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
, who had been given less than a week
to prepare. From his headquarters
, 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.
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
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.
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
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
and all but 50 of these seriously ill men
Troop train preparing to leave Dover.