The true story of Dunkirk is one which has has been essentially reinvented almost as quickly as those dramatic events were being played out. Today, the context of what brought the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to be stranded on the beaches has been largely lost. Similarly, the second BEF has been compressed into a narrative which plays out with the very word 'Dunkirk' seen as the final curtain on all land operations until the Dieppe raid, although for most, even that aspect has been eclipsed by the larger events of D-Day. D-Day is, of course, as important as every engagement; however, without the resounding success of the evacuations from France in 1940 and the lessons learned at Dieppe, it simply would never have happened.
There was a similar air of optimism which accompanied the BEF of 1939 to that of its predecessor in 1914. What also accompanied the troops in 1939 was the undertone of a wider political arrogance. The victors of 1918 were, after all, those with the most to lose, but this notion was something inconceivable in 1939. The Allies enjoyed what appeared to be overwhelming superiority on land and sea and of course there was the Maginot Line. The Maginot was sold as being impervious to everything and yet this 'unsinkable' view required only an encounter with the iceberg of reality. In fact, Allied troops were (even in the ranks of the BEF) poorly trained and using tactics which belied many of the advantages they enjoyed on paper. The Maginot was a victim of internal politics and a lack of funding, with a public rhetoric promising over and above what it was designed to, or indeed capable of, ever delivering.
In order to understand the context of what ultimately brought about the events of Dunkirk, it is important to explore properly the influences that lead to the situation. In 1922, the French formed CORF (Commission d’Organisation des Régions Fortifiées, or in English, Committee for the Organisation of the Fortified Regions). The purpose of CORF was to formulate the best method of defending the newly reset borders of France following the end of World War One. Ultimately, what CORF advised was the creation of the Maginot Line. Traditionally, any threat from the East did not involve an attack via Belgium. When war broke out in 1914, The British, although bound by the treaty of the Entente Cordiale, had failed to respond immediately to the threat posed by Germany to France. Only when the Germans violated the neutrality of Belgium did the British reluctantly enter the conflict. France knew only too well the havoc caused by a war fought on one's own land. They had also suffered enormously in The Great War, having lost a generation of men. Conscious of this, it was considered vital to ensure that the British would fight alongside the French, while simultaneously keeping a future conflict at arm's length and doing so with minimal manpower. What also needs to be considered is the actual topography of France in the regions requiring fortification.
After 1918, France felt it vital that any potential German offensive should be forced into repeating the violation of Belgium to ensure the support of the British in any future war. Such a conflict would have to take place outside the borders of France and due to Germany's larger population, this would have to be accomplished with the minimum of manpower. The topography meant that limits were imposed on the plans because of river valleys, marshes and the frequently high water table. Further restrictions, such as the insufficiency of funds and the desire not to appear isolationist to their friendly neighbour, Belgium, added to the inability to execute the ideal plan.
The Line was a defence of the more traditional routes of attack directly into France and it offered this solution for the same cost as two capital ships, using the least amount of manpower. It fell foul of its inability to cover the nation's entire landward borders, yet would have provided the ideal springboard for offensive operations. As previously stated, it moved from being a practical solution to a handful of important issues to being sold as the panacea of all potential ills. An example of the effectiveness of the Line was the Italian invasion in 1940; they managed to penetrate only 800 metres into France. We have read much about this being due to a lack of will to fight by the Italians; in fact, there was not another country to cut through to avoid the Alpine sector of the Maginot which blocked their progress.
France relied on a conscript army. Not unusual, although discipline and morale were far from perfect and drunkenness was rife. Equipment for the bulk of the army had changed little since 1918. Tactics would see the use of tanks as shackled supporters of the infantry and everything revolved around compromises imposed by the political and financial restrictions. The British Army had re-equipped from 1937 and comprised a small professional force, bolstered by the use of territorial troops (part-time soldiers). We spoke to one veteran who was in a territorial artillery unit; it appeared he knew nothing about the operation of his gun. Sent out in 1939, little emphasis was placed on correcting this during the Phoney War and not until arriving at Ypres, en route to the beaches, were the guns actually fired immediately prior to their destruction to prevent them falling into enemy hands.
The Germans, conversely, suffered from an exaggerated promise through the effective use of propaganda. They were seen as a fully-mechanised force with all the best equipment. The reality was quite different. Horses were used by all sides in 1939, but the Germans were far more reliant on this mode of transport than any of the other nations involved. Another hampering factor for the Germans was their reliance on equipment that was over-engineered despite lacking the natural resources needed to fight a prolonged war, leaving them dependent on external suppliers and supply routes. A prime example of the use of 'smoke and mirrors' is a famous propaganda newsreel footage showing a Panzer tank pushing through trees in a shower of blossom; look it up, watch it again and note the lump of wood in lieu of the machine gun in the hull!
The Allies were gearing up for the 1941 spring offensive; the Phoney War offered the breathing space required. However, there were lost opportunities to strike a decisive blow earlier in the conflict. The Sarre offensive was just such an operation. With the bulk of the German military engaged in Poland, it could have split the German forces and presented a conflict on two fronts - something even Hitler at this stage of the war still believed to be insanity. In practice, the half effort simply petered out.
When the land-based Phoney War moved from farce to all-out conflict it was rapid. The French General Gamelan's refusal to use radio or telephones left the French attempting to, in effect, direct purposeful movements of a dog around a maze in a dark room. Lines were drawn on the maps as places to halt the progress, when in reality the locations marked had long been passed through by the Germans. The battle for Stonne witnessed the only effective use of French armour although it still produced a missed opportunity to halt the advance. The British, too, failed to press their advantage at Arras. A wedge was firmly in place as the Germans reached the English Channel, splitting the Allied forces in half. So begins the creation of the myth. While the bulk of the BEF was north of this spearhead, 100,000 men were still positioned to the south. Strongholds were established to create a fighting retreat; the most notable of these was the city of Cassel. The lie of the land again determined the creation of these and the forced use of Dunkirk as a port of evacuation turned out to be an advantage for those trapped. Low-lying, with poor road infrastructure and crossed by numerous drainage ditches, it was terrain unsuited to tanks. The ace card was back in the hands of the defenders. Even so, the Germans were able to tighten their grip on the besieged British and French forces. Ultimately, the fate of France was sealed by the running out of land; missed opportunities only hastened this.
The port of Dunkirk offered a redoubt bolstered by the outer defences such as Cassel and a plethora of waterways. The town still sat within its former ramparts, which aided the protection of the harbour, although offering no defence against air attack. The bulk of the BEF was evacuated from the actual harbour and after it was destroyed by bombing, the wide beaches with a gently sloping shoreline provided an ideal substitute. Here the little ships played their extremely important part in the story. They added to the number of troops rescued but they were not by any means the sole rescuers, an aspect which has become cemented into the myth of Operation Dynamo. As fast as troops were being rescued, military commanders back in Britain were busy sending an additional 60,000 troops into France to bolster the 100,000 still in the country and unaffected by the events further north. The plan was to continue the fight and attention moved to the Battle of France. The second BEF now had to be evacuated.
The 51st Highland Division, under the command of Major-General Fortune, had been in France from the earliest days of the BEF deployment in 1939. They had been stationed at Veckring Barracks, forming part of the interval troops of the Maginot super-fortress of Hackenberg. Locally they are remembered for drinking dry the fort's in-house soldiers' bar on a nightly basis. They were now in the area of La Havre and required rescue, ideally via this port. Part of the Division was able to make it to La Havre, the rest were forced to use the much smaller fishing port of St Valery-en-Caux. This was Operation Cycle and it bore a lot of the hallmarks of Dynamo, in that small, non-military vessels in the form of fishing trawlers were used (some 67 merchant ships along with 140 smaller vessels took part). Unfortunately, 40,000 troops were left behind, (including 6000 British) and were taken into captivity, including Major-General Fortune.
A more orderly effort was taking place further along the coast under the code-name Ariel. This operation used major harbours such as Cherbourg and Brest and a mixture of larger merchant ships and naval vessels under air cover was involved. Many of the ships lay offshore and troops were ferried out to them by smaller craft. One former transatlantic liner that sat out in deeper water, some 11 miles offshore, was part of the operation. The 16,000-ton Lancastria had, prior to 1939, plied the North Atlantic for her owners, Cunard. On the afternoon of June 17th 1940, she was attacked by a single German aircraft and suffered direct hits. Nobody knows exactly how many were on board that day, but estimates range from 6000-9000; only 2500 were rescued. Many were trapped below decks but while others managed to sit on the capsized hull awaiting rescue, the ship sank quickly. The official records relating to the sinking were restricted, for fear of the effect the news would have on morale, and are locked away until 2040.
Our role in the retelling is a simple one. Those involved in the events deserve to be remembered. The facts of the events are every bit as interesting as the myth that has grown up around the story of Dunkirk. Our museum seeks to ensure that the story is told properly, in context and from as many angles as is possible. We ventured online with a website dedicated to this end and which has assisted students in exams, something we are delighted to know. We present only items owned by the museum. The physical display has been open since Easter of 2018 and the museum can be found at Fort Luton, Chatham Kent. The site is still being restored, so public openings (while regular) are limited at this time; however, we welcome visitors by appointment at any time: email@example.com
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