Dunkirk and the Little Ships, Philip Weir

Dunkirk and the Little Ships, Philip Weir

The evacuation from Dunkirk is one of the most incidents of the Second World War, most famous for the fleet of small boats that joined the Navy to help rescue the bulk of the BEF from France. As this book demonstrates that is only part of the story.

We start with a brief account of the first stage of the campaign in the west, including the brief British intervention in the Netherlands, and the decision to begin the strategic bombing campaign. Chapter two starts with the German panzers reaching the sea, and the early planning for an evacuation, made ever trickier as the Germans began to capture the channel ports, eventually only leaving Dunkirk. Admiral Ramsey emerges as one of the heroes of the evacuation, quickly realising that many non-naval vessels would be needed and planning for an evacuation from the beaches before the evacuation had actually been ordered. One surprise in this section is that many of the ‘small boats’ were actually commandeered by the Navy right at the start of the evacuation, rather than spontaneously being volunteered by their owners and crews. We then get a good account of the evacuation itself.

The chapter on the ships gives full credit to every category of ship that was involved, making the point that the largest number of men were actually evacuated on destroyers, rather than on the famous small ships. The minesweepers played a double role, evacuating thousands of men while at the same time keeping the routes back to Britain open. Of the private ships involved, the fifty six passenger ships evacuated nearly as many men as the destroyers, while fishing boats were present in large numbers. However the most famous category of ships were the private pleasure boats. Although individually most of these ships didn’t evacuate that many men, they were present in very large numbers, and made a real contribution to the evacuation.

The book then moves onto a look at the many other evacuations of 1940, going further afield than most books on this topic to include the evacuation of Norway, which was taking place at about the same time. This is an interesting idea, as the evacuation from Norway was very different to Dunkirk, using large ocean liners and supported by the larger ships of the British Home Fleet. Back in France the British had attempted to land a new BEF further west, but this only led to the need for evacuations from Le Havre, Cherbourg, St Malo, the Channel Islands, Brest, St. Nazaire, Nantes and Bordeaux. This phase also included the worst lost off live of the campaign, with somewhere between 1,700 and 4,000 men lost when the Lancastria was sunk by German aircraft.

The account of the evacuations themselves is followed by a look at the efforts to commemorate them, most notably by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and the five yearly returns to Dunkirk.

This is a useful account of the evacuations of 1940, focusing on Dunkirk but also covering the less famous evacuations from Normandy and around the French coast, and acknowledging the role of the small boats but also the Naval nature of most of the evacuation effort.

The Fall of France
The Evacuation
The Ships
Other Evacuations and the Big Ships
The Five-Yearly Commemorative Returns
Places to Visit

Author: Philip Weir
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 112
Publisher: Shire
Year: 2020

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