Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, 27 May-4 June 1940

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Introduction
The Land Battle
The Halt Order
Problems
The Evacuation
The Air Battle
The Small Boats
Daily totals of men evacuated from Dunkirk.
Conclusion
Books

Introduction

Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk of 27 May-4 June 1940, is one of the most celebrated military events in British history, and yet it was the direct result of one of the most crushing defeats suffered by the British army. Only eighteen days before the start of the evacuation the combined British and French armies had been seen as at least equal to the Germans. If Belgium and Holland came into the war, then the combined Allied armies could field 144 divisions, three more than the Germans. Even without Belgium and Holland the Allies outnumbered the Germans by almost two-to-one in artillery and by nearly 50% in tanks. For over six months the two armies had faced each other across the Franco-German border, but on 10 May the German offensive in the west began, and that all changed. After only ten days German tanks reached the Channel at Abbeville, splitting the Allied armies in two. All the Germans had to do to trap the BEF without any hope of escape was turn north and sweep along the almost undefended channel coast.

Instead the BEF was able to fight its way to Dunkirk, where between 27 May and 4 June a total of 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from Dunkirk and the beaches. At the end of 4 June enough of the BEF had escaped from the trap to enable Churchill to convince his cabinet colleagues to fight on, regardless of the fate of France.

The Land Battle

The evacuation from Dunkirk was made possible by a combination of German mistakes and a brave decision made by Lord Gort, the commander of the BEF. The whole purpose of the German “sickle cut” strategy in 1940 was to cut the Allied armies in half by breaking through the French lines in the Ardennes and then dashing for the Somme estuary. The Germans expected the Allies to help them by advancing into Belgium at the start of their offensive, exposing more Allied troops to capture.

Two German Army Groups were to be involved in the plan. Army Group B, under General von Bock, was to attack in the north, occupying Holland and northern Belgium. Army Group A, under General von Rundstedt had the job of breaking the French lines on the Meuse and reaching the sea. Rundstedt had three armies in his front line, and an armoured group under General von Kleist to lead the way.

Lord Gort after Dunkirk
Lord Gort after Dunkirk

The BEF, under Lord Gort, was located to the north of the line that Kleist would take to the coast. Just as expected, when the German attack began, the British and French advanced into Belgium, hoping to link up with the Belgian army and stop the German advance.

The Germans soon broke through the French line at Sedan. On 16 May General Guderian, commanding a Panzer corps in von Kleist’s armoured group, was given a free hand for twenty four hours to expand the bridgehead, and instead plunged straight through the Allied lines, reaching the Oise at Ribemont on 17 May.

This sudden success began to lay the seeds of the German mistake that would let the BEF reach Dunkirk. Kleist caught up with Guderian on 17 May, and instead of praising him for his success, attacked him for taking too big a risk. The German High Command was beginning to worry that their panzer spearhead was dangerously exposed to a combined Allied counterattack from north and south. Guderian promptly resigned, but General Rundstedt persuaded him to return to his post, and also gave him permission to carry out an armed reconnaissance to the west.

20 May

Guderian took advantage of this new order, and on 20 May captured Amiens and Abbeville. The Germans had reached the sea and the Allied armies were cut in two. At this point the Germans were indeed vulnerable to a counterattack. Belatedly General Gamelan, the French supreme commander, issued orders for a breakout to the south, supported by an attack from the south, exactly what the Germans were afraid would happen, but on 19 May, before the plan could be put into place, Gamelan was replaced by General Weygand. The Gamelan plan was suspended while Weygand visited the front. Three days were lost, and by the time Weygand decided to carry out a very similar plan, it was too late.

21 May

On 21 May Guderian’s Panzers paused on the line of the Somme. General Hehring, Guderian’s chief-of-staff at this time, believed that the high command had not yet decided which way to move – north towards the channel ports, or south to deal with the larger part of the French army, which was still intact south of the Somme.

On the same day the British launched their one major counterattack of the campaign, the battle of Arras. This attack achieved some limited local success before it was repulsed, but it had a much bigger impact on the German High Command. The British attack confirmed their view that an Allied counterattack would soon follow.

22 May

After a two day pause, Guderian’s panzers finally began the move north on 22 May. That day they reached the outskirts of Boulogne, where they encountered serious resistance for the first time. The fighting at Boulogne would last for another three days, before the garrison surrendered on 25 May.

On the same day the bulk of the BEF had pulled back out of Belgium and had returned to the defensive lines east of Lille that it had constructed over the winter of 1939-1940. At this point both the British and the Germans were forty miles from Dunkirk. The British also had a garrison at Calais, and Lord Gort was beginning to place scattered forces on the route back to the coast.

23 May

On 23 May Kleist reported that he had lost half of his tanks since the start of the campaign in the west. Accordingly, that evening Rundstedt stopped his advance, and ordered him to simply blockade the Allied garrison in Calais. The Army High Command decided to give Army Group B the job of attacking the Allied pocket, while Army Group A would concentrate on guarding the southern flank of the German advance against a possible counterattack.

24 May

24 May was the pivotal day of the campaign. On the north eastern flank of the Allied pocket the Belgian army came under heavy attack, and was close to collapse. On the coast the Germans were blockading Calais, and were only twenty miles from Dunkirk, the last port available to the Allies. Meanwhile much of the BEF was still on a line running north from Arras, still attempted to maintain what was left of the front line.

The most important event of the day took place when Hitler visited the headquarters of Rundstedt’s Army Group A. Rundstedt’s own war diary records that he suggested halting the tanks where they were and letting the infantry tackle the Allied troops trapped in the north. Hitler agreed, and issued an order forbidding the tanks from crossing the canal running from La Basseé-Béthune-Saint Omer to Gravelines (ten miles west of Dunkirk). The BEF would be left to the infantry and to the Luftwaffe.  

25 May

Retreat to Dunkirk, Evening of 25 May 1940
Retreat to Dunkirk, Evening of 25 May 1940

At the start of 25 May Lord Gort was still under orders to attack to the south to support the French, but it was becoming increasingly clear that this was a forlorn hope, and that to obey that order would risk losing the entire army. At 6.00pm that evening Lord Gort made his courageous decision. On his own authority he ordered the 5th and 50th Divisions to move from Arras, at the southern end of the British pocket, to the north to reinforce II Corps, as the first step in an attempt to break out to the sea. The reinforced II Corps would have the job of holding the northern flank of the corridor to the sea if the Belgian army surrendered. 

On the same day Churchill made his final decision not to evacute the garrison defending Calais, hoping to gain crucial hours to improve the western defences of the Dunkirk beachhead. The fighting at Calais continued until late on 26 May, and tied up one Panzer Division.

26 May

By 26 May the British and French had both decided to form a beachhead around Dunkirk, but for different reasons. While the British hoped to escape from the German trap, the French still hoped to fight on.

British troops at Nieuport, 1940
British troops at
Nieuport, 1940

On this day Lord Gort met with General Blanchard, the French command of the First Army Group, and together they put plans in place to create a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk, apparently without either side realising what the other had in mind. The French were to defend the line from Gravelines to Bergues, and then the British would take over from Bergues and hold a line along the canal to Furnes, then Nieuport and the sea.

The same day finally saw the Germans begin to take notice of the activity at Dunkirk. Hitler lifted the “halt order”, allowing Kleist’s armoured group to advance to within artillery range of Dunkirk. On the same day the brave defence of Calais also finally came to an end, after having held the Germans up for a crucial few days. 

27 May

On the same day that the evacuation from Dunkirk finally got under way, the German advance finally brought the port within artillery range, and for the rest of the evacuation the town suffered from a constant heavy artillery bombardment. By now the Allies had defences in place around Dunkirk. One of the most important aspects of those defences were the inundations, which flooded large areas of the low lying ground around the port, acting as a very effective anti-tank ditch. Heavy fighting would follow, but the Germans had missed their best chance to cut the BEF off from the coast.

The BEF was still not safe. Rearguard elements of I and II Corps did not leave the frontier defences until the night on 27-28 May, and most of the BEF was still outside the Dunkirk perimeter at the end of the day. Worse was to come, for during the day the German Sixth Army reported that a Belgian delegation had arrived to request surrender negotiations.

28 May

28 May was a day of crisis for Lord Gort. On that day Belgium signed an unconditional surrender, which left the northern flank of the Allied pocket dangerously exposed to German attack. Lord Gort was only given one hours formal notice of the surrender, which had the potential to destroy any hope of an evacuation, but over the previous days King Leopold III had indicated that his army was close to collapse, so the armistice didn't come as a complete surprise, and the Belgian army had played a vital part in the defence of the Allied left since the start of the fighting. During a day of hard fighting the BEF was able to prevent the Germans from crossing the Yser and reaching the beaches before the Allies. By the end of the day a large part of the BEF had reached the defended perimeter. A second crisis came during a meeting with General Blanchard. Only now did the French commander realise that the British were planning to evacuate their troops. Lord Gort’s Chief of Staff described Blanchard as having gone “completely off the deep end”. He made it clear that he did not believe any evacuation was possible, and refused to retire in line with the British. 

29 May

Despite Blanchard’s attitude on 28 May, eventually most of the French First Army would reach Dunkirk. However, on 29 May the Germans finally managed to cut off the Allied troops fighting around Lille. Four British divisions had managed to escape the trap, but the French V Corps was captured. By the end of 29 May the most of the BEF had reached Dunkirk. The ground campaign was effectively over, and the attention turned to the naval evacuation.  

The Halt Order

One of the most controversial aspects of the fighting around Dunkirk was the Hitler’s “halt order”, issued on 24 May 1941. After the war the surviving German generals did their best to shift the blame for this order on to Hitler. Even Rundstedt, on whose advice the order had been issued, would later claim that it had been Hitler’s idea, and that the intention had been to spare the British a humiliating defeat. Hitler was known to have expressed some admiration for the British Empire, and to have said that he wanted to arrange a division of the world with the British, but his pre-war admiration for Britain seems to have evaporated rather quickly once the war began.

Problems

Lord Gort had first raised the possibility of an evacuation from Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk on 19 May. The Admiralty appointed Admiral Bertram Ramsey to take command of the planning for this possible evacuation, under the codename “dynamo”. On 20 May he held his first planning meeting at Dover.

He had a number of serious problems to overcome. The shallow waters around Dunkirk meant that the largest ships could not be used. At the start of the evacuation Ramsey had a fleet of destroyers, passenger ferry steamers and Dutch coasters (Schuyts). What he lacked was enough small boats to get men from the beaches to the ships waiting offshore. Dunkirk itself had been under heavy bombardment for some days, and the inner harbour was out of use.

British troops reach Dover, 1940
British troops reach Dover, 1940

Once the ships were loaded they then had to get back to England. Sandbars just off the French coast meant that the ships would have to travel along the coast for some distance to reach a channel into deeper water. The western route (Route Z) was the shortest, at 39 sea miles, but it would soon be vulnerable to attack from the French gun batteries at Calais, which were captured intact by the Germans. Ramsey was then forced to use Route Y, the eastern route, but that was much longer, at 87 sea miles, and would itself become vulnerable as the eastern perimeter at Dunkirk shrank. A final route, X, of 55 sea miles was eventually created by clearing a gap in the minefields.

Even once back at Dover the problems did not end. The port of Dover had eight berths for cross channel ferries, each of which would soon be used by up to three ships at once. Once off the ships the men then needed to be moved away from the dock, fed and housed. With all this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that when planning began the best Ramsey hoped to achieve was to rescue 45,000 men over two days.

The Evacuation

26 May

The evacuation got underway on the afternoon of Sunday 26 May, when a number of personnel ships were sent into Dunkirk harbour (these were mostly fast passenger ships that had been used on the cross-channel routes before the war, and were manned by Merchant Navy Crews). This type of ship would eventually evacuate 87,810 men from Dunkirk and the beaches, second only to the destroyers. Operation Dynamo itself did not start until 6.57pm on 26 May, when the Admiralty ordered Admiral Ramsey to start the full evacuation. 

27 May

A key figure over the next few days was Captain W. G. Tennant, the Senior Naval Officers, Dunkirk, who was appointed to take charge of the naval shore embarkation parties. At this point the navy was planning to evacuate most men from the beaches east of Dunkirk. Each British army corps was allocated one of three beaches – Malo beach, close to Dunkirk, Bray beach, further along the coast and La Penne beach, just inside Belgium. The inner harbour at Dunkirk had been closed by German bombing, and would never be used during the evacuation.

The outer harbour was protected by two moles. These long concrete constructions had not been designed to have ships dock alongside, but on the evening of 27 May Captain Tennant ordered one ship to try using the east mole. Despite the difficulties this was a success, and the east mole was used for the rest of the evacuation. The use of the mole allowed Tennant to make the best use of the destroyers, and over the rest of the evacuation they would rescue 102,843 men. Despite this initial success, by the end of the day Tennant had closed the harbour, and directed all ships to the beach.

This day also saw the navy abandon Route Z, the shortest route between Dover and Dunkirk. For the first twenty miles from Dunkirk this route followed the French coast, and was thus vulnerable to German artillery, especially at Calais. A new route, Route Y, had to be adopted. This avoided the danger of coastal artillery but was 87 miles, reducing the number of trips each ship could make. It also exposed the ships to German aircraft for much longer.

Over the first two days of the evacuation 7,699 men disembarked in England, virtually all of them from the harbour.

28 May

British troops between Dunkirk and Ostend
British troops between
Dunkirk and Ostend

On 28 May the evacuation from the beaches began to pick up speed, and one third of the 17,804 rescued during the day were taken from the beaches. Tennant re-opened the harbour early in the day, and six destroyers all picked up large numbers of men from the mole. The same day also saw the personnel ships withdrawn from daylight work, after the Queen of the Channel was sunk. These large fast valuable ships were reserved for night time work only, and the daylight operations restricted to warships and smaller ships. Fortunately the same day saw the Dutch schuyts begin to operate a continuous to Ramsgate and Margate. These forty ships would eventually evacuate 22,698 men, for the loss of only four ships.

29 May

By 29 May the evacuation was getting up to speed – three times as many men were rescued as on the previous day. Despite this success, the day was marred by heavy losses. HMS Wakeful was sunk by an E-boat, HMS Grafton by U.62 and the personnel ship Mona’s Queen was sunk by a magnetic mine. Another destroyer and six major merchant ships were sunk by bombing in Dunkirk harbour. Despite this the harbour remained open, but rumours to the contrary reached Dover, and for some time Admiral Ramsey ordered all ships to use the beaches.

30 May

As a result of this 30 May was the only day when more men were evacuated from the beaches than from the harbour. The loss of two destroyers on 29 May also convinced the Admiralty to withdraw all modern destroyers from the evacuation. Fortunately that morning Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker arrived to take over at Dunkirk. When he realised that he only had fifteen old destroyers at his disposal he contacted Admiral Ramsey, who was able to convince the Admiralty to return seven of the new destroyers to Dunkirk. Despite the lack of the new destroyers, 30 May was the most successful day yet. Seven of the older destroyers each managed to rescue 1,000 men, while low cloud and burning oil hid the beaches from German attack. The day also saw the little ships at work, ferrying men from the beaches to the larger ships offshore.

31 May

By 31 May the number of British troops at Dunkirk had been reduced to point where a Corps commander could take over. At the start of the evacuation it had been decided that Lord Gort must not be captured – the propaganda value to the Germans would have been far too high. On 31 May Lord Gort and General Brooke returned to Britain, and command of the troops at Dunkirk was passed to General Alexander.

The day was not well suited to the evacuation. The wind dispersed the smoke and haze and the shelling and bombardment of the beach reached new heights. For part of the day the beach was unusable, and the harbour difficult. Despite this the day also saw the highest number of men evacuated – a total of 68,014. By the end of the day the shrinking British forces had been forced to abandon the easternmost beach at La Panne.

Saturday 1 June

1 June saw the second highest number of men evacuated, most from the harbour, where a number of ships took off very large numbers of men – 2,700 on the Solent steamer Whippingham alone. The day also saw four destroyers sunk by enemy action, including Admiral Wake-Walker’s own flag ship, HMS Keith. By the end of the day only part of the British I Corps and the French troops guarding the perimeter remained at Dunkirk.

Sunday 2 June

It had been hoped to finish the evacuation by the early morning of 2 June, but progress was slower than expected, and so work continued until 7.00am. At that point it was estimated that there were 6,000 British and 65,000 French troops left in Dunkirk. A final effort was planned for the evening and Allied ships began to move across the channel at 5pm.  By midnight the last British rearguard had been rescued from Dunkirk.

Monday 3 June

The effort that began on 2 June successfully evacuated 26,746 men from Dunkirk, most from the harbour. Of these men three quarters were French, but there were still estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000 French troops left in Dunkirk. One final effort was made to rescue these men from the shrinking perimeter at Dunkirk. At 10.15 pm the destroyer HMS Whitshed became the first of fifty ships to take part in this final evacuation.

Tuesday 4 June

This last operation continued until 3.40am on the morning of 4 June, when the old destroyer Shikari, carrying 383 troops, became the last ship to leave Dunkirk. On the night of 3-4 June a total of 26,175 French troops were rescued from Dunkirk harbour, 10,000 in small ships from the west mole and the remaining 16,000 in the destroyers and larger personnel ships from the east mole. As the Shikari left the harbour, two blockships were sunk in the channel. By now the Germans were only three miles from the harbour, and there was no chance of any further evacuations. At 10.30 am on 4 June the fleet of small ships was officially dispersed, and Operation Dynamo officially ended at 2.23pm. 

British and Allied losses at Dunkirk were very heavy. The BEF lost 68,111 killed, wounded and prisoner, 2472 guns, 63,879 vehicles, 20548 motorcycles and 500,000 tons of stores and ammunition during the evacuation, while the RAF lost 106 aircraft during the fighting. The number of prisoners captured is not entirely clear – German sources suggest that 80,000 men were captured around Dunkirk, other sources give much lower figures, but few go lower than 40,000. At least 243 ships were sunk, including six Royal Navy destroyers, with another 19 suffering damage.   

The Air Battle

One of the most controversial aspects of the evacuation at the time was the role of the RAF. Many troops evacuated from Dunkirk returned to Britain angry at what they felt was the failure of the RAF to protect them from German attacks. The Luftwaffe seemed to be constantly over the beaches, while British fighters were rarely seen. The problem facing the RAF was one of balance. A large number of fighter squadrons had been virtually destroyed in France. Fighter Command had fought to retain enough squadrons in Britain to defend against a German attack, famously keeping the Spitfire squadrons out of the battle in France and the Low Countries. Now those Spitfire squadrons had to be thrown into the battle over Dunkirk. Between 26 May and 4 June the RAF flew a total of 4,822 sorties over Dunkirk, losing just over 100 aircraft in the fighting. The problem was that much of the fighting took place away from the beaches. It was preferable to break up German raids before they reached the beaches, not once they were dropping their bombs. The RAF also had to patrol over the sea lanes being used to carry out the evacuation. Despite these difficulties, Dunkirk was the Luftwaffe’s first real setback. The exact number of German aircraft lost is not clear - British claims at the time were massively over-inflated, while some more recent revisions are probably too low. The Luftwaffe almost certainly lost more aircraft than the RAF, but that includes a large number of bombers. On some occasions during the fighting the Luftwaffe admitted that it had lost air superiority for the first time since the start of the war.

The Small Boats

Hundreds of small privately owned boats took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk, making their main contribution from 30 May onwards. Anything that could float and could cross the channel made its way to Dunkirk in unknown numbers. Close to 200 of the little ships were lost during the evacuation. An examination of the Admiralty figures might suggest that they didn’t actually make a big contribution to the evacuation, for fewer than 6,000 men are recorded as having been rescued by the small boats. This is entirely misleading. The Admiralty figures record the numbers of men disembarking in England, and most of the small boats were not used to transport men across the channel. Their critically important role was to ferry men from the shallow inshore waters to the larger vessels waiting off the beaches. For around 100,000 men the journey home from Dunkirk began with a short trip on one of the small ships.  

Daily totals of men evacuated from Dunkirk.

Date

From the beaches

From Dunkirk Harbour

Total

Running Total

Monday 27 May

 

7,699

7,699

7,699

Tuesday 28 May

5,930

11,874

17,804

25,473

Wednesday 29 May

13,752

33,558

47,310

72,783

Thursday 30 May

29,512

24,311

53,823

126,606

Friday 31 May

22,942

45,072

68,014

194,620

Saturday 1 June

17,348

47,081

64,429

259,049

Sunday 2 June

6,695

19,561

26,256

285,305

Monday 3 June

1,870

24,876

26,746

312,051

Tuesday 4 June

622

25,553

26,175

338,266

Total

98,671

239,555

338,226

 

On 20 May Lord Gort had ordered the evacuation of all non-essential personnel, and over the next few days 27,936 men had been evacuated from the continent.

Conclusion

One of the most accurate judgements on the miracle of Dunkirk was made by Winston Churchill during his speech to Parliament on 4 June. The tone of his speech was generally upbeat, and concentrated on Churchill’s confidence that any Nazi invasion of Britain would be defeated, but Churchill did strike one note of caution – “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations” – Operation Dynamo saved the experienced professional core of the British army from total destruction, but it did nothing to prevent the fall of France. Only in the context of a much longer war than was expected in Paris or Berlin by the end of June 1940 did the evacuation from Dunkirk begin to take on its true significance. The presence of the BEF in the south of England, even without their heavy equipment, made it much less likely that the Germans would be able to invade successfully, and made it much more likely that Britain would fight on. Church’s speech ended with one of his most famous passages, which would have been pure bombast without Dunkirk:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender; and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”

Books

Dunkirk 1940: Operation Dynamo, Douglas C Dildy. A clear well organised account of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, supported by a good selection of maps, illustrations and contemporary photographs. Looks at the British & German plans for the evacuation or elimination of the Dunkirk pocket, the forces involved on both sides and the day-by-day events of the battle. [read full review] cover cover cover
 The War at Sea, 1939-1945, Volume I: The Defensive, S. W. Roskill. This first volume in the British official history of the war at sea covers the period from the outbreak of the war through to the first British disasters in the Pacific in December 1941. Amongst other topics it covers the Norwegian campaign, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the first two years of the Battle of the Atlantic. The text is meticulously researched, and is rooted in a detailed study of wartime records, both British and German. [see more] cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 February 2008), Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, 27 May-4 June 1940, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_dynamo.html

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