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BRNC marks the 80th anniversary of Dunkirk

4 June 2020
A two-minute silence will be held at Britannia Royal Naval College on Thursday 4 June to mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk.

The evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo started on 26 May 1940 and ended eight days later on the 4 Jun 1940.  In total 338,226 soldiers were rescued from the beaches during the operation, which Sir Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, hailed as a ‘miracle of deliverance’, in his ‘we shall fight them on the beaches speech’.

Captain Roger Readwin, the Commanding Officer of BRNC, said:  “On the 4th June we will pause to remember the courage of those who served in Royal Navy, many of whom will have come through the College for their training, our Allies and all those who crewed the Little Ships of Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo.  We will also be thinking of the soldiers and airmen who fought so bravely in the six-week battle to defend France.  While the huge majority of them were rescued during this bold and ambitious operation, 68,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force were lost, either dead, wounded, missing or captured.”

Some of the rescued soldiers arrived back to Dartmouth.  Dr Jane Harrold, curator of the Britannia Museum and a lecturer at the College, said: “The River Dart was crammed with fishing trawlers from France, Belgium and Holland and we have a recollection by Cadet Adrian Holloway.  He recalled walking onto the Quarterdeck one day in May 1940 and being struck by an unfamiliar smell. The odour was unwashed bodies, particularly feet, belonging to soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force, recently evacuated from Dunkirk.”

During the following summer leave two companies of the Durham Light Infantry were housed at the College to be refitted and rehabilitated after their experiences.

The Royal Navy sent the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Calcutta, 39 destroyers and many other smaller craft to France to rescue the soldiers, who had been trapped along the country’s northern coast by the German forces. 

Passenger ferries, hospital ships and other vessels from the Merchant Navy along with ships from the Belgian, Dutch, Canadian, Polish and French Navies also took part in the rescue.  A flotilla of hundreds of small merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts and lifeboats answered the call for help and became known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk.

Fighting alongside the British Army and awaiting rescue, were the remains of the Belgian Forces and three French field armies.   Some of the soldiers were able to embark from the harbour’s protective concrete structure, known as a mole, while others had to wade out from the beaches and wait for hours in shoulder-deep water.  The remainder were ferried to the larger ships by the little ships.

Remembering the courage and commitment of all those who took part in Operation Dynamo and their ability to adapt and overcome, continues to be reflected in the values we uphold here at the College.

Capt Readwin

Capt Readwin said:  “The crossing back to the UK was not without danger.  The operation required all of the basic skills we teach here at the College to navigate the warships through the mines and attacks from German ships and submarines at sea, as well as bombardments from ashore and the Luftwaffe above.  Those that took part in War World 2 are often now called the ‘Greatest Generation’.  We continue to be inspired by them and thank them for their service.”

In total over 200 British and Allied craft were sunk and a similar amount were damaged during Operation Dynamo, including six of the Royal Navy’s destroyers critical in providing air defence and protecting the ship throughout Operation Dynamo.  The heavy equipment, such as tanks and vehicles, was left behind.

Capt Readwin said:  “Remembering the courage and commitment of all those who took part in Operation Dynamo and their ability to adapt and overcome, continues to be reflected in the values we uphold here at the College.  Two days after we mark the evacuation at Dunkirk, I will lay a wreath in Dartmouth to remember the 76th anniversary of D-Day and the thousands who crossed the English channel to eventually bring peace to Europe.  Many of the Allied Forces were stationed here at the College and in the surrounding area; another poignant reminder of Dartmouth’s proud heritage, which BRNC is very proud to support and be part of.”

To mark the 80th anniversary a new commemorative history has been published through the Britannia Museum Trust, to stand today as a lasting tribute to the courage and achievements of the personnel who took part in Operation Dynamo.  The book has been prepared over the past year and is based on the now scarce official account held in the BRNC archive, with a modern historical commentary and a large number of previously unpublished photographs.

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