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From May the 26th until the 4th of June in 1940 the British fought fiercely to evacuate their Expeditionary Force together with French, Belgium, Dutch, Poles, Czechs and other troops from the onslaught of the German Blitzkrieg which was released upon them on the Dunkirk beaches in World War Two.
After the declaration of war from France and Britain on Germany in 1939 the Brits send their Expeditionary Force over the Channel to support the French Army. On the night of 9 to 10 May in 1940 the German high command ‘OKW’ under leadership of Erich von Manstein commenced ‘Fall Gelb’, the invasion of the Low Countries. In this operation the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and northern France were attacked with Fallschirmjaegers, bombers, fighter planes, tanks, infantry and support vehicles. Their plan, next to conquer these countries, was to lure the French – Belgium – British forces to the northern part of Belgium and into Holland, opening the way for the German Army to slide through the Ardennes forest into the southern part of Belgium. The German Blitzkrieg rushed on towards the Channel and reached the French coast near Abbeville on the 20th of May, with this movement the Germans cut of the brunt of the British Expeditionary Force together with other Allied troops.
Almost a million Allied soldiers are surrounded by the fast advance of the 7th Panzer Division led by Erwin Rommel and the 1st Panzer Division and 2nd Panzer Division led by Heinz Gudarian, the latter reached the coast after 10 days of fighting with the reconnaissance unit of 2nd Panzer Division at Noyelles-sur-Mer in France.
Operation Dynamo & The Miracle of Dunkirk
Trapped and surrounded, the British Expeditionary Force ‘BEF’ tried to force a breakthrough southwards near Arras in France but the German forces repelled the assault. JU87 Stuka dive bombers attacked soldiers and refugees alike, German troops and tanks popped up everywhere. The B.E.F. knew they were trapped and the only way out was back to Britain across the Channel. BEF General Janssen used the in 1878 constructed Fort des Dunes at Leffrinckoucke as command centre for his 12th Motorized Infantry Division and was bombed relentlessly, losing over 100 men. Suddenly the German Armies stopped their advance from the 24th until the 26th of May. Ironically this Miracle of Dunkirk helped the Expeditionary Force with their retreat.
In England Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his commanders planned Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of 45.000 men from the Dunkirk harbour and beaches. The larger vessels used the harbour or anchored in deeper water near the beaches; smaller ships would reach the men on the beach and transport them back to the larger ships.
On the 26th of May the Royal Navy evacuation fleet left England to pick up men who were spread over a 34 kilometre long stretch of Beach. They were met by Stuka’s, artillery, U-boats, mine fields, fire and smoke; the whole beach seemed to be ablaze as the vehicles left behind on the beach burnt. On the night of the 27th of May 7670 men made it back to England. The day after a destroyer anchored at the harbour and this day 17800 were taken home. The Germans could break through at any time now.
The call for help was answered and a fleet of merchant vessels from different countries sailed in on the 28th of May. On May the 31th over 53.800 soldiers set foot in England due to the combined effort of the Royal British Navy and the merchant fleet. Operation Dynamo lasted until June the 4th in 1940, when the defending forces were overrun and the beaches and harbour were closed. The British Expeditionary Force lost 68.000 men and the French over 40.000. But instead of the planned 45.000 troops to be rescued a staggering 338.200 soldiers from different nations came back to England.
Stranded at the Dunkirk Beach
The Allied left a huge amount of equipment behind on the French beaches of Zuydcoote, Lefferinckoucke and Dunkerque and lost more than 270 ships. Three of them can still be seen at the beach near Zuydcoote. They are the silent reminders of grim days far behind us. The HMS Devona, the HMS Crested Eagle and the Claude London lay within a few kilometres from each other around the former Army Hospital. The hospital orignaly was a sanatorium but was used as hospital during the Battle of Dunkirk. The hospital used the dunes as cemetery. Today it is called Hospital Maritime Vancauwenberghe.
Claude London was a water tanker, pulled on to the beach to provide water for troops during the battle. HMS Devona was a minesweeper who assisted during the evacuations, she didn’t take a direct hit but was severely damaged up to the point she had to be left behind. The Crested Eagle was a Thames Paddle streamer converted to a mine laying vessel, she was bombed by German aircraft while she had 600 men on board. She came in burning on the 29th of May 1940 and ran ashore with more than half the men burned of drowned.
Spoils of war, equipment left behind on the Dunkirk beaches
Besides the loss of over 110.000 soldiers the material losses of the Battle of Dunkirk are staggering. Over 63.000 lorries were left behind on the beaches or in the towns, 445 tanks, 20.000 motorcycles, 2470 cannons and tons and tons of equipment, fuel and ammunition. The evacuation fleet started out with about 860 vessels of which 272 were sunk or abandoned. The biggest material losses were endured by the Royal British Navy and the French Navy, they lost 9 destroyers, 6 British and 3 French and another 19 destroyers were damaged. The RAF, the Royal Air Force, lost 145 aircraft.
After the Battle for Dunkirk the German forces commenced Fall Rot, the operation to take France. During the Battle of France the left behind units of the British Expeditionary Force were fighting together with French forces against the German Armies. On the 10th until the 13th of June in 1940, just a few days after the evacuation from Dunkirk another evacuation took place from the French port of La Havre during Operation Cycle. Another 11.000 men were shipped out from the battlefield during this operation. With the collapse of the Allied military forces in France Operation Ariel or Operation Aerial commenced. British together with friendly combat units were ordered to move to ports and towns deeper in France. From 15 to 25 June in 1940 the Allied shipped and flew out troops from ports like St. Nazaire, Nantes, Brest and more. During Operation Ariel another 192.000 soldiers were taken back to England with 30.000 to 40.000 civilians. Combined with Operation Dynamo over 558.000 men were safe in England. These forces were desperately needed, for the Germans started the Battle of Britain soon after France was taken.
You can visit the Dunkirk harbour if you are in the neighbourhood, there is a nice museum in Dunkirk about the Battle and the evacuation. The three ships can be found on the beach between Leffrinckoucke and Zuydcoote. Here are the Google Maps coordinates;
Water Tanker Claude London – 51.068578, 2.467064
HMS Crested Eagle – 51.075958, 2.491097
HMS Devonia – 51.079420, 2.502669
Vonnette, a wooden sail ship stranded in 1929 can be found next to the Crested Eagle, this is not WW2 material – 51.078249, 2.500680
Keep in mind to visit the ships on low tide.