Churchill called it a miracle – and it was certainly that. Over nine days in May and June 1940, 240,000 British and 95,000 French soldiers were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk in France.
The allies had been unable to hold up against the sheer might and ferocity of the German blitzkrieg attack and had been pushed back to the sea with just a tiny defensive pocket delaying the final Nazi advance.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the start of Operation Dynamo, an audacious bid to evacuate as many weary remnants of the British Expeditionary Force as possible.
An 800-strong flotilla of Royal Navy ships, tugs, barges, paddle steamers and fishing boats was hastily assembled and radio appeals added the ‘little ships’ – sailing boats and pleasure craft – many crewed by their civilian owners.
From May 26th, under contrast and shellfire and air attack the boats and their crews returned again and again to rescue the British and French forces and take them back to England.
The operation ended on June 4th. 40,000 troops were left behind, many spending the rest of the war in prison but the rescue of a third of a million men was an amazing achievement – but no victory. As Churchill said: “Wars are not won by evacuations”
It did mean though that Britain had enough of an army left to fight on – and the phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’ has gone down in history as typical of British refusal to give up in a time of crisis…
Back in 2004 the BBC made a three-part drama documentary about Dunkirk, with a superb cast including Benedict Cumberbatch, and I wrote a piece about the production for TV Times. I was privileged to interview two veterans from the evacuation, one Clive Tonry, a soldier, and Albert Barnes, a sailor, who went over to Dunkirk to help rescue members of the British Expeditionary Force…
Here are the interviews:
The soldier’s story: Clive Tonry
Clive Tonry Albert Barnes was just 17 years old when he joined the 48th Division Signal Regiment as a signalman in September 1938 after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia.
In January 1940 he and his comrades were dispatched to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. “We then spent the next few months on exercise,” says Clive, now 83. “It was what they called the phoney war.”
In May 1940 Hitler’s armies attacked Holland and Belgium then France. Clive and his unit were sent to the infantry brigade headquarters of 48th Division in Belgium where their job was to relay message to troops on the front.
As the Germans advanced, the allied line was pushed back rapidly. At Burghout he and his colleagues found themselves on the frontline. “Then the order came to destroy all our equipment and march to Dunkirk,” he
“It was 25 miles away and we could already black clouds of smoke,” he recalls “But nothing could prepare us for the scene when we got there – it was absolute chaos.
“There thousands of British and French troops milling around all over the place. Stukas were bombing and the Germans were shelling the beaches – it was very unpleasant.”
Clive was in Dunkirk for 36 hour before he managed to get away. “We formed up in orderly queues down to the waters edge and we were detailed off to go into the sea and get small boats,” he recalls.
“I went in with a couple of other chaps and we got a rowing boat which we brought back to the end of the queue. There we filled it up with twelve soldiers and then rowed it out to the minesweeper Leader.
“The Royal Navy wouldn’t let them stop completely as they’d be sitting targets so we had to jump onto scramble nets. You had to jump and hang on for grim death – I managed to do it but quite a few fell into the sea and were lost.
“Thank God those little boats did come for us – because there was no other way of us getting off the beach because the bigger ships couldn’t come in close.” The minesweeper took Clive and the other survivors back to
Two years later Clive was promoted to corporal and was later sent to train as an officer. He became an officer and went to Normandy with the 11th Armoured Division as part of the D-Day landings.
“Nobody had any thoughts of heroism,” he says. “They just thought they had a job to do.” He retired in 1972 – after 34 years’ services with the rank of Brigadier. He became a teacher and lived in Dorset.
(Brigadier Clive Edward Tonry OBE, born on 11th November 1920, died on 25th December 2010)
The sailor’s story: Albert Barnes
When 14-year-old Albert Barnes went to work on the morning of 31st May 1940 he thought it would just be another normal day. He was a galley boy on the London docks tugboat Sun XII.
Little did he know he was about to become part of one of the Second World War’s most famous episodes – and is thought to have been the youngest rescuer. From the Thames, the tug headed to Dover where it picked up barges full of fresh water and ammunition.
It then headed to Dunkirk where the evacuation was underway. “Being a kid of 14 I’d never even heard of the place,” he says. “When we got there it was an absolute nightmare.
“It was very frightening, particularly when the Stukas (dive bombers) came down. The place was a graveyard – there were bodies floating about and it was the first time I’d seen a dead body. It was horrendous.”
“We didn’t bring men back – we couldn’t get close enough because of our deep draft. Our job was towing ships off that had run aground then we towed them back home for repairs.”
Albert’s mother had no idea where he was as the tug’s owner had only told her was on government business. “When I got home nearly a fortnight later, she said: ‘Where the hell have you been?’
“When I told her she said: ‘Oh my God!'” Four years later Albert was back off the coast of France crewing a tug which helped tow one of the huge artificial Mulberry harbours into place on D-Day.
(c) Steve Clark 2015. All rights reserved.