Tuesday 8 August 2017

Looking Back ~ Dunkirk: Filling in the Pieces #Dunkirk #history #WW2 @Suzy_Henderson

Dunkirk: Filling in the Pieces
By Suzy Henderson

Dunkirk. A French port steeped in history. A popular destination for holidaymakers and a place that reveals secrets and a dark heritage, particularly at low tide. For what lies beneath the water is a maritime graveyard.
Roll back the clock to May 1940. The British Expeditionary Force had under-estimated the might of the German Army and their elitist Panzer tanks and found itself surrounded, pushed into a small pocket at Dunkirk. This is the image many recognise, the story many have heard over the years. The miracle of Dunkirk where the British were rescued by the Royal Navy and the “little ships”. It was one of the worst times for Britain and her main fighting force. If she did not secure her men, what would become of her? She would certainly have been exposed, vulnerable, and quite possibly unable to defend herself against a German invasion.
Churchill, a military man himself of great experience, knew what needed to be done, as did the military commanders, but he did not mastermind this evacuation. He asked Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay to do so, who managed this all within one week. The naval operation HQ lay in the bowels of Dover Castle, and it was from the Dynamo Room that Ramsay assimilated the plans for Operation Dynamo – the Dunkirk evacuation.
British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation. Image courtesy of the IWM, in the public domain. Source: http://media.iwm.org.uk/ciim5/37/332/large_000000.jpg
Churchill hoped they might rescue around thirty thousand men, and his commanders said at best those numbers may rise to forty-five thousand. As part of his plan, Ramsay came up with the idea of requisitioning the civilian boats, as many as they could, using naval men to sail them to Dunkirk to assist. He realised they would be able to sail into the shallow waters nearer the beach, load up with men and ferry them out to the destroyers further out. There was only one jetty – the Dunkirk mole. This meant that space was limited for docking and time was something they had little of.
The new movie by Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”, does not tell the full story, nor does it go into detail about the person who masterminded this entire evacuation. The story is told from three different perspectives, including the RAF and the civilian sailors with their ‘little ships’. But the beach scene is a major feature, portraying the troops, dead, wounded and those standing in lines waiting to board the next ship. But one must forgive the director and producers as there is only so much one can achieve in a single movie.  

British troops embarking onto ships during the evacuation from France, June 1940. Image source: Press Agency photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What the movie does not show is what was happening away from the beaches, behind the scenes.
The French army were fighting rear-guard action along with thousands of British troops, led by Lord Gort. Many of these men would not escape. Some would die in battle, some would be murdered by the Germans upon surrender, and many more would become prisoners of war. But, as some have quite rightly indicated, where were the troops of ethnic race?
The French troops comprised of men from elsewhere such as Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. There were Indian troops on the beach and there was a pecking order. Discrimination and segregation persisted even when the jaws of the enemy bore down and unless you were white, you were at the back of the queue. The French and other allied troops were evacuated last.
While Nolan’s movie does not portray the complete history of the event, it does offer a fresh perspective that gives the viewer a taste of what the evacuation was like for all those involved. It goes a little way to illustrate how tough the battle was for the RAF and of course for the Royal Navy. It was perilous at sea with a determined Luftwaffe persistently bombing any vessel it came across. Then there was the ever-present threat of the U-boats who did sink a number of ships during the evacuation. And for those who still don’t know, a number of the smaller boats were indeed manned by their civilian owners, who took an incredible risk by sailing into battle for King and countrymen. This was perhaps their finest hour.
Churchill gave the order for Operation Dynamo just before 7 pm on May 26th, 1940. By June 4th it had ended and the number of men rescued surpassed all expectation – around 338,000. It’s important to point out that this would not have been possible without the expert military planning of Vice-Admiral Bertram and his idea to use civilian vessels for necessary resources.
Nor would it have been achieved without the valiant efforts of the RAF, as many more vessels would have been bombed and sunk without a doubt, and more men would have been killed while waiting on the beaches. It was a team effort across all the forces.
The hero of the operation was undoubtedly Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay – the dynamo behind the miracle of Dunkirk. He was a naval man who had served during the Great War and worked his way up through the ranks, retiring in 1938. However, when WW2 broke out, he was asked to return and was immediately placed as the officer-in-charge of Dover.
General Montgomery with Admiral Ramsay (right) pictured at Montgomery’s Belgian HQ, 19th September 1944. Image Source: IWMCollections IWM Photo No.: B 10113. In public domain.
Vice-Admiral Ramsay received a knighthood after Dunkirk and a promotion to Admiral in 1944. He also worked as part of a team led by Eisenhower on Operation Torch (liberation of North Africa in 1942) and the invasion of Sicily in 1943. He was placed in charge of the Allied Naval Expeditionary Force for the invasion of France, Operation Neptune, in 1944 (D-Day landings).
Tragically, on January 2nd, 1945, he was killed in a plane crash while on his way to Brussels to meet with General Montgomery. There is a statue of him outside Dover Castle and a plaque was unveiled to mark the 75th anniversary in May 2015.
In a sense, Ramsay has become one of the forgotten in that he perhaps did not receive the full recognition he should have for all his efforts during WW2. He died before the war ended and never had the chance to write his memoirs, to tell his war from his perspective as many others have done. Dunkirk is effectively his miracle and his legacy lives on in all those who made it home and in their descendants. He is without a doubt, one of Britain’s greatest unsung heroes.

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940. By Saidman (Mr), War Office official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

About Suzy Henderson
Suzy Henderson was born in the North of England, but a career in healthcare took her away to rural Somerset. Years later, after marriage and children, she decided to embark upon a degree in English Literature with The Open University.

That was the beginning of a new life journey, rekindling her love of writing and a passion for history. With an obsession for military and aviation history, she began to write.

It was an old black and white photograph of her grandmother that caught Suzy’s imagination many years ago. When her grandmother died, her tales of war vanished with her forever, tales she never spoke about. When Suzy decided to research her grandmother’s war service in the WAAF, things spiralled from there. Stories came to light, little-known stories, and tragedies, and it is such discoveries that inform her writing.

Having relocated to the wilds of North Cumbria, she has the Pennines in sight and finally feels at home. Suzy is a member of the Historical Novel Society and the Romantic Novelists Association. "The Beauty Shop" is her debut novel and was released 28th November 2016. She is currently writing the next book.

England, 1942. 

After three years of WWII, Britain is showing the scars. But in this darkest of days, three lives intertwine, changing their destinies and those of many more.

Dr Archibald McIndoe, a New Zealand plastic surgeon with unorthodox methods, is on a mission to treat and rehabilitate badly burned airmen – their bodies and souls. With the camaraderie and support of the Guinea Pig Club, his boys battle to overcome disfigurement, pain, and prejudice to learn to live again.

John ‘Mac’ Mackenzie of the US Air Force is aware of the odds. He has one chance in five of surviving the war. Flying bombing missions through hell and back, he’s fighting more than the Luftwaffe. Fear and doubt stalk him on the ground and in the air, and he’s torn between his duty and his conscience.

Shy, decent and sensible Stella Charlton’s future seems certain until war breaks out. As a new recruit to the WAAF, she meets an American pilot on New Year’s Eve. After just one dance, she falls head over heels for the handsome airman. But when he survives a crash, she realises her own battle has only just begun.

Based on a true story, "The Beauty Shop" is a moving tale of love, compassion, and determination against a backdrop of wartime tragedy. 

Links for Purchase


  1. Good morning! Thank you so much for hosting me here at your fantastic site - so appreciated. I loved writing this - there's so much to learn about Dunkirk and I had a great time exploring this part of WW2.

    1. My pleasure. This is such a fantastic post, thank you for sharing!

    2. A fascinating read, I have learned so much about Dunkirk just by reading your blog.

      Thank you for sharing your talent

      George L. Ellison


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