The Dunkirk evacuation has been widely publicised recently first with the “Dunkirk” film released in 2017 and “The Darkest Hour “. Also covering this period of history, is a new book by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore “Fight to the last Man”. Another covering this period of history, “The Men they left Behind” by Sean Longden.
The book “Fight to the Last Man” and the films prompted me to briefly summarize those early events of World War 2. The reference to the famous military men and the numbers of men and women who lost their lives, is taken from the book.
The Darkest Hour dramatized the events at the war office and Parliament over just few weeks. It reveals, at a time when the war was being lost, how Chamberlain and Halifax plotted to try and force Churchill to agree terms with Hitler through a settlement with Mussolini. This is briefly covered in the book although the book deals more with the military side.
The audience watching “The Darkest Hour” were spellbound, even cheering at the end. The film and book reminds us how close this country was to surrender. It would have been end the of Britain as we know it today.
Many seeing this film parallel it with Brexit and felt strongly patriotic, especially those who are still alive and have memories of those days or whose parents told them what had happened. In fact, even the young seeing this film, will have been moved.
The film reveals how many Conservative MPs did not want Churchill to be Prime Minister, although he was the only one all parties would work with in a coalition government, required at this crucial hour. One reason his party doubted him was the memory of Gallipoli, for which they blamed him, but the admirals lost the element of surprise resulting in thousands of men being killed despite the well executed plan of attack.
Richard’s father supported Churchill from the earliest days in the 1930s throughout the “wilderness years”.
Churchill’s key speech to ministers cemented his authority to fight on. This was the most moving speech he had made to convince those who wanted surrender terms with Hitler, They believed it would bring peace and save lives. Churchill knew a dictator would never agree terms without the nation losing its freedoms.
Here is an extract of the speech as in the book,
“What he said to them was recorded by Hugh Dalton, Minister of Economic Warfare, in the following terms:
“It was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms from Germany than if we went on and fought it out and lost. The Germans would demand our fleet –that would be called ‘disarmament’ –our naval bases and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up –‘under Mosley or some such person’ On the other side that is if we fought on, we had immense reserves and advantages. Therefore we shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground. “
We have all heard about the Dunkirk evacuation and how the Royal Navy and a 600 strong flotilla of small boats was commissioned to help save thousands of troops, in spite of the heavy Luftwaffe bombing of boats and men on the beaches. The commander of the evacuation was command Vice-Admiral-Ramsay. (Further on him below).
One story describes how the commander of the evacuation at Dunkirk was asked to evacuate injured men from a hospital being heavily targeted. He sent the War Office a non-coded message requesting two red cross boats hoping the Germans would pick up the message and spare these boats as they carried away hundreds of wounded. The Germans still bombed both these red cross boats. The book and films reveal these tragic Luftwaffe bombings that killed so many.
When war was declared initially in September 1939, 150 British Expeditionary Force (BEF) troops were sent out to France. The intention was that if the Germans invaded they would march alongside the French into neutral Belgium. The fighting did not start until around the 10th May 1940. The period between September and May was named the phoney war.
There are many stories of poor planning during the phoney war by the French. When a senior British commander was in a French camp and he produced his gun having hear noises outside, he was told to put his gun away because they did not want the Germans to think they were aggressive. It soon became apparent how poorly the French and Belgian soldiers were equipped, disciplined and uniformed. Some looked so shoddy it was hard to believe they were soldiers preparing to fight. Brothels and drinking were commonplace in various location.
Apparently at the start of the conflict the number of allied fighting men, tanks of all sizes and skin thickness and artillery equalled those on the German side. Some reports say they were even better equipped.
There was little organised strategy conducted by the French Military leaders and one was General Maxime Weygard. (His post Dunkirk record is mentioned below). By the time the BEF were evacuating, relations between the British and French had completely broken down. As the German army advanced many French Generals despaired when told how badly the war was going.
From the beginning dozens of bridges were not blown up in time as instructed, allowing the German army to cross quickly and invade all areas from the north to the south. The French tanks were poorly operated as fuel carried in lorries to the battle fields was not always available, resulting in many tanks being useless and abandoned. Bren guns and other weapons were also poorly maintained and many failed.
The RAF lost vast numbers of planes (figures below) mostly due to the poor Allied decisions to carry out daylight raids when the Germans had more planes and Bren guns on the ground. A third of the total RAF squad were shot down within weeks. This is one reason the RAF could not properly defend the Dunkirk evacuations. Churchill insisted that no more planes could be spared since there had to be reserves to fight the Battle of Britain at home.
It has been said that the war was spiralled by an event involving a German pilot, Major Hoenmanns, who was carrying secret invasion papers when he lost his way over France and crashed. These papers revealed the route of the invasion which was to be through centre and north Belgium. When the Germans realised these plans may have been seen by the enemy, they changed the focus of attack to go through Luxembourg and south Belgium. When the Germans attacked on the 10th May 1940, the Allies were not prepared. The Germans were easily able to surround the Allies, who had moved into central Belgium where they expected the attack to be.
A lot is said about the British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gort (more below). Sadly at the end of the evacuation his achievements were not fully recognised, even though he was a key player in it. The book covers events day-by-day throughout May 1940. Many afterwards said he could have been more assertive in dealing with the French commanders who remained in control.
Lord Gort proposed a plan to create a corridor to Dunkirk so that most of the BEF could get back to the coast to be rescued. (See map of route in red). It was an audacious plan. A less pugnacious leader might have given up when he saw how relatively few soldiers there were available to hold the southern line. This line protected the corridor from the strongest German Forces of six panzer divisions and thousands of aircraft. Lord Gort cleverly set up a series of strong points to control the principal junctions and bridges believing that the enemy would remain on the main roads and that this would delay them long enough for the evacuation to take place. His plan worked.
The problem was that there was a good chance some men left behind to fight would never get out. Some did cut and run after the main force had retired up the corridor to the perimeter ring of Dunkirk and beaches but they had to move very quickly and not all were so lucky.
As men were driven back further every day to a new front line they were often met by not only hundreds and thousands of fleeing civilians and dive bombs from enemy planes, but also by French soldiers running away. On one occasion when BEF paratroopers had to retreat to a new front line quickly, their path was blocked by a large convoy of Red Cross trucks. When they stopped them to look inside them, they found a number of French soldiers huddled together in the course of retreating.
This map shows Ledringhem village, 12 miles south of Dunkirk. This was where one of the most heroic series of rearguard actions was fought by the BEF during the entire war. The 5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment had dutifully held the village for two days and on the 28th May received orders to retreat. At that very moment the enemy renewed their offensive making it hard to escape. Lieutenant Michael Shepherd described how the British soldiers held the Germans at bay by charging towards them down the village street and did this while shouting a war cry “Up Gloucesters!” They did this over and over again as the first fear left them. Thirty men and officers then moved steadily towards the corner by the church where they could see the enemy waiting under the cover of walls and doorways, they sought out the leader and simultaneously fired their rifles killing them all. The road was then illuminated by great explosions as the enemy threw their stick bombs at them and they responded with grenades, one going through a doorway silencing the machine gun. The BEF soldiers that did not get taken down continued shooting, bombing and bayoneting any they came upon and they finally pushed the enemy back from the village. This counter-attack freed up 150 men from the Regiment to retreat towards the coast representing just twenty percent of the number that had started the campaign.
While the Gloucesters were escaping, a fiercely fought battle was raging at Cassel, a hilltop village four miles to the south (see map). Orders to retreat only reached the garrison commander Brigadier Somerset after dawn on 29th May. An account by a young lieutenant in the East Riding Yeomanry describes the terrible conditions he and his comrades had to endure from the moment the Germans besieged the town. The access to the town was up a steep winding road passing horrific piles of dead horses and soldiers’ corpses, shattered trees and two pounder guns knocked out by enemy guns. Another sight was the remains of the three-ton lorry carrying BEF personnel that took a direct hit leaving ghastly, twisted bodies. The tortuous positions of the dead was evidence that none had escaped, the sight made more terrible by the cold and rain.
As evacuations to Dunkirk could only be done at night, on that day at Cassel the fighting was so forceful that by the time it stopped at nightfall, most of the men had either been killed or captured, including Brigadier Somerset.
Brigadier Somerset wrote in his prisoner of war camp diary: “I realised we were the Joe Soaps of Dunkirk, that we were being sacrificed so that many British and French could get away, and they got all the kudos, I feel very bitter”.
At least the survivors from Cassel taken as prisoners were more fortunate than the 2nd Battalion. The Royal Warwickshire Regiment, who were captured on 28th May at Wormhout (see map).Their captors, members of the SS Leibstandarte, Adolf Hitler regiment, were furious with them not just because they had repulsed the panzers by pouring and lighting petrol on the tracks in front of their advancing tanks, but because the British gunners had shot up the car carrying Josef Sepp Dietrick, their commander, and imprisoning him in a ditch for several hours.
At first the violence against the captured British troops by the SS was minor but the Germans’ restraint did not last. The famous massacre at Wormhout had just begun when rather than carry a wounded man they put a rifle to his head and killed him. Many others who surrendered with white flags, were also shot. The SAS then took some 15 men, including Captain Lynn-Allen, to a barn outside the village. Captain Lynn-Alan protested that there was no room inside for the wounded to lie down. A German who spoke with an American accent replied, “There’ll be plenty of room where you going!”. A number were then taken out and shot in the head and then grenades were thrown into the barn. Two men managed to escape from the barn, Private Evans and Lynn-Allen, who supported Evans, who was shot in the arm. They reached a nearby pond where they remarked that they may have escaped. According to Evans, the only surviving witness, he saw a German soldier approach and raise his pistol shooting Lynn-Allen in the head and killing him. Allen was shot in the neck but managed to hide in the pond. He came up for air after the German had left and managed to get to a farmhouse occupied by a German ambulance unit and this time captivity meant security. (below is more about Evan’s survival).
The barn where the massacre took place
The Royal Warwick Regiment were part of those sacrificed so that the corridor to Dunkirk could be protected and just 137 men were counted when they reached Dunkirk. Many other Regiments also bravely fought on, suffering heavy losses.
During the afternoon of 29th May, two approaching arms of the German pincer movement finally clamped shut at Poperinghe (see map) barring the allies escape route up the corridor, by then most of the BEF had evaded the German’s clutches having made it back to the lines of the canals around Dunkirk.
There are many events explicitly depicted in the book that they remain etched in your mind such was the awful fighting and loss of life. One such event was the tank driver who lost control of his tank in the middle of the fighting and accidentally ploughed through allied men in ditches nearby, killing them in horrendous ways. The tank driver was so distressed he broke down. Other events I also read of brave men risking their lives through open battle fields to rescue the injured, many having arms and legs blown off. The German tanks mowed down many men who simply disappeared into the ground beneath the tank treads.
In spite of what Brigadier Somerset says as a PoW that the interests of men had been ignored, it is a miracle that a few men from Cassel and the Gloucestershire regiments reached Dunkirk. 190,000 BEF troops were evacuated from Dunkirk alongside 120,000 French soldiers.
By travelling at night and hiding by day, the Gloucesters’ Lieutenant Julian Fane, in spite of being wounded in his arm, steered a small column of men through the German lines to Dunkirk just in time to catch one of the last ships to evacuate from there on 2nd June. When he arrived back in England he described his impressions.
“The sound of the ship’s sirens, the clatter of the dock as we came alongside, and the noise of the crowd which must have woken me as I was still dead to the world. I walked down the gangplank and was led to a waiting hospital train on a nearby siding. I had not washed for weeks. I had lived in ditches and slept in hay barns. I had no proper food or clean drinking water for ages and felt desperately weary. I then found myself lying on a top bunk looking out of the window as the train moved off through the Kent countryside on a lovely summer’s day. People were playing cricket in their whites on carefully tended grass, girls were playing tennis on hard courts in shorts and blouses, and life was going on all around, as if there was no war”
This depiction is typical of the character of the men in those days when things were so different before the war.
If the BEF and French forces had been unable to hold the Dunkirk town perimeter and the Germans had captured Dunkirk, the number of BEF troops evacuated would not have exceeded the pessimistic forecast of Admiral Ramsay’s 40,000, at the beginning of Operation Dynamo.
French boats inefficiently offloaded some of their troops North of Dunkirk, twice the distance to Dover and as a result fewer French troops were evacuated.
Many French soldiers were also allowed on British ships and after a few top French military men, including their Commander in Chief, landed in England on one of the last ships, they commented that Britain had done a truly magnificent job achieving the evacuation.
By the end of May 1940 the Germans were just 15 miles away from Dunkirk and when the last boats, rescuing 100,000 left the coast around Le Havre, they were just 3 miles away. The 3rd June was the last day of the evacuations and was the same day as the sinking of the ship Lancastria which was the worst ever sea disaster. It was bombed while taking on the last few soldiers including woman and children. Up to 7,000 were packed on to this ship but only some 2,500 rescued. More died here than on the Titanic and Lusitania put together.
It took less than a month after Dunkirk for the Germans to conquer the Allied area of resistance. Paris was so unprotected, they simply wandered in to capture it!
There are many references in the book to German soldiers complimenting British soldiers they had taken prisoner on the brave and courageous way they fought.
The Darkest Hour makes many feel a parallel with the way we are being treated by the EU on Brexit. The EU wants to take all and give nothing and many of their leaders want to punish us. In Churchill’s words, “Let them do their worst and we will do our best!”
Richard’s sister Eileen was born in 1935. The family lived in Selsdon, South Croydon not far from the old Croydon, Biggin Hill and Kenley aerodromes. The Battle of Britain was being fought overhead and frightening air raids were commonplace. Once a RAF young pilot parachuted into their back garden, with shrapnel all around and while he descended the Germans shot at him. Richard’s father and a neighbour went out in those conditions to risk themselves to help the man but sadly he died soon after being taken to hospital. Eileen has been talking a lot about her experiences. Apparently they had a steel Morrison shelter in the living room and often had to all go in it including Richard as a baby. He was born in Sept 1943.They were supplied with gas masks and one for the baby to go inside. We took the baby gas mask to the primary school when our children were young but never got it back!
Doodlebugs, or flying bombs, often hit nearby houses causing total devastation. Eileen can remember the frightening noise and when they stopped overhead, you knew they would crash down. V2 rockets also fell, but they were faster than sound and victims would not have heard them. After the war many households had to have their drains repaired, as the shock waves from these huge bombs travelled for miles doing untold damage.
Below is a video and another link about these flying bombs.
Notes about military men in “The Darkest Hour” and “Dunkirk – Fight to the Last Man”
Vice-Admiral Ramsay. After Operation Dynamo he was appointed Allied Naval Commander of the Expeditionary Forces in Oct 1943 and the task of transporting Allied troops to Normandy beaches for the June 1944 invasion. It is said his execution of this task was one of the greatest achievements of the war and Eisenhower paid tribute to him by stating that only Ramsay could have organised such a huge scale landing, by which time he was a full admiral and had been knighted, he sadly was killed in a plane crash in Jan 1945.
Lord Montgomery. His achievements within the army are believed to have been slower mainly because of is eccentric style and insistence to speak his mind. He only made commander of the 8th army in North Africa in 1942 because the first choice died in a plane crash. Before Dunkirk he was instrumental in sidelining an unsuitable General for Alexander. He was responsible for other decisions that also saved lives. Monty never looked back after North Africa, winning famous victories at Alam Halfa, El Alamein, Medenine and Mareth before going on to command the 21st army group under the overall leadership of General Eisenhower which successfully invaded France during operation Overlord on 6 June 1944. He also helped the Americans halt the German advance through the Ardennes in December 1944. After the war, and after he becoming Chief of the Imperial General Staff, he became a life peer.
General Alexander. After his success at Dunkirk was given the post of Commander in Chief in overall command when the Allies first victories were won at El Alamein in October 1942 and Tunisia in March 1943. He later commanded the 15th army group which after much fighting overran Italy in May 1945, shortly before Germany surrendered. He then became field marshal. After the war he was knighted and made a viscount of Tunis and Errigal and after serving as Governor-General in Canada, became Minister of Defence in Churchill’s government and an earl.
General Alan Brooke. He was another very important man responsible for the success of Dunkirk and in defence of the Ypres-Comines line. He had to stand up to Churchill before the last 100,000 men were evacuated a few days after Dunkirk. This debate is set out in the book in detail. Churchill insisted he carry on fighting to support the French which would have risked great loss of life. Many French Generals in the area near the Somme were not agreeing the retreat even though the Germans were closing in with heavy armament. This cost many lives.
After a twenty minute telephone call, Churchill agreed with him that they could withdraw. There are so many accounts of the difficulty for officers to get messages sent between their battalions let alone firm instructions between the Allied forces. As a result tensions and bad decisions led to the breakdown of communication and trust. This can be detected in the film when Churchill went to a meeting in Paris. Some reports reveal how the French Generals would break down and cry in front of others at such meetings. In one of the last beaches to be evacuated the French requested the British send extra boats to evacuate their stranded 10,000 men. The navy duly provided some 20 boats but the Generals did not correctly inform the men which beach they should go to and when they reached the right one, the boats had left and returned to Dover empty.
General Dill. He was another important and successful General at Dunkirk who was promoted but Churchill thought he was a negative Chief of Imperial General Staff and nicknamed him ‘Dilly-Dally’. This is in respect of a well known song “My old man said follow the van and don’t dilly dally all the way……” However, while General Dill did not get on with Churchill he was highly thought of by the Americans and was successful as the leader of the Britons Staff Mission in Washington. Sadly, like many of these men, he died early in 1944.
Lord Gort. He was a field force commander after Dunkirk and very much involved in events leading to the Dunkirk evacuation. When Churchill flirted with the idea of making him Commander-in-Chief in the Middle East in 1942, General Brooke vetoed the idea because of the way he had commanded the 1939 – 1940 BEF. He was then given the governorship of Malta and was later praised for helping the island to withstand the siege. He subsequently was made High Commissioner of Palestine and made an English Viscount. Again sadly he was diagnosed with cancer and died in March 1946. Lord Gort managed remarkably well having to work alongside General Weygard the French leader, who was in charge at the early part of the war and totally incompetent.
General Weygard. A French commander who called for an armistice and then displeased the Germans on some red line he insisted on so they sent him to Algeria as the French Delegate General but when he opposed established supply routes through his territory to Rommel, a breach of the armistice terms, he was brought back to France in November 1941 and arrested and imprisoned a year later by the Germans when they occupied other regions of France not previously occupied. After the war, when he was released, the French accused him of collaboration but the charges did not stick and he was freed and exonerated in 1948. France finally surrendered on 22nd June 1940.
General Ironside. He is another who General Brooke criticised because of the poor number of mobile reserves he provided for the defence of Britain. He was encouraged to resign from his job as commander in Chief of Home Forces in July 1940.
The film mentions Brigadier Nicholson at Calais. He was taken prisoner and incarcerated at Rotenberg, a castle south of Frankfurt. He tragically died there in June 43 aged just 44.
The massacres described in the book were horrendous and there were many. The one at Wormhout I mention above where the SS Captain Wilhelm Mohnke of Leibstandarte’s 2nd battalion shot British prisoners. He was captured by Russians when Berlin was taken. Attempts to indict him for these killings failed after the key witness died. There were two other massacres in France committed by him but again not backed up with the hard facts and he denied committing these crimes. The soldier mentioned above who survived the Wormhort killing, and had lost his arm. was sent back to Britain after three years as a PoW. He had been a factory worker and as he could no longer do that work he ended up cleaning floors and steps until a passing man gave him an office job as a clerk.
Other survivors of a German massacre were soldiers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment. This massacre took place at Le Paradis and they escaped from under a pile of shot bodies, although they eventually surrendered to a regular German troop when they first hid in a farm assisted by a farmer’s wife. Both men were sent back to Britain in 1943 and after the war gave evidence at the murder trial of Fritz Knocklein, an SS officer who had sanctioned the massacre of the villagers at Le Paradis. The victims included nuns and the BEF soldiers who had surrendered.
One other wounded PoW released early due to injuries in 1941, went on to lead the MI9 in partnership with MI 6 helping prisoners escape back to England.
The exact figures for Frenchman killed, wounded and missing during the 1940 campaign in France, Belgium and Holland are unavailable. The statistics below are approximations.
Killed and died of wounds 11,074
British planes lost, 931; 25 Royal Naval Destroyers and 170 ships and boats lost or damaged.
German planes lost 1,284