The RAF’s role in the evacuation of Dunkirk
Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of Dunkirk, commenced on the evening of 26 May 1940. By the time the evacuation ceased on the morning of 4 June, 338,000 Allied troops had been brought away. Although Britain had lost almost all the heavy equipment and artillery it had despatched to France, the recovery of the troops of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) allowed it to rebuild its armies. If the men of the BEF had been captured at Dunkirk there was little prospect of Britain continuing in the War, their recovery provided the seed corn for the British Army, rebuilt and expanded, to help defeat Nazi Germany. The success of DYNAMO was widely celebrated at the time as a miracle of deliverance and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ has become the British epitome of stoicism in the face of utter adversity.
The success of DYNAMO was not just celebrated in Britain. The myth of the little ships, collected from British ports and crewed by citizen sailors, crossing the Channel to rescue the nation’s soldiers held an idealism almost ready made to appeal to the American public. Even before the evacuation was complete RL Duffus penned an editorial in The New York Times which helped convey what Dunkirk promised for the future arguing that:
‘So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence. For in that harbour, in such a hell as never blazed on earth before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that have hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendour, she faced the enemy… It was the common man of the free countries… This shining thing in the souls of free men Hitler cannot command, or attain, or conquer… It is the great tradition of democracy. It is the future. It is victory.’
On 4 June 1940, Churchill caution the House of Commons that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. Many will be more familiar with the final part of his address on 4 June where he exhorted that in Britain:
‘We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, 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.’
The reference to ‘growing strength in the air’ was not Churchill’s only reference to the Royal Air Force. In the main part of Churchill’s address, he noted that:
‘there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements.’
If Churchill’s rhetoric didn’t dispel all criticism from the men who, whilst at Dunkirk, asked ‘where was the RAF?’ it has subsequently shaped the histories of DYNAMO. The supposed absence of the RAF at Dunkirk is now recounted as another myth in histories of DYNAMO.
Instead of asking what the RAF accomplished historians have previously satisfied themselves with demonstrating that the RAF was at Dunkirk. Fighter Command’s 2,200 sorties during the nine days of the evacuation demonstrate that the extreme view — that the RAF did nothing — is absurd. The extent that RAF contributed to the result is, however, far less clear.
Comparing the losses of the RAF to those of the Luftwaffe during the DYNAMO is no way to gauge the effectiveness of the two air forces. It is, however, one frequently employed by historians and was used by Churchill at the time to defend the RAF when he claimed it inflicted four times the losses it suffered. During DYNAMO Fighter Command lost 87 airmen and over 100 aircraft to enemy action over Dunkirk whilst the Luftwaffe lost 97 aircraft to the RAF, with others damaged but repairable, these included 28 Messerschmitt Me 109s and 13 Me 110s.
The measure of Fighter Command’s success, however, is not in the destruction of enemy aircraft but the extent to which it defended the evacuation. Initially, the RAF attempted to provide continuous air cover, but faced with large German formations it adapted its tactics and instead looked to provide air cover in strength — with patrols involving four squadrons — but not continuous air cover. The move from stronger patrols at less frequent intervals was not successful.
The four squadron patrols were often unable to cooperate effectively over Dunkirk. The flying conditions over Dunkirk, with low-cloud and thick smoke, would have taxed pilots experienced in combat operations as part of larger formations. During DYNAMO, it was almost impossible for patrols involving more than two squadrons to maintain contact and fight together. By the time the patrol had reached the French coast the squadrons had become separated and the patrols broke up into single, or pairs of squadrons, with part of the patrol below the cloud cover whilst others, having initially been instructed to provide top cover, flew above it. The result was that there was ineffective support between the squadrons at different heights and the force structure of the patrol was wasted.
The larger patrols also quickly became disorganised in combat, as the squadrons fragmented into sections, largely dissipating the effect of the patrol. Norman Hancock, a Pilot Officer in No. 1 Squadron, recalled that:
‘You went as a squadron towards your target. You were in appropriate formation but once you’d engaged the enemy then by and large people tended to split up. You might get the odd pair who stayed together, but by and large the squadron was split up and individually attacked targets. You didn’t stay as a solid machine of 12 aeroplanes pointing in the right direction. It didn’t work that way… everybody disappeared. … [After the first attack] there was no cohesion to the squadron.’
The patrols by four squadrons reduced the combat effectiveness of Fighter Command and it is evident that more frequent patrols, involving only two squadrons, would have been more effective. This was a lesson drawn and learnt from the air cover by the officer in charge, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, and he applied that lesson during the Battle of Britain despite the vociferous advocation of larger formations from elsewhere in Fighter Command.
Following the move to larger formations there were only two clear days of weather for the Luftwaffe to launch full scale attacks. On the first day, 29 May, the evacuation suffered heavily and the Royal Navy temporarily suspended the use of its modern destroyers — a decision which based on the lift capacity of remaining ships would have left over 100,000 men to be captured. On the second day of clear weather, 1 June, daylight evacuations were suspended. One defence of the RAF’s air cover is that German artillery fire west of Dunkirk was at least as responsible for that decision. A detailed review of the decision behind the suspension indicates this is entirely false.
One consequence of the decision to suspend daylight evacuations was that over 30,000 men of the French rear-guard were abandoned at the end of the evacuation. For the French military, Dunkirk was ‘certainly not a victory’ but rather ‘the least unfortunate resolution of what could have been a catastrophe’.
Losses within the evacuation fleet were also significant. The total loss of named ships and vessels during DYNAMO exceeded 190 of which 45 were definitely the result of air attack. Many ships were lost in situations where air attack could be considered contributory factors. Furthermore, the ships lost or damaged owing to ‘collision or other misadventure’ were largely smaller craft. If smaller crafts and types are excluded, the total loss of named ships was at least 79. Air attack was the cause of 56 percent of these losses, E-Boats, U-Boats and mines caused 18 percent, and artillery fire caused 6 percent. The Royal Navy alone lost six destroyers and six minesweepers, with another 19 destroyers and seven minesweepers damaged. Furthermore, a number of ships quit the evacuation because of the German air attack. This was not isolated to civilian crews. The air attack was so exceptionally severe on 29 May that one of the Royal Navy’s destroyers — HMS Verity — did not sail for Dunkirk again because of the psychological effect of the Luftwaffe’s attacks on the crew, and a member of the ship’s company later attempted to commit suicide on the mess deck.
It is also necessary to remember that the Luftwaffe successfully destroyed the harbour facilities at Dunkirk. This should have made large scale embarkation impossible and left the evacuation dependant on the number of men who could be lifted from the beaches. Instead, the Royal Navy’s extemporised use of the Dunkirk Mole made it possible to rapidly embark large numbers of men on to the ships capable of crossing the Channel at speed.
The RAF’s contribution was not, however, limited to the air cover provided by Fighter Command. Coastal Command flew patrols across shipping routes in the English Channel, patrolled the Belgian and Dutch coasts for enemy naval activity and undertook bombing raids. Patrols were also flown in an attempt to prevent interference from German submarines and Schnellbooten (designated as U- and E-Boats respectively by the British). The threat of U-boats with unrestricted access to the evacuation fleet is an obvious one but the work of Coastal Command against E-Boats and was of particular importance. These craft were fast, manoeuvrable motor boats armed with torpedoes and fast-firing light anti-aircraft guns.
German U-Boats and fast attack E-boats were a significant threat to the evacuation, particularly before the switch from Route Y, the longest naval route to Britain. The SS Abukir was lost on 28 May to the E-boat S-34. The S-34 torpedoed Abukir at point blank range. Only 24 survivors of Abukir were recovered and, according to some estimates she had sailed with 500 souls on board. Amongst those were a number of RAF aircrews almost all of whom were lost.
On the night of 29 May, a British destroyer HMS Wakeful was lost following a torpedo attack by a German E-Boat and sank immediately. A second destroyer, HMS Grafton, stopped to rescue survivors and was torpedoed by a German U-Boat. In the confusion that followed HMS Comfort, a 60-ton drifter, was fired upon and then rammed and sunk by HMS Lydd.
On 31 May the French destroyer Sirocco was sunk by an attack made by the German E-Boat. Earlier, the French Destroyer Cyclone had been damaged by a torpedo fired from the German E-Boat S-24. However, against the continuous sustained period of operations one might expect such losses to be far greater than they were. For instance, on the night of 31 May, four groups of German E-boats were positioned east of Dunkirk.
The disruption caused to the evacuation by German naval vessels could have been far greater had it not been for the patrols of Coastal Command. As well as providing advanced warning of E-Boat movements the operations by both Avro Ansons and Lockheed Hudsons of Coastal Command made the movement of E-Boats on the Dutch Coast difficult during daylight.
Throughout DYNAMO, aircraft from Coastal Command repeatedly attacked E-Boats as these craft, travelling in small formations, attempted to take up position to attack ships along the evacuation route. The damage caused by these attacks was not significant. As Jack Watchous, a wireless operator in No. 500 Squadron, recalls (X008-3301), the E-Boats were difficult targets to effectively hit. They were small, capable of rapid evasive action, and their anti-aircraft guns put up ‘an amazing amount of fire’. The attacks of Coastal Command were significant, and forced E-Boats to alter course away from the evacuation to evade further bombing. German E-Boat commanders acknowledged that on at least one occasion they had had to curtail their night mission because of delays caused by British air operations. E-Boat commanders reported in June that further operations were dependant on the E-Boats being provided with sufficient air cover.
Troop concentration points were bombed during this period and Bomber Command in particular, undertook a number of sorties against the German rear areas in an attempt to disrupt the German attempts to resupply their forward units. In the early evening of the 27 May, 24 Bristol Blenheims of Number 2 Group bombed German motor convoys and rail yards which were bringing up supplies. Vickers Wellingtons of Bomber Command undertook sorties by night in an attempt to disrupt German movement to, and supply of, the Dunkirk bridgehead.
On 25 May, No. 2 Group issued instructions to its squadrons as to the nature of the situation they faced:
The primary objective of daylight operations varied at different points of the Dunkirk evacuation; however, the attacks aimed to disorganise, and cause the maximum interference to, the enemy’s lines of communication and logistics network and were maintained throughout DYNAMO.
Many crews of Bomber Command returned with reports of ‘direct hits’, however, all too frequently these reports proved overly optimistic and little physical damage resulted from the attacks. The delays produced by Bomber Command’s attacks may only have been measured in hours, however, during the critical stages of the evacuation this was sufficient to provide a measure of relief to the Allied rear-guard on the perimeter at Dunkirk. The German forces at Dunkirk were at the end of extended supply lines, infantry was being brought up to engage Allied forces on the perimeter and artillery moved further south to the formations preparing for further operation against the remaining French forces. Furthermore, the sluice gates controlling the irrigation around Dunkirk had been opened and, although the flooding was not widespread, it restricted the German lines of approach to the perimeter.
‘a determined attack was launched upon our front — the third within a period of 12 hours. The leading German waves were stopped by our light machine-gun force and mortar fire, but strong enemy reserves were observed moving through Nieuport and on the roads to the canal north-west of Nieuport. At this moment some RAF bombers arrived and bombed Nieuport and the roads north-west of it. The effect was instantaneous and decisive — all movement of enemy reserves stopped: many of the forward German troops turned and fled, suffering severely from the fire of our machine-guns.’
Lance-Corporal Alf Hewitt — 1st Battalion, South Lancashire Regiment — recalled the attack occurring as the Germans massed for an attempt to cross the Yser canal behind an artillery barrage. On hearing aircraft approaching Hewitt recalled that:
David Tyacke — 2nd Battalion, Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry — also witnessed the attack and recalled that:
‘there was a roar of engines from behind us … and suddenly in swept the most marvellous sight … nine Blenheims very close in three vics of three. … They went straight over us and dropped their bombs obviously on the Germans. We could see the bomb splashes going up.’
Bomber Command was also engaged in attacks on targets to the rear of the German forces, and undertook a considerable number of night attacks against targets deemed to be of tactical importance. Bomber Command’s night attacks in support of the Allied ground forces were primarily planned to delay the transportation of troop movements and supplies by roads and railways. They were also intended to cause confusion, prevent rest, and stop work in the German rear areas. To achieve these aims Wellingtons of No. 3 Group were directed to carry out ‘sustained attack on columns and concentrations of troops, transports and AFVs [armoured vehicles] and on trains’. The bombing of marshalling yards and railway lines caused definite delays. Although the results of the delays created by Bomber Command should not be overstated, they did have an effect on the already strained German logistics system.
For the RAF, DYNAMO was in part a story of marginal contributions by Bomber Command as well as successful low-level air defence, reconnaissance and anti-naval patrols by Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm. The main operations of the RAF, undertaken by Fighter Command, were, however, less successful despite the overall result of the evacuation.