The Royal Navy and the Dunkirk Evacuation

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk Evacuation which took place between 26 May and 4 June 1940. The rescue was co-ordinated by Vice-Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey and was also known as Operation Dynamo, so called because it was planned in a former Dynamo Room underneath Dover Castle.

When people think of the Dunkirk Evacuation, many remember the small civilian-owned boats known as the ‘Little Ships’ of Dunkirk. After the evacuation these boats and their owners were highlighted by Churchill and the government to emphasise that Nazi Germany was a threat to the general public and that everyone could contribute to the war effort. However it is important to remember that the Royal Navy also played an important and vital role in this historic operation.

During the evacuation, two thirds of the 338,000 troops brought home were rescued directly from Dunkirk’s famous ‘Mole’ by Royal Navy Destroyers and larger merchant ships. Throughout the evacuation, the ‘Little Ships’ worked alongside the Royal Navy. This was due to the sloping beaches of Dunkirk which only smaller boats could reach, therefore the role of the ‘Little Ships’ was to ferry troops from the beaches to the larger ships waiting off shore.

Although the operation was deemed a success, the Royal Navy did suffer some losses, as six Destroyers were sunk and 19 damaged, this resulted in the loss of more than 500 Royal Navy sailors who were supporting the evacuation – you can find their names on www.naval-history.net

Once Operation Dynamo finished, the Royal Navy continued to rescue thousands of British soldiers that remained trapped on the beaches of France. Over the following weeks many were safely evacuated in a series of similar operations, which have been largely forgotten about. These operations saw nearly 192,000 troops evacuated, including 144,000 British soldiers, with the remainder being French, Belgian, Polish and Czech. These evacuations included Operation Cycle from Le Havre and Operation Aerial which was a series evacuations from Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, Nantes, and St Nazaire. Le Havre, Cherbourg and St Malo which were co-ordinated by Admiral Sir William James, Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth.

Like Dunkirk, these evacuation were not without issues, as on 17 June during the evacuation from St Nazaire, German bombers sank the liner Lancastria which was being used to transport troops home. Unfortunately, it is not known how many were on board at the time, however it is estimated that 6,500 lost their lives, making this the worst disaster in British maritime history.  In order to keep morale high, Churchill kept the disaster a secret for five weeks.

So as we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk Evacuation, it is important to remember the stories of all who helped, from the ‘Little Ships’  to the larger Royal Navy destroyers and Merchant Navy, all of which played a crucial role is this successful operation.

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