It is late May 1940 and the British Expeditionary Force is in retreat, pinned against the Channel coast.
They had sailed for France almost nine months before, anticipating Hitler’s Blitzkrieg that finally came on May 10 when Germany invaded Belgium and Holland.
Now, Lord Gort, head of the BEF, has decided to evacuate his troops — and Churchill’s generals are praying for a miracle.
As an epic new film, Dunkirk, opens in cinemas, author JONATHAN MAYO reveals in electrifying detail how the heroic mass evacuation unfolded…
One British officer, Captain Jack Churchill (pictured), brought a bow and arrow with him to France
Monday, May 27, 1940
1am: Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay has been put in charge of the evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo. The War Cabinet has given him two days to evacuate 45,000 men, most of them from the BEF.
From his underground headquarters in Dover, Ramsay is writing to his wife Mag, who sends him daily supplies of gingerbread and asparagus. ‘I have on at the moment one of the most difficult and hazardous operations ever conceived… I hardly dare think about it or what the day is going to bring.’
5am: Luftwaffe bomber formations appear in the dawn skies over Dunkirk. Calais was captured yesterday, so Dunkirk to the north-east is now their primary target.
Its harbour is soon ablaze and the glow from the fires can be seen in England. Burning oil storage tanks send a column of black smoke into the sky. The troops find cover where they can — one lance corporal hides in a wooden Tate & Lyle crate. Dunkirk smells of spent high explosive and burning oil.
Inland, German planes are dropping leaflets that read ‘British soldiers! Put down your arms!’ A map on the leaflet, showing where the British Army is trapped on the French coast, gives hope to many soldiers who hadn’t believed the stories about an escape route via Dunkirk. Some are using the leaflets as toilet paper.
9am: Thousands of soldiers are descending to the gently sloping beaches of the seaside resorts to the east of Dunkirk.
Some are drinking in abandoned cafes, others are sunbathing or swimming, but most have joined a series of queues a quarter of a mile long that snake from the sea up to the dunes, waiting patiently for a small boat to take them out to a larger vessel. Those at the front are standing up to their necks in the water.
The BEF is a regular army, so discipline is generally good, but there is some disorder.
Captain Anthony Rhodes of the Royal Engineers sees a soldier running towards the head of a queue where a naval officer is loading a boat. The officer points his gun at the man. ‘Go back to the place you’ve come from or I’ll shoot!’ he shouts. The soldier walks slowly away.
It is late May 1940 and the British Expeditionary Force is in retreat, pinned against the Channel coast (File photo)
10am: Vice-Admiral Ramsay knows that ferries and fast destroyers are vital for a swift and successful evacuation, but that he also needs a fleet of small ships to ferry troops from the Dunkirk beaches to the destroyers.
By a stroke of luck, a Small Vessels Pool has already been created. On May 14, the government had placed advertisements in newspapers and made announcements on the BBC asking for boats from 30ft to 100ft in length to work as auxiliary vessels in harbours. These boats are now being mobilised.
In the London Pool, lifeboats are being taken off liners; along the coast, the crews of trawlers, barges and tugboats are being contacted.
Although RNLI crews doubt their lifeboats are suitable for bringing men off beaches, the Admiralty takes them anyway. Among the vessels requisitioned by the Navy is the 26ft motor yacht Chalmondesleigh, which is owned by the comedian Tommy Trinder and named after the imaginary friend he mentions in his act. ‘It took the signwriter three days to complete,’ Tommy used to joke.
At the Tough Brothers boatyard on the Thames, the phone rings. Douglas Tough answers — it’s an admiral from the Small Vessels Pool who wants to know if he will round up craft in his area to rescue the BEF. Douglas has a dozen in the boatyard that would be ideal, and knows he can find more.
11am: At the village of L’ Epinette, 20 miles from Dunkirk, 80 men from the 2nd Manchesters are trying to hold back the German advance. One of their officers, Captain Jack Churchill, brought a bow and arrow with him to France. Now is his chance to use it. Taking up position in a granary loft, Jack spots a German unit sheltering behind a building and lets fly an arrow, hitting an infantryman in the chest and killing him.
As an epic new film, Dunkirk, opens in cinemas, author JONATHAN MAYO reveals in electrifying detail how the heroic mass evacuation unfolded. Pictured, a still from the upcoming movie
6pm: In the town of Wormhoudt, 17 miles from Dunkirk, 80 British soldiers, most from the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, are being herded into a barn by the SS Adolf Hitler Regiment. Overrun and out of ammunition, the British had surrendered.
With all the men inside the barn, the SS throw in hand grenades and fire their machine guns. Two British soldiers leap on top of the grenades to save their comrades, but in vain. Only six men survive.
Douglas Tough has spent the day in his boatyard preparing vessels for a voyage across the Channel and has gone up and down the Thames looking for volunteers to join the armada. If he spots a suitable boat, but can’t find the owner, he takes it anyway. Some boats make several Channel crossings before their owners even realise they are missing.
10.30pm: Too few men are being rescued from the beaches. Captain William Tennant RN, who has been given command of the operation on shore, has been in Dunkirk for just a few hours when he spots a solution.
Although Dunkirk’s five miles of quays have been wrecked, two long piers, or moles, stretching into the harbour mouth are unharmed. They are wide enough for three men to walk abreast and will make jetties. Tennant signals to HMS Wolfhound to come alongside the East Mole and take on 1,000 men.
4am: After 18 days of fighting, Belgium surrenders to the Nazis. In Churchill’s words, the ceasefire ‘adds appreciably to the grievous peril’ of British troops at Dunkirk.
5.07am: In Dover, Vice-Admiral Ramsay receives a signal from the destroyer HMS Wakeful: ‘Plenty troops, few boats.’ The number of queues on the beaches is increasing.
On board the paddle steamer Medway Queen, First Lieutenant John Graves is amazed by the lines of men stretching from the dunes into the sea, looking ‘like human piers’. Officers wade about, offering words of encouragement.
Medway Queen lowers her lifeboats to bring men aboard. Below decks, cook Thomas Russell has been told by the ship’s captain to prepare sandwiches and hot drinks ‘for several hundred men who will no doubt feel somewhat peckish’.
8.30am: Captain Anthony Rhodes, who yesterday on the beach saw a naval officer draw his gun, has arrived safely in England and is on a train bound for Waterloo Station in London.
They had sailed for France almost nine months before, anticipating Hitler’s Blitzkrieg that finally came on May 10 when Germany invaded Belgium and Holland. Pictured, a still from the upcoming movie
The train is full of bedraggled soldiers as well as pinstriped commuters. To Rhodes’s surprise, the gentleman sitting next to him puts two half-crowns in his hand.
11.30am: In the middle of the daily War Cabinet meeting, Winston Churchill is handed a note from Naval Intelligence that contains bad news for the troops at Dunkirk — the terms of the Belgian armistice.
‘Belgian troop movements forbidden … troops to line up on the side of roads and await orders, showing white flags … German troops to be allowed to proceed to coast.’
But there is some good news for the War Cabinet — 11,400 troops landed back in Britain overnight and 2,500 more are on their way.
Noon: The little ships start to arrive off the coast of France.
Pleasure yachts, cabin cruisers, cockleboats and motor launches, crewed by solicitors, farmers, journalists, a cinema manager.
They have all signed the papers that make them subject to Navy discipline and promise them a one-off payment of £3.
Their role is to get as close to shore as possible, pick up the men from the queues in the sea, then transfer them to waiting destroyers, ferries and minesweepers.
Some steam launches are making their first ever sea voyage. Among them is the Marchioness, that will survive coming under fire at Dunkirk, but 49 years later — crowded with bithday party revellers on the Thames — will be hit by the dredger Bowbelle, with the loss of 51 lives.
The Mole running out into Dunkirk harbour is working well — 11 destroyers have picked up troops this morning. But the men on the beaches have built their own pier, made from army trucks that they have driven into the sea. Duckboards have been placed on top for the soldiers to walk on.
6pm: Twenty-five government ministers arrive at Admiralty House for a meeting with Churchill (he is living in a flat there until the previous Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, leaves Downing Street). Churchill tells them about the Dunkirk evacuation and that although Paris will soon fall, he will not enter negotiations with ‘That Man’ [Hitler]: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’
The ministers roar their approval.
10pm: The paddle steamer Medway Queen has made her second trip of the day to France and is leaving Dunkirk laden with soldiers. First Lieutenant John Graves watches with alarm as sparks start to fly from the ship’s funnel in the gathering darkness, making her an easy target for Nazi bombers.
He helps organise a bucket chain along the deck and up ladders to the top of the funnel.
The tallest sailor on board is pouring the water down the funnel and into the engine room — much to the annoyance of the engine room’s crew.
Now, Lord Gort, head of the BEF, has decided to evacuate his troops — and Churchill’s generals are praying for a miracle. Pictured, a still from the upcoming movie
Sergeant Frank Hurrell of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps has queued all day with a wounded leg to escape France, and now he is on a ship pulling out of Dunkirk harbour.
Suddenly there is a German Stuka dive-bomb attack and Frank is blown into the water, losing both his walking stick and his rifle. He manages to swim slowly to a beach. He limps his way to the back of a queue.
In Dover, Vice-Admiral Ramsay is pleased — 17,804 men were brought out today. It is clear that Operation Dynamo is going so well, it will exceed the War Cabinet’s target of 45,000 men and should continue beyond its planned two days.
8am: The Germans are now only five miles from Dunkirk, but low cloud and pouring rain mean there will be a welcome respite from attacks by the Luftwaffe, for a while at least.
2.45pm: The weather has cleared and the Luftwaffe seizes the opportunity for a massive Stuka attack. To avoid the blasts on the beaches, men are curled up in foxholes they have dug in the sand with their bare hands.
Some have hidden there for many days. Luftwaffe corporal Hans Mahnert looks down from his Stuka dive-bomber at the armada of ships in the Channel and it reminds him of a painting he’d seen of the Battle of Trafalgar.
The destroyers loading troops on the East Mole pier are the bombers’ main target. HMS Jaguar is hit and forced to return to Dover, listing heavily.
HMS Grenade is set on fire after being struck by two bombs; as the soldiers and sailors scramble onto the Mole to escape, they are machine-gunned by a fighter plane. Able Seaman P. Cavanagh is pushed to the ground by a man behind him, who then covers him with his body. As the plane disappears, Cavanagh asks him to get off, but there is no reply. He has been killed.
Some troops rush back along the East Mole towards the town, desperate to escape the bombs and gunfire. Two Royal Navy commanders stand in their way and draw their revolvers.
One says quietly: ‘We have come to take you back to the U.K. I have six shots here and I’m not a bad shot. The lieutenant behind me is an even better one. So that makes 12 of you. Now get down into those bloody ships!’
7pm: The Red Funnel paddle steamer Gracie Fields, famous for her speed on the daily run between Southampton and the Isle of Wight, is carrying 750 exhausted men. Although she’s fast, she can’t outrun a German bomber — her engine room takes a direct hit.
Pictured, LaPanne near Dunkirk after the British retreat and mass evacuation in 1940
With her rudder jammed, the steamer begins to circle. Smaller vessels manage to get alongside and bring the troops on board. One strong gunner from the Royal Artillery carries men across on his shoulders one at a time.
A few days later, the writer J.B. Priestley, who lives on the Isle of Wight and travelled on the Gracie Fields many times, will pay tribute to her on the BBC: ‘This little steamer, like all her brave and battered sisters, is immortal. Our great-grandchildren may learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.’
8.15pm: The captain of HMS Vimy is sending a message to Vice-Admiral Ramsay: ‘Request continuous fighter action in the air. If these conditions are not complied with, a scandal, repetition scandal, reflecting on the present British Cabinet for ever, will pass to history.’ The message is swiftly passed on to Downing Street.
The soldiers at Dunkirk feel the RAF has abandoned them. In fact RAF pilots are flying hundreds of sorties to protect the troops, but many of them are farther south to ambush German bombers on their way to Dunkirk. The daily losses of aircraft are higher than in the Battle of Britain a few weeks later.
9pm: This has been a disastrous day for the Royal Navy —three destroyers have been sunk and six badly damaged in the harbour and in the Channel. The Admiralty tells Vice-Admiral Ramsay that all modern destroyers must be withdrawn from the Dunkirk evacuation — they are just too valuable.
10pm: Churchill is making his eighth visit of the day to the Admiralty War Room to check on the evacuation’s progress. The officer in charge, Captain Richard Pim, asks him for four days’ leave to travel to France to help the evacuation. ‘God bless you,’ Churchill replies. ‘I wish I were going with you myself.’
Harry Styles (left) stars in the upcoming film about the heroic Dunkirk evacuation
2am: The hospital ship Isle of Guernsey, a Southern Railway steamer, is slowly pulling away from the East Mole in Dunkirk harbour. She has been converted to carry 250 wounded men, but has nearly 1,000 filling every available space — some are even in the lifeboats. Shell-shock cases are below decks, sedated and under guard.
Suddenly, the steamer shudders to a halt — the Isle of Guernsey has hit a sandbank.
All on board are terrified because, despite being painted with Red Cross markings, many hospital ships have been attacked and sunk in the past few days.
The Isle of Guernsey is a sitting duck. All the crew can do is wait for the rising tide to carry them off. After a nervous hour-long wait, she floats free.
6am: Captain NDG James of the 68th Field Battery wakes up in a sand trench on the beach. James can hear French voices, so he peers over the edge and sees a burial party a few feet away. He discovers he isn’t in a trench — he’s in a newly dug grave, so he scrambles out and walks away.
7am: The Army informs Vice-Admiral Ramsay that the perimeter created by British and French troops to keep the Germans back from Dunkirk ‘cannot be held for long’.
Soldiers are fleeing on bicycles and horses — one soldier is even using a pair of rollerskates.
Royal Engineer Leonard Howard, 21, is trudging towards Dunkirk with a sergeant-major who has tears running down his face. ‘I never thought I’d see the British Army like this,’ he says.
As the ruthless German forces advance relentlessly and the Luftwaffe’s planes fill the skies, the fate of that Army balances on a knife-edge.
- Jonathan Mayo is the author of D-Day: Minute by Minute, published by Short Books at £8.99.