Operation Dynamo (Dunkirk)
‘Wars are not won by evacuations,’ Churchill told the House of Commons, and yet those 336.000 Allied troops rescued surely played a part in winning the Second World War.
May 9th, 1940 saw the German invasion of France and the Low Countries – Operation Bodenplatte. Despite France’s confident assurances that the Maginot line, the structure built to defend France, would protect the Allies, the Germans succeeded in invading and then occupying France by traversing the supposedly impassable Ardennes Forest and by going through the unprotected Franco-Belgian border. The German ‘blitzkrieg’ forced the French, Belgian and British forces into a pocket at Dunkirk. It seemed that nearly 400,000 troops would be taken prisoner.
In the final wee week of May 1940, however, the British Admiralty ordered an immediate evacuation of Dunkirk. British and Commonwealth destroyers and minor vessels were called in, but each 300ft. destroyer could only take off so many soldiers, and the rate of loss was appalling, as Junkers JU 87 ‘stuka’ bombers dive-bombed and sank the destroyers alongside the mole or pier at Dunkirk.
The man in charge of the operation, Admiral Bertram Hugh Ramsay, saw the situation. Too many destroyers were lost for too few men – about 20,000 rescued. Ramsay and his team from his HQ at Dover Castle (Hellfire Corner) decided to use the one reserve they had, Britain’s mercantile craft.
The ‘call-to-arms’ went out over the wireless, and all sorts of pleasure craft, steamers, packets, fireboats set out from ports from London to Newhaven, concentrating on Ramsgate and Dover, and were able to come right inshore at Dunkirk. The soldiers on the beach calmly queued, as if in a Post Office, whilst 500kg. bombs fell around them.
Despite the seemingly continual presence of German bombers, in fact the Germans were not about to occupy Dunkirk. German High Command ordered the Panzer divisions, and the infantry, to wait. This crucial decision allowed hundreds of thousands of Allied troops to be taken off the beaches.
The miracle of Dunkirk, however, was not to last. In the first week of June 1940, the German forces closed in and took thousands of stranded Allied troops prisoner, included many wounded who had been left until last, and Operation Dynamo was called off.
Maybe wars are won by evacuations.