6

Dunkirk

MAY 1940

It was on 26 May 1940 that Hitler realized he had made a grievous error in approving the ‘halt’ order of May 24. Hitherto, he had not appreciated that the British Expeditionary Force was preparing for evacuation. That morning, however, German air reconnaissance planes reported that there were thirteen warships and nine troop transports in Dunkirk harbour. ‘It is probable’, German Army Intelligence concluded, ‘that the embarkation of the British Expeditionary Force has begun.’ At half past one that afternoon, Hitler sent for his Army commander-in-chief, and agreed, General Jodl noted, ‘to a forward thrust from the west by armoured groups and infantry divisions in the direction Tournai—Cassel—Dunkirk’. The order went out by telephone from Hitler’s headquarters at half past three that afternoon. Three and a half hours later, at seven o’clock in the evening, a radio signal sent from the Admiralty in London to Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay at Dover instructed the Admiral: ‘Operation Dynamo is to commence.’

‘Dynamo’ was the code name chosen for the evacuation from Dunkirk of as many soldiers as possible. On May 26 it was expected that 45,000 men could be taken off in the two days which were seen as the maximum that would be available. As Hitler and von Rundstedt had agreed, the German Air Force struck with all its strength to make the evacuation impossible. But the pilots of Fighter Command, Britons, Canadians and Poles among them, were equally determined to keep the skies above the beaches clear enough to evacuate the maximum number of troops. In the nine days of evacuation, 176 German aircraft were shot down over the beaches, for a loss of 106 British aircraft. The battle in the sky had helped to avert disaster.

Also contributing to the success of the evacuation were the British troops fighting rearguard actions around the whole Dunkirk perimeter, as well as those who were besieged in Calais. Commanded by Brigadier Nicholson, the British troops in Calais were engaging the German troops in a fierce struggle. Ships had arrived at Calais to take them off. But shortly before midnight on May 26 Nicholson received a telegram from the War Office in London: ‘Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for above purposes are to return to Dover.’ Every hour that the Calais garrison continued to exist, the message declared, was of the ‘greatest help’ to the British Expeditionary Force.

On the night of May 26, President Roosevelt broadcast an appeal for the American Red Cross. ‘Tonight’, he said, ‘over the once peaceful roads of Belgium and France, millions are now moving, running from their homes to escape bombs and shells and machine gunning, without shelter, and almost wholly without food. They stumble on, knowing not where the end of the road will be.’ A few hours after Roosevelt had spoken, the Belgian Army committed its last reserves, scarcely three regiments, to the battle. But even their tenacity in combat could not close, or even narrow, the gap between the British and Belgian forces; between Roulers and Thielt, five miles of the front line were undefended; further north, in a gap between Maldegem and Ursel, the road to Bruges lay open. ‘The ring of fire tightens round us’, General Michiels wrote in his journal on May 27. ‘Thousands of refugees, mixed with the local population, fly through a narrow strip of territory exposed in its entirety to shell fire and aerial bombardment. Our last means of resistance is broken under the weight of a crushing superiority; we can no longer expect any support, or any other solution but total destruction’.

At the southern edge of the Dunkirk perimeter, fifty miles from the port itself, there was savage fighting on May 27 between units of the SS Death’s Head Division, and British troops. In a farmhouse near the village of Paradis, ninety-nine men of the Royal Norfolk Regiment held up an SS company until their ammunition was exhausted. Their commanding officer, Major Lisle Ryder, made a final appeal for artillery support, but was told that none was available. Within the cowshed to which they had retreated, it was agreed, by a show of hands, that they should surrender. A white towel was tied to a rifle, and the men filed out, only to be met by a spate of machine gun fire. Five minutes later they again tried to surrender; this time the Germans stood up shouting in triumph and waving their rifles. An English-speaking officer ordered the Englishmen across a small road into the adjacent field, where they were told to kneel. Then, five at a time, they were ordered to their feet, to be searched, and a pile was made of their gas masks, steel helmets and cigarettes. Any soldiers who refused to co-operate were struck with rifle butts.

The prisoners were then marched to the road, where they had to wait for a while as German soldiers drove past, moving westward; then they were ordered into a field, along one side of which was a long brick barn, in front of which was a shallow pit. Two machine guns had been set up, facing the barn. As the head of the columns of prisoners were marched into the pit, and drew level with the far end of the barn, the order was shouted out: ‘Fire!’

As soon as the shooting stopped, the German soldiers were ordered to fix bayonets and to move forward. They did so, bayoneting to death those who were only wounded, while others were killed with pistol shots. Then a whistle was blown, and the German soldiers climbed out of the pit. Ninety-seven British soldiers were dead. Incredibly, two had survived: Private Albert Pooley and Private William O’Callagan, who lay among the bodies.

That night, in heavy rain, Pooley and O’Callagan were able to crawl away. After being sheltered for some days by a French farmer’s wife, Madame Duquenne-Créton, who did her best to tend their wounds, they gave themselves up to the Germans and were made prisoners-of-war yet again. Pooley had been so severely wounded, in the leg, that he was later repatriated to England, via the Sudan, in an exchange of badly wounded men in April 1943. His story was met with considerable scepticism; only after the war, when O’Callaghan returned to Britain, was the savagery of the episode made clear; so much so that their joint testimony was instrumental in having the officer who had given the order to fire, SS Captain Fritz Knochlein, tried by a British military tribunal in Hamburg, condemned to death, and hanged.

***

On May 27 Operation Dynamo was under way, the Dunkirk beaches crowded with troops waiting for boats to take them off. Above Dunkirk that day, fifty German aircraft were destroyed, for the loss of fourteen British planes. But the German air attacks were on such a scale that many of the troops cursed the Royal Air Force for not doing more to protect them. Among the hundreds of craft which came from all the ports and seaside resorts of southern Britain that day was Mona’s Isle, a former pleasure steamer which was already in commissioned service as an armed boarding vessel. Bombed as she reached the open sea, forty of those being evacuated on her were killed.

That day, in a measure designed to make a German parachute landing in Britain more difficult, orders were given for fields in eastern England to be ploughed, and suitable obstacles scattered on other possible landing grounds. At the same time, British bombers, taking a new initiative, flew over the Ruhr to aim their bombs at the German oil-producing plant at Gelsenkirchen. At eleven o’clock that night, even as the bombers were flying over the North Sea, news reached the British Expeditionary Force that, the Belgian front having broken under ceaseless German aerial and artillery bombardment, the King of the Belgians was asking for an armistice. He had indeed sent an emissary through the German lines at five o’clock that afternoon. The emissary had returned five hours later, to say that the Germans were demanding unconditional surrender. After consulting with his Army Staff, the King accepted. At four in the morning of May 28, the ceasefire came into effect. Belgium had resisted, bravely, for eighteen days.

In Paris, the Belgian Government, already in exile, repudiated the King’s action. But the Belgian Army no longer existed; it had been broken to pieces in the field. In the House of Commons, Churchill warned that it was not the time to attempt to ‘pass judgment’ on King Leopold’s action. ‘Whatever our feelings may be upon the facts so far as they are known to us,’ he said, ‘we must remember that the sense of brotherhood between the many peoples who have fallen into the power of the aggressor and those who still confront him will play its part in better days than those through which we are passing.’

Churchill went on to speak of the situation of the British troops withdrawing from Dunkirk. It was, he said, ‘extremely grave’. The surrender of the Belgian Army ‘adds appreciably to their grievous peril’. The troops, meanwhile, were fighting ‘with the utmost discipline and tenacity’. Nevertheless, the House of Commons should prepare itself for ‘hard and heavy tidings’. Nothing which might happen at Dunkirk, Churchill declared, ‘can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies’.

During the previous twenty-four hours, 14,000 men had been brought back safely from Dunkirk to Dover. Even as their evacuation proceeded, Allied troops in northern Norway were still advancing; during the early hours of May 28 the long-awaited but now virtually ignored entry into Narvik took place. During the final battle for the port, a hundred and fifty British, French, Norwegian and Polish soldiers were killed. Unknown to those who entered Narvik, the British War Cabinet had already authorized Operation Alphabet, the evacuation of Narvik once it had been captured. Authorization had been given four days earlier, on May 24, with the withdrawal date set at no later than June 8. That same War Cabinet had authorized the evacuation of Bodö by May 31. All that was to remain of the whole Norwegian enterprise was one final naval operation, proposed by Churchill on May 24 and given the code name ‘Paul’, for the laying of mines in the approaches to the Swedish port of Luleå, to deny the German iron ore ships an easy passage across the Baltic now that the ice had melted. ‘This Operation Paul is indispensable,’ Churchill told his principal military adviser, General Ismay, ten days later, and he added: ‘Make sure we do not find ourselves prevented by any neutrality argument.’

***

During May 28, a further 25,000 British troops were brought safely back from Dunkirk. Among the rescue vessels was a holiday resort paddle steamer, the Brighton Belle; in collision with a wreck, she was one of four ships to be sunk that day. Still holding the dwindling perimeter, British troops even managed for a while to cut off the SS commander, Sepp Dietrich, from his men; he was forced to spend much of May 28 hiding in a ditch. At the village of Wormhout, only seventeen miles from Dunkirk, forty-five men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were stubbornly resisting the efforts of SS Leibstandarte Regiment in its advance. Finally, their ammunition gone, they, like the soldiers at Paradis on the previous day, surrendered. One of them, Private Alfred Toombs, later recalled how, after their surrender, a soldier of his regiment, Private Gould, who had been wounded in the fighting, was shot dead by one of the SS guards ‘as he lay on the ground’. Another wounded man ‘was shot as he lay on the road’. The remaining prisoners-of-war, disarmed, were taken to a field, where they were joined by forty other men captured that day, all but one of whom were wounded. They were then taken to a large barn. SS soldiers then mounted guard.

‘I could see’, Private Toombs recalled, ‘that they had collar badges which resembled forked lightning.’

One of the guards called four men out of the barn and shot them. The senior-ranking prisoner-of-war, Captain Allen, at once left the barn to protest. He too was shot. The prisoners-of-war were then ordered into the back of the barn. Two of the German guards then threw in grenades, whereupon other guards, at the front, side and rear of the barn, opened fire with machine guns. At that moment, Private Toombs managed to run out; others who did so with him were shot down. Toombs, and four others, survived. But forty-five of their fellow prisoners-of-war had been killed.

Later that day, also at Wormhout, a further thirty-five British prisoners-of-war were murdered after they had been captured. The SS officer who ordered the Wormhout killings was Captain Wilhelm Mohnke. Asked for ‘disposal instructions’ about the prisoners, he had replied, according to the recollection of Carl Kummert, an SS corporal, that ‘they were to be shot’.

Many of the SS soldiers who participated in the massacres at Paradis and Wormhout had already seen action the previous September in the Polish campaign. They knew of the type of actions which could be carried out behind a mask of secrecy, and with the approval of their superiors. On May 28, the day of the Wormhout killings, Himmler had put the final touches to a document, earlier approved by Hitler, for a massive reduction in the population of the conquered East. The document envisaged that the population of what had once been Poland, with its diverse groups, should be ‘broken up into the largest possible number of parts and fragments’. Then the ‘racially valuable elements’ would be ‘extracted from this hotch-potch’, leaving the residue to ‘wither away’. If these measures were to be carried out consistently, Himmler wrote, then over the course of the next ten years the population of the General Government ‘will necessarily be reduced to a remnant of substandardized human beings’; it would then consist of a ‘leaderless labour force’ capable of furnishing Germany with a yearly supply of casual labourers. Children who were ‘racially valuable’ would be carried off to Germany and ‘Germanized’; the ‘remainder’ would be deliberately made to vegetate, each person given a primary school education sufficient only to learn ‘how to count up to a maximum of five hundred, how to write his name, that it is God’s command that he should be obedient to Germans, honourable, industrious and brave’.

On May 28 Himmler noted that Hitler himself directed that only a ‘limited number’ of copies of this document should be made, ‘that it was not to be reproduced and that it was to be treated as top secret’. Those senior SS commanders to whom it could be shown were to be brought the document by hand. The officer bringing it would then wait while it was read, demand a written acknowledgment from the reader, and return with it.

***

At Dunkirk, the evacuation continued throughout May 29. In the early hours, the destroyer Grafton was attacked by two German motor torpedo boats while picking up survivors from another ship; thirty-five officers on board were killed. Later that day, when HMSWaverley, a paddle steamer previously converted into a minesweeper, with six hundred soldiers on board, was attacked on her return journey by twelve German dive bombers, it too proved an unequal battle. The single anti-aircraft gun on board was augmented by the massed rifle fire of the soldiers; but after half an hour of persistent air attack, Waverley disappeared beneath the waves. More than three hundred of the troops on board were drowned. ‘In these dark days,’ Churchill wrote to all Government Ministers and senior civil servants that day, ‘the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as high officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimizing the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe under his domination’.

During May 29, a total of 47,310 men were evacuated from Dunkirk. Hitler, meeting that day with his Army Group commanders at Cambrai, informed them that he had decided to ‘deploy the armoured forces immediately for a southward offensive to settle matters with the French’. ‘Perhaps France will give up her now hopeless struggle,’ General Rommel wrote to his wife. ‘If she doesn’t, we’ll smash her to the last corner.’

For the British Army, the Dunkirk saga was almost at an end. After four days of evacuation, the Germans were drawing closer, and the German air strikes becoming more intense. Up to the early hours of May 30, as many as 80,000 men had been evacuated, but conditions on the beaches, Churchill told the War Cabinet that morning, were ‘difficult’. At two o’clock that afternoon Churchill instructed Lord Gort that once his fighting force in the Dunkirk perimeter was reduced to the equivalent of three divisions, he should hand over his command and return to England. Gort’s successor would be ordered to carry on the defence of the perimeter but, Churchill added, ‘when in his judgement no further organized resistance is possible, and no further proportionate damage can be inflicted upon the enemy, he is authorized, in consultation with the senior French commander, to capitulate formally to avoid useless slaughter’.

‘To capitulate formally….’ These were ominous words. Less than three weeks had passed since Gort’s army had been moving forward through Belgium, to shut the door on the German advance across the Belgian border. Now, as an historian of the Dunkirk evacuation has written, that door ‘had slammed back upon France and splintered’. Among the defenders of the Dunkirk perimeter who were killed on May 30 was Ronald Cartland, a Member of Parliament. ‘The way of life for which he fought’, Winston Churchill wrote six months later, ‘will certainly prevail and persist because of the striving and sacrifices of such men as he.’

At Dunkirk, French ships had joined with British in the work of rescue. On May 30 the French destroyer Bourrasque, striking a mine while on her way back to Dover, sank; approximately 150 of the men whom she had just rescued from the beaches were drowned. A little later, the British destroyer Wakefield was attacked by German dive bombers and sank. That morning, however, despite the air bombardment, 4,000 men were evacuated in a single hour. On Churchill’s specific instructions, French and British troops were being evacuated side by side. On May 31, the total figure of British and French troops evacuated during that one day was 68,104.

Despite the Belgian surrender, many Belgian fishing vessels had also joined the armada of little ships; on 31 May the Lydie Suzanne brought 105 men back to Dover, the Zwaluw, 58; the Cor Jésu, 274; the Jonge Jan, 270; and the A5, 234.

On May 31, in Paris, at a meeting of the Supreme War Council, Paul Reynaud begged Churchill to send more troops to France, to join the French forces still holding the line of the River Somme. ‘There were now no forces left that could be sent at once,’ Churchill replied. ‘Something had to be kept in the United Kingdom to deal with a possible invasion by sea or air.’ Even Britain’s defence against invasion was in danger as a result of the battle in France. Of the thirty-nine squadrons originally regarded as the minimum needed for the air defence of Great Britain, ten had been sent to France; ‘there was now very little of these ten squadrons left’. As for troops, there were only three divisions left in Britain itself; even these were not fully equipped. The fourteen further divisions undergoing training were equipped only with rifles, ‘and therefore totally unfit for modern warfare’. Yet two British divisions were already in western France, able to join in the defence of Paris, and a further force of 14,000 Australian troops was due to reach Britain on June 12; although not yet fully trained or equipped, they were men ‘of the highest quality’.

Determined to persuade the French not to give in, Churchill then spoke of his conviction that Britain and France ‘had only to carry on the fight to conquer’. Even if one of them was struck down, the other must not abandon the struggle. ‘The British Government were prepared to wage war from the New World if, through some disaster, England herself was laid waste.’ It must be realized, Churchill said, that if Germany defeated either Ally, or both, ‘she would give no quarter; they would be reduced to the status of vassals or slaves for ever.’

In his talks with the French leaders on May 31, Churchill stressed the willingness of the United States ‘to give us powerful aid’. Even if they would not enter the war, they had been ‘roused’ by recent events. The French should therefore order steel and other essentials from America ‘in vast quantities’. Even if Britain and France could not pay for those supplies, ‘America would nevertheless continue to deliver’. On the previous day, in Washington, Arthur Purvis had purchased a vast armoury: five hundred mortars, five hundred field guns, ‘some thousands’ of anti-aircraft guns, 10,000 machine guns, 25,000 automatic rifles, 500,000 Lee Enfield rifles, and 100 million rounds of machine gun and rifle ammunition. On May 31, shortly after Churchill’s return to London, Purvis was able to report yet another success: General Marshall, the Chief of Staff of the United States Army, had been ‘prepared to stretch a point’ in the United States neutrality legislation and, by declaring substantial quantities of United States munitions to be ‘surplus’, make them available to Britain. Purvis had also secured a ‘priority’ position for Britain for the purchase of 15,000 tons of the new explosive, trinitrotoluol, TNT.

Among those whom Churchill met in Paris was Marshal Pétain, the ‘hero of Verdun’ during the First World War, and a symbol then of French determination to resist Germany, whatever the cost. But when another of the Frenchmen present, Roland de Margerie, spoke of fighting it out in French North Africa if France were to be overrun, the look on Pétain’s face, Churchill later recalled, was ‘detached and sombre, giving me the feeling that he would face a separate peace’.

That night General Gort left Dunkirk and returned to England, leaving General Alexander to supervise the final phase of the evacuation. Only 20,000 British and 60,000 French troops were still waiting to be embarked. During 1 June, however, several German units had pressed near enough to Dunkirk to be able to bombard the beaches with their artillery. In the air, German dive-bombers intensified their attack; in a few hours, three British and one French destroyer were sunk, together with two troop transports, a minesweeper and a gunboat. That day, however, despite the air and land bombardments, 64,229 men were taken off.

One of the craft that brought men back from Dunkirk on June 1 was the yacht Sundowner, owned and piloted by a retired Naval Commander, C. H. Lightoller, the senior surviving officer of the Titanic, whose younger son had been one of the first pilots to be killed in action the previous September. Lightoller later recalled how, before the war, his son had ‘at different times given me a whole lot of useful information about attack, defence and evasive tactics (at which he was apparently particularly good) and I attribute, in great measure, our success in getting across without a single casualty to his unwitting help’. Commander Lightoller, together with his elder son and a Sea Scout, had brought back 130 men.

For Britain, the urgent question as the Dunkirk evacuation drew to its close was whether the Germans would launch an immediate invasion of Britain, possibly within days. The British Army was at its weakest, with its two best divisions now ready to move into action from their bases in western France. The number of Royal Air Force squadrons available had been reduced to less than the minimum believed necessary to resist an invader. The public’s anxiety of not knowing whether Hitler would turn immediately on Britain was not however shared by the twenty or so men who were directing British policy.

For the past nine days, since May 22, British Military Intelligence had been able, as a result of the efforts of hundreds of codebreakers decrypting the German Air Force Enigma at Bletchley, to read the most secret German Air Force directives within a few days, and sometimes within hours, of their being issued to the German Air Force commanders in France. This not only gave local operational details, but, as Military Intelligence reported on June 1, made it clear that the German priority was the defeat of France. Before France fell, an invasion of Britain was unlikely; there were simply no plans or preparations for it. Had such preparations existed, the Enigma decrypts would have revealed them. But not a single Enigma message referred to any move of aircraft needed for Hitler to follow up the Dunkirk success by an assault across the Channel.

Churchill’s determination, that June 1, was reflected in a message which he sent to the Director of the National Gallery, who had suggested sending the Gallery’s most valuable paintings to Canada. ‘No’, Churchill wrote. ‘Bury them in caves and cellars. None must go. We are going to beat them.’ Hitler, at Brussels that day, told his senior generals that he had earlier halted his armoured divisions outside Dunkirk because he ‘could not afford’ to waste military effort. ‘I was anxious’, he said, ‘lest the enemy launch an offensive from the Somme and wipe out the Army’s weak armoured force, perhaps even going as far as Dunkirk.’

As British Intelligence had surmised, all Hitler’s military effort was now to be centered upon the drive south of the Somme, to Paris. To help the French meet this threat, Churchill had promised Reynaud that as many as possible of the 16,000 British, French and Polish troops about to be evacuated from Narvik would be sent, after regrouping in Scotland, direct to the Somme—Aisne front. In order to expedite this, Churchill had agreed to bring forward the Narvik evacuation by six days, to June 2. On the following day, basing themselves upon the Enigma decrypts, which revealed no immediate German plans for invasion, the British Chiefs of Staff agreed that reinforcements should be sent to France, despite the fact that Britain was, as they expressed it, ‘dangerously exposed to the risk of decisive air attack and/or invasion’.

At midnight on 2 June the last 3,000 British and French troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk, bringing the total to 338,226 men in seven days. This was almost exactly three times the number of men evacuated from the Gallipoli Peninsula at the end of 1915. In all, 222 naval vessels and 665 civilian craft had ferried between Dunkirk and the British coast. Six destroyers and twenty-four smaller naval vessels had been lost. Thirty-eight British destroyers, never built to carry a mass of men, had brought away 91,624. Minesweepers had brought back 30,942. Thirty Dutch motor vessels had carried 20,284. French destroyers had lifted 7,623. Hundreds of merchant vessels, troop transports and sloops had brought back tens of thousands more. But in many ways the most remarkable feat of all was performed by the little ships: trawlers, coasters, tug boats, open boats, ship’s lifeboats, fishing vessels, river cruisers, paddle steamers, and more than six hundred small pleasure craft, which between them brought off more than 80,000 men, in groups from several hundred to half a dozen.

The success of these ships was no less effective an act of war than a naval victory. Also, above the skies of Dunkirk, the Royal Air Force won what was certainly the first substantial victory of the Allied air; on several of the eleven days between May 25 and June 5, as many as three German planes had been destroyed for every British plane shot down, an augury of air battles yet to come. There was, however, a depressing side to these successes; 34,000 British soldiers had been taken prisoner-of-war in and around Dunkirk.

The last 3,000 troops having been evacuated, as well as 71 heavy guns and 595 vehicles, General Alexander, together with the Senior Naval Officer at Dunkirk, Captain Tennant, toured the harbour and shore line in a fast motor boat to make sure that not a single soldier remained to be taken off. Satisfied that this was indeed so, they then returned to the quayside, and embarked for Britain. Hitler, at Charleville that day, spoke to his generals of his admiration for Britain’s rule in India. ‘He points out’, one general wrote in his diary, ‘that without a navy the equal of Britain’s we could not hold on to her colonies for long. Thus we can easily find a basis for a peace agreement with Britain. France, on the other hand, must be stamped into the ground; she must pay the bill.’

Hitler’s thoughts were already turned toward the East. ‘Now that Britain will presumably be willing to make peace,’ he told General von Rundstedt at Charleville, ‘I will begin the final settlement of scores with Bolshevism.’

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