viii NAVY NEWS, DUNKIRK 70th ANNIVERSARY SUPPLEMENT JUNE 2010
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over. Havant rolled over and sank. The toll was surprisingly light: eight men lost.
When darkness eventually fell, the barrels of German artillery drawn up in the dunes east of Dunkirk continued the barrage. “Sight and hearing were almost overwhelmed by the ruddy glow of flames, the flashes of gunfire, the shrieking of shells all around and the noise of their explosion as they burst,” recalled Cdr M A O Biddulph in charge of the steamer Glen Gower.
The slaughter this Saturday had been incessant, relentless. “Things are getting very hot for ships,” Bill Tennant had signalled from Dunkirk Mole late in the afernoon. “Over 100 bombs on ships since 0530.” Not one hour of daylight passed without a ship falling victim to bomb or mine. Death reaped a rich harvest among the Dynamo fleet: 30 ships sunk, a dozen vessels damaged. Yet most of the BEF was now home: more than 64,000 men were rescued on June 1.
aturday June 1 was the high point of the German attack. Friend and foe had been tested to the limits of endurance, perhaps beyond them. Neither side was able to make the same effort the next day. A little over 26,000 men were transported to England. The figure was low not least due to the dwindling number of Britons needing rescuing. By mid-day June 2 there were perhaps no more than 6,000 British soldiers still in the Dunkirk pocket and maybe 60,000 Frenchmen.
Bertram Ramsay called for one last effort from his ships:
The final evacuation is staged for tonight and the Nation looks to the Navy to see it through. I want every ship to report as soon as possible whether she is fit to meet the call which has been made on our courage and endurance.
The ships, in the words of the
official Admiralty historians, responded. Vessels signalled they were “fit and ready”, “ready and anxious to carry out your orders”, or “ship unfit but officers and ship’s company are willing to serve in any capacity.”
After six trips to Dunkirk, the paddle steamer turned minesweeper HMS Medway Queen prepared to make her seventh – and final – voyage across the Channel (no merchant vessel made more). With typical RN understatement, crewman Albert Nason conceded “it was getting a bit fierce over there”. Medway Queen’s captain, Lt A T Cook, gathered his men and told them to write postcards to their families, then led them along the jetty in Ramsgate to a pub and bought every man a drink.
On the eastern edge of the Dunkirk perimeter, the German Army made a renewed attempt to smash its way into the port.
La Panne had already fallen. “The
booty’s incalculable,” supply officer of 208 Infanterie Division noted in his diary. “Countless weapons, guns of every calibre, anti-aircraft guns, ammunition, various equipment lying around.”
There were thousands upon thousands of vehicles, including some which had been driven into the Channel to create a makeshift pier. And scattered around the dunes, simple wooden crosses with inscriptions in German. “There
was bloody fighting here these past few days,” the officer observed. “Resistance was tremendously determined.”
The fresh German onslaught against the thin perimeter troubled the normally unflappable Bill Tennant, still directing the evacuation. “I suppose if they break through we shall have to capitulate,” he resignedly told the senior Army officer at Dunkirk, Harold Alexander. “How does one capitulate?” “I don’t know,” the general snapped. “I’ve never had to capitulate!”
men of 56 Infanterie Division tried to bludgeon their way along the coast. It was a bloodbath. The Germans ran into British and French troops who occupied the high dunes – and brought their artillery to bear on the attacking Landsers.
And nor would he in 1940. The
“Fighting in the dunes, in deep sand, in terrible heat was a tremendous effort,” the chronicler of the 56 wrote. “The attack only made slow progress. Sand, unbearable heat, lack of water. Soldiers and staff officers were exhausted.”
At 7pm on the second, a flotilla of 13 destroyers began to set out from Dover. They would arrive in Dunkirk at half-hour intervals then make for home. They began arriving in France at dusk. It was a well-oiled operation. The troops filed aboard the ships quickly, in an orderly fashion. General Alexander and his staff were among the last to leave aboard HMS Venomous.
Having made supreme use of Dunkirk harbour over the previous few days, demolition teams now ensured the Hun would make no use of the port when it fell – for it would fall – by laying charges in the locks, caissons and docks of the inner harbour, while blockships were prepared to cork the Dunkirk ‘bottle’.
As June 2 drew to a close, their work was done. So too Bill Tennant’s. At 11.30pm he jumped aboard a motor torpedo boat, MTB102 and headed for Dover – after making one last, terse signal: BEF evacuated.
waited off Dunkirk for three hours, expecting to ferry French troops to England. The poilus never turned up. They were still desperately holding the perimeter. But they could not hold on much longer. The ancient fortified town of Bergues, five miles south of Dunkirk, was the lynchpin of the perimeter. The German Army battered it repeatedly. When that failed, the Stukas were sent in. A concentrated 15-minute bombardment on the afternoon of the second was more than the defenders of Bergues could take. When German assault troops followed up the aerial attack, the poilus raised the white flag.
“By taking Bergues, we’ve got the key to Dunkirk,” 18 Infanterie Division reported. The port’s fall could be predicted in hours. There were still 40,000 Allied troops, mostly Frenchmen, in the Dunkirk pocket. “We are coming back for your men tonight,” Winston Churchill assured the French premier Paul Reynaud on June 3. Reluctantly, Bertram Ramsay agreed to send his ships – and men – into harm’s way once more. They had “responded to every call made of them,” but they could not withstand the strain much longer he warned the Admiralty. They should not “be subjected to a
n the early hours of Monday June 3, five Royal Navy destroyers arrived in Dover empty. They had
test which I feel may be beyond the limit of endurance”.
But the admiral also understood
his duty. “We cannot leave our Allies in the lurch,” he signalled the ships under his command. “I call on all officers and men detailed for further evacuation tonight to let the world see that we never let down our Ally.” This final night of evacuation the British ships would be accompanied by French trawlers, tugs, even dinghies. There were Belgian fishing vessels. Torpedo boats. Patrol boats. Steamers and ferries.
The rescue began shortly after nightfall.
The harbour, recalled
Rear Admiral Frederic Wake- Walker, directing the evacuation from MTB102, was “swarming with French fishing craft and vessels of all sorts. They were yelling and crowding alongside the east pier which was already thick with French troops.” To Lt J N Wise aboard the Dutch barge Pascholl, the scenes were “chaotic. French destroyers shrieking on their sirens, small craft nipping here and there.”
For the next five and a half hours this motley fleet picked up more than 26,000 men. As the first strains of light began to flicker on the eastern horizon and German shells began to crash on the Dunkirk Mole, destroyer HMS Shikari manoeuvred away from the pier with 383 Frenchmen aboard. She was the last ship to leave Dunkirk.
A couple of hours later, the first German troops – men of 18 and 254 Infanterie Divisions – began to filter into Dunkirk. They were carried in trucks, so exhausted were they from the fighting for the port. They found white flags hanging all over the town. “Wo das Meer?” they asked. Where’s the sea? They soon found it. They also found between 30,000 and 40,000 enemy soldiers. Twenty-four hours earlier, the supply officer of 208 Infanterie Division had been impressed by the booty along the coast in La Panne. He was overwhelmed by the scale of devastation, the amount of captured material.
the 208 officer wrote. “It looks awful everywhere – weapons lying around, countless vehicles, dead, wounded, dead horses, tremendous heat and a terrible smell.”
“Dunkirk’s completely destroyed,”
The cost of Dunkirk was heavy. Three dozen destroyers had been dispatched to bring the BEF home. Six were sunk, 26 were damaged either by bomb or collision. Nearly half the steamers and transporters ordered to Dunkirk had been lost or damaged.
And yet, wrote Bertram Ramsay, the results were “beyond belief”, thanks largely to “a perfect machine”. For the humble admiral there was nothing but praise. He was knighted just three days after Dynamo ended. He was rather more touched by the scores of personal letters he received. From a soldier’s wife: “I felt I must thank you for rescuing my old boy.” From a BEF colonel: “Never have I been more pleased to see the little grey ships.” And from a retired admiral: “Well done indeed, old chap. You will live in History and thousands will bless you.” From the Admiralty there was approbation for merchant sailors who “came forward to assist their brother seamen of the Royal Navy”. And from the Army, there was a glowing tribute for every sailor at Dunkirk.
Never will the Army forget the superb effort made to achieve, in the face of constant and heavy air attacks, what at first looked like being an almost impossible task. And an impossible task it would have remained had it not been for
the indomitable spirit
which is the proud tradition of all ranks of the Senior Service. We of the BEF can only say ‘thank you’ and, in doing so, we shall never forget an achievement which will live for ever in the Annals of the Sea.
Viscount Gort, Commander-in-Chief BEF
Betraying his Nazi prejudices, the
officer examined some of the 88,000 prisoners captured by his division. There were Frenchmen, blacks, Spanish communists, some in civilian clothes – “proper criminals, the scum of humanity”. Civilians were looting. So too German soldiers, cannibalising the abandoned vehicles.
Another German soldier found Dunkirk “all but dead. Vehicles, abandoned tanks, destroyed houses.” Elsewhere on the Channel coast, German soldiers had enjoyed a dip in the ocean. But not at Dunkirk. A layer of oil covered the water’s surface from the wrecks offshore, while each tide brought ashore a fresh wave of corpses – airmen, sailors, soldiers.
At midnight, the men of the 208 held a memorial service on the beach, staring at the breakers crashing ashore. In the distance the sky was lit by the still-burning oil tanks and harbour installations of Dunkirk.
Across the Channel, the men who had made Operation Dynamo slept. The crew of HMS Ross slept for 24 hours solid – there were strict orders that they were not to be disturbed. In most cases, sailors were afforded 24, perhaps 48 hours leave.
“I saw perhaps 20 or 30 corpses. The rest of the British Army
In Berlin, Joseph Goebbels gloated. “The English must have lost 100,000 men in the transport ships alone,” he noted gleefully in his diary. His mouthpiece, the Völkischer Beobachter, revelled in the “death dance of Dunkirk”, while the official High Command communiqué celebrated the end of “the greatest battle of annihilation of all time”. Assessments by visitors to Dunkirk were rather more sober. “There are many signs of flight and very few of fighting,” the Italian Foreign Minister Count Galeazzo Ciano observed. Luftwaffe General Erhard Milch told Hermann Göring: “I saw perhaps 20 or 30 corpses. The rest of the British Army has got clean away to the other side.
“The British have succeeded in bringing out practically the whole of their Army – and that is an achievement which it would be hard to beat.” It rather made a mockery of Göring’s boast of giving the English a lesson they would never forget.
Winston Churchill was addressing the House of Commons.
He revealed to the world that more than 335,000 men had been ferried across the Channel – the actual figure was 338,226: 198,315 British, 139,911 Allies. The Royal and Merchant Navies had “never faltered in their duty”. The evacuation was “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity”. He added a note of
has got clean awayto the other side.”
– Luftwaffe General Erhard Milch
hile Berlin tubthumped and German staff officers toured the ruins of Dunkirk,
caution: “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
He closed his address with some of most stirring words ever composed in the English tongue:
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 on 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 on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The speech was carried over the loudspeaker in the wardroom at Dover. “We lay down our forks and wiped our eyes,” Wren officer Nancy Currie recalled.
Others were rather more sceptical. Fight them on the beaches? wondered OS Stanley Allen of HMS Windsor. With what? “We saw all the soldiers coming back without their equipment and we began to think that this was the end of our way of life. We knew we had the Navy – and that we would fight. But we didn’t know what the soldiers would be able to do if Jerry landed, because they had nothing.” Bertram Ramsay agreed – although he would never admit it publicly. “The menace of invasion was very real,” he wrote, “and the Fleet was stretched to the limit.” All of which is rather forgotten. The ten days of Dunkirk have become mythologised over time. But then Dunkirk was enshrouded in myth even while it was happening. The Dean of St Paul’s talked of the “miracle of Dunkirk” several days before Winston Churchill did. Perhaps deliberately, perhaps not, British newspapers turned defeat in France – and it was a defeat of truly epic proportions – into a triumph of human spirit and resolve.
“The miracle of Dunkirk is really an understatement,” fire-fighter Richard Helyer said proudly. “When I look back I’m amazed. We were taking part in what was one of the greatest events in British history.” His fire boat, Massey Shaw, made four trips to Dunkirk. The Medway Queen survived seven, bringing back 7,000 men. And 1,161 soldiers returned to England courtesy of HMS Salamander, although it was nearly 60 years before Bill Stone met anyone he rescued. “You saved my life,” trooper Fred Roby told him at a reunion for Dunkirk veterans in 1999. “I couldn’t swim then and I can’t swim now. I would have been food for the fishes.”
There were less pleasant memories of the evacuation for the former stoker. At the age of 106 he broke his hip. In his sleep in hospital, he cried out about Dunkirk.
On the day after Dynamo ended, J B Priestley recorded the first programme of what would become a mainstay of the BBC’s output in the early war years: Postscript. The subject for this inaugural programme: Dunkirk, in particular the paddle steamers and ferries, and one vessel especially, the Gracie Fields.
Though born in Bradford, the novelist and travel writer had settled on the Isle of Wight. His link with the mainland was the Gracie Fields – “the glittering queen of our local line”.
She had answered the call of her nation and set sail for Dunkirk. After embarking some 750 troops from the beach at La Panne on the early evening of May 28, she turned for home. She was struck amidships by a bomb. Her helm jammed. Steam enveloped her upper decks, scalding her crew and soldiers. Most of the men were transferred to other vessels, while salvage experts tried to save the paddle steamer for the next six hours. Two dozen miles east of Ramsgate, they gave up. The Gracie Fields sank shortly after 1.30am on May 29.
“This little steamer, like all her brave and battered sisters, is immortal,” Priestley opined in his thick Yorkshire brogue. He continued:
She will go sailing down the years in the epic of Dunkirk. And our great-grandchildren, when they learn how we began this war by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.
Written by Richard Hargreaves. Graphics by Andy Brady. With thanks to the staff of the Naval Historical Branch, Portsmouth, the Imperial War Museum, London, and the Bundesarchiv, Freiburg-im-Breisgau. In addition, the following books have provided source material:
Admiralty, The Evacuation from Dunkirk of the British Expeditionary Force and French Troops (BR 1736) Barnett, Corelli, Engage the Enemy More Closely: The Royal Navy in the Second World War
Bekker, Cajus, Luftwaffe War Diaries Boberach, Heinz, Meldungen aus dem Reich
Chalmers, W S, Full Cycle: the
biography of Admiral Sir Bertram Home Ramsay
Führer Conferences on Naval Affairs Guderian, Heinz, Mit dem Panzern in Ost und West: Erlebnisberichte von Mitkämpfern aus den Feldzügen in Polen und Frankreich 1939/40
Guderian, Heinz, Panzer Leader Halder, Franz, Tagebücher (held by the Imperial War Museum)
Hawkins, Ian, Destroyer: An
Anthology of First-hand Accounts of the War at Sea 1939- 1945
Heeresgruppe B, Tagebücher and Meldungen (held by the Imperial War Museum)
Horne, Alistair, To Lose a Battle: France 1940
Kershaw, Robert, Never Surrender:
Lost Voices of a Generation at War
Levine, Joshua, Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk
Lord, Walter, The Miracle of Dunkirk
Meier-Welcker, Hans, Aufzeichnungen
eines Generalstabsoffizier 1939- 1942
Plevy, Harry, Destroyer Actions
Poolman, Kenneth, The British Sailor
Richthofen, Wolfram von, Tagebücher (held by the Bundesarchiv) Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh, Dunkirk:
Fight to the Last Man
Smith, Peter, Stuka Squadron
Stone, William, Hero of the Fleet
Strohmeyer, Curt, Stukas: Erlebnis
● ‘Sappers built makeshift piers from trucks and cars driven on to the sand, with decking lashed to the roofs...’ One such jetty at La Panne
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