Lock and Key of the Kingdom

Dover in World War 2
The Dunkirk Evacuation

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Image: The Dunkirk Evacuation

On 10 May 1940 Hitler’s armies struck westwards across Europe. Within three weeks Holland and Belgium had surrendered and German Panzer (tank) divisions had split the British and French armies. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and a substantial number of French troops were trapped in a diminishing pocket of land centred on the port of Dunkirk. On 25 May Boulogne was captured and on the following day Calais fell. That evening the Admiralty signalled the start of Operation Dynamo - the evacuation of the troops stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk.

Operation Dynamo was masterminded by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who had been given less than a week to prepare. From his headquarters in tunnels beneath Dover Castle, he directed and inspired a small staff who had the awesome task of planning the evacuation of up to 400,000 British and French troops under constant attack from German forces. By 26 May Ramsay had assembled 15 passenger ferries at Dover and a further 20 at Southampton. These it was hoped would be able to embark troops direct from the quays at Dunkirk. To help in the evacuation and to provide escorts for the merchant ships Ramsay had a force of destroyers, corvettes, minesweepers and naval trawlers. These ships were augmented by cargo vessels, coasters and some 40 Dutch self-propelled barges.


Minefields and shelling from German batteries on the French coast forced evacuation convoys to take longer routes to Dunkirk. The first convoy, after sustaining heavy air attacks, found the port of Dunkirk and its oil tanks ablaze and only the passenger ferries ‘Royal Daffodil’ and later the ‘Canterbury’ succeeded in berthing. By the end of the first day only 7,500 troops had been rescued and it was clearly impossible to use the port. Captain Tennant, in charge of the naval shore party at Dunkirk, signalled for the rescue ships to be diverted to the beaches east of the town. But here shallow waters prevented the large ships getting within a mile of the shore and troops had to be ferried in smaller craft from the beaches to the ships. There was an alternative, a spindly concrete pier with a wooden walkway, never designed to have ships docking against it but it was found that it could be used. Differences in loading speeds were dramatic HMS ‘Sabre’ took 2 hours to load 100 troops from the beach, but from the pier it took only 35 minutes to board 500 troops.



Image: Dunkirk Harbour, oil tanks ablaze from German bombing.
Dunkirk Harbour, oil tanks ablaze from German bombing.

In London the Admiralty’s Small Vessels Pool had been collecting all available seaworthy pleasure craft. With volunteer crews, many of whom had never sailed out of sight of land before, they were checked at Sheerness Dockyard and then sent to Ramsgate to await final sailing orders. The pleasure craft were joined by lifeboats, trawlers, Thames sailing barges, tugs and other small craft. The first convoy of ‘little ships’ sailed from Ramsgate at 10pm on 29 May and by the next day they were streaming across the Channel in seemingly unending lines. The dangers were great, ships, both large and small, were targets for German fighters, bombers, submarines and coastal batteries plus the random danger of mines. Fortunately, throughout the evacuation, the seas remained abnormally calm. Most of the small craft headed for the beaches to act as tenders, while some of the larger trawlers and drifters loaded troops directly in Dunkirk Harbour.


Image: The French destroyer Bourrasque sinking after hitting a mine on 30 May 1940.
The French destroyer Bourrasque sinking after hitting a mine on 30 May 1940.


On the evening of 2 June, with the German forces closing in, Ramsay despatched a large force of ships, including 13 passenger ships, 14 minesweepers and 11 destroyers. At 11:30 pm Captain Tennant sent the historic signal from Dunkirk “BEF evacuated.” By now, the German forces were nearly in the outskirts of the town. Only one more night evacuation was possible. On the night of 3 June a final effort was made using British, French, Belgian and Dutch ships to bring out as many of the French rearguard as possible and over 26,000 were saved.


Image: Naval vessels crowd the quays at Dover, sometimes as many as three or four deep.
Naval vessels crowd the quays at Dover, sometimes 3 or 4 deep.


Between 26th May and 4th June 338,000 troops were rescued from Dunkirk, over 200,000 of them passing through Dover. During the nine day period the Southern Railway laid on a total of 327 special trains, which cleared 180,982 troops from Dover. 4,500 casualties were treated at the town's Buckland Hospital and all but 50 of these seriously ill men were saved.


Image: Troop train preparing to leave Dover.
Troop train preparing to leave Dover.


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