The grim state of a ship returned from Dunkirk

French infantry near Dunkirk, 1940.

French infantry near Dunkirk, 1940.

French troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive in the UK.

French troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive in the UK.

The British necessarily portrayed “the miracle of Dunkirk” in the best possible light. The casualties were reduced to the statistics of ship losses and equipment lost. It was not time to dwell on the human loss. Thousands of men, French and British, had died holding the perimeter line and conducting the rescue by ship.

Amongst the French forces still holding out against the German onslaught on the 3rd June were the 32nd Division. At 4am on the 3rd two of their battalions were ordered into what their commander considered to be a “suicidal” counter-attack. Before the attack French Officer Arnaud De La Portaliere, a former monk, wrote this letter to his mother:

My dear Mother,

Tomorrow is the big day. We must receive the ‘Fritz’. I am with my section in a dangerous place that I have demanded. Everything is going well.

I am currently in a Belgian farm not far from the Germans. It is 10 p.m. It is not very nice. If tomorrow I manage to survive, and I doubt I will, I will write to you. If not, I would like to tell you that I am happy to die for France, and I willingly give my life for you all.

I will not send this letter, but I will keep it in my wallet. The ideals I have always espoused are sustaining me, and I hope that the little I have sacrificed in this life will not be forgotten in the other.

I am sending you 100,000 kisses.

Arnaud

De La Portaliere was killed by a grenade splinter to the head. The letter was found by a colleague in his wallet, along with instructions to give a 100 Francs to each man in his section.

This letter is reproduced in Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man.

The destroyer HMS Ivanhoe had been amongst the last ships to leave Dunkirk when, packed with troops she was bombed and machine gunned. Twenty-one of her crew were killed, along with many soldiers. Only one boiler room survived, giving her just enough power to return to the Naval dockyard at Sheerness. Silvester MacDonald was a Royal Navy medical assistant sent on board the next day:

The Ivanhoe just about made the crossing without sinking and was immediately placed in a dry dock so that she would not sink overnight. The soldiers and ship’s crew who had survived were disembarked and the wounded were removed and taken to hospital. Such were the conditions when our little party arrived at dockside. It was a beautiful summer morning, but there was an unnatural quietness hanging all around. Even the view from dockside brought a hushed feeling to all who looked.

It was a macabre scene that the devil himself could not have imagined to see bodies hanging over the bridge rails, lying around gun turrets, sprawled on the decks both fore and aft and the bodies in navy blue and in khaki that were entangled in death in a grotesque heap on the after deck.

It took little imagination to hear the ghostly echoes of far off bugles calling for their spirits to assemble again and be counted. We just went back to the barracks and did not even discuss it before we tried to sleep. I believe that it was a very rude awakening for me. The fun and games were definitely finished.

See War’s Long Shadow: 69 Months of the Second World War

Nearly 300,000 troops had been returned from Dunkirk by the 2nd May. This is one of the officially released photographs and as such does not reflect the state in which many of the men returned.

HMS ivanhoe

HMS ivanhoe

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