134,000 troops now saved by Dunkirk evacuation

British troops during the evacuation from Dunkirk, 1940.
British troops during the evacuation from Dunkirk, 1940.
British officers in a trench dug into the beach at Dunkirk, 1940.
British officers in a trench dug into the beach at Dunkirk, 1940.

The beaches of Dunkirk were still crowded with men trying to find a way out to the ships. Yet the evacuation had already lifted many more men than had been expected and it appeared that the perimeter would hold for a few days yet.

Douglas Chisholm was a despatch rider with the Royal Corps of Signals. He had spent the days leading up to the evacuation reconnoitring routes through the narrow country lanes for convoys of troops:

The sound of gunfire was gradually coming nearer and we seemed to be increasingly inactive, then one day the Major said we had finished our job, we were to destroy the wireless sets and vehicles and make our own way to the beach at Dunkirk. I didn’t fancy walking what seemed quite a way to the smoke cloud, so I rode to the outskirts of the town, then drained the oil out of the engine, set the throttle to high rev’s, kick-started the engine, and set fire to the petrol tank and walked away.

It was evening by the time I got onto the beach, there were groups in trenches dug in the sand, others seemed to be wandering around aimlessly. Some were wading out to sea hoping to get on one of the small boats that came in as close as possible. I took off my boots and hung them round my neck and got to the water’s edge, realised it was low tide and decided to wait until the tide was right in, then I wouldn’t have so far to wade in order to get on a boat.

I walked up and down the beach for a time wondering if I would see anyone I knew, but no luck. There were lorries that had been driven out as far as possible at low tide, so at high tide they formed a jetty which gave easier access to the boats. I made myself a hole and tried to get a few minutes sleep, but air raids on the larger boats waiting well out to sea made it difficult. I watched one raid and was sure I saw one bomb go right down the funnel of a destroyer which seemed to explode in slow motion. When the smoke cleared there was nothing left.

At high tide there were bodies being washed ashore so I gave a hand to drag them above the high tide mark. Two torpedoes suddenly hurtled up the beach, clear of the water, their propellers sending up cascades of sand and water – we backed well away until I suppose the compressed air in their motors ran out, then they just lay there, like a couple of stranded fish.

A rumour went round that we should make our way to the East Mole at dusk, so I thought I’d give it a try. It was dark when I got to the Mole and we were marshalled by a group of sailors into single file and then told to move along, there seemed to be hundreds of French soldiers just standing there watching, it was very eerie.

Once on the mole we realised why we were in single file, great holes had been blown in the concrete and these had been bridged by planks about two feet wide and we could hear the waves about twenty feet below. When we got on a solid piece of mole we were told “wait, make way for wounded”. Some were on foot others on stretchers, when they passed we moved on again. Finally some more sailors helped us on to a slide made from planks and we slid down quite a distance and landed on the deck of a ship, we were told to spread ourselves round the ship.

I got my back against a rail of some sort and sat down. I woke up to the fact that we were moving so dozed off again. I vaguely remember hearing a machine gun on the ship firing, and thought that everything must be under control, so went back to sleep.

At dawn I got up and had a look round and realised that although it was a civvy ship it was manned entirely by the Navy, then I was amazed to find that it was the ship in which I had sailed from Southampton to Le Havre – the “Tynwald”.

I think we docked at Dover and were surprised to see flags and banners waving and women offering us tea and sandwiches. We were hustled quickly on to a train waiting in the docks (we were not a pretty sight!), and off we went. If we went slowly through a station people ran alongside the train offering food and cups of tea, we were puzzled by all the flag waving and cheering, having just been chased out of France.

Read the whole of Douglas Chisholm’s account at BBC People’s War, where there is also a link to his full length memoir, available online

For an alternative account by a young officer at who was at Dunkirk on the 30th May 1940, the memoirs of Major General Dare Wilson were featured on World War II Today in 2016.

Extracts from the ‘NAVAL, MILITARY AND AIR SITUATION for the week up to 12 noon May 30th, 1940’ as reported to the War Cabinet:

NAVAL SITUATION. General Review.

THE principal feature of the Naval Situation during the past week has been the evacuation of the B.E.F., which has imposed a heavy strain on our light craft resources and resulted in serious destroyer losses and damage. German M.T.Bs., operating from Dutch ports, have been active.

In the Narvik area naval operations have been considerably impeded by incessant enemy air activity. A reinforcement of four Canadian destroyers is on passage to the United Kingdom. There has been increased enemy minelaying by aircraft.

6. At 4 a .m. on the 28th May, the Belgian Army capitulated on the order of King Leopold. All available small craft, including 27 destroyers, were sent to evacuate our troops from the beaches off Dunkirk, screened by a force of 2 destroyers, 4 corvettes and 7 motor torpedo boats. Fighter aircraft provided further protection. At 6 a.m 5 destroyers succeeded in going alongside the east pier at Dunkirk. By 10 pm. on the 28th 16,500 troops had been landed in England, and 2,500 more were estimated to be on passage.

H.M.S. Windsor was damaged by bombing in the Downs and sustained heavy casualties. H.M.S. Montrose was in collision during the night of the 28th with a vessel towing small boats loaded with troops, and H.M.S. Mackay ran aground but was later refloated. H.M.S. Wakeful was sunk by a torpedo from a motor torpedo boat early in the morning of the 29th. She was returning to England with 630 troops on board. Casualties are not known, but many small craft picked up survivors.

H.M.S. Grafton was torpedoed by an M.T.B. while assisting to pick up survivors from Wakeful, and later sank. There were no troops on board. H.M. Trawler Thomas Bartlett was mined and sank off Calais. H.M. Trawler Thuringia was sunk, probably by a mine, off Nieuport. H.M. Paddle Minesweeper Brighton Belle sank after colliding with a submerged wreck in the Downs. H.M. Drifter Ocean Reward was sunk in collision with S.S. Isle of Thanet while stationed as an examination vessel off Dover. The S.S. Abukir, with the Needham Mission on board, was torpedoed by an M.T.B. and sank 50 miles N.E. of N. Foreland. Thirty-three survivors were picked up by destroyers.

7. On the 29th a number of merchant seamen at Dover refused to take their ships to sea for the evacuation and were replaced by Naval ratings from Chatham. By midnight on the 30th/31st 134,000 troops had been landed. Evacuation is still proceeding. Up to the present 222 warships and 665 other ships have been employed in this operation. Twelve Naval officers and a number of ratings have been sent as a ” beach party ” to Dunkirk, and about 130 small ships, requisitioned from the French, are being sent to Dover…

Narvik Area.

9. Narvik was captured by Allied troops on the night of the 28th/29th May. Intensive enemy bombing continued throughout the week. Bjerkvik and Lilleborg piers were bombed on the night of the 22nd while troops and stores were being transferred. On the 24th ELM. Destroyers Fame and Firedrake and the French cruiser Milan* were damaged by bombs, and the supply ships Battealco and Mashrobra and four trawlers were beached after being attacked by aircraft. On the 25th H.M. Ships Cairo and Southampton were slightly damaged, the former had her aerials shot away, and the latter was holed by bomb splinters, the Captain, 1 officer and 27 ratings being wounded.


Western Front.

British prisoners of war at Calais, with wounded men transported on a German tank.

26. During the period under review the main German thrust, which at first was approaching: the sea, changed direction and two armoured divisions swung northwards to attack Boulogne and Calais, both of which were eventually occupied by the enemy. A larger force headed by three armoured divisions struck north-eastwards, their blow falling upon the line St. Omer -Bethune. Both these forces were supported by motorised divisions, which were relieved on the southern front by infantry divisions.

27. The Allied Forces in north-east France and Belgium being thus hemmed in, the conventional German search for a tactical soft spot ensued. Attacks at St. Omer and further south at Carvin having failed to achieve penetration, the pressure was shifted on the 25th May to the eastern face of the Allied salient, where heavy attacks between Menin and Courtrai resulted in breaching the Belgian right flank. Two days later a further attack to the north near Eecloo produced a break on a 10-kilometre front. The determined exploitation of this gap, combined with heavy attacks all along the front north of Courtrai to the sea and assisted by intensive air bombing of forward troops, battery positions and communications, led to the capitulation of the Belgian Army on the morning of the 29th May. The left flank of the B.E.F. and 1st French Army was thus imperilled.


Royal Air Force Operations.

The Boulton Paul Defiant, initially successful in combat,until the Luftwaffe developed tactics to avoid its rear facing guns

47. Fighter protection in Northern France and covering the withdrawal of the B.E.F. has been afforded largely by squadrons based on this country. This heavy additional commitment has seriously extended Fighter Command, who have flown 320 patrols, involving over two thousand sorties during the week. The majority of this effort has been directed, from aerodromes in Kent, in maintaining regular standing patrols over the Boulogne-Calais-Dunkirk and Lille- Arras areas. Squadrons are employed in rotation and latterly large composite formations have been used. The main enemy air effort has been in support of his land operations in this area, and very heavy and continuous air fighting has resulted. Our fighters have proved exceedingly successful, and, on the afternoon of the 29th May, a squadron of Defiant turret fighters destroyed 40 enemy aircraft in two patrols, without any casualties to themselves, 16 Me. 109’s being shot down in a single attack.

For the full report see: TNA : cab/66/8/15

Courtrai on the night of 30th/31st May 1940, illuminated by photoflash

British photographic reconnaissance techniques were developed rapidly. This is the first successful operational photograph taken at night, using the latest photoflash. Developed at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, the 8 inch flash can be seen exploding in the middle of the picture, creating sufficient illumination over a wide area for much detail to be recorded. The picture was taken from 4,000 feet. See AIR 14/3696. (NB: web photo-reproduction does not do justice to the quality of the original).