As many as 20,000 British and French roops were captured. News of Calais’ fall was quickly rumpeted by the Nazi propaganda machine, but it was slow to reach he other side of the Channel. British ircraft appeared over the citadel and dropped supply canisters containing mmunition and food. “What a pleasant urprise they provided for the German warriors in the citadel by delivering his delicious breakfast,” Wolfgang Fischer wrote.
Despite the fine breakfast enjoyed ourtesy of the British, victory at Calais was far from satisfactory. As he port fell, the men of 10 Panzer observed “brisk traffic” in the Channel – merchant ships under the escort of destroyers. The panzer men concluded he vessels were bound for Dunkirk. They had guessed correctly, for as he fires of Calais burned and the Reichskriegsflagge was hoisted above he citadel, the Vice Admiral Dover lashed a terse signal around the Fleet:
Operation Dynamo is to commence.
ynamo would be hailed in the decades to come as a triumph of the British spirit, a triumph of the underdog, of young men – and old – prepared to enter the jaws of hell o save fellow men. And it was. But bove all, Dynamo was a triumph of organisation.
Bertram Ramsay had upwards of 900 vessels at his disposal: three dozen destroyers to safeguard the evacuation, 100 mine warfare vessels, sloops, orvettes, three dozen passenger ferries, hospital ships, and the legendary little ships’, the fishing boats, yachts, pleasure cruisers, all provided with harts detailing the route to Dunkirk voiding minefields, shallows – and now German guns on the coastline of he Pas de Calais.
There were three ways to Dunkirk:
Z, the quickest, from Dover to Calais, then along the coast (39 nautical miles); Y, the longest, around the Goodwin Sands, then east to the Kwinte Buoy (parallel with Nieuport), before turning southwest towards Dunkirk (87 nautical miles); and X, an intermediate route, roughly between the two (55 nautical miles).
Despite the organisation, despite the minutiae of plans and preparations, the Navy held out little hope for Dynamo. There were half a million Allied troops trapped in a gigantic pocket. The Admiralty reckoned just 45,000 men of the BEF would be brought home before the panzers rolled into Dunkirk. Fortunately, Adolf Hitler was on their side.
ke d F
In the glorious spring sunshine – Germans liked to call it ‘Hitler weather’ such was the ‘power’ of their leader – the high command of the Luftwaff had decamped from their stuffy campaign train, ‘Asia’, and were conducting business trackside.
off the train and situation maps spread across it. After poring over them, Field Marshal Hermann Göring sprang to life. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the Luftwaffe,” he proclaimed. “I must speak with the Führer at once.” The call was duly put through and the corpulent commander of Germany’s Air Force explained how his bombers would annihilate the trapped enemy armies.
Adolf Hitler was easily persuaded. “Our air force is to mop up the British,” Göring beamed. “The Führer wants to give them a lesson they’ll never forget.” Hitler’s reluctance to send in his troops was shared by many of his
A huge oak table had been carried
senior commanders. Panzers and Blitzkrieg would be the enduring images of the Battle of France, but the upper echelons of the German Army never embraced either entirely. Throughout the two-week campaign, senior commanders had sought to rein in Fast Heinz, fearing Guderian was pushing his panzers too far, too fast. The British counter-stroke at Arras, however unsuccessful, was the tipping point. It unnerved a string of senior commanders who concurred; the panzers needed to rest and regroup while the infantry divisions caught up with them. The order went out: halt the panzers.
reg div T
And so for three days, other than mopping up at Calais, the German armour halted. Every attempt to drive the panzers forward was blocked. “The war is won,” scoffed Hitler’s senior military adviser, Alfred Jodl. “It’s not worth sacrificing a single panzer if we can accomplish it more cheaply using the Luftwaffe.”
But something disquieting was happening in the skies over the Pas de Calais. It wasn’t the Luftwaffe dominating the heavens, but the Royal Air Force. German aircraft were still operating from bases in the Reich; British fighters had only to make the short hop from the other side of the Channel. “Enemy aircraft become ever more brazen,” one German staff officer lamented. “For us, this is a totally new experience.”
give us the slip,” Richthofen fumed to the Luftwaffe’s youthful Chief-of- Staff, Hans Jeschonnek. “No-one can seriously believe that we alone can stop them from the air.” “You’re wrong,” Jeschonnek told him. “The Iron One believes it.” The Iron One was Hermann Göring. The panzers stayed put.
ven before the Dynamo order flashed on teleprinters, ships had begun the hazardous journey to Dunkirk. Passenger ferries and hospital ships were in the vanguard of the evacuation. The latter with their white hulls and blazing lights at night made them conspicuous targets – German aircraft generally ignored the huge red crosses painted on them. Two turned back after being engaged by German guns on the coast, but two more – Isle of Guernsey and Worthing – sailed into Dunkirk after dark on the 26th and brought back 300 stretcher cases. Merchant ships ferried another 5,500 men that first night, but the Navy was still far short of its target of 45,000 soldiers.
organisation and planning in Bertram Ramsay’s headquarters, carved into the chalk cliff beneath Dover Castle, there was little organisation in Dunkirk itself. That task fell to Capt Bill Tennant, an experienced navigator and first-rate staff officer. Tennant was given a grand title – Senior Naval Officer – a tin helmet (with SNO marked on it using tin foil cut from a packet of cigarettes), a dozen officers and 160 men to direct the evacuation.
One general tore a strip off Luftwaffe commander Wolfram von Richthofen whose bombers and dive-bombers were expected to wipe out the enemy. Richthofen could only nod his head apologetically – his aircraft could only manage two sorties. “The English will
It was late in the afternoon of May 27 before Tennant and his sailors arrived in Dunkirk, courtesy of the destroyer Wolfhound. The destroyer was bombed twice on her way into port and found an air raid in progress as she entered Dunkirk. She was bombed
It was short in part because for all the
NAVY NEWS, DUNKIRK 70th ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENT JUNE 2010 men to Dover.
again as she departed. Bill Tennant found ten miles of yellow beaches black with the figures of soldiers. The port itself looked “pretty unhealthy”. Palls of smoke billowed across the harbour. The oil tanks were ablaze, the warehouses and depots bombed-out, the dead from air raids lying in the streets. As for the evacuation, it was stuttering. There were perhaps 20,000 troops waiting on the beaches east of Dunkirk. Tennant and Ramsay ordered every possible vessel to make haste for the shore, but night was falling before the first men were picked up. Only one ship – the Mersey ferry Royal Daffodil – carried any soldiers home to England this Monday, 840 men in all. To Bertram Ramsay, things looked very black. “I have on the moment one of the most difficult and hazardous operations ever conceived,” he wrote to his wife. “Unless le bon Dieu is very kind, there will be certain to be many tragedies attached to it.” Salvation came in the form of an inspired decision by Bill Tennant. As he surveyed the shattered docks and harbour of Dunkirk, he realised that the enemy was concentrating his attacks on the inner docks; the Luftwaffe had not touched the long straight eastern mole which extended for almost a mile out into the Channel. In the small hours of May 28, Tennant ordered a ship to come alongside the long pier. The pleasure steamer Queen of the Channel obliged. As the sun rose above the still-burning port that Tuesday, the steamer pulled away from the mole with 904 men aboard. Deliverance was short-lived. Queen of the Channel was attacked at first light by the Luftwaffe. A handful of bombs straddled the ship, wrecking her propeller and breaking her back. She sank slowly – slowly enough for the soldiers to be transferred to a passing transporter which carried the
The Queen of the Channel had set the example. The mole could be used – and would be used. It was the turning point of the evacuation. This day, nearly 18,000 troops were carried home. Two thirds of them were lifted from Dunkirk’s pier, not the beaches.
in 6th Machine Gun Battalion looked
across the blue sea towards the cliffs of the English coast and the towers and steeples of Dover 22 miles away. “It was the picture of absolute peace. Not a ship in the Channel, no aircraft in the sky.” The view was marred only by a black columns of smoke rising in the northeast. “That’s Dunkirk ablaze.” A flak gunner on the edge of the pocket wrote home: “You can hear the distant sound of thunder. That’s the hell of Dunkirk. For three days and nights we can hear the sound of battle. We counted 40 shots in a minute while the Stukas roared overhead.”
t Cap Blanc Nez, half a dozen miles down the Channel coast from Calais, a young Berliner
The ordinary German soldier rubbed his hands with glee at the annihilation of his mortal foe. “Great days here,” one junior officer wrote home. “The northern front’s just about to be rolled up. Just now news on the radio: during the attempt by the English Expeditionary Army to escape, 13 ships were sunk and 31 badly-damaged.” Mimicking the propaganda song of the day,
he continued: “Bomben auf
Engelländer! Bombs on the English! Just temporarily for now! Wait just a little while longer...”
Other Germans observed the evacuation at a distance with growing concern. “Large ships come
Continued on page vi
s almost biblical.”
ng down to the beach – literally thousands of them. – CPO Bill Stone, HMS Salamander
picture: imperial war museum nyp 068075
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