Imagine you are a soldier in the British Expeditionary Force at the end of May 1940. Where are you? It is extremely likely that you are stranded on a beach in Dunkirk, France, just across the narrow stretch of the English Channel from your homeland. You and your fellow servicemen are under incessant enemy fire and are constantly being bombed by the Nazi Luftwaffe. The main docks at Dunkirk have been destroyed by the German army. Your hope lies with Britain and her fleet. However, the beaches are very shallow in Dunkirk and a destroyer, for example, could not reach within a mile of the beach even at high tide.
From May 19, it became absolutely clear here in Britain, that the BEF would have to be rescued and that it would have to be done by sea. Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay (1883-1945), who was called out of retirement at the beginning of the war, was in command of the Dover Station, and was planning the rescue operation together with his small team from Dover Castle.
On May 26, the Government realised that they could not wait any longer and ordered to put Ramsay’s plans into action. Operation Dynamo started. It was coordinated from the secret tunnels beneath the Castle itself. The tunnels were actually dug out by the British soldiers during the Napoleonic wars at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century. The atmosphere was very tense, the conditions were crammed. Bertram Ramsay’s bedroom and office was the only room which had a window in the cliffs. Ramsay’s staff worked in adjacent rooms also cut in the chalk. The lookout balcony facing the Channel can still be seen from the road underneath the cliffs. One telegraphist, whose memories are published on the website of the English Heritage, said that one of his shifts lasted 174 hours.
And so, off went the ships across the Channel to bring the BEF and the allies back. At first, the operation was very slow. Only 8,000 troops were evacuated on the first day. Very soon Admiral Ramsay realised that they needed the help of small vessels which could reach the beaches and ferry troops to the larger ships.
By May 31, hundreds of small civilian vessels, which included fishing boats, lifeboats and pleasure fleet, were helping the Royal Navy in the Operation. Under severe attack by German air force and artillery, those little boats ferried the troops tirelessly to larger ships waiting out in the Channel and some of them even brought the soldiers back to England themselves.
The common belief is that the little ships evacuated most of the men from Dunkirk. However, they rescued 98,761 soldiers from the beaches, while 239,465 troops were evacuated safely by large ships via the only remaining mole.
Operation Dynamo lasted from May 26 to June 4, 1940. In total 338,226 troops were evacuated, including 224,320 British. The Operation involved 933 ships, out of which 236 vessels were sadly lost.
The tunnels underneath Dover Castle played a crucial role after Operation Dynamo. More tunnels were dug out in 1941 to accommodate the underground hospital which in 1943 was transformed into the Dressing Station and combined headquarters for the army, navy and air force.
Featured image: Dover Harbour, Evacuation of the BEF by an unknown artist from Creative Commons
About the Author:
Tanya Firth is a South East England Blue Badge Tourist Guide, and a driver-guide. She loves people, dogs, history, sea and taking photos. This article was written by her on behalf of South East England Blue Badge Tourist Guides Association www.southeastbestguides.org. If you would like to book a tour with her or any of the South East England Blue Badge Tourist Guides, please contact them here or here. Tanya is also offering a fantastic tour about the Hellfire Corner as part of a Connections project – book her tour here.