May 26th, 1940 Operation DYNAMO; The Evacuation of Dunkirk Begins


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As the Allied Dyle-Breda Plan collapsed under the pressure of the Wehrmacht’s Blitzkrieg, most of the British Expeditionary Force of more than 320,000 men fell back against the French coast around Calais and Dunkirk.   Germany’s Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) had been radically modified in early 1940 from a plan looking nearly identical to that of 1914, to one which included a decisive armored thrust through the Ardennes Forest that would break the Allied armies in two and trap the preponderance of Allied combat power in a pocket north of Paris.   The Blitzkrieg which began in 10 May 1940 had shattered the Dutch, Belgian, and French armies.

The Wehrmacht employment of auftragstaktik allowed German commanders at all levels to consistently defeat Allied tempo of decision-making, which led to countless occasions where German units slammed into French and British formations who were de-training or still in road march formation and unready for battle.   Speed, both in tactical mobility and command and control, was as decisive as any other single factor in the Battle of France.

Sixteen days into office, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had known since 15 May that the French were finished.   Despite attempts to reinforce his French allies, by 21 May the objective of the BEF was to conduct a fighting withdrawal to a Channel port, from where it might, if extremely fortunate and able to gain local air superiority, be evacuated back to Britain.

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Operation DYNAMO, which would include a massive commitment of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and thousands of small ships and craft, began on 26 May 1940.   With two French divisions holding against German pressure, British units began to move toward the beaches and piers, the ships and craft (in the surf line) which would shuttle them both to larger ships and to England itself.  That German pressure was not nearly as heavy as it might have been, thankfully for the British.  Reichsmarshall Goering had promised Hitler that his Luftwaffe would destroy the Allied evacuation efforts without having to risk von Küchler’s Panzer and Panzergrenadier units in coastal sand unsuitable for their deployment.

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In the end, German commanders convinced Hitler to launch concerted attacks on Dunkirk, but it would come too late.  Dunkirk was finally captured on 4 June 1940, but by that time, 198,000 British and 123,000 French troops had been evacuated.   The RAF had paid a heavy price for the furious defense of the skies over Operation DYNAMO, losing 177 precious fighter aircraft that had been jealously hoarded for the battle over the skies of England that was sure to come.   The Royal Navy lost six modern destroyers, and several hundred small craft.   Virtually all of the BEF’s heavy equipment, tanks and trucks, artillery pieces, and more than 70,000 tons of ammunition was left on the beach.  And nearly 15% of the BEF’s soldiers were dead, wounded, or prisoner.

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But the vast preponderance of British manpower had been saved.  German intelligence reports in preparation for SEELÖWE noted the toughness and high quality of the British Soldiers, including the Territorials.  Most of them were back safely on British soil, and the Wehrmacht would have to deal with them in the near future under far less favorable circumstances.  Those plucked from the Dunkirk docks and surf included the British Commander of II Corps, Lieutenant General Sir Alan Brooke, later Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and Major General Bernard Law Montgomery, in command of the 3rd Infantry Division.   Dunkirk had been a miracle indeed.  And the Germans would pay dearly for their mistake.

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Churchill’s admonition that “wars are not won by evacuations” not withstanding, the successful evacuation of the bulk of the BEF from Dunkirk allowed England to survive until the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war.   Lost on the 73 years since the evacuation of Dunkirk was the fact that there was a considerable body of opinion in Parliament that desired a negotiated peace with Germany.  With the loss of the BEF, such a body of opinion might have been strong enough to have blocked Churchill’s desires to fight Hitler to the bitter end.   DYNAMO signaled what Churchill told the British people, that “the Battle of France is over, the Battle of Britain is about to begin”.    Defending the Island Nation was the force evacuated from France.

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4 responses to “May 26th, 1940 Operation DYNAMO; The Evacuation of Dunkirk Begins

  1. “The Ship That Died of Shame” (1959) short story “I Was There” by Nicholas Monsarrat captures the spirit very well.

    Dunkirk is a cautionary tale about how planning for conflict goes astray when the enemy votes. Would the panzer divisions have captured the lot without the deliberate sacrifice of the Rifle Brigade at Calais, or what if Gort had not disobeyed orders while retreating west? Lots of what ifs.

    The entire Highland Division (51st Inf Div.) was captured later in France, in sharp contrast to Dunkirk.

    The RN destroyers made the bulk of the transfers, and absolutely made the difference in the numbers rescued. Could the USN do as well today, if needed?

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  2. Spook65

    URR, the evacuation has long been an interest of mine, I am curious about the logistical end of Dynamo and the efforts of how the British managed to bring back 300,000+ troops, move them around the countryside and still manage to redeploy a majority of the French forces back to France within weeks of being evacuated.
    Another what if? If the British had not done that? If they had retained such a force of French soldiers?
    An amazing feat nonetheless, what do you do when 300k soldiers arrive in the SW ports of England?

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    • Spook65

      Part of my interest is Unit cohesion, all of these men were evacuated under minimal attention to maintain that. How do you deal with 10 or 15 men being transported in small boats? How many men do you get on a destroyer? How do you reassemble them in an orderly fashion when they get to the disembarkation point?
      Just an interest in the logistical end of this event.

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    • Spook65, the UK at the time had a lot of ships, and a fully functional train system. As a percentage, few of the ships were involved in Dynamo. The destroyers and ferrys involved made as many trips as the crew could handle.

      Because of the mined approaches, port damage and shallow water, most of the lift took place at the harbor moles. The small boats helped lift from the beaches to larger ships further out. Although it was photogenic and helpful, beach removal lifted few compared to the moles.

      Basically, there were lines, with unit cohesion within the lines. The RN exerted authority on the mole’s sea and land approaches akin to Port Control and Beachmasters. Units were given a schedule, which was a WAG at best.

      A small destroyer of the time (W & V class) was around 1,100 tons displacement. In that was placed 400-500 troops. On occasion, up to 650+ troops were embarked. At this level the ship was unable to fight, and was just a fast transport. The larger, newer fleet DDs of the RN were not used in Dynamo, as they were to screen the anti-invasion CLs, CAs, and BBs.

      Troops arriving in the local ports like Dover were railed away to make more room. If possible, they were returned to Army barracks.

      French troop in the UK were returned to more southern ports like Cherbourg and Brest. Those troop were worthless for combat in Britian, with no leadership, discipline, nor morale.

      All of this is an oversimplification and from memory. Walter Lord’s book “The Miracle of Dunkirk” iis a good place to start.

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