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Britain in the Second World War. The Evacuation from Dunkirk 27 th May to 4 th June 1940. The BEF British Expeditionary Force in France.

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britain in the second world war

Britain in the Second World War.

The Evacuation from Dunkirk

27th May to 4th June 1940.

the bef british expeditionary force in france
The BEF British Expeditionary Force in France.

After the outbreak of war, the BEF had been sent to France. The BEF or British Expeditionary Force was simply the name given to the British Army in France. The army commanded by Lord Gort (opposite) had been placed under the overall control of the French High Command.

the fall of france
The Fall of France.

When the French were being defeated by the Germans the British army was in danger of being cut off from the coast and a possible retreat back home. Lord Gort urged Churchill to evacuate the British army. Churchill believing that further resistance was pointless ordered Gort to abandon any co-operation with the French, and to evacuate British forces from France. The evacuation was to be code named Operation Dynamo.

who was to blame
Who was to blame?

The French Reaction

When the French High Command learnt of the British withdrawal, many officers felt angry. They believed that the British commanders were quick to abandon the situation as the war went badly. They accused the British leaders of being selfish. The British in their opinion were leaving at a crucial point. Not all French officers agreed.

The British Reaction

Many British commanders felt that the situation was hopeless, and that they were better evacuating their forces to fight another day. They believed that the overall strategy (plan) used by the British and French armies was wrong.

General Gamelin the French commander, didn’t even have a telephone at his headquarters.

the bef in retreat
The BEF in retreat.
  • The German advance had been so rapid that the only place where the British could evacuate from was Dunkirk. British soldiers started to make their way there. Dunkirk is a Northern French port, just East of Calais. They were told to make their way as best they could. Men travelled by armoured car, truck and on the few tanks that were left. Most simply made their way by foot.
  • On route to Dunkirk, they found that they were not alone. Thousands of French soldiers, who found themselves cut off from the rest of their army were ordered by their officers to go with the British army. Also millions of refugees who were fleeing the German army, filled the roads.
the little boats arrive
The little boats arrive!
  • A vast fleet of over 700 ferries, pleasure cruisers, even large barges and small yachts made their way to Dunkirk.
  • For some reason the German army halted for two days outside Dunkirk. These two extra days allowed the BEF and 10 French divisions to defend the town more successfully, and to evacuate larger numbers of troops.
  • The evacuation started on 27th May and went on for nine days. 7000 men were taken on the first day.
what was it like on the beaches
What was it like on the beaches?
  • Soldiers queued up in orderly columns. Above them the Luftwaffe dropped bombs, and their fighter planes shot at the “Tommies” below. “Tommy” was a nickname given to the British soldier. The men would have to scatter and take cover at times, whilst waiting to wade or swim out to a boat.
  • Morale, that is the men’s spirits, was low. Many soldiers had lost or had to abandon all their equipment. Many were wounded, others had lost their unit. Many felt they had suffered a bad defeat and couldn’t fight back. Yet in spite of this there was a determination to get out.
what was it like in the boats
What was it like in the boats?
  • Many of the boat owners who had sailed to France were amateur sailors. They volunteered to cross the Channel, unarmed in many cases, to pick up the soldiers at Dunkirk. They made a very important contribution to the evacuation. However most soldiers were evacuated by Royal Navy destroyers.
  • Once in the boats, the soldiers and sailors were still in danger until they arrived home. German forces attempted to sink as many of the boats as they could. However most of the boats got home.

Britain’s worst sea disaster took place during the evacuation. The torpedoed Lancastria sank in minutes with 3,000 men. Twice as many died as on the Titanic. Above the Lancastria’s last moments. At least 2,000 of the 5,000 soldiers on board were saved.

the result of operation dynamo the key statistics
The result of Operation Dynamo - the key statistics.
  • 338,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk. 200,000 British and 138,000 French.
  • The “miracle” of Dunkirk was made easier by the German decision to halt their armed forces. The weather which was poor for flying, was good enough for sailing conditions. This helped the British.
  • However 68,000 men were lost or taken prisoner. Those who were left on the beach at the end were captured by the Germans. The British lost 2,450 field and anti-aircraft guns, 75,000 vehicles and 11,000 machine guns. Most of their equipment.The RAF lost 474 planes.

Unlucky Tommies lie dead!

a victory the dunkirk spirit
A victory? “The Dunkirk Spirit!”
  • Opposite, Hitler gives a little victory jig or dance, as he receives news of the defeat of France. Meanwhile Churchill leaves a secret meeting that has taken place between British leaders about the situation at Dunkirk.
  • Churchill used the evacuation from Dunkirk for propaganda purposes. British morale was boosted by reference to the “Dunkirk Spirit” and how the evacuated soldiers would be able to fight again.
  • In one speech made on BBC radio, Churchill said “In the midst of our defeat, glory came to the island people, united and unconquerable.. The tale of the Dunkirk beaches will shine in whatever records are preserved of our affairs!”
a defeat other factors
A defeat? Other factors.

In other ways Dunkirk was a defeat for the allies.

  • The British army had been forced out of continental Europe.
  • A secret government white paper of the time reports that the British had lost so many arms and equipment, and was in such a bad state of morale, that it was impossible for Britain to defend France, or to fight on mainland Europe for a long time.
  • Within a month of Dunkirk, Paris had been captured and France had surrendered to Germany.
  • The Germans, who now occupied Northern France, gained control of submarine bases on the Atlantic coast that could be used against British shipping.
britain alone
Britain alone.
  • With the defeat of France, Britain now truly stood alone in the war.
  • In one speech Churchill went onto rally his people by saying “It has come to us to stand alone!” and in another speech “… let us now brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say “This was their finest hour!””.
the many questions
The many questions.

The evacuation at Dunkirk begs many questions.

  • What if the British had started evacuating the French forces (that had arrived at Dunkirk) earlier? For the first few days the British refused to evacuate them.
  • Why didn’t the Germans put up a more determined effort to cut the British off before they could get to Dunkirk? Simply put – why didn’t they finish the British off at Dunkirk?
  • Was Dunkirk a victory or a defeat? Or was it in some ways a mixture of both?
  • Finally – what now for Britain as she stood alone?