Operation Dynamo

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26th May – 4th June – Dunkirk Evacuation (Operation ‘Dynamo’) – The Initial plans was to lift off 45.000 men of the British Expeditionary Force over a two-day period under the direction of Vice-Adm. B. H. Ramsey.

Evacuation of Dunkirk
By May 26th 1940, it was obvious that evacuation was the only choice. The German forces had now occupied a half moon area around the Dunkirk region. Lord Gort summoned Group Captain Victor Goddard to his Command Post at Prémsques and requested that he fly to London to attend a meeting at Whitehall with the Chiefs of Staff and present them with an overview of the present situation. Gort was under the impression that the Navy was sending just a few destroyers for any evacuation, so Goddard had to inform them that a much bigger operation would be required as there could easily be in a excess of 250,000 tired and battle weary men that would have to be moved. It seemed apparent that Gort was not on the best of terms with General Sir John Dill, as he suggested that Goddard speak to Ironsides preferably in the presence of Sir Dudley Pound the Chief of Naval Staff.

G/C Goddard made the trip to Whitehall, first with a damaged Ensign transport plane, landing at RAF Manston to change to a plane called RAF Henson and then picked up by a car. The meeting was in the basement of the building and all the “brass” the war leaders of the Empire was there. Goddard made a fool of himself by speaking out of turn after the subject of Dunkirk had been officially finished. “…..I am here on the representation of Lord Gort to say that the provision that you have made is not nearly enough. You have to send not only Channel packets, but pleasure steamers, coasters fishing boats…..everything, even rowing boats.” The war leaders sat back in surprise, and stared at the Group Captain, all eyes has cemented themselves at him. Then someone took his arm and politely said ”….come on sir, you must leave now.”

Churchill, in mid May also started to think about the evacuation. He too knew that the Admiralty plans of sending four or five destroyers would be far from enough. He approached Neville Chamberlain, now Lord President of the Privy Council, to study the Dunkirk situation and any problems that may occur in withdrawing the B.E.F. from France. Also, General Riddell-Webster was talking about evacuation with the War Office, so in different circles, everyone was talking about a withdrawal from France, but, even by May 20th, no one seemed to be treating the matter with any great urgency.

The Planning
Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey was given total control of the evacuation in May 22nd 1940. The situation was critical so his plan was that the operation would be a naval operation. He would need ships that could carry supplies to Dunkirk and return with as many members of the Allied forces as possible, and he knew that he would have to have more than the thirty or so vessels that the Admiralty had allocated. He also would have to have support from the R.A.F so that all embarkation’s could be carried out without any hindrance from the German forces. He requested telephone communications with London, and if possible to Dunkirk itself, he requested road and rail transport from Dover to get the troops to their destinations once they had landed at Dover. All this would be handled by a group of sixteen to eighteen men and a few women of the WRENS with Captain Michael Denny in charge.

Ramsey contacted the Ministry of Shipping. He wanted all capable boats and ships of at least 1,000 tons or that could carry at least 1,000 men. Search as far as Harwich, and as far west as Portsmouth. He made calls for more destroyers as these could not only assist in carrying men, but were well armed. He made the request to the Admiralty for any warships that could provide cover the evacuation process. He made contact with the Southern Railway to organize special trains, as many as they could provide to make for Dover. Contacted bus and coach companies in the area that they would provide road transport, even lorries from contractors could assist.

Once the men of the B.E.F. were on board the boats and ships, they would need medical attention, they would be tired and hungry, so he called the Admiralty for medical supplies and food to be given to all shipping going to Dunkirk. It appeared that Ramsey or his officers only had to say “…..it is for Dynamo” the operation was given the name from the very room that the evacuation operation was being conducted.

The Shipping to Dunkirk
By May 25th 1940, Ramsey had four dredges from the Tilbury Dredging Company, a couple of old Belgian passenger launches, half a dozen Navy patrol boats, some customs launches from Ramsgate, a couple of passenger ferries from south Kent towns and Hayling Island, some harbour craft from Dover and a few small coasters. Some of the ships/boats were in a grim state, they went okay, but many were worse the wear for a coat of paint, but if they were seaworthy irrespective as to what they looked like, then they were commandeered for the task. There were many stories as to how various boats were commandeered for the task ahead.
A number of ships, including Royal Navy destroyers were either in dock or tying up in north coast ports, some after busy duties in Norwegian seas, when urgent messages started to arrive “Urgent, proceed to Harwich immediately” or whatever port was nominated.

Slowly the commandeered ships started to make their way towards Dover, from Portsmouth, Southampton, Harwich and Tilbury and many from towns in between were heading towards the port beneath the white cliffs. Admiral Ramsey was now going to be faced with a predicament. All these craft were not going to fit into the small Dover Harbour. After a conference at the ‘castle’, it was decided that all craft should make for Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppy in the Thames Estuary. This would be the main interception point where all the sea going craft would be checked and sorted out, being fitted out with whatever was needed, before going on to the main assembly point at Ramsgate where they would be supplied with fuel, charts and supplies. Some craft skippers were informed to prepare to leave that night, while many smaller ones were informed that they may have to depart at first light next day, but for others, they presented unforeseen problems.

Across the Channel, the soldiers of the B.E.F. were given orders to make their way towards the coastal port of Dunkirk, some of the regimens were reasonable together, while others were scattered across the flat plains of Flanders or in the north-east pocket of France. Some made the journey on foot, others got part of the way by car or bicycle.
Many stopped of at farms and cottages and were taken in by friendly locals, while scores were assisting injured comrades the best what that they could. By day and by night they were heading for Dunkirk, if they did not know which way Dunkirk was, all they had to do was to head for the giant pall of smoke that rose from the burning oil storage depots there. Many British regiments and the French army were still fighting during their retreat, while R.A.F were doing what they could to slow the German forces the best they could.

Followed by German’s
The German’s seemed to be advancing at will, the B.E.F desperately trying a final defence, but a German Panzer force from Le Paridis, moving towards Dunkirk finds the going easy, as one of the tank crew explains:

It’s though the speed of the Panzers that we’ve managed to come round to the back of the English. We are travelling north-east. Our second company has been on the move all night in order to be at the arranged place to meet the artillery battalion. We can still feel a pleasant warmth from the burning town we’ve just come through.

The Tommies would not let themselves be taken and are still shooting at us from a distance. An abandoned English anti-tank gun stands at the fork in the road—an evil looking thing with considerable gauge and power.



Another battalion is arriving from a different attack which they had started the previous day. There are still many fallen German soldiers laid out on the road from this assault.
The artillery follows closely after the Panzers. So far, everything is going as if on the practise ground, but still everyone had the feeling that the enemy. Who are holed up in positions in the hillocks over there, are only letting us advance so as to be able to wipe us out at the closest possible proximity.

Suddenly there are new orders. The Panzer division splits immediately from the artillery unit and quickly makes the crossing of the Canal at Merville to pursue the English who are in retreat.

Unfortunately we have very little cover and I ‘m lying near the others, out of breath and panting. Just as I raise myself up to join them, another shell whistles above us into the masonry. As I’m lying there, I cut the boot from the foot of the Lieutenant next to me and bind a splint to his broken leg.
Fritz Kanzler, soldier with the Panzerschutze at Dunkirk
From War Diaries 1939-1945 Marshall Cavendish 1995

Soldiers entering Dunkirk
What was being done to defend the port of Dunkirk and the evacuation, was being done, and by late afternoon on the 26th, soldiers started to entering Dunkirk:

As the battered battalions swarmed up the corridor, the Luftwaffe continued to roam the skies unopposed. Besides bombs, thousands of leaflets fluttered down, urging the Tommies to give up. The addressees reacted in different ways. In the 58th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, most men treated the leaflets as a joke and a useful supply of toilet paper. Some men in the 250th Field Company, Royal Engineers, actually felt encouraged by a map that featured the Dunkirk beachhead. Until now, they hadn’t realised that there was still a route open to the sea so near at hand. A sergeant in the 6th Durham Light Infantry carefully read the strident wording several times, then observed to Captain John Austen: “They must be in a bad way, sir, to descend to that sort of thing.”

The jumbled masses were approaching Dunkirk now, coming in every way imaginable – members of the 1st East Surreys on borrowed bicycles……a farm boy in the 5th Royal Sussex riding a giant Belgian carthorse……a hatless brigadier tramping alone up the road Bergues. Just outside Dunkirk, artillery man Robert Lee saw one fellow sweep by on roller skates carrying an umbrella. Another chap was hustling along with a parrot in a cage. But far more typical was Gunner P.D. Allan. When his feet developed enormous blisters and he could no longer walk, two of his comrades acted as crutches, supporting him for the last five miles……

……They swarmed into Dunkirk and onto the beaches – lost, confused, and all too often leaderless. In many of the service and rear end units the officers had simply vanished, leaving the men to shift for themselves. Some took shelter in cellar in the town, huddling together as the bombs crashed down. Others threw away their arms and aimlessly wandered about the beach. Others played games and swam. Others got drunk. Others prayed and sang hymns. Others settled in deserted cafés on the esplanade and sipped drinks, almost like tourists. One man, with studied indifference, stripped to his shorts and sunbathed among the rocks, reading a paperback.
Walter Lord The Miracle of Dunkirk 1982 Viking Press



The News Paper follows day by day
The Daily Telegraph had some grim headlines through the final days of May 1940.


Sunday May 19th 1940
German motorised units continued their push in the vicinity of Le Chateau and St. Quentin. The direction of the thrust was no longer towards Paris, but north-westwards.
On the Belgian front the Allies continued their strategic withdrawal in good order and relatively unmolested by the enemy.
Tuesday May 21st 1940
The Germans broke through the Somme, captured Arras and Ameins and reached the Channel at Abbeville.
Wednesday May 22nd 1940
Today, the French recapture Arras. Mr. Churchill flies to Paris to consult M. Reynoud and General Weygand.
Thursday May 23rd 1940
German armoured forces reached the rear of the Allied armies in Belgium, and captured Boulogne.
Friday May 24th 1940
The King makes a call to his people. In a vigorous and inspiring broadcast to the Empire on the occasion of Empire Day the Kind said:
“The decisive struggle is now upon us. Let no one be mistaken.
It is no mere territorial conquest that our enemies are seeking.
It is the overthrow, complete and final, of this Empire and of
everything for which it stands: and after that, the conquest of
the world.
It is a life and death struggle for us all.
And if their will prevails, they will bring its accomplishment
all the hatred and cruelty which they have already displayed.
But confidence alone is not enough. It must be armed with
courage and resolution, with endurance and self-sacrifice.
Keep your hearts proud and your resolve unshaken. Let us
go forward to that task as one man, a smile on our lips, and
our heads held high, and with God’s help we shall not fail.”
King George VI broadcast in May 1940

Saturday May 25th 1940
The Germans took Ghent and Courtrai and have reached Calais. Early this...

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Inactive member [2002-12-21]   Operation Dynamo
Mimers Brunn [Online]. https://mimersbrunn.se/article?id=1455 [2018-11-16]

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