Operation Aerial was the code name given to the evacuation of British and Allied troops from the ports of north west France between 15 and 25 June 1940. When the German tanks reached the coast at Abbeville on 20 May they split the B.E.F. in two. While most of the fighting men were trapped north of the German armies, the 1st Armoured and 51st (Highland) Divisions had been south of the Somme, while another 150,000 men were present in bases on the lines of communication that led back to the ports. In the immediate aftermath of the evacuation from Dunkirk, Churchill had decided that Britain was still under an obligation to help the French. Accordingly the 52nd Division was moved to France, with the 1st Canadian Division following behind.
On 5 June the second phase of the German offensive began, starting what is normally known as the Battle of France. At first the French were able to hold their new line on the Somme, but they were massively outnumbered, and the Germans soon broke through and began to push the French armies west across the country. It was soon clear that the French government would be forced to seek an armistice. On 17 June Marshal Petain asked for an armistice, and on 22 June the French surrender was signed.
The British forces in France were now under the command of General Alan Brooke. By the evening of 14 June he had decided that the situation was hopeless. That night he was able to reach Churchill on the telephone, and convinced him that it was time to evacuate the rest of the B.E.F. before it was too late. After a ten minute conversation Churchill agreed, and on the following day Operation Aerial began.
The operation was split into two sectors. Admiral James, based at Portsmouth, was to control the evacuation from Cherbourg and St Malo, while Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith, the commander-in-chief of the Western Approaches, based at Plymouth, would control the evacuation from Brest, St. Nazaire and La Pallice. Eventually this western evacuation would extend to include the ports on the Gironde estuary, Bayonne and St Jean-de-Luz.
Admiral James soon decided that he had too few flotilla vessels to put in place a convoy system, so he arranged for a flow of independently routed troops ships, motor transport and store ships to use Southampton, while coastal ships used Poole and Dutch schuyts used Weymouth.
The evacuation from Cherbourg proceeded smoothly. Most of the 52nd Division embarked on 15-17 June, followed on 18 June by Norman Force, a composite unit creating from fragments of other formations. When the last ships left Cherbourg on the afternoon of 18 June a total of 30,630 men had been rescued, including 9,000 moved from Havre during Operation Cycle.
A similar picture developed at St. Malo. There the 1st Canadian Division embarked on 16 June and by the end of 17 June a total of 21,474 men had been evacuated. This was followed on 18 June by a hunt for stragglers and the demolition of the port facilities.
Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith had two jobs. As well as rescuing a large number of British, Polish and Czech troops, he also had to do his best to prevent the French Atlantic fleet from falling into German hands. His first action, on 16 June, was to post senior naval officers to Brest and St Nazaire. At this point neither he nor the French authorities in those ports realised how urgent the evacuation would soon become, and it was planned to spend the next week evacuating stores and equipment, but the cabinet had a better idea of how close French resistance was to collapse. Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith was ordered to begin the evacuation on 16 June.
The evacuation from Brest took place on 16 and 17 June. A total of 28,145 British and 4,439 Allied fighting men were rescued, amongst them a large number of RAF personnel. There was very little interference from the Germans, who carried out no heavy air raids against Brest. At 4 pm on 17 June the French fleet sailed from Brest, but sadly most of it turned south and made for Casablanca and Dakar, with only a small number of ships making for Britain instead. On 18 June the port facilities were demolished, and on 19 June the demolition part withdrew on the destroyer Blake.
The evacuation from St. Nazaire was not so free from German intervention. It was already more difficult because navigational hazards in the Loire meant that the larger ships had to use Quiberon Bay as an anchorage before moving to St. Nazaire to pick up men. Up to 40,000 troops were believed to be retreating towards Nantes, fifty miles upstream, and so Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith had decided to begin the evacuation early on 16 June. By the end of the day 13,000 base troops had been take onboard ship.
17 June saw the biggest single loss of life during the entire evacuation process when at 3.35pm the liner Lancastria was sunk by German bombing. 3,000 of the 5,800 men embarked on her were killed, even though she sank relatively slowly in shallow water. Rescue efforts were hampered by a sheet of burning oil that surrounded the ship and by a German air raid that lasted from 3.45 to 4.30pm.
This disaster was not revealed in Britain for some years. When the news reached Churchill in the Cabinet Room, he forbade its publication on the grounds that “the newspapers have got quite enough disasters for to-day at least”. At the time he had intended to lift the ban after few days had passed, but this disaster was followed by the French surrender, the start of the Battle of Britain and the constant fear of invasion. Under the pressure of these momentous events Churchill simply forgot to lift the ban until reminded of it later in the war.
Despite this tragedy, the evacuation went on. Soon after dawn on 18 June a convoy of ten ships carrying 23,000 men left the port, leaving only 4,000 men still to evacuate. False intelligence then led Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith to believe that the Germans were closer than they were, and at 11am on 18 June a convoy of twelve ships took off the last men, leaving behind a great deal of equipment that could have been rescued. The Germans had still not arrived on 19 June, but instead Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith was informed that 8,000 Poles had reached the port. Accordingly he sent in a fleet of seven transports and six destroyers, but they only found 2,000 men. By the end of the day a total of 57,235 troops had been evacuated from St. Nazaire, 54,411 British and 2,764 Polish.
Far few men were evacuated from La Pallice, the final port originally designated as part of the operation. When the senior naval officer reached La Pallice on 16 June he found that all his ships had been sent to Brest and St. Nazaire instead, and so he was forced to requisition a fleet of cargo ships. The troops embarked on 17 June, and the convoy left 18 June. Later in the same day Admiral Dunbar-Nasmith learnt that 4,000 Poles had reached the port, and sent in a second evacuation fleet. Finally on 19 June he was told that another contingent of Poles had arrived, but when a third evacuation fleet entered La Pallice very few troops could be found. The empty ships were then sent south to the Gironde. A total of 2,303 British and over 4,000 Poles were rescued from La Pallice.
This ended Operation Aerial as it had originally been planned, but events had moved on again. The French armistice was now imminent, and so it was decided to carry out a final round of evacuations, this time from the ports of the River Gironde and the ports of Bayonne and St Jean-de-Luz, close to the Spanish border. This time the main focus was on evacuating civilian refugees, the staffs from Allied embassies and legations and rescuing valuable shipping, although some troops were also expected to reach this area. The first British ships arrived on 16 June – the cruiser Arethusa from Gibraltar and the destroyer Berkeley from Britain, carrying the senior naval officers who would direct these last evacuations. After delivering her passengers, the Berkeleythen sailed to Bordeaux, to act as a radio centre for the operation.
The evacuation effort from the Gironde was made on 18-19 June when thousands of refugees were rescued. The British Ambassador to France, Sir Ronald Campbell, stayed with the French government at Bordeaux until 23 June, then made his was to Arcachon, before finally being evacuated from St. Jean de Luz. After the main evacuation was over, a large contingent of 6,000 Polish troops were found to have reached Le Verdon, at the mouth of the Gironde, and on the morning of 23 June they too were rescued.
The evacuation continued to stretch further to the south. On 19 June four liners were sent to Bayonne, from where 9,000 troops were rescued by the Polish ships Batory and Sobieksi. After two days operating from Bayonne, the remaining ships were then sent to St. Jean-de-Luz, to take advantage of better harbour facilities. Poor weather then delayed the start of the evacuation until 24 June. News of the armistice terms had now reached the French authorities, and they informed the British that all evacuations must end at noon of 25 June. Despite this the last troopship did not leave until 2.30pm on that day. A total of 19,000 soldiers, mostly Polish, were rescued from Bayonne and St Jean-de-Luz.
A final set of evacuations took part from the south coast of France. These were put in place by 23 June, and took place on 24-26 June. Another 10,000 troops, mostly Poles and Czechs, along with a similar number of civilians, reached safety at Gibraltar.
Between them Operations Cycle and Aerial managed to rescue 191,870 fighting men from the ports of north west and western France (144,171 British, 18,246 French, 24,352 Polish, 4,938 Czechs and 163 Belgians). Although much equipment was lost, 310 artillery guns, 2,292 vehicles, 1,800 tons of stores and a small number of tanks were also rescued. When combined with the evacuation from Dunkirk a total of 558,032 men were rescued from the disaster in France. Once again Britain’s control of the seas had saved her from military disaster.