Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk.
In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were fighting alongside the French desperately trying to halt the German advance through Western Europe. However, by the middle of May, Hitler's forces had swept through Belgium, Holland and France forcing the British and French forces to retreat. They fell back to the area around the small town of Dunkirk in the north-east of France and a German advance cut them off from the main army in France.
On May 14th the BBC made an announcement:
"The Admiralty have made an Order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30' and l00' in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned".
On the 26th of May, the War Office gave the Admiralty the order that Operation Dynamo, the contingency plan prepared long before, was to be put into action. Vice-Admiral Commanding Dover- Bertram Ramsay, was put in charge of evacuating the British and Allied forces.
The following day, May 27th, the Small Craft section of the Ministry of Shipping contacted boat-builders and other agents around Britain and asked them to collect all the small craft that could be used for ferrying troops from the beach to larger vessels further offshore. What was needed were boats with shallow draught and this directed attention in particular to the pleasure boats, private yachts and launches on the Thames and also in muddy estuaries and creeks in deserted moorings along the South and East coasts which would be suitable for such an Operation. These were the so-called "Little Ships".
The Admiralty hoped to evacuate 45,000 troops, in actual fact, between the 28th May and the 4th June 1940, 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated. Approximately one third of these were taken off the beaches and, within this number, approximately 100,000 Frenchmen returned from England to fight again.
Winston Churchill said of the operation in his June 4th, 1940 address to the Commons :
"The enemy attacked on all sides with great strength and fierceness, and their main power, the power of their far more numerous Air Force, was thrown into the battle or else concentrated upon Dunkirk and the beaches. Pressing in upon the narrow exit, both from the east and from the west, the enemy began to fire with cannon upon the beaches by which alone the shipping could approach or depart. They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their eyes for shelter. Their U-boats, one of which was sunk, and their motor launches took their toll of the vast traffic which now began. For four or five days an intense struggle reigned. All their armored divisions-or what Was left of them-together with great masses of infantry and artillery, hurled themselves in vain upon the ever-narrowing, ever-contracting appendix within which the British and French Armies fought.
Meanwhile, the Royal Navy, with the willing help of countless merchant seamen, strained every nerve to embark the British and Allied troops; 220 light warships and 650 other vessels were engaged. They had to operate upon the difficult coast, often in adverse weather, under an almost ceaseless hail of bombs and an increasing concentration of artillery fire. Nor were the seas, as I have said, themselves free from mines and torpedoes. It was in conditions such as these that our men carried on, with little or no rest, for days and nights on end, making trip after trip across the dangerous waters, bringing with them always men whom they had rescued. The numbers they have brought back are the measure of their devotion and their courage. The hospital ships, which brought off many thousands of British and French wounded, being so plainly marked were a special target for Nazi bombs; but the men and women on board them never faltered in their duty.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force, which had already been intervening in the battle, so far as its range would allow, from home bases, now used part of its main metropolitan fighter strength, and struck at the German bombers and at the fighters which in large numbers protected them. This struggle was protracted and fierce. Suddenly the scene has cleared, the crash and thunder has for the moment-but only for the moment-died away. A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity, is manifest to us all. The enemy was hurled back by the retreating British and French troops. He was so roughly handled that he did not hurry their departure seriously. The Royal Air Force engaged the main strength of the German Air Force, and inflicted upon them losses of at least four to one; and the Navy, using nearly 1,000 ships of all kinds, carried over 335,000 men, French and British, out of the jaws of death and shame, to their native land and to the tasks which lie immediately ahead. We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted."
Quote from www.winstonchurchill.org
With thanks to the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships (www.adls.org.uk)