministers
“For us Germans the word ‘Dunkirchen’ will stand for all time for victory in the greatest battle of annihilation in history. But, for the British and French who were there, it will remind them for the rest of their lives of a defeat that was heavier than any army had ever suffered before.”
Der Adler, 5 June 1940
“We were lost for words. I don’t know how to put it. We were just so demoralised and humiliated.
I could not believe how well-equipped the Germans were. I had just a few months with a rifle and no proper field training and there they were with all this equipment and organisation.
They were prepared for war and we weren’t.”
Ivan Daunt, Queen’s Own Royal West Kents
“If you ask anybody what they remember most clearly about (…) Dunkirk they will all mention two things – shame and exhaustion. Shame-as we went back through those white-faced, silent crowds of Belgians, the people who had cheered us and waved to us as we came through their country only four days before, people who had vivid memories of a previous German occupation and whom we were now handing over to yet another. I felt very ashamed. We had driven up so jauntily and now, liked whipped dogs, we were scurrying back with our tails between our legs.”
Brigadier Brian Horrocks, BEF
“I used to get up on those lovely summer mornings and look across to Foulness and wonder whether hordes of Germans would come in. It seemed so very, very possible. After a great deal of thought (…) we decided that our four year-old couldn’t have done anything without us. I kept a bottle of hundred aspirins and if the Germans came we’d have dissolved them in some milk and given them to her drink. That’s the truth. That’s how real it was.”
Hilda Cripps, Essex
“I remember being very frightened indeed whan France collapsed because I thought it was going to be us next. Really frightened. Until I heared the speech that Churchill made on the radio about fighting on the beaches. I suddenly wasn’t frightened any more. It was quite amazing. When people have decried Churchill, I’ve always said, ‘Yes, but he stopped me being afraid!”.
Joan Seaman, civilian in London
“We wondered whether we were ever going to survive it as we felt we were going to get invaded because of the way that things were at that time. The farmer was saying,
‘I don’t think we’ll put any crops up now. It’s no good planting potatoes; it’s only for Hitler we’re doing this for. It’s looking bad.’
Churchill came on the radio that night and he said ‘We’ll fight them on the beaches, we’ll fight them in the hills. This will be our finest hour,’ and all the rest of it and when I came back up to the farm there was a completely different attitude.
‘Come on lad we’ve got to get stuck in. We’ve got to get on with this.'”
David Scott, Home Guard, Cumbria
“Then came the debacle of Dunkirk and the Nation was, to say the least, in a state of depression. Then came the famous wireless speech by Churchill-“We will fight them on the beaches (…)”
I have said it many times since that fateful day, 64 years ago and many sceptics do not believe it, but the mood of the British changed overnight. There was a new found resolution in the air and a determination that, if we had to sell ourselves dearly, no live German was going to set foot on these islands.”
“Within days I passed clusters of Dunkirk soldiers standing around Harehills, looking demoralised with their hats of other parts of their uniform missing.
We stood near the wireless to hear Churchill’s rousing speech, ‘We shall fight them on the beaches.’ It echoed round the canteen and the rest of the world. We took heart. ”
Joan Gordon, Leeds
“Mum remembered vividly the day when Churchill made his famous ‘we will fight them on the beaches’ speech on the radio. She remembered that she and her sister got out all the carving knives from the kitchen drawer and sharpened them in readiness”
Edith Lambourne, London
– BBC People’s War
– Joshua Levine: Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain, Ebury Press, 2007
– Der Adler