The First Day of the Dunkirk Evacuation

Sunday 26th May 1940, Day 1 at Dunkirk.
Home » Articles » The First Day of the Dunkirk Evacuation

King George VI and Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, carrying their gas masks, went to a special service in Westminster Abbey. Churchill also arrived, explaining that he could only stay for ten minutes. The government had, in their very English way, managed to avoid an official day of prayer, in case it smacked of desperation, but still knew that the churches around the nation could be relied on to pray pretty fervently. “The English are loath to expose their feelings,” wrote Churchill later, “but in my stall in the choir I could feel the pent up, passionate emotion, and also the fear of the congregation, not of death or wounds or material loss, but of defeat and the final ruin of Britain.”

If anywhere in the nation was aware of the peril they were in, it was the Westminster community. If the rest of the country was reading their newspapers where the danger was not being spelled out, Westminster knew and feared the future.

Churchill and his ministers left in the middle of the service to meet Reynaud and his delegation from Paris. He had already held a war cabinet meeting beforehand, when Halifax revealed his conversations with the Italians and made his first move – emphasising that the priority was “safeguarding the independence of our empire and if possible that of France”.

Churchill was careful. He had been prime minister for less than two weeks and, if he provoked Halifax into resigning, it could be disastrous both for him and the nation. He simply replied that a German-dominated Europe would never provide peace or security. When he and Chamberlain rushed off to Westminster Abbey, he asked the war cabinet to meet again at 2pm – after a lunch with Reynaud, who he told that Britain would fight on (though that issue had not yet been decided). Reynaud said he feared he could be forced out when he refused to sign a separate peace.

Two departments in Whitehall, opposite each other across the road, where the lights had been burning all weekend, and whose officials were probably not in the abbey that morning, were fearing the worst. In the Admiralty and the War Office, they knew that the BEF had been streaming northwards all night, with their rearguard also withdrawing slowly towards the sea. The time was rapidly approaching to start the evacuation in earnest.

Admiral Ramsay

Ramsay had dubbed it Operation Dynamo, partly after the machine which hummed away in his cave providing him with electricity. But it was a well-chosen name, because somehow the nation would have to generate unprecedented energy if they were going to escape.

He could look down from the Igloo that morning at Dover Harbour, packed with former cross-Channel ferries, begged, borrowed and stolen from other departments and commands, and mainly manned by civilian crews. There were navy destroyers, cargo ships, minesweepers and MTBs, plus a shabbier collection of Dutch and Belgian coasters and British fishing boats, plus ammunition and stores ships tied up ready for unloading, and four powerful tugs, Simla, Gondia, Roman and Lady Brassey fussing around the harbour mouth, ready to guide the big ships on their way.

Operation Dynamo was given the go-ahead a few minutes before 7pm, though Ramsay had been anticipating the order for some hours. At 3pm, he sent the so-called ‘personnel vessels’ – the ferries – ready to arrive as soon as order came. The start of his orchestra of small boats which had gathered at Ramsgate was also sent over in waves designed to avoid bunching off the Dunkirk coast. It was too much of a risk to just queue up, given that this would make them a target for the dive-bombers. Still in Ramsgate Harbour were four small Belgian ferries, plus the drifters and the motor boats borrowed from the Contraband Control unit, which were also based there.

The first difficulty, after the huge and not entirely successful efforts of Admiralty officials to crew all the available ships, was that Ramsay’s shortest route to Dunkirk was now impossible because it was within range of the German guns now outside the town. Some of the ships were driven back to Dover, fearful of moving off the designated route that had been swept of mines. But the alternative was a very circuitous route avoiding the minefields, which took the ships far out to the east, before doubling back to Dunkirk, and was twice as long.

While these preparations were going on, Gort travelled to meet Weygand near the frontline, and both were delayed. They missed each other, but Gort found himself face to face with Sir Roger Keyes, the hero of the Zeebrugge Raid in 1918, the Portsmouth MP who had played a key role in the ousting of Chamberlain from Downing Street, who was wearing the full uniform of an admiral of the fleet.

Keyes was not happy. He was a friend of Leopold, King of the Belgians and his job as British liaison to the Belgian court had done nothing to corrode his admiration for the Belgians, under intolerable military pressure. He was also aware that Gort was in the process of withdrawing to the north, leaving the Belgian army exposed.

“Do the Belgians really think us awful dirty dogs?” Gort asked Keyes. He made no reply.

By then, the military situation was in crisis. In the afternoon, the British and French garrison defending Calais finally ran out of ammunition and surrendered. The only part of the coast now open to the BEF was a ten-mile stretch from Dunkirk to the small Belgian resort of La Panne. It was little to aim for, if they had time. And time was now running out – Hitler had now waited long enough and the stop order had been rescinded. It was too late in the day to start the panzers again, and it was soon clear that the command structure of the German forces was now so complex that, before any serious advance could be made, there needed to be a reorganisation. That took much of the next 48 hours.

Ramsay’s instructions for the formal start of Operation Dynamo had been crafted by the First Sea Lord, Dudley Pound:

“The military situation was thought to have deteriorated so rapidly that the Vice-Admiral was informed by the Admiralty that it was imperative for ‘Dynamo’ to be implemented with the greatest vigour, with a view to lifting up to 45,000 of the BEF within two days, at the end of which it was probable that evacuation would be terminated by enemy action.”

It is worth noticing how desperate this was and how small the extent of their ambition at this stage. Rescuing 45,000 men would not have been insignificant, but there would soon be up to ten times that number on the beaches, and most of them might have to be left to their fate. It was a despairing moment. At the same time, Eden signalled Gort “to operate towards the coast in conjunction with the French and Belgian armies”. Again, it was less than completely honest.

British troops on Dunkirk beach, 26 May.

Major-General Andrew Thorne had arrived with his staff at Dunkirk earlier in the day to set up the defensive line, but found the French general Bertrand Fagalde had got their first and was already doing so. Together, they agreed a line using the canals, with the French troops to the west and the British to the east, setting up three evacuation points, at Malo-les-Bains on the eastern edge of Dunkirk, at Bray-Dunes Plage further to the east, and at La Panne just into Belgium.

While the first ships were arriving in Dunkirk, Churchill and the war cabinet were meeting for the third time that day, and his own struggle with his Foreign Secretary was now joined: they disagreed about whether Hitler’s terms, offered through the Italians, would be outrageous or not. Churchill said they would be worthless. He didn’t feel strong enough to oppose him outright, and tried to delay a decision until they knew what was happening in Dunkirk.

For these first hours of the evacuation, Ramsay’s attention was focused on the ferries, which were capable of lifting large numbers of men. To support their commanding officers, Ramsay had insisted on a naval lieutenant-commander aboard each one, plus ten seasoned sailors able to handle ropes under fire.

The plan was for a ferry to be in position to load and leave every four hours. The first one, the modern ferry Queen of the Channel, arrived back in Dover with 1,300 men aboard, and Ramsay watched it come into harbour with a huge sense of relief. Soldiers reported later that, thanks to Ramsay’s preparations, there was hot stew waiting for them on board the ferries, but there were not enough plates aboard to serve so many. They had therefore been served in cocktail glasses.

In London that evening, Captain O. M. Watts, proprietor of the School of Sailsmanship in Albemarle Street, heard through the grapevine about the desperate need to navigators and others who knew how to handle boats. He sent messages to all his pupils that there would be no classes the following week, and urged them to report instead to the navy’s London headquarters, based at the Port of London Authority next to the Tower of London. As many as 73 of his 75 pupils did so and were allocated to ship’s lifeboats, some of them still in their city suits and bowler hats.

At the same time, Hitler was rubber stamping the reversal of the halt order. It would take some time, perhaps even days, to filter through, but Guderian now had permission to gather his forces once more and advance. In London, Churchill had dinner late with Eden, General Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s military assistant, and Ironside, the new commander of British forces at home. He ate almost nothing, brooding about Calais. When he got up from the table, he said: “I feel physically sick”.

Total evacuated this day: 4,237

David Boyle is the author of Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance.