The Evacuation of Dunkirk, 1940

May 2021

On this day in 1940, the British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, to save them from the rapidly approaching German forces who had just launched their lightning invasion of northern Europe. It was one of the most challenging and significant amphibious operations and evacuations in history. The planners of Operation Dynamo first estimated that 45,000 men might be rescued; but between 26 May and 4 June 338,226 men were returned to England by a vast armada of disparate vessels including destroyers, minesweepers, fishing vessels and the famous fleet of ‘Little Ships’ – all privately owned and requisitioned for the rescue. Today Dr Sam Willis speaks with Dr Philip Weir, author of Dunkirk and the Little Ships. Philip Weir is a historian who specialises in the Royal Navy in the early twentieth century. He has written for the Navy Records Society, History Today and Time and has contributed to television and radio programmes, including the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are. Philip is also a Titan in the world of maritime and naval history on Social Media and can be followed on Twitter @navalhistorian

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    Sam Willis

    From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.

    Hello everyone and welcome to the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast. We are thick in one of our busiest weeks yet: on this day in 1940 was one of the most important amphibious operations and evacuations in history; when the British Expeditionary Force and other allied troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk to save them from the rapidly approaching German forces, who had just launched their lightning invasion of Northern Europe. It is an extraordinary story, and there is no better man to tell it than Dr Phil Weir, author of ‘Dunkirk and the Little Ships’, published by Shire Books. Philip Weir is a historian who specializes in the Royal Navy in the early 20th century. He has written for the Navy Records Society, History Today and Time and has contributed to television and radio programs, including the BBC’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ Above all, however, he is a titan in the world of social media, a man at the centre of a web of naval specialists all over the world, you can, and you certainly should, all follow him on Twitter @navalhistorian.

    Let’s set the scene from Phil’s book. During 1940 the German Army swept with devastating speed across the Low Countries and into northern France and drove allied forces back into a small pocket around Dunkirk. Without a swift withdrawal across the English Channel, the latter face certain death or capture. The evacuation plan, ‘Operation Dynamo’, initially calculated that 45,000 men might be rescued. But between the 26th of May and the 4th of June 338,226 men were in fact brought back to England. Naval historian Phil Weir shows how this was made possible by a vast armada of disparate vessels, including destroyers, minesweepers, fishing vessels, and most famously of all the privately owned little ships. He explores the vessels various roles within the evacuation, and their subsequent fates, including preservation and participation in commemorative return, runs to the port, which now takes place every five years. Well, to tell you more here is the man himself Dr Phil Weir.

    Right, Phil – Dunkirk, May 1940: set the scene; what was happening?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Well, at that point, really, Britain, the allies are in something of political crisis. You’ve had the French Prime Minister has had to resign, being replaced due to basically problems over the Soviet invasion of Finland, which the allies, the British and the French, didn’t really intervene to assist the Fins. And then you’ve also got the invasion of Norway in April, which the allied counter to which doesn’t go terribly well, which causes a political crisis in Britain. And by the 10th of May, you’ve got a problem whereby the Prime Minister of Britain, Neville Chamberlain, is facing a vote of no confidence, famously and he is forced to step down. However, it is at that very moment, vert of course, Adolphe Hitler chooses to invade France.

    Sam Willis

    Right? And what’s the kind of, the immediate response to that in the UK?

    Dr Philip Weir

    There are various responses really: you’ve got Churchill as the new prime minister, but a lot of things spring into action pretty immediately; for the British forces on the continent, they are under the command of the French General Maurice Gamelin (so under French command), and immediately the Germans cross the border, the Belgians call for assistance from the allies, and British and French forces move up into Belgium. They also move across into the Netherlands, which has also been invaded, and there’s an interesting little naval manoeuvre in there, in fact, where you have a force at sea of cruiser HMS Birmingham, and escorted destroyers on the lookout generally for German ships, predominantly for mine-layers. And they are immediately ordered to the Dutch coast to go and sweep down there – because of course, the fear is much as had happened with the invasions of Denmark and Norway, that the Germans would also put in an amphibious effort and go round down the coast, potentially into the Netherlands. Germans actually don’t but the British send down this force of crews and destroy to sweep up and destroy anything that’s insight and thereafter follow up with minesweepers in order to keep the Dutch ports clear because of course, the Netherlands have got some fantastic ports and the French are essentially determined to use them and they use them to send chunks of the seventh army across to the port of Vlissingen. And so essentially, they do what the Germans – they feared the Germans would do, but obviously, the Germans couldn’t, and if they’d tried, they probably have been sunk.

    Sam Willis

    What were the naval powers at the time in that area then – so it wasn’t just the British and the Germans was it?

    Dr Philip Weir

    It’s obviously, it’s predominantly the British and the Germans in that area. But obviously, the French have got quite a considerable Navy of their own as well. Although largely because the situation in the Mediterranean is deteriorating with Italy, much of the French Navy is now sort of been shifted towards the Mediterranean and the British have actually had to recreate their own Mediterranean Fleet as well because outbreak of war in September 39, the Mediterranean Fleet is not quite disbanded but very much truncated down to really a cruiser force as the battleships and the aircraft carriers are brought back to the Home Fleet. But that has to reverse itself as sort of April and May continue. But yes, the French do have a notable naval force of their own: a couple of old battleships, First World War destroyers, a couple of cruisers in the Atlantic Fleet; so, there is a substantial naval force. It’s basically the Allies really have naval dominance down that coast.

    Sam Willis

    What about the Dutch? Is there a Dutch, is there Dutch ships?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Absolutely – yes. Of course, the Dutch have very – it’s a small but very highly competent Navy. And it is of the Dutch Armed Forces, probably in the best shape. I mean, obviously, throughout the interwar period, everyone’s kind of suffered a bit from defence cuts and retrenchment after the First World War and the Dutch are no different. But the 1930s they all see potentially war coming and money starts to be spent. But the Dutch Navy: yes it’s entirely competent; it’s small, a lot of it is actually based up to the [lost], the East Indies, but they’ve got a number of pretty advanced ships that are predominantly still under construction, naturally in the Netherlands; and beyond that, and when the Germans invade, then certain arrangements that have already been made, and you have to bear in mind that this was an arrangement that was also made with a Polish Navy in 1939, they start to withdraw back to Britain to fight on alongside Britain – to essentially keep the Navy safe and keep the Navy fighting because the fear is they’ll get potentially caught in port and just sunk. Now, the most modern destroyer, they’ve got the Van Galen – and I apologise for any, any Dutch listeners for my Dutch pronunciation – the Van Galen is sent in to try and bombard German forces ashore but is unfortunately sunk in the process. Much of the rest of the Navy led by an older cruiser, but most of the sort of part-built ships, and not all of them are completed by any stretch of the imagination, pull out really from the 11th of May onwards and go across to the Medway where they are taking in by the British and in many cases completed and then sort of technology and so forth handed over to incorporated into allies.

    Sam Willis

    I think there are different naval forces around, it’s not just the UK

    Dr Philip Weir

    The Belgians have got a fairly small coastal force. So, the Dutch are the primary ones, the French as well, but yes, it’s also the, and obviously the Royal Navy, So yes, there are a number of naval forces that – obviously the Dutch had been neutral up to this point and all of a sudden on the 10th they are immediately incorporated into the

    Sam Willis

    And there are plenty of fishing boats as well. I just want to give the impression that there’s, you know, there’s quite a lot of traffic in the channel. There are a lot of boats around aren’t there.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes, there’s quite a bit of traffic, not just fishing boats. Obviously, you find with a lot of the, or at least a significant chunk of the British fishing fleet, as in the First World War, a lot of them have been taken up into naval services: anti-submarine trawlers, minesweepers, and so forth. Similarly, the French have, and the Belgians and the Dutch have taken up a number of theirs as well. So you’ve got fishing fleets, you’ve got a lot of cross channel traffic, notably to even support the British Expeditionary Force – the British Army ashore – they are transported across initially from the sort of first couple of days of the war.

    Sam Willis

    So, this is as soon as the Germans have invaded, the British Expeditionary Force is then sent across.

    Dr Philip Weir

    As soon as war is declared in 1939 the British Expeditionary Force is sent across. This is really remarkably quickly after the invasion of Poland, within a couple of days, they stopped sending men across. And the initial arrivals are actually the RAF, and that’s, I think they actually even arrived the day before war is declared and in order to try and pre-empt any surprise attack by the Germans, but

    Sam Willis

    The crucial point is that they’ve been dropped off in France, and then the boats, the ships, that drop them off have then returned to the UK. So, there isn’t the, you know, the shipping which took that army there is not sitting around waiting to pick them up again.

    Dr Philip Weir

    There is a degree of yes and no, in fact, because there is obviously a sort of unit rotation to go through. So, there is always some traffic going on. And there are there is a need to support the army with munitions with other supplies and so forth, some from Britain. So, actually under the Dover Command, under Vice-Admiral Ramsay, whose headquarters is at Dover castle, there are still a number of ships actually sat in there just going back and forth across the channel to support the British Expeditionary Force.

    Sam Willis

    So, it’s like a kind of umbilical cord?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes. Most of that intends, in fact, to go less directly across the channel. Although there is some really sort of Dover to Dunkirk, a lot of it tends to be more slightly further back with the Portsmouth to Cherbourg [lost] places because this was a request of the French because they wanted British supply ports to support the army to be further back; predominantly because they were afraid that the Germans would basically bombed the ports and cause problems that way if they were too close to the German border. So, the theory was that if the import ports for the Expeditionary Force were a bit further up the coast in Normandy, then allied air defences would be able to pick them up and pick any raiders up and hopefully less or no damage would be caused to the supply lines. So yes, there is still a fair bit of traffic going across the army it’s ever growing. Obviously, the first tranche is really sort of only a couple of divisions, I think. By the time you reach the German invasion of France and Belgium in May 1940s, I’ll talking about ten divisions, and I mean, there’s – that’s sort of primarily the fighting men you’ve got, also with that the rear echelons: the supply guys and so forth; and its sort of heading for half a million men.

    Sam Willis

    Wow, an immense amount of people. And then it all goes wrong.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes, it very, very quickly goes wrong. The French General Gamelin, he’s got this grand plan, this grand idea that obviously his forces will steam into Belgium and intercept the Germans, as they come through Belgium and the war would be fought in Belgium. Now, obviously, the really grand plan, the famous bit, is the Maginot Line, about which many jokes are told, of course, about it being too short and all the rest of it, most of them are kind of not quite accurate.

    Sam Willis

    The specific point is that it doesn’t go to the sea.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes – it doesn’t. There are various reasons for that: expense politics and a few other bits and pieces. But it basically actually does what they intended it does. And what they intended it to do is ensure there is no direct invasion of France, i.e., that they will fight the next war not on French soil, but on Belgian soil. It’s all about if you’re not going to build the wall right the way up to the sea on the French border, then it’s all about effectively kind of using Belgium as your buffer zone. And then that’s the plan. What it relies upon, of course, if they’re not going to go through the Maginot Line (which they don’t) you’ve got to guess which route through Belgium they take. And obviously, there’s this marvellous sort of flat plane right the way through the centre of Belgium, the Gembloux gap, which is a traditional invasion road. In fact, entertainingly, when war is declared in September 39, there was a certain amount of friction, shall we say, between the French in neutral Belgium, because the French sit there and say, well, in order to really run a successful counter-invasion of France to help our Polish allies, we need to get through Belgium, we’ve got to go through the Gembloux gap, the Belgian say, no, and therefore there is only a sort of minor invasion between the two defensive lines between Maginot Line and his German opposite number, which doesn’t last terribly long and don’t go terribly far. So, this is the chosen route, this is the one that Gamelin would have used himself if he had been allowed. And this is the one that he thinks that the Germans are going to use when they come through. And indeed, actually, it really is. This is the German plan, right up until the point where a couple of German Majors out and about on little jolly in an aircraft, crash land in the middle of Belgium with a full set of plans. Rather forcing a fairly dramatic rethink to the proposals put forward by von Manstein to essentially go through the Ardennes as they famously end up doing. Now, as with all of these things, there is this sort of grand precedent and the French have actually exercised it. One of their generals, Andre-Gaston Pretelat (this is 1936 or 1938 I think it is), he’s in charge of the attacking force in this big exercise that they run, and he figures out that if you go through the Ardennes, you can probably get an armoured force to the Meuse River and Sedan in about 60 hours. So, they know it’s possible; you find much the same thing with Pearl Harbour and all the rest of it. They know it’s possible. They just don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. Because of various factors: this is the way they think it’s going to be going; they think it’s obviously going to be easier; the terrain is it’s obvious; they have, slightly paradoxically, Enigma reports from Bletchley Park (helped by the French and the Poles), telling them the Luftwaffe were amassing predominantly for the thrust into the Netherlands and central Belgium (which is what the Luftwaffe is mainly assigned to), but it doesn’t tell them about the army which has got this armoured thrust prep through the Ardennes. And this is what happens. And it’s tricky terrain, it’s forests, it’s rivers, it’s

    Sam Willis

    But they managed to do it.

    Dr Philip Weir

    They do it. Yes.

    Sam Willis

    And it means the British Army has to turn tail.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes. And they punched through in a few days – really, it’s about 13th, 14th, they cross the Meuse at Sedan and it’s then sort of free and clear out to just round pass Calais on their big left hook round to the sea. And yes, lo and behold, the northern allied armies, the cream of the allied armies, indeed, are trapped in a pocket up against the sea by the German army.

    Sam Willis

    So, I mean in terms of getting them out what – is there a port nearby? I mean, what are the options of actually getting these troops off?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Well, it’s a tricky one. Obviously, ports are absolutely crucial. And really left within the pocket, you’ve got sort of three or four, it’s predominantly Calais, Boulogne, Oostende in Belgium or Dunkirk. And that’s really your key options. Now, ports are obviously absolutely vital; by the time the German breakthrough, by the 21st, and get through to the sea, it’s fairly – well, it’s entirely obvious to the British that this is a problem; the British General, Victoria Cross winning hero of the First World War, Lord Gort, has kind of seen what’s happening and thinks we are probably going to have to get ourselves out of here: and he discusses this with London on, I think it’s the 19th, and they put Vice-Admiral Ramsey, the Admiral in charge at Dover, in command of any possible evacuations, and they immediately sort of start looking at the ports.

    Sam Willis

    So, they want a port with deep waters so that they can get a big ship in, which can get lots of men on board. That the principle, isn’t it?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Absolute bottom line – it’s simple maritime logistics ‘one-o-one’ as the Americans would put it – it’s easiest to get large numbers of people straight onto a ship if you’ve got a nice deep water port that you can tie up against a big jetty and they can just walk straight on. It’s that easy. If you’ve got to do anything else, like take people off the beaches, then it’s – obviously, a large ship can’t get in close, it’s going to have to sit off the beaches, some distance if it’s shallow gradient beach and so forth, and you’re just going to have to have little ships ferrying people to and from and it takes absolute hours. So, it’s far, far, more efficient for it to run through a port. And this is the key bit that certainly the Admiralty are looking at, although the army, Lord Gort stuck at Dunkirk, is sort of less looking at this. And when he sort of makes his move back to Dunkirk, they’re primarily looking at beaches. There’s an interesting, fun little bit, that I sadly never quite got to put in the book, where he’s got this fascinating character with him, a Royal Marine, young Captain by the name of Jim Moulton. And he’s actually I think the only Royal Marine to be at both Dunkirk and D-day. Absolutely incredible career – he starts out as a gunner on HMS Rodney, then he goes into something like anti-aircraft gunnery ashore briefly, before becoming an aviator out in the Far East, in Fleet Air Arm aboard, I think it’s HMS Eagle for five years, then goes to staff college just before the outbreak of war and then gets assigned across to General Staff on Lord Gort’s HQ. So, he’s had this incredibly varied career already. And he’s been sort of sat in Goertz staff, because I think he’s about the only guy wearing green with aviators’ wings. They assigned him predominantly to talk to the British and French Air Forces. And then when they retreating onto the beaches, it’s sort of, oh, you’re a Marine, you know about boats, don’t you? You can go down to Dunkirk and sort things out. So yeah, Jim Moulton goes down, and he sort of sees there’s a bit of chaos going on on the beaches. The British have retreated to sort of core, what they call core embarkation areas, just off the beaches. And the Navy haven’t really got a clue as to where they are. So, you’ve got ships arriving that aren’t quite sure where they are. So, Moulton goes out and he talks to the captain of one of these ships and discovers that there’s a distinct lack of communication. And he gets permission to head across and brief Admiral Ramsay at Dunkirk – at Dover sorry. So, that’s, that’s one part of it. But I mean, the other part of it from the naval side, of course, is that they actually start fairly early. As I mentioned, Admiral Ramsay’s already got a certain amount of ships under his command all ready to – that have been supplying the BAF and putting troops over there and putting supplies over there and so forth. And things have started to accumulate, really start heading towards Dover from sort of 18th 19th, when they start figuring out, we might need to do this.

    Sam Willis

    So, what’s wrong with the ports? Why can’t they send the big ships to the big beep ports?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Well, here’s the fun bit. Initially, they actually do start sending stuff out of Dunkirk itself. In fact, the French start an evacuation themselves on the 20th, they start getting what’s known as useless mouths out. But this is all run by incidentally Admiral Ramsay’s somewhat less known French counterpart Admiral Abrial, who’s the Amiral Nord, effectively the commander of naval forces North for the French Navy, based at Dunkirk. So, from 20th, they’re already starting to ship people out in large ships. Incidentally, just to sort of go back on the Dutch, there’s a slightly tragic tale that they’ve got the remnants of the Dutch army there, they put aboard, one of the first ships out on the 20th and the Luftwaffe spot this convoy leaving, and they bomb the ship carrying the Dutch, which then has to be run ashore off Calais, and the poor Dutch soldiers having escaped once now find themselves popped straight into German captivity, again, within about 24-48 hours.

    Sam Willis

    It’s amazing how close the Germans are. But obviously, there’s a problem with the ports, which is why they have to take it to the beaches.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Which is, this is the key point, of course, the German army has arrived on the coast a little bit west of Calais, and they’re starting to move in. So, you’ve got reports of Calais and Boulogne fairly rapidly start coming under attack. Now, in order to try to keep stuff running the British put across some forces spearheaded by Royal Marines, but with an Army backup from a couple of Army brigades into each of those ports. And they are there, with the French, to try and hold things up. And they sort of start – the Germans really start hitting Boulogne and really start trying to roll Boulogne up. And the British arrive and it’s really nasty within sort of a couple of days, they are forced to retreat, they sort of send out the Navy saying come and get us. So, this is another evacuation before that. I mean, in reality, this whole series of evacuations and so forth, that really are – really sort of make up the Dunkirk story.

    Sam Willis

    The point is we know about Dunkirk, but there’s stuff going on before – there’s a great deal of stuff that goes on afterwards.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Absolutely yes. So, you’ve got the force in Boulogne requests permission to evacuate, they get permission to evacuate and get hauled out. The force in Calais fairly shortly afterwards finds themselves in the same boat. And it starts to get a bit bloody, and they send the message home: start preparing to evacuate. And then, unfortunately, for the brigade that’s in there, a destroyer arrives, HMS Wolfhound, I believe it is, carrying Vice-Admiral Sir James Summerville, who is sort of acting as Vice Admiral Ramsey deputy, he’s been sent down from the Admiralty to sort of reinforce the command set up at Dover. And he carries – hand-delivers this message to the Brigadier – sort of basically for the sake of Allied unity the French have said no withdrawals, for the sake of Allied unity you will stay. And the Navy send what they can, I mean, they put a couple of cruisers out there with big 6-inch guns to just keep hammering away at the Germans, along with a flotilla of destroyers, one of which I think is lost in the process. And they give them what support they can. The RAF, of course, the flying air cover, flying bombing raids, but all to no avail. And really on the 26th Calais collapses. At that point also, the Belgians are looking shaky. And really, I think it’s around 26th, 27th, they send a message to headquarters in France saying, look, we are going to have to surrender. So realistically, Ostend is kind of out now. And besides which the British Army has largely withdrawn on Dunkirk anyway as its nearest port, so we’re down to Dunkirk now. The rest of the ports are being sort of collapsed in on each other. And it’s now down to this one port that is obviously now the key target for the Luftwaffe as well. So yes, it’s – the grand plan will be too, if they’ve been able to keep Calais and Boulogne open, they could potentially have got reinforcements in, they could have got supplies in, they could have maybe sorted out a breakout or whatever, but they couldn’t hold those ports, and it’s now down to Dunkirk, and it’s time to go. And really, it’s a couple of hours after Calais falls that the order is given to commence operation Dynamo – which is the big evacuation.

    Sam Willis

    How many men are we talking?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Well, it’s a lot. Because really, the early efforts have really only pulled out I think it was about 20 or 30,000 of the rear echelon troops, the supply troops, and so forth (rather more of the French have gone), but yes, it’s really about some 20-30,000 have come out so far. And you’ve got really, about 200,000 British troops sat in there with another 150-200,000 French. So, you are talking a lot of men.

    Sam Willis

    So, there’s a serious problem, which is when the call goes out to get every bit of shipping that the British can get hold off and to get them out there. So, these, you know, let’s talk about the little ships, and how they actually fitted into the whole process. Was the intention to bring troops off the beaches to larger ships at anchor? Or were they actually carrying troops directly across the channel?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Well, the little ships story is fairly fascinating. It’s a complete coincidence – what they’d done around about 14th, so this is around about the time that the Germans are making their big breakthrough at Sedan, the Admiralty puts out a call to (particularly people in the southeast), to say, if you’ve got a boat longer than about 30 feet, could you come and register it with the Admiralty, please, which

    Sam Willis

    This has actually happened before Dunkirk evacuations.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes. And this is not for any evacuation: they don’t have any evacuation in mind, as you as you said earlier. There’s no grand plan, no grand scheme in place to pull the British Expeditionary Force out, they just don’t foresee this. What it’s for is is really to sort of have this list of little boats to pot around ports to take men off of ships for leave and liberty and do little anti saboteur patrols up and down harbours and so forth. Just to put a couple of Marines on a boat to take potshots at anybody, anybody randomly out fishing in the wrong place, or whatever.

    Sam Willis

    But it gives them a list, doesn’t it?

    Dr Philip Weir

    But they’ve got this list now. And all of a sudden,

    Sam Willis

    I’d love to be there in that moment when someone went hang on, I can put the two and two together here.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes. And that – this is what happens. The Vice-Admiral commanding the small boat pool (a little-known character) he is the guy who does this. I mean, he gets rightly a considerable amount of credit for bringing this together. And obviously, what they do when they order the evacuation, they sort of sit there and go: okay, here’s our list – let’s go and get them. I mean, it’s not just the civilian little ships that they’ve got on the register, I mean, literally, they’re just going through everything in any sort of southern port, naval base, the whole nine yards. So, I mean

    Sam Willis

    And then physically did they go and get them rather than expecting them to be delivered, don’t they?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh, God, yes. I mean, there’s a marvellous sort of famous case that one poor chap who spots his boat suddenly disappearing off up the Thames,

    Sam Willis

    Thinks it’s being nicked!

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes, he did! Chases it off as far as something like Teddington Lock. I’m not sure whether he came across naval personnel or Ministry of Shipping guys, but sort of: “Yes sir, this is entirely legal, we are record requisitioning this boat. Goodbye!”, and off they go. And yes, I mean, they go in and as I say they nick stuff from warships that are in refit – their lifeboats go, the Admiral’s – Vice-Admiral Ramsay’s barge (his personal barge) gets taken across, a bunch of barges or scoots that have literally just evacuated out of the Netherlands a few days before – these are all sort of sat in southern ports around predominantly Poole, I think it is, somewhere around there

    Sam Willis

    And they are a lot of sort of pleasure ships and steamers and you know, the things are just people poodle around in the south coast enjoying the British seaside.

    Dr Philip Weir

    It’s absolutely blasted everything: lifeboats, there is a fireboat, tugs, fishing boats and trawlers make up a huge physical number of the ships little ships that go out there. What else have you got?

    Sam Willis

    Paddle steam, I think there is a paddle steamer isn’t there?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh God, yes, there’s a – paddle steamer is a wonderful little story. You get some of them are still in civilian guard but a lot of them have actually already been taken up on the outbreak of war. Much like some more trawlers, they’re sort of taken up as minesweepers, because they’re marvellously manoeuvrable.

    Sam Willis

    Ah, that’s a good idea! I hadn’t thought about that.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Marvellously manoeuvrable at slow speed so they can just sort of inch their way into [lost] and try to avoid [lost]

    Sam Willis

    Using their paddles to hit the mines. Anyway, so we’ve got this huge variety, this kind of an eclectic fleet, which is the likes of which has never been gathered before.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes.

    Sam Willis

    And off they go.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Largely it’s in – starts off really in dribs and drabs because obviously what Admiral Ramsay’s got with him immediately on the 26th is predominantly a combination of about 30 or so destroyers and a similar number of what we call personnel ships, which are essentially the cross-channel passenger ferries and so forth, that delivered – and mostly literally the same ships that deliver the British Expeditionary across in 1939. That’s really your sort of the first wave. I think the first ship across there is, well certainly the first ship leaving on the 26th (and this is actually before the order goes out) is a Manx packet (gets sent across), the ‘King Orry’, which goes in – I think they arrive just after the orders being given and haul some people off – and yes,  it’s Manx packets and these cross channel ferries and ferries to Holland and all this sort of stuff, that’s really your sort of the first wave starting to go and get people. Initially sort of predominantly trying to get them from the beaches, because as I mentioned earlier the initial communication isn’t quite there, so the Army’s not quite where the Navy expects them to be, and so on and so forth.

    As well as the Marine I mentioned, Captain Moulton coming across, you get – the British send across – the Navy sends across effectively a team to start trying to organise stuff at the Dunkirk end. And slowly things start to put together, and they start getting people out. And a key to a lot of this is, from the naval side, is Captain Bill Tennant, who is in essence certainly initially Vice Admiral Ramsay’s sort of representative in Dunkirk, the senior naval officer there. And he sort of arrives and starts coordinating things and he predominantly embeds himself with the French headquarters at Bastion 32, in Dunkirk, with Admiral Abrial, and they start getting that line of communication going, start getting people into the right place. But I mean, the tricky bit initially is that a lot of Dunkirk – because it’s been a massive time for the Luftwaffe the last few days, is not in great shape. I mean, ports are tricky to knock out, but when you start having some ships in the way and so forth, it starts to get a bit messy. And obviously, the French are kind of running to a degree their own evacuation at the same time as well. So, a lot of the port isn’t terribly usable. And this is one of the key things that they are concerned with. So, there’s sort of sat there wondering, really, are we going to be able to do this. I mean, the initial projections, based on things like the weather, and how long they expected Dunkirk to holdout, particularly in light of what had happened at Calais and Boulogne, they reckon they’ve probably got about three days, and if they’re – or fairly unlucky, then they’re probably only, you know, get about 35-40,000 out. This does not look good, particularly when you’ve got nearly 200,000 in there.

    But shortly after arrival, Captain Tennant, has this bright idea – sat out there in the harbour is a long breakwater, called ‘the mole’, there’s two of them in fact, there’s an east and a west mole, and he sort of spots it, and it’s not structurally that sound looking, it’s a wooden piling with a bit of concrete in it, and obviously, you stick a sort of 1,000-ton ship up against something like that, and is it going to take it? Is it going to collapse? But he sits down and thinks – right, we’ve got to try this. So, he orders up this cross-channel steamer, The Queen of the Channel, to come in alongside, tie up and see if they could load off of this mole. And up comes this ship and ties up, men go on. And lo and behold, yes, it holds, it survives, it doesn’t collapse and crumble to dust. And all of a sudden, they’ve kind of they’ve got it. This is kind of the key, that cracks it: this is the way they’re going to be able to get ships in and tied up to something such that men can just

    Sam Willis

    You can get hundreds off [lost]

    Dr Philip Weir

    Get hundreds off immediately. And this is what they start doing. And very rapidly he starts ordering the ships to come in and tie up and obviously they send messengers out to the men behind the beaches to start hauling into Dunkirk as fast as they can. And really what you’re after there is, obviously, is almost this sort of railway line principle of something turns up you fill it, goes, turned up, fill it goes and obviously at the other end arrives, unloads, turns around refuels, re-arms, heads back, and all to – as close as you can get which, let’s be honest here, it’s not going to be terribly close when you’re in a combat situation, everyone’s getting bombed and all the rest of it – but it’s as close as you can get to almost a timetable, and the guy responsible for that is one of Admiral Ramsey’s staff,  Captain Michael Denny, and I mean they really do phenomenally well with it. It’s quite incredible.

    Sam Willis

    Got it working like, as you say, a timetable. It’s a really good way of think about it. So, that’s what’s happening: they’re removing people in their hundreds from ships from this sketchy mole. And then those ships being attacked by German torpedo boats or U-boats or aircraft? What’s going on?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh, yes. I mean, it’s a dangerous place to be is the channel, and the problem – the key dangers actually initially is minefields and a goodly chunk of those are in fact the Allied minefields, chunks of which they have to start clearing before they can get at least one of the key routes open. Because they’ve got three key routes to go down: one of them out to the east and down; one sort of fairly straight-ish through the centre; and then one out to the west and round, to get around, obviously the minefields and sandbags and so forth. So

    Sam Willis

    So, they clear the minefields, but then they’ve got the Germans to deal with – the Germans certainly know what’s going on?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh, God, yes. The Germans are [lost] of course, the German army has been ordered to hold for a couple of days, briefly and Goring, head of the Luftwaffe, says: “Ah, it’s fine. I’ll deal with it, I’ll deal with it, not a problem.” And, yes, the Luftwaffe heads in and start bombing the hell out of the place: bombing troops ashore, trying to bomb ships at sea, not in many respects terribly successfully with the latter, it must be said. The Luftwaffe was not really set up as an anti-shipping force. They’re not terribly good at it at this point.

    Sam Willis

    We’ve got to remember, it’s still early on in the war. And also, bobbing ships is a remarkably difficult thing. And I think the point – there’s a big, you know, there’s a big gap here – where’s the German Navy?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes, there’s the interesting bit, of course. The German Navy is there, but only in a comparatively small way. The key thing that the Germans are deploying are these little motor torpedo boats, known as Schnellboot, or S-boots in German or E-boats to the British (for enemy boats). And these are nasty, deadly little things with large cannon on and a couple of 21-inch torpedoes, that can obviously sink a major warship if they strike on there. They’re small, they’re fast – 40 odd knots,

    Sam Willis

    But there are no German warships?

    Dr Philip Weir

    The E-boat’s key because the rest of the fleet, such as it is, has largely been committed to the invasion of Norway. This is where the big ships are right throughout the whole of the Dunkirk evacuation. The Norway invasion has taken a lot – it is really the German Navy’s operation. The entire fleet had been detailed to the invasion, to actually execute it. You’ve got a lot of their sea lift; their transport shipping is committed to it. They even have to take troops in on cruisers and so forth, just to unload them on quay slides in Norway. And it’s where they suffer an awful lot of losses. Their destroyer fleet was never – the German fleet as a whole was never that big- at this point, it’s literally a couple of battleships, half dozen maybe 8 cruisers, 20 destroyers. Now of those 20 destroyers, 10 of those are destroyed in the battles at Narvik particularly. They also lose a couple of cruisers – British submarines under Vice-Admiral Sir Max Horton, wreak considerable havoc. The pocket battleship Lutzow gets struck by a torpedo partway through heading back from Norway, and her stern just falls off – it’s fairly shocking.

    Sam Willis

    Anyway, the Germans are not there. Apart from the E-boats.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes. The Germans are predominantly – the German Navy is predominantly dealing with Norway. And that’s where the two battleships head just after the Dunkirk evacuation is completed. But yes, their main effort really is the E-boat and to a degree, I already mentioned the minefields, you’ve also got the RAF, of course, are there potentially to cause problems, you’ve also got British motor torpedo boats as well. If you’re sending big ships in there, it’s not really a healthy place to be anyway, so it’s really kind of a battle suited to these smaller coastal forces – and this is what they engage. And these things are pretty deadly. I mean, what is it, the 29th is a particularly nasty day where you get U-boats and E-boats attacking all in one area and you get one destroyer that takes a torpedo, sinks, rescue ships turn up, pick up various survivors, one of the rescuing destroyers gets hit by another torpedo. This first one was from an E-boat second one is from a U-boat. And there ends up all sorts of mess and the Royal Navy are really getting quite concerned the ships there, and they end up with a rather unpleasant friendly fire incident in the middle of all of this because it’s just so, it’s dark, it’s the middle of the night; they’ve lost one destroyer, one of the destroyers in a bad way, and it’s a mess. And yes, it’s a really quite dangerous place to be.

    Sam Willis

    It’s really important to remember just how uncertain it all was. It’s one of these campaigns where we know what happened – but to put yourself in the middle of it. So you’ve got the big ships working off the mole, and then how do the little ships fit into this?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Well, and as we mentioned earlier, the little ships are really there to ferry people to the bigger ships, from the beaches, because really there is an uncertainty with the mole: it may get bombed at some point – you get concerns about it being close, you get people just not really able to shift in – space concerns, all the rest of it. So, you get a number of people being brought off of the beaches, and this is what the little ships are there for. They’re sort of towed out. They are crewed by naval crews from predominately from the Chatham barracks, sent across, I mean, you get the odd civilian crewing their own ship, of course, and they’re sent across and they are there to ferry people out to the bigger ships and the bigger ships then take them back across.

    Sam Willis

    And once all of the people are off Dunkirk, then there’s another operation that carries on after that, because there are more French soldiers that need to be taken off. It kind of goes on and on, doesn’t it?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh God, yes. I mean, you have to bear in mind that once Dunkirk is completed, there’s still something like 200,000 British forces still in France, plus, of course, there are the French armies, Polish armies as well. And they’re all sort of sat in there. And as the German forces suddenly swing west again, start moving back up the coast to invade the rest of France, you suddenly start seeing what is ‘Operations Cycle and Aerial’, which are the two big evacuations after Dunkirk. And these essentially start just moving up the coast as at Le Harve and Cherbourg are the two big ones

    Sam Willis

    Basically, moving west.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes, and as you move out, that’s all done under Admiral Sir William James out of Portsmouth. As it moves into the far west, comes under the Plymouth command, Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Naismith, VC, legendary Submariner of the First World War. And yes, they have to basically drag the rest of the British Army out of there. And I mean, you also have to bear in mind that, even with Dunkirk over Churchill promises additional troops and a couple of divisions actually start making it – making their way across. You get these two divisions arriving under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Brooke, who turns up at French headquarters and within a day or so, and realises that this is it, this is over, we’re done and has to get on the phone and have an absolute blazing row with Churchill; Churchill’s sat there saying: “No, no, no, no, you’ve got to stay, you’ve got to stay”, and Brookes saying: “No, it’s over. We’ve got to get out or we’re going to lose the Army.” And Churchill, in the end, relents, and obviously Operations Cycle and Aerial are the end response. And it all ends, really, you know, in actual fact, just after the French signed the armistice on June 22. And it’s

    Sam Willis

    Like a month after, you know Dunkirk.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh God yes, yes. And it actually ends with the evacuation of the Polish armies, out of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, down near the Spanish border. And that’s really the final evacuation from France. And it’s – there’s almost a sort of, poetic element I suppose that the war really starts with an evacuation of the Polish Navy, from Poland to Britain, and that first sort of phase really ends with the evacuation of the Polish Army to join the Polish Navy in Britain, as they leave France on just after the 22nd around sort of 23rd, 24th, 25th.

    Sam Willis

    It’s such a magical story, isn’t it? Where you’ve got civilians essentially coming to the help of a professional army. Do you think that’s why it’s retained its fame and interest?

    Dr Philip Weir

    Yes. I mean, it’s – 1940s is such a sort of epochal, seminal – call it what you want – a year of incredible events. And this is, of course, one of them. So, I mean, it was almost guaranteed the sort of place in the [lost], but it’s really, it’s got this great cachet to it, as you say. It’s this image, however, slightly exaggerated of, as you say, civilians coming forth from the great films that you get of – starting really actually in the war itself with Mrs Miniver in 1942, where the husband of the titular heroine gets on his little river cruiser and volunteers to go across and comes back

    Sam Willis

    So, it was picked up really, yes.

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh God, this sort of Dunkirk little ships bit is picked up incredibly early. And obviously, you get that through the 1958 film with Bernard Lee – later to become M in the Bond films – and Richard Attenborough as again, a couple of civilians going across and out as recently as 2007 with the – 2017 rather – with Christopher Nolan’s recent film, with Mark Rylance as Mr Dawson, who’s very heavily based on an actual character – it’s the fabled Charles Lightoller, who, incredible guy, who was the senior surviving officer on the Titanic and pioneer first world war aviator and so forth, a genuinely incredible guy.

    Sam Willis

    What an amazing job. Amazing life!

    Dr Philip Weir

    Oh, God, yes. So, yes, he’s very much based on that and, but it is that great story where it’s got that romantic amateurism to it. And it’s all compressed into this one area, one word Dunkirk, and you can just sort of nicely put it all together as this grand story.

    Sam Wills

    Well, Phil, thanks so much for talking to me today. And everyone if you’re listening, and you want to find out more read ‘Dunkirk and the Little Ships’ by Philip Weir, it’s published by Shire Books, and it is a truly excellent little book. Phil, thanks so much.

    Dr Philip Weir

    My pleasure entirely. Thanks, Sam.

    Sam Willis

    Thank you all so much for listening. Now do please follow us on social media, the Society for Nautical Research is on Twitter, and on Facebook, and the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast has its own YouTube page, which has got some fabulous new, innovative ways of visualizing the past, and also everything is posted on Instagram. But best of all, please do take the time to check out the Society for Nautical Research’s website @snr.org.uk where you can join – please, please join us and your subscription fee, modest as it is, will go towards publishing the most important maritime history and towards preserving our maritime past.

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