RAF at Dunkirk

  Few chapters in the history of the RAF are as controversial as the RAF's performance during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. Churchill saw the RAF's deeds as a ray of hope worthy of praise. Yet most British army officers and men felt they had been shabbily abandoned. Hostility toward alleged failure over Dunkirk continued to strain relations between the services for years afterwards. With the benefit of hindsight, it is easier to see that Churchill's assessment, while over flamboyant, was closer to the mark.


On 21 May, just eleven days after launching their offensive against France, units of the German Wehrmacht reached the channel coast. By 24 May, Boulogne fell to the Germans and Calais was surrounded and besieged. The entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was trapped in a pocket centered at the city of Dunkirk on the Normandy coast. It was immediately apparent to the BEF’s Commanding General, John Viscount Gort, that only an evacuation to England could save his army. Expecting the German panzers to break through the weak perimeter defenses within a couple of days, the British war cabinet estimated that at most 45,000 men might be evacuated before the Germans overran the Allied defenses and ended the operation.

Fortunately for the British, on 23 May Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt ordered the panzers to stop pursuing at the heels of the retreating British, French and Belgian forces trapped in the Dunkirk pocket. Some panzer divisions were down to 50% strength (more due to wear and tear on the vehicles than enemy action) and the German Field Marshal recognized the need to give the units time to rest and regroup before facing the main French army drawn up in defense of Paris. Furthermore, the terrain around Dunkirk was marked by marshes and canals, a combination viewed as unsuitable for armored vehicles. Hitler agreed with this tactical decision, while Goering eagerly offered to use airpower to destroy the enemy troops crushed together in open countryside.

Between 24 and 26 May, the Allies forces used the lull in the ground fighting to establish a more robust, defensible perimeter around the port of Dunkirk. Thus, when the panzers received the order to advance again, they encountered organized and effective resistance. Furthermore, the armored divisions were soon needed against the French in the south and so withdrawn from the fight for Dunkirk. As a result, it would not be until June 4 that the German Wehrmacht seized the beaches of Dunkirk. By that date, an astonishing 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated to safety in England.

The evacuation started slowly with the removal of just 7,700 men on 26 May, but by 27 May, the numbers had more than doubled to 17,300 men. On 28 May, although a similar number was evacuated, a flotilla of small ships arrived to aid in the operation later in the day, giving the operation new impetus. Thereafter the numbers taken off increased significantly, peaking on 31 May:·

  •        29 May: 47,300 on
  •     30 May: 53,800 on
  •     31 May: 68,000
  •      1 June: 64,400
  •      2 June: 26,200
  • ·        3 June: 26,700
  • ·       4 June: 26,100

On the night of 2 June, the last of the British troops at Dunkirk were evacuated. Yet the operation did not end until another 75,000 French troops had also been transported to England. When the Wehrmacht broke through the defenses on June 5 and captured Dunkirk, only roughly 40,000 French troops remained to surrender.

Of those evacuated, 198,000 were British, 140,000 French, Belgian or Dutch. Not to be forgotten, however, were roughly 50,000 British troops who had not made it to the pocket at Dunkirk. Many had sacrificed themselves to make the evacuation at Dunkirk possible, fighting at Boulogne, Calais and the defenses around Dunkirk. Eleven thousand gave their lives, while the remainder became prisoners of war for the duration.

A total of 861 allies ships were engaged in the evacuation codenamed “Dynamo.” Of these, 693 were British. A cruiser, 39 destroyers, 36 minesweepers and 13 torpedo boats of the Royal Navy were joined by 49 warships from allied navies, but the vast majority of the ships that took part in the operation were not warships. In addition to eight hospital ships, 45 troop/passenger ships, 113 trawlers, and numerous merchant ships, tugboats, ferries, pleasure boats and yachts took part in the evacuation. While the larger ships accounted for the bulk of the troops rescued at Dunkirk (ca. 240,000); the small ships accounted for the remainder or nearly 100,000 men.

The evacuation was an astonishing and unexpected success, yet it came at a high cost. In the  course of Operation Dynamo, nine destroyers were sunk along with 200 smaller ships. Several of these ships sunk after taking troops aboard, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives — usually before the eyes of the troops still waiting to be rescued and the passengers and crews of other rescue vessels. Furthermore, starting 27 May, the troops awaiting their turn to board or already embarked were under frequent attack from the Luftwaffe. (On 25 and 26 May the Luftwaffe concentrated on bombing Calais, Lille and Amiens, and only thereafter started the offensive against Dunkirk.)

In the nine days from 27 May to 4 June, the Luftwaffe flew thousands of sorties against the trapped Allied troops, deploying over 300 bombers from two Kampfgeschwader protected by roughly 550 fighter escorts. In addition, it hammered the town of Dunkirk killing roughly 1,000 civilians, destroying the docks, and setting petrol tanks on fire that could not be put out because the water distribution system had been pulverized.

The Royal Air Force was tasked with preventing the Luftwaffe from slaughtering the Allied troops by establishing air superiority over the beaches of Dunkirk. From Dowding downwards, no one was in doubt about what was at stake, and a maximum effort was made which would add up to 2,739 sorties flown in just nine days. But the RAF was fighting at a severe disadvantage.

First, it had just lost more than 300 front line fighters (Hurricanes) in the Battle of France. The squadrons that had fought in France were exhausted and no longer combat-ready. More importantly, only squadrons based in the Southeast of England, e.g. 11 Group, could be deployed over France because it was not possible to operate more squadrons from these airfields without overwhelming the command and control system. In short, the Air Officer Commanding 11 Group, Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park had just 32 squadrons and something close to 400 aircraft with which to stop the Luftwaffe.

Park was further handicapped by the lack of forward radar. This meant that, unlike during the Battle of Britain, he had no means of seeing the build-up and approach of German aircraft until they were over or near their targets at Dunkirk. It was not possible to use fighter aircraft economically for interceptions of enemy formations. Instead, the RAF was forced to establish patrols, which flew back and forth over airspace over Dunkirk or in the approaches to it. Pilots reported the frustration of flying patrol after patrol and never encountering the enemy.

The fighter aircraft of this period had limited fuel capacity. Because it took roughly 20 minutes to reach Dunkirk from any Fighter Command airfield in Southwest England, the RAF fighters had fuel for a maximum of fifty minutes over Dunkirk and surroundings. If, however, German aircraft were spotted and engaged, the fuel consumption increased dramatically. In short, if RAF fighters did what they were sent to do, the amount of time they could remain in French airspace fell to 30 minutes or less.

The combination of limited numbers of aircraft and limited patrol duration per aircraft meant for the RAF to have aircraft continually in the air over Dunkirk, the number of aircraft at anyone time would have been no more than a handful. This was initially, what Park attempted to do by deploying his fighters in flights. The Luftwaffe, on the other hand, sent in bombers in larger formations of 40 aircraft. This meant that no matter how successful the six to eight RAF pilots were, most of the bombers would still get passed them to drop their cargoes of high explosives on the troops and ships at Dunkirk.

Within days, Park changed his tactics, sending his fighters across in formations of two or three squadrons. While this ensured that when they encountered the enemy, there were enough RAF fighters to effectively break-up a bomber formation and prevent it from delivering its load of death and destruction. However, the larger RAF formations could only be created by concentrating the limited forces Park had. This, in turn, meant that there were periods when, indeed, there was not one RAF aircraft in the skies over Dunkirk.

Yet the perception of RAF absence was compounded by other factors. Many of the aerial interceptions and dog-fighting took place at altitudes invisible to the troops on the ground. This was not so much a function of altitude as the fact that throughout the evacuation, the air over the beaches was dirty with the smoke from burning oil tanks and ships. Low cloud and fog was also reported on some days. Furthermore, much of the aerial fighting took place farther inland, as the RAF tried to intercept the bombers before they reached Dunkirk.

While the troops felt abandoned, the RAF pilots were flying five or six sorties a day — an extremely stressful burden that could not be sustained for long. Pilots were getting very little sleep, often woken at 3:30 am to be off at dawn and not released until after dark at 9 pm or later. First-hand accounts speak of going unshaved and eating little. Some pilots also took to carrying pistols in their flying boats in case the were shot down behind enemy lines. The stress ate at each man differently, but there was no question in the eyes of the RAF leadership that the pilots were giving their best to the very limits of their endurance.

Although some sorties were futile, when the RAF did intercept the resulting clashes were bitter and deadly. In unlucky engagements, RAF squadrons could be gutted. Particularly damaging for morale was that in several recorded incidents, after being shot down in combat, RAF pilots were treated with disdain or anger by the troops they were trying to protect. In one case, an Army officer tried to prevent an RAF pilot from being taken off the beach so he could rejoin his squadron. The Royal Navy, fortunately, was more sympathetic and cooperative.

On the very first day of the operation, May 27, the RAF lost 14 aircraft and it lost another 13 on the following day. By the end of the evacuation, Fighter Command had lost 106 aircraft, including a number of precious Spitfires. Fifty-six pilots had been killed, and eight had bailed out over France and been taken prisoner. Coming on the heels of the losses in the Battle of France, these were significant numbers.

Officially, based on German statistics, the RAF succeeded in shooting down only marginally more aircraft than they had lost, namely 132. It must be remembered, however, that because the Germans were operating close to their bases, a large number of German aircraft damaged in combat were later repaired, rather than written off. These damaged aircraft do not appear in the German statistics. Yet in the battle over Dunkirk, damaged aircraft which were forced to turn back to base were almost as important as aircraft completely destroyed. RAF claims of destroying 390 German aircraft, while certainly inflated, may nevertheless give a better impression of the damage done to German effectiveness.

Ultimately, the success of Operation Dynamo speaks for the RAF. The Royal Navy deserves the lion’s share of the credit for organizing and implementing an improvised evacuation on this scale without a functioning harbor. The civilian volunteers that braved the mine-fields, the shore artillery and the Luftwaffe to make trip after trip in fragile, unarmed craft will always inspire awe and admiration. Yet without doubt, RAF fighters played an important role in reducing the casualties on the beaches by hampering the Luftwaffe’s efforts to destroy the Allied troops from the air.

“Where Eagles Never Flew” opens during the Battle of France and continues through Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain.  It shows developments from both sides of the Channel by following the fate of German characters as well as British ones. The British characters are members of the fictional No. 606 (Hurricane) Squadron based at Tangmere. The German characters are the pilots and women auxiliaries of a Me109 Gruppe based in Northern France.  Find out more about “Where Eagles Never Flew” at:  https://crossseaspress.com/where-eagles-never-flew

All novels about the RAF in WWII are intended as tributes to the men in the air and on the ground that made a victory in Europe against fascism possible. These include:

Riding the icy, moonlit sky --

They took the war to Hitler.

Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent.

Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved.

Buy in kindle or pre-order paperback.

 Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles

Find out more about all my aviation books at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/aviation.html




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