|British and French troops, rescued, on their way to Blighty... 13th June, 1940|
The black-and-white movies, Churchill’s plea to the nation, the flotilla of little boats, the miracle of rescuing a third of a million men from certain Nazi capture.
The fact remains that from May 28th to June 4th, 338,000 helpless British and French troops were rescued from appalling conditions as the Dunkirk beaches and port were strafed by Messerschmitt’s and dive-bombed by Stukas. It truly was a terrible experience, and the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ will continue to be one of the reasons that Britain could continue fighting the war.
But its miraculous tale does overshadow the second stage of the troop embarkation.
From the silence which usually follows the word, Dunkirk, many assume the Battle of France was over, the guns silent, Hitler’s triumphant march into Paris heralded by the noise of crickets in the cool summer morning.
But this image is far from the truth.
Millions of men were still fighting.
When the Germans renewed the fighting on the 5th June, they met staunch resistance from French and British troops, including General De Gaule’s Tank Division. The RAF flew from bases south of Paris, the French Air Force, also rejuvenated, took to the air against the Luftwaffe.
But it was a rearguard action. Soon British, French, Polish and Czech forces retreated to the Normandy ports.
|SS Guinean. conditions aboard were extremely cramped|
Operation Cycle (10th – 13th June, 1940) was immediately put into action.
British forces cut off from escape at Dunkirk, terribly disorganized and ill equipped, fled westwards along the coast, making for Le Havre. The 51st Highland Division, assisted by General De Gaule’s tanks fought a bloody rearguard against Rommel's 7th Panzer Division. With the port of Le Havre suddenly cut off, the allies fled to St Valery-En-Caux where Operation Cycle was ready to embark them.
There would be no flotilla of little boats this time. Under air cover from the RAF, the troops were transferred at the port onto destroyers, and civilian ships, commandeered for the purpose, and ferried off the beaches. From 10th-11th June, 2137 British, and 1184 French were rescued from St Valery before the 51st Highland Division finally surrendered.
The men who had managed to reach Le Havre fared better. From the 10th – 13th June, over 11,000 British troops were rescued.
And the relentless Germans pushed onward, rolling British and French troops further westward.
Operation Ariel (15th – 25th June, 1940) commenced.
Despite the lessons learned at Dunkirk, Operation Cycle had shown that large-scale troop embarkation onto large ships could be accomplished. On June 15th, a flotilla of Royal Navy and Merchant Marine ships converged on the ports of Western France. The ships were supported from southern French bases by five Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter squadrons which were further assisted by squadrons from England. The task was to enter the major sea-ports of St Nazaire, and Nantes and rescue British, Polish and Czech troops who had been directed there.
Under Luftwaffe attack, the ships loaded troops and equipment, but disorganization made figures inaccurate.
On June 17th the Luftwaffe sank the Cunard liner HMT Lancastria in the Loire estuary. The troopship had just embarked thousands of troops, RAF personnel and civilians. It is estimated that at least 3500 died in the sinking.
To conform to the terms of the Armistice on June 22nd, the evacuation of Operation Ariel officially ended on June 25th.
Over 191,000 troops were rescued in Operation Ariel, mainly British, Polish and Czech personnel, although accurate figures of nationalities are not known.
In all, Operations Ariel and Cycle rescued over 200,000 troops, including RAF ground crew, ancillary staff, and tons of equipment. Not quite the dramatic rescue of Dinkirk’s flotilla of little boats, but not a drop in a bucket either.
Considering the amount of men deployed, and the amount of men rescued, British deaths in the battle France were only 10,000, and that figure includes the 3500 from the HMT Lancastria.