After six days of evacuations from the French port town of Dunkirk and nearby beaches, 340,000 Allied troops have been successfully rescued, of which 115,000 are French. The evacuations were necessitated by the rapid advance of German armed units following the surrender of Belgian forces on May 27th. Operation Dynamo was launched the same day and has involved extracting as many men as possible from an ever-shrinking pocket around Dunkirk as both British and French troops desperately fought off armoured German thrusts towards the Channel port.
Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister, this afternoon addressed the House of Commons and reminded the gathered Members of Parliament that, "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.*"
Nazi forces are now poised a mere 21 miles from the British coast and fears of an imminent invasion are very high throughout the country. Churchill told the Commons today that any German invasion would be met by a resistance, the likes of which Hitler's army, navy and air force had yet to encounter. "We shall go on to the end...we shall fight on the seas and oceans...we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.*" He received a rousing reception from all sides of the House.
When Operation Dynamo was launched by the British a week ago, even the most optimistic hopes were of bringing about 50,000 Allied troops off the beaches. A fantastic effort was made which involved not only the Royal Navy's finest destroyers (we have confirmation of the involvement of H.M.S. Jaguar, H.M.S. Harvester, H.M.S. Havant, H.M.S. Saladin, H.M.S. Anthony, H.M.S. Malcolm, H.M.S. Sabre, H.M.S. Wakeful and H.M.S. Wolfhound) but also hundreds of passenger ferries, car ferries, large day trippers, fishing boats, cabin cruisers, trawlers and dredges. By the end of the operation, a veritable people's flotilla was plying the waters between Kent and Dunkirk - river launches, yachts and reports even of rowing boats.
People have been going to Dunkirk in a whole array of small craft because they have been looking for brothers, sons, fathers, uncles or simply because they heeded the Admiralty call for all seaworthy craft to head for Dunkirk. Amid the celebratory tone of these last couple of days, it should be remembered that some 30,000 British troops have been killed or injured or are missing in Northern France in this last week alone. Churchill recounted this to the Commons today expressing his hope that many of the missing would turn up in the next days and weeks.
The German Luftwaffe has spent the last week making life misery for those trying to leave Dunkirk. Fighter Command has done a sterling job of protecting those in the town and on the beaches below. Some 60 pilots have been lost in these actions and many, many more planes. The feared dive-bomber, the Stuka, would have done a lot more damage had it not been for the Spitfires, the Hurricanes and the Defiants. The German bombers would have had a field day with the massed ranks of Allied soldiers on the beaches if they hadn't had Fighter Command to deal with.
So many stories are now coming out of Northern France and Belgium from the soldiers arriving in Dover of how the situation has been evolving there. After the surrender of Belgian forces by King Leopold, the British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army were in immediate danger of being surrounded and either massacred or captured. A hugely humiliating defeat seemed on the cards and Churchill hinted at such an outcome last week in the House of Commons. That such a humiliation has been avoided and a third of a million Allied soldiers have been delivered into salvation is now being seen as reason for jubilation.
We asked the DailyPast.com military correspondent James Cargill to look at the operation of the last few days objectively. "People are looking more at the silver lining and failing to see the cloud," he began. "As Churchill told the Commons today, this is no way to win a war. The amount of war material alone we have left in the fields of Northern France is disastrous."
"Hitler is now free to advance on Paris which I expect him to do in a matter of weeks, if not days. We left thousands of our French friends behind. It was their sacrifice, as well as that of heroic British units in places like Hazebrouck, Epinette, Calais and right on the Dunkirk perimeter itself that allowed so many to be taken off the beaches."
Churchill, today, also recognised this hugely important part played by those fighting far from Dunkirk and spoke of both French and British units: "Their sacrifice, however, was not in vain. At least two armoured divisions...otherwise would have been turned against the British Expeditionary Force.*"
The soldiers themselves tell of a great spirit of comradeship even in the midst of the most dire of situations. Eric Pemberton, in the Royal Army Service Corps, spoke about this. "On the beaches there was no panic. We all took our turn when we waded out at night.*"
Huge lines were formed on the beaches when ships were available for embarkation. When not, most preferred the relative safety of the dunes. Ivan Daunt, 21 and in the Queen's Own Royal West Kents, spoke about conditions on the beaches. "The beaches were full of troops. We couldn't move, we just had to dig in and wait. We had no idea what was happening.*"
The British and French armies have fled the Continent with a bloody nose. According to its Prime Minister today, the British Government's first priority now is to safeguard home security before looking to relaunch an offensive on the Continent to regain ground lost in the last month or so.
Neil Coghlan © 2002-2006 All Rights Reserved