Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Miracle of the Little Ships

The auxiliary ketch "Caronia," one of hundreds of little ships that assisted in the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Built in 1927, the 39-foot vessel was expected to participated in this year's 70th anniversary return of the little ships to the French port, where they helped rescue over 330,000 allied soldiers (Association of Dunkirk Little Ships photo).

Seventy years ago this weekend, the future of western civilization hinged, quite literally, on a slender sea corridor, stretching from the beaches of northern France, to the channel ports of Great Britain.

On those beaches, the rumble of artillery grew closer with each passing day. Adolf Hitler's blitzkrieg through the Low Countries and France was reaching its zenith. In less than a month, his panzer legions had achieved what many military experts believed impossible, achieving a complete victory on the western front.

Attacking in the north, through The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany's Army Group B pushed Allied units back into France and towards the coast. In response, the Supreme Allied Commander on the western front, French Maurice Gamelin, committed his reserves, believing those forces--and the defenses of the Maginot Line--would stop the Nazi advance.

Four days later, on 14 May, the Germans launched a second assault through the Ardennes Forest, a region considered "impassible" for vehicle and tank traffic. German forces, part of Army Group A, advanced rapidly on Sedan and then turned towards the coast, effectively flanking Allied forces.

By May 22, the defeat had become a rout. Allied counterattacks near Aras failed to halt German mechanized forces, which had already reached the coast, effectively isolating the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the main body of French and Belgian troops.

The tactical situation was grim, at best--and many considered it hopeless. Most of the British troops (and the French 1st Army) bottled up in a narrow (20 x 60 mile) corridor, leading to the French port of Dunkirk, on the English Channel. Their only hope was an evacuation by sea.

But that plan was risky; German troops were closing in on Dunkirk; the seaport's piers could not be used because of bomb damage and many of of the vessels in the British evacuation armada--particularly Royal Navy destroyers--could not operate in the shallow waters along the beaches, where British and French troops began to gather, awaiting pick-up.

Planning for the evacuation began shortly after the failed counter-attack at Aras. The BEF Commander, Lord Gort, observed that his position was precarious and the rescue operation might produce only modest results. As he told Anthony Eden, the British Secretary of State for War, "I must not conceal from you that a great part of the BEF and its equipment will inevitably be lost even in the best circumstances."

Under the direction of Royal Navy Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey, the evacuation mission at Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo, began on 27 May--only two days after the plan was approved. At the time, Gort believed the British/French defenses around the port might hold for two days, allowing the rescue of up to 45,000 British soldiers, less than 20% of those who remained in France.

And, the rescue effort got off to a poor start. Only 7,000 soldiers were plucked from the beaches on that first day, with another 11,000 rescued on 28 May. Those numbers increased dramatically with the arrival of the "Little Ships of Dunkirk," a collection of more than 700 shallow-draft vessels that could negotiate the waters along the beaches. The flotilla included yachts, ferries, pleasure boats and other craft moored on the River Thames and along the southern and eastern coasts of England.

In the scramble to augment the Royal Navy at Dunkirk, some of the small vessels were formally requisitioned by the British Ministry of Shipping; others were simply taken when the owners couldn't be rescued. In a few cases, civilian skippers were allowed to pilot their vessels to Dunkirk, but most were under the command of naval officers or experienced merchant seamen. Many of the small craft were used to shuttle soldiers from the beaches (and Dunkirk Harbor) to larger ships that carried them back to England. But some were large enough to accommodate large numbers of troops and made multiple, round-trip voyages between evacuation sites and ports in southern England.

The impact of the little ships was immediate--and dramatic. On 29 May, with the Little Ships fully engaged, 33,000 troops were evacuated through the harbor and 13,000 more were plucked from the beaches--a one-day total of 47,310. Over the days that followed, evacuation totals continued to grow; over 53,000 troops were rescued from Dunkirk on the 30th, and 68,000 on the 31st of May. By the time the operation ended on 4 June, 338,000 British, French, Belgian and Polish troops had been evacuated from the continent.

But the "miracle" came at a high price. Virtually all of the BEF's artillery, tanks and heavy equipment had been left behind in France. And, the Germans exacted a heavy toll among the sea armada conducting the evacuation and RAF units that provided air cover. By some estimates, the Royal Air Force lost almost 500 aircraft supporting the Dunkirk mission, and as many as 200 sea craft were sunk during the operation as well.

Additionally, the success at Dunkirk proved a badly needed boost for British morale, at a time when the nation's fortunes were at low ebb. Before the evacuation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill privately worried about losing the war. After all, if most of the BEF had been left behind in France, there would be no Army to defend Britain against the expected German invasion. But with much of the BEF returned to British soil, Churchill and his military leaders had at least the foundation for a new Army.

To be fair, the British "victory" at Dunkirk encompassed much more than the small boats. The heroic sacrifice of French and British troops, fighting desperate rear-guard actions, kept the Nazis out of the city for more than a week, allowing thousands of their comrades to escape. And, as he did so often during the war, Adolf Hitler managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, halting his panzers for three days outside Dunkirk. That pause gave the allies time to reorganize defensive lines and finalize evacuation plans.

Additionally, the unseen hand of fate (read: Providence) seemed to favor the allies. Weather in the English Channel in the late spring is often bad. But the last week of May, 1940 saw calm seas and gentle winds--ideal conditions for conducting the evacuation. At one point, an area of low pressure appeared to be making a beeline for the Channel and threatened to interrupt the evacuation. But the storm veered north towards Ireland and Scotland, giving the rescue fleet a few more days of good weather to finish the job.

This weekend, more than 50 Little Ships were expected to make the crossing from Dover to Dunkirk, commemorating the defining moment that saved an Army and the civilization it represented.

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