80 years ago: Dunkirk

Friday, May 29, 2020 - Saturday, December 19, 2020
All Day

‘The picture will always remain sharp-etched in my memory – the lines of men wearily and sleepily staggering across the beach from the dunes to the shallows, falling into the little boats; great columns of men thrust out into the water among bomb and shell splashes…

Some of the big boats pushed in until they were almost aground, taking appalling risks with the falling tide. The men thankfully scrambled up the sides on rope nets, or climbed the hundreds of ladders

The little boats, that ferried from the beach to the big ships in deep water, listed drunkenly with the weight of men. The big ships slowly took on lists of their own with the enormous numbers crowded aboard. And always down the dunes and across the beach came new hordes of men, new columns, new lines.’

Captain ‘Ticker’ Whittaker

Since the rise of Hitler in 1933, the fear of war had haunted Europe. Yet little had been done to re-equip the army for modern warfare. On the 1 September 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. Two days later the Prime Minster announced that Britain was at war with Germany.

After the brief ‘phoney war’ in France, the 1st Battalion are sent to Norway to fight the German invasion. Meanwhile four Green Howard Territorial battalions (4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th) wait for the Nazi invasion. These men are not professional soldiers – they are territorials who have only trained in the evenings, weekends, and at annual camps.

On the 10 May 1940 the Nazis invade Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg and two days later they invade France. Very quickly they begin to trap British, French, Canadian and Belgium troops in a vast pincer movement.

British, French, and Belgian troops are forced to retreat. Pushed back to the coast, hundreds of thousands of troops are stranded on the beaches around the French port of Dunkirk.

A huge rescue, ‘Operation Dynamo’, begins on 26 May 1940.  French, Belgian, Dutch, and Norwegian ships, plus an unknown number of small boats sail on their own initiative, helping with the evacuation.

By the 4th June 338,000 troops had been rescued. 90,000 remained to be taken prisoner. A huge quantity of equipment, including tanks and heavy guns are left behind and later put to use by the German Army.

Germany’s invasion of France has succeeded. German newspapers describe the evacuation as a wild, disintegrated escape, ‘like a boxer who collapses under the blows from his opponent’. However, the number of troops rescued from the beaches means that Britain and its Allies can fight on. For the British, Dunkirk is an heroic retreat which turns into a great morale boost. The ‘Dunkirk spirit’ helps the country through the next five years of war.

Find out more…

4th and 5th Battalions in France and their retreat to Dunkirk

6th and 7th Battalions in France and their retreat to Dunkirk

Objects and archive from the Green Howards Collection