The Dunkirk evacuation: myth and reality

Dr Tim Benbow, King’s College London

 The East Mole at Dunkirk

The East Mole at Dunkirk

The remarkably successful evacuation from Dunkirk in summer 1940 is an epic tale that continues to fascinate and to inspire. It involved heroism in the face of the most desperate adversity; some kind of victory snatched against impossible odds from the jaws of defeat.  Even the Admiralty thought that at best, only 45,000 of the beleaguered British Expeditionary Force might be rescued. Yet in the event, over 338,000 British and French troops were brought back to England. When we were planning the early volumes in Helion’s ‘Naval Staff Histories of the Second World War’ series, Operation Dynamo was a natural choice to include.

operation-dynamoOne implication of an episode being such a treasured part of the national memory is that history can sometimes blur into myth, with the emergence of a common understanding that can bear little resemblance to reality. Some of the commentary surrounding the First World War centenary demonstrates this problem, with historians struggling to challenge entrenched media misperceptions and the considerable inertia of received wisdom. Doing so is a necessary task for historians, albeit sometimes a thankless one.

Many elements of the Dunkirk evacuation have passed into the national understanding (even the national psyche). In writing the introduction to this volume, I was struck by how far the typical picture is broadly accurate – demonstrating that ‘myth’ does not always mean ‘untrue’. There are some aspects where folk memory needs a tweak rather than wholesale revision. (A notable exception, which is utterly untrue, is the suggestion that Hitler deliberately allowed the British to escape; I have attempted to refute this here: https://defenceindepth.co/2016/07/11/the-dunkirk-evacuation-and-the-german-halt-order/.)

One popular image that needs a little correction to put it into context is the focus on evacuation from the beaches. This did indeed play an important part; heavy damage to the harbour facilities at Dunkirk meant that the evacuation had to make extensive use of the miles of beaches lying to the east of the town. Yet 70 per cent of the troops who were evacuated during the operation embarked from the harbour, most from the ‘East Mole’ (a concrete breakwater topped by a flimsy wooden walkway). It was pressed into service as a makeshift pier – an improvised role for which it was not designed. This still left 30 per cent of the troops being taken directly off the beaches; while this effort was not predominant, it was still an important part of the evacuation.

The other key strand in the popular depiction of Dunkirk is the famous ‘little ships’- the civilian vessels that crossed the Channel to help rescue the army. They were from a remarkable range of peacetime roles, including lifeboats, car ferries, rubbish barges and lighters from a removal firm. Their names seem incongruous to such a significant operation in such a grave national crisis, from Buffalo Bill, to Lazy Days, Yorkshire Lass, Dumpling and no fewer than eleven Skylarks.

They did indeed play a crucial role.  However, their centrality has been exaggerated, to the detriment of the Royal Navy, on whose shoulders the great bulk of the responsibility fell.  First, while the little ships were civilian owned, many were partly or wholly crewed for the operation by personnel from the Navy or the Navy Reserve. Second, they tended in the main to ferry troops out to larger ships rather than taking them home. This was particularly significant at the beaches, where the larger vessels could not get closer to the waiting soldiers due to the gentle gradient of the shore and the shallow water. The biggest single contribution was by destroyers. Despite being hard-pressed in a number of other, simultaneous commitments, they brought home over 30 percent of those evacuated. Many more were transported by other warships. The little ships were a genuinely important but relatively small part of the whole effort.

None of this, of course, detracts from their place in the story or the bravery of their crews.  Reading the Battle Summary makes clear just how many of the little ships were lost on the dangerous voyage – including, among the names mentioned above, Dumpling and no fewer than three of the Skylarks. Perhaps the most poignant entry in the history notes, on 1 June, an anonymous casualty: ‘An unidentified grey yacht which was picking up survivors was bombed and sunk’.

So, the popular understanding of the evacuation needs a little revision. The beaches and the little ships both had an important, indispensable role, though each was outweighed by, respectively, the harbour and Royal Navy warships.

What is entirely accurate, however, is the importance generally attached to the stunning success of the evacuation. Without this, if Britain had lost the vast bulk of its trained, professional Army, it is difficult to think that we could have fought on rather than following France into defeat. Dunkirk was not a victory; rather, at the end of a disastrous campaign, it represented enough of a success that Britain could continue to fight. The loss of the Battle of France did not also mean losing the war.

The Dunkirk evacuation is soon to be the subject of a major film, coming out in 2017. While some previous films set in the Second World War have had what might politely be described as an uncertain relationship to history (the makers of ‘U-571’ might know what I mean), the fact that Dunkirk is being directed by Christopher Nolan gives some grounds for optimism.  At the very least, it is an episode of national history that is well worth celebrating.

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