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Dover: Lock and Key of the Kingdom

Dover in the Second World War - Dunkirk

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 code name for the naval  operation to evacuate 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.   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. The majority 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. 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 that time, 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. 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. Another amazing  achievement was the 4,500 casualties treated at Buckland Hospital,  where all but 50 of these wounded soldiers were saved. 
The Beach at Dunkirk. The French destroyer Bourrasque sinking after hitting a mine on 30 May 1940. Naval vessels crowd the quays at Dover, sometimes 3 or 4 deep. Troops on the quayside at the Admiralty Pier with the side of the Marine Station in the background. Some of the walking wounded from Dunkirk await their train from Dover. Back to Second World War Index