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Military evacuation of Dunkirk during World War 2

After Dunkirk

Military evacuation of Dunkirk during World War 2 | Image: Shutterstock

What was the Fairey Battle? It may sound like something from Irish folklore but the Fairey Battle was actually a type of RAF bomber. A not-very-good type of RAF bomber, at that. Yet, despite its many drawbacks – not least its grim habit of being shot effortlessly out of the sky by Nazis - the Battle played a key role in the Battle of France and Dunkirk.

Suggs and Stephen Taylor, our intrepid WW2 Treasure Hunters, delve into the mystery of why one such Battle bomber was downed in France, in the immediate aftermath of Dunkirk in episode 5 of the series. No enemy fighters were said to have been in the area at the time, so what caused the crash? The boys weighed up the possibilities, which also meant exploring the oft-forgotten aftermath of Operation Dynamo, the daring evacuation of so many desperate Allied troops from the bomb-blasted beach of Dunkirk.

Most people know the basics of the 'Miracle of Dunkirk' – how almost 200,000 British men were, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, snatched from the clutches of the Nazis by a rag-tag armada of big ships and little boats sent which were sent across the Channel. But the events that actually led the men to be stranded in the first place are… well, they’re an uneasy testament to the early ingenuity of the German war machine, and the relative naivety of the Allies.

The Brits were part of the BEF, or British Expeditionary Force, who had been dispatched to France in the wake of Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. The BEF were to work alongside the Belgians and the French to form a defensive wall against the westward march of the Nazis. The one major snag was that the Allies were still in a rather World War One-era mindset. They expected a slow war of attrition, and placed ill-deserved emphasis on the Maginot Line, a line of fortifications on the French border which they thought would serve as a kind of super-trench, keeping invaders out.

The problem was, the Germans could simply bypass it, by cutting through the Netherlands and Belgium. The Allies went to meet the enemy head on, but they hadn’t counted on a second German offensive right through the relatively unprotected Ardennes forest and towards the Channel, which effectively trapped the Allied forces in the middle, in a pincer movement or 'sickle cut', as it became known.

As the pincer tightened, with the Germans employing the brutal, lightning quick tactics of Blitzkrieg, the Allies were pushed right back to the one place they could escape the continent from: Dunkirk. While the story of the evacuation itself is well known, the pilots of the RAF still don’t get much credit for the role they played in tackling the Luftwaffe, who were making life hell for the trapped troops down below.

Many Fairey Battle bombers were lost. These aircraft were lethally obsolete compared to the Luftwaffe’s planes. Too slow and decked out with only a couple of machine guns, the Battles were horribly vulnerable to attack. Back in 1939, one Battle had the distinction of claiming the RAF’s very first kill of World War Two, but now – during Dunkirk and the wider Battle of France – they were in trouble.

On the very first day of the Battle of France, 13 were destroyed. The next day, only one Battle survived out of a group of eight which had been dispatched. To this day, the Fairey Battles are notorious as one of the biggest failures of the war.

And what of the aftermath of the evacuation itself? Well, it’s often forgotten that 40,000 British troops never made it onto the boats, and were left at the mercy of the Germans. Many were herded up and sent on long, gruelling marches into Germany. As one veteran recalled of his own experience: 'Hundreds died on that march… we were eating buttercups and bloody daisies, nettles, anything.' The survivors were then pushed into slave labour in mines and farms and factories. Many spent the whole war in captivity, which was a crushing blow to their morale. In the words of Steve Humphries, who produced a documentary on Dunkirk, 'It was humiliating for them. After the war they suffered a sense of failure, and didn’t feel they’d shared in the great victory over Nazism.'

Even then, Churchill believed the British Expeditionary Force still had an official role to play in France. The idea was that the remnants of the BEF in France would join up with French fighters and carry on the resistance to Hitler. Once again, Fairey Battles also played a supporting role in the skies, attacking German troops (and being shot down, en masse, in the process). There was even a plan to establish an Allied stronghold in Brittany.

But the situation was untenable. Senior British officer Alan Francis Brooke, who had been ordered to oversee the remaining BEF troops in France, thought 'the Brittany scheme a wild project that was quite impossible'. There was an awkward phone call with Churchill himself, with the Prime Minister arguing that the Brits needed to maintain their presence in France to keep the morale up. Brooke replied, 'It is impossible to make a corpse feel', and later admitted he’d been on the verge of losing his temper with Churchill.

Ultimately, the PM came around to the dark truth that France was lost, and the remaining Brits had to be evacuated from French ports. From Britain’s point of view, the darkest period of the war was about the begin.