26th May 1940 – A very tight corner

Waves in the sea

Gentlemen, we are falling back on Dunkirk.  A lot of regiments are going out of action now.  They are going to be evacuated to England.”

The face of the countryside had now undergone a complete change. Miles and miles of low-lying marshy fields stretched far as the eye could see, all cut up by a network of canals and highways…  Into this pancake of a land it seemed as if the whole of the B.E.F. was pouring. Every road scoring the landscape was one thick mass of transport and troops, great long lines of them stretching back far to the eastern horizon, and all the lines converging towards the one focus – Dunkirk. Ambulances, lorries, trucks, Bren-gun carriers, artillery columns – everything except tanks – all crawling along those roads in well-defined lines over the flat, featureless country in the late afternoon sunshine, provided an impressive and memorable picture of two modern armies in retreat. Under the greyish camouflage paint they resembled from a distance slow-moving rivers of muddy-coloured lava from some far-off eruption.

(Gun Buster, Return via Dunkirk, published 1940)

The British Expeditionary Force [in France and Belgium] had been ordered forward to attack… Three days later, the Army on their left flank was falling back and the Army on their right flank was broken through. At once, the BEF found itself… in the most dangerous position that the war offered. Those who had imperilled it had foreseen nothing of the kind and were unable to improvise measures to kill the danger. There was nothing for it but to fall back, and falling back was made almost impossible … by the multitudes of refugees on the roads. Our men could only crawl back, while the enemy raced to cut them from the sea.

(John Masefield, The Nine Days Wonder)

A solid mass five miles in length and about one hundred yards broad’ began to walk along the beach towards Dunkirk.

(Major Colvin, 2nd Grenadier Guards, from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk)

We were advancing in open formation up a main road when, all of a sudden, a machine gun opened up and the left and the right of the formation simply disappeared. They were down. It was awful. It was plain murder, and by God I was scared. It was devastating. We in the centre got away with it. My goodness me, I shall remember that to my dying day. It was an awful situation to be in. We were not only outnumbered, we were out-armed in every way. It was, quite frankly, a bloodbath.

Sergeant Edward Doe, 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

There were hours of endless plodding, punctuated with frustrating halts, as they worked out the best way to cross the many barbed-wire fences and streams in their path. If anything, the days were even worse: they had to lie up more or less immobile in ditches or farm buildings, ever fearful they might be discovered… They also had to cope with great physical discomfort, …frequently soaking wet, …all suffered from a mild form of trench foot… As if that were not enough, Fane also had his wounded arm to worry about… But what bothered them most during their four-night journey were their many close encounters with Germans…

(Lt Julian Fane and Corporal Eldridge, Glosters, from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk; we hear more of their story on 2nd June)

The Dunkirk crisis was unbelievable. A lot of people coming back had jettisoned their guns and vehicles. They were just pouring through. I think the officers at the other end of the phone were largely confined to their building, but they could see very clearly what was going on. It was absolute mayhem. Dunkirk was full of people who had mostly walked there, not in any form or order. They had just got there as fast as they could. Some had hitched lifts wherever possible. There were lots of refugees coming in. It had been bombed. We knew that a lot of the troops were sheltering in the buildings along the shore. We had no idea they were going to be rescued – it seemed the whole army was going to be captured. I was extremely upset, because it never occurred to me that we would survive. I thought we were defeated, and quite frankly thought we would surrender and sue for peace.

Corporal Elizabeth Quale, WAAF liason officer, from Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices)

Squadron Leader Al Deere first had the view from the air, then the ground. ‘I was leading the squadron, and just as we arrived over Dunkirk, a Dornier 17 came flying up the coast. We went after it and, being the leader, I was first there. I was lining up behind to shoot it, when the rear-gunner fired. He hit my engine… I crash-landed north of Dunkirk. The tide was out, and I got down on the beach, but I knocked myself out on the edge of the windscreen. When I came to, I got out and was looked after by a girl who stitched me up with an ordinary needle and put a plaster on me. Then I headed for Dunkirk, where I knew the BEF was intending to evacuate.

(From Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices. More from Al Deere on 29th May and 30th May)

All the time it was a desperate sight to witness. The poor people [refugees] didn’t know which way to turn. From the first their trains of children and old women had been machine-gunned and their convoys attacked by Bombers and fighters. Women would come to you crying their eyes out for food and money. The troops were wonderful the way they would spend their money to buy bread for the poorer ones. Even so it was an impossible situation for the British Army to cope with. [And when the company finally reached the town] Dunkirk was a terrible sight. All the way we were continually bombed and had to take shelter. The bombers came over in waves of three generally at least a dozen strong. [They camped in the fields outside the ruined town,] could see the Casino smouldering away, houses around about razed to the ground, [and didn’t actually get on to the beach to queue for a boat for several days].

(Captain NC Strother Smith’s account in the Imperial War Museum archive. More of Captain Strother Smith’s story on 29th May)

Captain HS Snook’s account in the IWM archive speaks of the ‘nightmare’ of the two weeks of retreat before he and those left of his company even reached Dunkirk, where ‘the din was appalling’, and he gives a very negative picture of the evacuation. ‘It was every man for himself.’ He met no organised evacuation at all, and in his account he derides the ‘hopeless incompetency’ of the officers he encountered, ‘all hopeless, either too young or too silly’. And of his companions, he says ‘out of a battalion of about 850 who went into action, only about 350 returned’.

(More of Captain Snook’s story on 30th May)

Throughout that night and the following day our guns continued shelling the enemy on the far side of Ypres. On our side there was hardly an hour’s relief from the bombers…  About 4pm I went to the Battery Command Post.  The Major was in the act of telephoning down to the gun positions: ‘Prepare to withdraw.’…

We weren’t left long in the dark… ‘Gentlemen,.. we are to join the rearguard of the B.E.F… We are one of the four artillery regiments chosen.’

It was an honour, undoubtedly. But for the moment most of us thought the news a bit depressing.  We weren’t carried away by any false heroics.  A rearguard action covering the evacuation was going to be no picnic.  We might as well resign ourselves.

(from Return via Dunkirk by Gun Buster, whose story of Y Battery’s fraught rearguard action continues throughout the following nine days; they were among the very last troops to be evacuated. We next hear from him on 28th May)

Meanwhile at home, Leonard Woolf voiced the anxiety of people waiting for news of friends: ‘In Rodmell Dunkirk was a harrowing business. There was not merely the public catastrophe, the terrible suspense with Britain on the razor’s edge of complete disaster; in the village we were domestically on the beaches. For Percy, and Jim and Dick and Chris, whom I had known as small boys in the village school and watched grow up into farm workers and tractor drivers were now, one knew, retreating like the two grenadiers of the Napoleonic wars, driven back to the Dunkirk beaches. There they presumably were waiting and we in Rodmell waited.’

(Leonard Woolf, The Journey not the Arrival Matters. More news from Rodmell on 30th May and 3rd June)

The British and French forces in Belgium [were] in a very tight corner. They retreated to Dunkirk, spending several days on the unsheltered beaches under the continual threat of German bombers. They were rescued by a makeshift evacuation fleet from England, in which naval craft mingled with Thames pleasure-launches, tugs, barges, fishing-smacks, yachts, and ship’s lifeboats. In calm hot weather this extraordinary armada shuttled to and fro across the narrow seas, the soldiers wading out to meet it.

(Geoffrey Trease This is your Century. More on the extraordinary armada tomorrow 27th May)

When the Operation Dynamo began it was thought that only a few thousand could be saved. The next day the situation was so much worse that we had to be prepared for a desperate scramble to pick up survivors from a great disaster.

(John Masefield The Nine Days Wonder)

Map from Return via Dunkirk by Gun Buster.  When his account of their rearguard action covering the retreat begins, Y Battery are stationed at Ypres, from where they see the great mass of retreating troops converging on Dunkirk

Map from ‘Return via Dunkirk’ by Gun Buster. When his account of their rearguard action covering the retreat begins, Y Battery are stationed at Ypres, from where they see the great mass of troops converging on Dunkirk

They marched over the Field of Waterloo,

By Goumont and La Haie, and then fell back,

Forever facing front to the attack

Across the English bones.

Westward, by Fontenoy, their ranks withdrew;

The German many bomb-bursts beat the drum,

And many a trooper marched to kingdom come

Upon the Flanders stones.

Westward they went, past Wipers, past the old

Fields bought and paid for by their brothers’ blood.

Their feet were in the snapping of the flood

That sped to gulf them down.

They were as bridegrooms plighted to the mould

Those marching men with neither hope nor star,

The foemen in the gateways as a bar,

The sea beyond to drown.

And at the very sea, a cloud of night,

A hail of death and allies in collapse,

A foe in the perfection of his traps,

A certainty of doom.

When, lo, out of the darkness, there was light,

There in the sea were England and her ships,

They sailed with the free salt upon their lips

To sunlight from the tomb.

(John Masefield)

Tomorrow, 27th May 1940 – An extraordinary armada

8 Responses to “26th May 1940 – A very tight corner”

  1. Arthur Addis Says:

    ‘The British Expeditionary Force was not beaten back to Dunkirk, nor did it disintegrate into disorganised, demoralised groups. British soldiers do not become demoralised, but they are often puzzled! And there was not ‘complete chaos’ on the beaches. As aerial photographs have shown, the discipline there, amid constant bombing and shelling, was remarkably good.’

    (Arthur Addis’ daughter Helen emailed the.dunkirk.project[at]pottersyard.co.uk with her father’s story which can be read in full among 227 extraordinary Dunkirk stories on the BBC WWII archive here.
    More from Arthur Addis on 31st May and 1st June)

    • Liz Mathews Says:

      This shows very clearly how extraordinarily diverse were individual experiences of that event shared by 300,000 people; Arthur Addis was obviously right about the discipline on the beaches (especially once the evacuation was underway) and the orderly queues withstanding constant bombardment are clearly shown on photos taken from RAF reconnaissance planes. And yet, so many people (like Corporal Quale and Captain Snook quoted above) experienced a very different scene. Gun Buster sums up the apparent ‘paradox of the ‘triumphant retreat’ in his best-selling account of Dunkirk published in 1940:

      ‘You gathered a curious impression from this spectacle of all these thousands of tramping, steady men [ordered to retreat via Dunkirk]. One rather in the nature of a paradox: That the British Army, though broken, remained unshaken… so little did they manifest the signs of defeat and disaster… Though there was little semblance of order there was no disorder. Officers and men were all mixed up together… Here was the British Army preserving its morale even after it had ceased to be an Army.’

      Perhaps Arthur Addis would agree with that. But the way wars are reported still remains controversial: we are aware that among all the horrors of the news, much is withheld from us in the interests of national security. (We are even sometimes asked to ‘trust’ politicians who withhold information for our own good.) And of course, each personal account contributed adds detail and nuance to the picture, and helps those of us who weren’t there to understand more fully.


  2. Dunkirk is like Agincourt (or Bannockburn for the Scots); a David and Goliath story of victory – or triumph, anyway – against all the odds. Just as the English don’t particularly like to dwell on defeats like Bannockburn, there’s also a national tendency not to recall victories (Flodden, for example) where the enemy was defeated by being vastly outnumbered or outgunned. We prefer to see ourselves historically as ‘plucky little Britain stands alone’, rather than an Empire of enormous power with a navy capable of blowing anyone else out of the water. This might be popular sympathy for the underdog, or an imperialist disappearing-trick, depending on your perspective. National mythologies such as the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ often celebrate something genuinely heroic – as Dunkirk so unquestionably was – but they can too easily be called up to serve other, less worthy, causes.


  3. Lt. Wilkinson RAMC wrote an account on his return from Dunkirk on 5th June 1940; it opens on May 25th:

    May 25th
    Bill, Charlie, Michael, George and Victor departed in full battle order complete with valises, ten N.O.s and a nasty feeling in the stomach bound for Dover and ultimately Dunkirk. On arrival at Dover we found that we were part of a collection of about 30 M.O.s who were to assist in the treatment of casualties during the evacuation of Dunkirk. Bill being the only captain present was put in charge of the whole under command of Colonel Blake and was responsible for the organisation and on successive days made five or six trips to and from and into Dunkirk itself.

    May 26th
    Charles, George, Michael and Victor sailed on the destroyer H.M.S. Verity and it being found impossible to land them in Dunkirk harbour owing to the excessive number of bombs falling in that area they were taken about two miles up the beach and landed from a flat-bottomed boat, having to wade the last 25 yards complete with full kit, stores, food etc.
    The first dressing station of the 171st Field Ambulance under active service conditions was then opened in an abandoned ambulance just to the left of a Sanitorium.

    Lt. Wilkinson’s account was sent to The Dunkirk Project by his son, George Wilkinson, and continues tomorrow, 27th May.

    • Roy Martin Says:

      Here are more details about these first stages of the rescue operation on 26th May 1940:

      ‘Operation Dynamo’ was officially put into effect at about 7pm on May 26 using vessels which had been assembling at various locations for some days. At 7.30pm HMS Wolsey left Dover for Dunkirk harbour to act as a wireless link, although in the event it proved impossible to use a destroyer in this way because of the frequency and intensity of air attacks. The hospital carriers Isle of Guernsey and Worthing were already in Dunkirk harbour awaiting casualties; it was planned that two such ships would sail daily from Dunkirk to Newhaven.

      Troop withdrawals had already been taking place from Dunkirk for several days, but the sailing of the Mona’s Queen at 8pm with 1,312 troops was the first ‘Dynamo’ crossing from Dunkirk. Her departure enabled Maid of Orleans to get alongside a quay which then became one end of a human chain, to start unloading the 6,000 two-gallon cans of fresh water she had brought from Dover, a requirement necessitated by the bombing of the local water supply system. While this unloading was in progress, another passenger ship, Canterbury, parted company from her escorting destroyer HMS Wild Swan and berthed beside Maid of Orleans to embark 1,269 servicemen. Canterbury then became the second ‘Dynamo’ departure to Dover.

      This information is from B.E.F. Ships Before, At and After Dunkirk by John de S. Winser (ISBN 0 905617 91 6)

  4. Liz Mathews Says:

    A BBC article about the 2015 commemoration ceremony in Dunkirk can be seen on this link:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-32856764
    It’s so moving to see those veterans (including the Little Ships) still going strong, and good that these poignant five-yearly Return to Dunkirk ceremonies involve not only the military authorities but also a real town and ordinary people (with their boats).
    Frances Bingham’s article ‘True Remembering’ (posted today on https://wordsincompany.wordpress.com/2015/05/26/true-remembering/) discusses the complexities of anniversary commemorations, citing No Glory’s aim in commemorating the First World War ‘to mark the courage of many of those involved in the war, but also to remember the almost unimaginable devastation caused… and to ensure that this anniversary is used to promote peace and international co-operation.’ (www.noglory.org)

  5. Arthur Addis Says:

    [Dunkirk was] the scene of the greatest defeat the British army has ever experienced.

    Roughly 200,000 British and under 140,000 French troops were evacuated to England by an amazing fleet of British and Allied warships, civilian ships, large and small, and an enormous number of little boats like the one that took us to the tug – but at what cost!

    Thirty-eight Royal Naval vessels sunk, including six destroyers and a hospital ship, nearly 200 other vessels lost and over 100 RAF fighters. The British Army alone had over 68,000 casualties, killed, missing, wounded or taken prisoner: in addition there were thousands of Royal Navy, Royal Air Force and civilian casualties. We lost 2500 field guns and a million tons of equipment , tanks, vehicles, stores, ammunition.

    The enemy, however, despite their vastly superior strength and armour, did not get off scot-free. They lost over 300 aircraft, and although there is no estimate of their Army casualties, one cannot imagine that those who found themselves up against our Guards Brigade, for instance, really enjoyed the experience.

    It was not, however, a defeat in the usual sense of the word. Our own line was never breached. The variety of medals worn at a Dunkirk Veterans’ parade shows that most of the survivors were able to fight again in every theatre of the war, and win.

    [Many thanks to Helen Addis for sharing her father’s account of his experiences at Dunkirk and his thoughts on its significance.]


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