Dunkirk on Monday, May 27, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • Germans take Calais.
  • Allies learned that King Leopold III of Belgium was formally surrendering, which would create a 20 mile gap in Allied flank, threatening their ability to reach coast.
  • FBI receives 2,900 reports of espionage and sabotage after President Roosevelt’s fireside chat warning about “fifth columnists” the night before.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; Examples of why the logistical challenges of Operation Dynamo were so daunting:

At 11: 00 a.m. on the 27th the first convoy— two transports, two hospital ships, and two destroyers— left Dover and arrived off Dunkirk nearly six hours later.

The extra effort was largely wasted, for at the moment Dunkirk was taking such a pounding from the Luftwaffe that the port was practically paralyzed. The Royal Daffodil managed to pick up 900 men, but the rest of the convoy was warned to stay clear: too much danger of sinking and blocking the harbor. With that, the convoy turned and steamed back to Dover.

During the evening four more transports and two hospital ships arrived by Route Y. The transport Canterbury picked up 457 troops at the Gare Maritime, but then the Luftwaffe returned for a nighttime visit, and it again looked as though the harbor might be blocked.

As Canterbury [transport] pulled out, she received a signal from the shore to turn back any other vessels trying to enter. She relayed the message to several ships waiting outside, and they in turn relayed it to other ships. There was more than one inexperienced signalman at sea that night, and garbles were inevitable. By the time the warning was flashed by a passing ship to the skoot Tilly, coming over by Route Y, it said, “Dunkirk has fallen and is in enemy hands. Keep clear.”

Tilly was one of six skoots that had sailed together from the Dover Downs that afternoon. Her skipper, Commander Clemments, had no idea why he was going to Dunkirk. His only clue was a pile of 450 lifejackets that had been dumped aboard just before sailing— rather many for a crew of eleven. Now here was a ship telling him to turn back from a trip he didn’t understand anyhow. After consulting with the nearest skoot, he put about and returned to Dover for further orders….

This chain of mishaps and misunderstandings explained why the men waiting on the beaches saw so few ships on May 27. Only 7,669 men were evacuated that day, most of them “useless mouths” evacuated by ships sent from Dover before Dynamo officially began. At this rate it would take 40 days to lift the BEF.

As the bad news flowed in, Admiral Ramsay and his staff in the Dynamo Room struggled to get the show going again. Clearly more destroyers were needed—to escort the convoys, to fight off the Luftwaffe, to help lift the troops, to provide a protective screen for the longer Route Y. Ramsay fired off an urgent appeal to the Admiralty: take destroyers off other jobs; get them to Dunkirk.…

Again from Lord’s book; How Allied forces bought time for troops to retreat to Dunkirk and how some dealt with Nazi propaganda – great example of unintended consequences:

Propaganda that confirmed that a path to coast was real

Le Paradis … Festubert … Hazebrouck—it was the fight put up at villages like these that bought the time so desperately needed to get the trapped troops up the 60-mile corridor to Dunkirk. The British 2nd Division, supported by some French tanks, took a merciless beating, but their sacrifice enabled two French divisions and untold numbers of the BEF to reach the coast. As the battered battalions swarmed up the corridor, the Luftwaffe continued to roam the skies unopposed. Besides bombs, thousands of leaflets fluttered down, urging the Tommies to give up. The addressees reacted in various ways. In the 58th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, most men treated the leaflets as a joke and a useful supply of toilet paper.

Some men in the 250th Field Company, Royal Engineers, actually felt encouraged by a map that featured the Dunkirk beachhead. Until now, they hadn’t realized there was still a route open to the sea so near at hand.

A sergeant in the 6th Durham Light Infantry carefully read another leaflet with explicit wording and images, then observed to Captain John Austin: “They must be in a bad way, sir, to descend to that sort of thing.”

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.27 – Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with only 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.

About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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