The Battle for France and the Dunkirk Evacuation May- June 1940

The British Expeditionary Force and the Phoney War

Britain declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939 following Germany’s attack on Poland, and began transporting the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France. By May 1940 the BEF in Northern France consisted of 10 infantry divisions, the 1st Army Tank Brigade and an air force of over 500 aircraft, a total force of over 300,000 men. Commanded by General Viscount Lord Gort, the BEF was a fraction of the size of the French Army and was placed under the overall command of Gamelin the French Commander in Chief. The French had 74 divisions immediately available to face a German attack.

Hitler took a massive gamble in invading Poland, which left the German frontier facing France defended by 25 reserve divisions and virtually no tanks. However, the French and British Allies took no action and sat on the defensive awaiting a German attack. This period of “The Phoney War” or “Sitskrieg” saw very little fighting in the West and the BEF spent a large amount of its time constructing defences along the Franco-German border.

German Plans

Gamelin was convinced that the main force of the German invasion of France would come through Belgium as had occurred during World War 1. France had invested a huge amount of money constructing the Maginot Line fortifications along the border between France and Germany. To the immediate North of this line was the Ardennes region of Luxembourg and Belgium. It was believed that the hills and forests of this area would make the rapid movement of a modern army impossible. To the North of this lay the frontier with neutral Belgium. Gamelin’s conviction was confirmed when a German plane carrying top secret documents lost course and crash landed in Belgium in January 1940. These documents made it clear that the German plan was to make their major attack through Belgium.

However, German plans changed radically in February 1940. Manstein, the Chief of Staff of the German Army Group A, believed that an invasion through Belgium would lead to a stalemate as had occurred in World War 1. Instead, he proposed that the attack through Belgium should be a feint to draw French and British forces North. The main German force would then attack through the Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg, across the River Meuse at Sedan after which the German armoured (Panzer) divisions would drive for the coast. This would cut the Allied armies in two, with the main French force in the South and the remainder of French and British forces in the North. French, British and Belgian forces in the North would be surrounded and the British cut off from the Channel ports.


When Germany attacked France in May 1940, the German army held no superiority on the ground. The German army had a total of 136 divisions* available. Opposing Germany were potential 96 French, 19 British, 22 Belgian and 10 Dutch divisions. The Germans had 2,500 tanks available of which 1,000 were of good quality. The French had 4,000 tanks available of which 2,000 were of good quality. The Germans did hold a significant superiority in the air, in terms of the number and type of aircraft available. However, German military thinking and planning was significantly different than that of France.

*An infantry division comprised of about 15,000 men

A French Char B1 tank

A French Char B1 tank








Following World War 1, military planners began to develop methods of warfare which took advantage of new weapons and new technologies such as radio communication. The term Blitzkreig (Lightning War) was first used to describe German tactics in the invasion of Poland in September 1939. This was a method of warfare whereby an attacking force was spearheaded by dense concentrations of tanks and motorized infantry. This force was heavily backed up by close air support. Attackers would force a breakthrough behind the enemy’s defences, utilizing speed and surprise to encircle enemy formations. The enemy would be unable to respond effectively due to the speed of events and the continually changing front line. Subordinate commanders were encouraged to take initiative and exploit situations as they arose, allowing speed of decision making and flexibility.

French official military thinking was very different. The emphasis in planning was on static defence. A large part of the French army manned the forts of the Maginot Line. German attacks would be stopped by concentrated artillery fire and large defensive formations of troops. Tanks would not be used in concentrated formations, but in small groups to support infantry. Command structures were also rigid, with little scope for local initiative. Communications largely relied on the telephone and messengers, making it difficult for commanders to be aware of events or to issue orders with speed.


The Invasion of France

On 9 April 1940 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. This gave Germany easy access to the seas of Northern Europe and prevented these countries being used by the British. On 10 May the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium and German units began to move through the Ardennes. Assuming that the main German attack would come through Belgium, the BEF and thirty French divisions moved into Belgium, as German planners had hoped.

By 13 May the main German force was through the Ardennes, across the River Meuse and their armoured divisions were beginning a drive for the Channel coast. French forces in their path were in disarray and on 15 May, the French premier, Reynaud, told Churchill that France was defeated.

German Panzer forces in France

German Panzer forces in France









The BEF had taken up its planned position on the River Dyle, close to the Belgian border with Germany and initially held off German attacks with some success. However, Holland capitulated, the Belgians were being driven back to the North and the German army was now sweeping around the French to the South. The Germans had reached the Channel coast by 20 May and began to drive North towards Boulogne and Calais. The BEF now, threatened with being surrounded and cut off, had no option but to pull back and by 23 May was back at its starting point on the Franco-Belgian border.

The French commander Gamelin was replaced by Weygand on 19 May. The priority for France and Britain was now to launch a counter attack against those German forces driving for the coast. A hastily arranged British counter attack at Arras gained some initial success, but failed. Another larger French counter attack on 17- 19 May had a similar outcome. A further counter attack was planned and the Belgians and French took over parts of the British line in Belgium in order to free up four British divisions to take part in it. However, Gort now believed that any counter attack was now going to be too late and too weak to succeed and decided that his priority was to save the BEF.

Withdrawal to the Coast

The general situation made it doubtful whether the BEF could now be saved from the advancing German forces, but on 24 May the German forces halted their advance. The reasons for the so called “Fuhrer Halt Order” are not clear. The Germans had been surprised by the British counter attack at Arras, which emphasised how vulnerable their forces were strung out from the German border to the French coast. The German commander Rundstedt wanted a pause to consolidate gains and to resupply and repair equipment. The head of the German air force, Goring, also boasted that he could destroy the BEF from the air. However, the pause probably saved the BEF and allowed Gort to begin a withdrawal to Dunkirk.

By 25 May Gort had decided that to save the BEF he must fall back on the Channel ports. Without consulting the French or London, he now decided to use the British troops freed up in order to join the planned counter attack, to instead create a defensive corridor which the BEF could use to reach the Dunkirk. This was initially opposed by the British government, but on 26 May Gort’s plan was approved. There were not enough troops to create a continuous defence and so he decided to create a series of strong points on either side of the corridor to slow down and temporarily hold back the German advance. There would then be a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk to protect the troops at the port and give time for the BEF to be evacuated by the navy.

French support for this plan was essential. It was agreed that the Southern end of the corridor would be held by the French 1st Army. The perimeter around Dunkirk would follow a series of canals. The section from Bergues to the West would be defended by the French. To the East of Bergues the perimeter would be defended by the BEF. (See map). However, the British and French believed that the withdrawal was taking place for different reasons. The British planned to evacuate the BEF back home, abandoning most of their equipment in the process. The French saw the evacuation as a regrouping to form a base from which a counter attack could be made.

The Evacuation

The evacuation plan, Operation Dynamo, which began on 26 May, was coordinated from Dover by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay. A naval party of 360 naval personnel under Captain William Tennant organised the boarding of troops at Dunkirk. The port had been chosen because of its extensive harbour facilities, but it soon became clear that these had been made unusable by German air attacks. Troops were directed to three beaches to the East of the port and began to be taken off from there. The problems in doing this were enormous. The men were short of food and water and had to queue for hours, sometimes up to their necks in water, while subject to constant air attacks. Large ships had to moor a mile offshore and ferrying soldiers out to them in small boats was extremely slow.

British troops queuing to be taken off the beach

British troops queuing to be taken off the beach

Initial plans called for the recovery of 30,000 men from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) within two days, at which time it was expected that German troops would be able to block further evacuation. Only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,000 on the first day. Ten additional destroyers joined the rescue effort on 26 May and although they were unable to closely approach the beaches, several thousand men were rescued. However, the pace of evacuation from the shrinking Dunkirk pocket steadily increased.

On 28 May, Tennant gambled on using the East breakwater of the port, known as the mole, to moor ships. The experiment was a major success and it soon became possible to load 600 men on a ship in twenty minutes. The Canadian Commander, James Clouston, was made pier master and he imposed a disciplined regime on the mole, sometimes reinforced by the brandishing of his revolver. Eventually Ramsay had over 800 vessels engaged in the evacuation, including thirty-nine Royal Navy destroyers, nineteen French destroyers, thirty-six passenger ferries and a host of other craft. Also included were the famous”little ships”. Mainly private fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, they were guided by naval craft across the English Channel. These smaller vessels were able to move in much closer to the beaches and acted as shuttles between the shore and the destroyers, lifting troops who were queuing in the water. Thousands of soldiers were also taken in the little ships back to the UK.
On 29 May, 47,000 British troops were rescued in spite of the first heavy aerial attack by the Luftwaffe in the evening. The next day, an additional 54,000 men were embarked, including the first French soldiers. 68,000 men and the commander of the BEF, Lord Gort, were evacuated on 31 May. A further 64,000 Allied soldiers departed on 1 June, before the increasing air attacks prevented further daylight evacuation. The British rearguard left on the night of 2 June, along with 60,000 French soldiers. An additional 26,000 French troops were retrieved the following night, before the operation finally ended.
Two French divisions remained behind to protect the evacuation. Though they halted the German advance, they were soon destroyed. The remainder of the rearguard, largely French, surrendered on 3 June 1940. The next day, the BBC reported, “Major-General Harold Alexander, the commander of the rearguard, inspected the shores of Dunkirk from a motorboat this morning to make sure no-one was left behind before boarding the last ship back to Britain.”

The Outcome
330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk. A very large part of the British army had been saved. A complete disaster had been avoided and the success of the operation raised morale in the UK and contributed to Britain’s ability to continue the war alone.
However, there were significant losses. There had been 68,000 British casualties in the fighting in France. Two hundred Allied ships were lost, including six British destroyers and three French. The RAF flew over 4000 sorties and lost 100 aircraft. The BEF left large amounts of equipment and stores in France, including 2,472 guns, 20,000 motorcycles, 65,000 other vehicles, 377,000 tons of stores, more than 68,000 tons of ammunition and 147,000 tons of fuel. This loss of equipment would have made it impossible for Britain to effectively oppose a German invasion force had it landed on the British Mainland.
The second act of the Battle of France began on 5 June, with the Germans striking southwards from the River Somme. Significant British forces were also still present in the South where the German drive to the coast had separated them from the main BEF. The British 51st Highland Division, which had not been grouped with the rest of the British army, was surrounded and was forced to surrender on 12 June. The Germans launched a major offensive on Paris and the first German troops entered the French capital on 14 June, little more than a month after the campaign began.
There were still spasms of fighting and a fresh British force was sent to Normandy. Despite the fact that the French in many areas fought well, the Germans quickly destroyed the Allied forces in the field. Eventually the Royal Navy carried out evacuations from ports down the French coast taking off 140,000 British and 50,000 French troops together with most of their equipment. It was during this episode that the Lancastria  was sunk, with some 4,000 of those on board losing their lives. Meanwhile, the victorious Panzers raced across France, finishing off pockets of resistance, crossing the River Loire in the West on 17 June, and reaching the Swiss frontier a few days later.

The end came with the surrender of France on 22 June. Hitler insisted on signing the document of capitulation in the same railway carriage used when Germany had surrendered in 1918. The humiliation of France was complete

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