Many British soldiers felt the RAF
failed to provide sufficient protection from the German Luftwaffe during the evacuation at Dunkirk. Despite Churchill's vigorous defense
of the RAF's performance, British Army hostility toward the RAF for its alleged failure over Dunkirk continued to strain relations between
the RAF and the army for years afterwards. With the benefit of hindsight, it is
easier to see that Churchill’s assessment, while overly flamboyant, was closer
to the mark.
On 21 May, just eleven days after launching their offensive against France, units of the German Wehrmacht reached the channel coast. By 24 May, Boulogne fell to the Germans and Calais was surrounded and besieged. The entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was trapped in a pocket centered at the town of Dunkirk on the Normandy coast. It was immediately apparent to the BEF’s Commanding General, John Viscount Gort, that only an evacuation to England could save his army. Expecting the German panzers to break through the weak perimeter defenses within a couple of days, the British war cabinet estimated that at most 45,000 men might be evacuated before the Germans overran the Allied defenses and ended the operation.
Fortunately for the British, on 23 May Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt ordered the panzers to stop pressing at the heels of the retreating British, French and Belgian forces pulling back towards Dunkirk. Some panzer divisions were down to 50% strength (more due to wear and tear on the vehicles than enemy action) and the German field marshal recognized the need to give the units time to rest and regroup before facing the main French army drawn up in defense of Paris. Furthermore, the terrain around Dunkirk was marked by marshes and canals, a combination viewed as unsuitable for armored vehicles. Hitler agreed with this tactical decision, while Goering eagerly offered to use air power to destroy the enemy troops crushed together in the Dunkirk pocket.
Between 24 and 26 May, the Allies forces used the lull in the ground fighting to establish a more robust, defensible perimeter around the port of Dunkirk. Thus, when the panzers received the order to advance again, they encountered organized and effective resistance. Furthermore, the German armored divisions were soon withdrawn from the fight for Dunkirk in order to engage in the assault on Paris. As a result, it would not be until June 5 that the German Wehrmacht seized the beaches of Dunkirk. By that date, an astonishing 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated to safety in England.
The evacuation started slowly with the removal of just 7,700 men on 26 May, but by 27 May, the numbers had more than doubled to 17,300 men. On 28 May, although a similar number was evacuated, a flotilla of small ships arrived to aid in the operation. These had comparatively shallow draft, enabling them to move close enough to the beach for men to wade out to the boats rather than all having to file over the Eastern breakwater to board a ship moored at the end.
Thereafter, the numbers taken off daily increased significantly, peaking on 31 May. The daily number evacuated daily was approximately:
· 47,300 on 29 May;
· 53,800 on 30 May;
· 68,000 May 31;
· 64,400 June 1.
· 26,200 June 2
· 26,700 June 3
· 26,100 June 4
On the night of 2 June, the last of the British troops at Dunkirk were evacuated. Yet the operation did not end until another 75,000 French troops had also been transported to England. When the Wehrmacht broke through the defenses on June 5 and captured Dunkirk, only roughly 40,000 French troops remained to surrender.
Of those evacuated, 198,000 were British, 140,000 French, Belgian or Dutch. Not to be forgotten, however, were roughly 50,000 British troops who had not made it to the pocket at Dunkirk. Many had sacrificed themselves to make the evacuation at Dunkirk possible, fighting at Boulogne, Calais and the defenses around Dunkirk. Eleven thousand gave their lives, while the remainder became prisoners of war for the duration.
A total of 861 allies ships took part in the evacuation code named “Dynamo.” Of these, 693 were British. A cruiser, 39 destroyers, 36 minesweepers and 13 torpedo boats of the Royal Navy were joined by 49 warships from allied navies, but the vast majority of the ships that took part in the operation were not warships. In addition to 8 hospital ships, 45 troop/passenger ships, 113 trawlers, and numerous merchant ships, tugboats, ferries, pleasure boats and yachts assisted with the evacuation. While the larger ships accounted for the bulk of the troops rescued at Dunkirk (ca. 240,000); the small ships accounted for the remainder or nearly 100,000 men.
Royal Navy ships disembarking troops at Dover
The evacuation was an astonishing and unexpected success, yet it came at a cost. In the course of Operation Dynamo, nine destroyers were sunk along with 200 smaller ships. Several of these ships sunk after taking troops aboard, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives — usually before the eyes of the troops still waiting to be rescued and the passengers and crews of other rescue vessels. Furthermore, starting 27 May, the troops awaiting their turn to board or already embarked were under frequent attack from the Luftwaffe. (On 25 and 26 May the Luftwaffe concentrated on bombing Calais, Lille and Amiens, and only thereafter started the offensive against Dunkirk.)
In the nine days from 27 May to 4 June, the Luftwaffe flew thousands of sorties against the trapped Allied troops, deploying over 300 bombers from two Kampfgeschwader protected by roughly 550 fighter escorts. In addition, it hammered the town of Dunkirk killing roughly 1,000 civilians, destroying the docks, and setting petrol tanks on fire that could not be put out because the water system had been shattered.
The Royal Air Force was tasked with preventing the Luftwaffe from slaughtering the Allied troops by establishing air superiority in the skies over Dunkirk. From Dowding downwards, no one was in doubt about what was at stake, and a maximum effort was made. When Operation Dynamo ended, 2,739 sorties had been flown in just nine days. Throughout, however, the RAF was fighting at a severe disadvantage.
First, it had just lost more than 300 front line fighters (Hurricanes) in the Battle of France. The squadrons that had fought in France were exhausted and no longer combat-ready. More importantly, only squadrons based in the Southeast of England, e.g. 11 Group, could be deployed over France because it was not possible to operate more squadrons from these airfields without overwhelming the command and control system. In short, the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group, Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park had just 32 squadrons and something close to 400 aircraft with which to stop the Luftwaffe.
Park was further handicapped by the lack of forward radar. This meant that, unlike during the Battle of Britain, he had no means of seeing the build-up and approach of German aircraft before they reached their targets. Without that information, it was not possible for Park to deploy his fighter aircraft economically by sending them on targeted interceptions. Instead, the RAF was forced to establish patrols, i.e. send aircraft to fly back and forth over airspace over Dunkirk and in the approaches to it. Pilots reported the frustration of flying patrol after patrol without ever encountering the enemy.
This was a very inefficient use of resources because the fighter aircraft of this period had limited fuel capacity. It took roughly 20 minutes to reach Dunkirk from Fighter Command airfields in Southwest England, and they needed another 20 minutes to return. That left the RAF fighters with fuel for a maximum of fifty minutes flying over Dunkirk and surroundings. If, however, German aircraft were spotted and engaged, the fuel consumption increased dramatically. In short, if the RAF fighters did what they were sent to do, the amount of time they could remain in French airspace fell to 30 minutes or less.
The combination of limited numbers of aircraft and limited patrol duration per aircraft meant for the RAF to patrol the air over Dunkirk continuously, the number of aircraft at anyone time would be no more than a handful. Initially, this was exactly what Park attempted to do; he deploying his fighters in flights of six or eight aircraft. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, sent in bombers formations of 40 or more aircraft. As a result, that no matter how successful the six to eight RAF pilots were, most of the bombers still got passed them to drop their cargoes of high explosives on the troops and ships at Dunkirk.
Within days, Park changed his tactics, sending his fighters across in formations of two or three squadrons. This ensured that when they encountered the enemy, there were enough RAF fighters to effectively break-up a bomber formation and prevent it from delivering its cargo of death and destruction. However, the larger RAF formations could only be created by concentrating the limited forces Park had. This, in turn, meant that there were periods when, indeed, there was not one RAF aircraft in the skies over Dunkirk.
The perception of RAF absence was compounded by other factors. Many of the aerial interceptions and dog-fighting took place at altitudes invisible to the troops on the ground. This was not so much a function of absolute altitude as the fact that throughout the evacuation, the air over the beaches was dirty with the smoke from burning oil tanks and ships. Low cloud and fog was also reported on some days. Furthermore, much of the aerial fighting took place farther inland, as the RAF tried to intercept the bombers before they reached Dunkirk.
While the troops felt abandoned, the RAF pilots were flying five or six sorties a day — an extremely stressful burden that could not be sustained for long. Pilots were getting very little sleep, often woken at 3:30 am to be off at dawn and not released until after dark at 9 pm or later. First-hand accounts speak of eating little and having no time to bathe or shave. Some pilots also took to carrying pistols in their flying boats in case they were shot down behind enemy lines. The stress ate at each man differently, but there was no question in the eyes of the RAF leadership that the pilots were giving their best to the very limits of their endurance.
Although some sorties were futile, when the RAF did intercept the resulting clashes were bitter and deadly. In unlucky engagements, RAF squadrons could be gutted. Particularly damaging for morale was that in several recorded incidents, after being shot down in combat, RAF pilots were treated with disdain or anger by the troops they were trying to protect. In one case, an Army officer tried to prevent an RAF pilot from being taken off the beach so he could rejoin his squadron. The Royal Navy, fortunately, was more sympathetic and cooperative.
On the very first day of the operation, May 27, the RAF lost 14 aircraft and it lost another 13 on the following day. By the end of the evacuation, Fighter Command had lost 106 aircraft, including a number of precious Spitfires. Fifty-six pilots had been killed, and eight had bailed out over France and been taken prisoner. Coming on the heels of the losses in the Battle of France, these were significant numbers.
Officially, based on German statistics, the RAF succeeded in shooting down only marginally more aircraft than they had lost, namely 132. It must be remembered, however, that because the Germans were operating close to their bases, a large number of damaged German aircraft were repaired, rather than written off. These damaged aircraft do not appear in the German statistics. Yet in the battle over Dunkirk, damaged aircraft which were forced to turn back to base were almost as important as aircraft completely destroyed. RAF claims of destroying 390 German aircraft, while certainly inflated, may nevertheless give a better impression of the damage done to German effectiveness.
Ultimately, the success of Operation Dynamo speaks for the RAF. The Royal Navy deserves the lion’s share of the credit for organizing and implementing an improvised evacuation on this scale without a functioning harbor. The civilian volunteers that braved the mine-fields, the shore artillery and the Luftwaffe to make trip after trip in fragile, unarmed craft will always inspire awe, admiration and affection. Yet without doubt, RAF fighters played an important role in reducing the casualties on the beaches by hampering the Luftwaffe’s efforts to destroy the Allied troops from the air.
“Where Eagles Never Flew” opens in the Battle of France. It shows the Battle of Britain from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France. https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew or watch a video teaser at: Eagles Video Teaser