Operation Dynamo was the code name given to the evacuation of the allied Armed Armies from the beaches in and around Dunkirk to the safety of the British shores between 26 May and 4 June 1940.
During that short time, more than 338,000 men reached England after being trapped along the coast of Dunkirk by advancing enemy troops. They were ferried across the English Channel in Royal and Merchant Navy ships, Allied ships and a fleet of small boats, some as small as just 20 feet (6m). Hundreds of boats arrived to pluck men from the 10 mile stretch of coastline; they came under attack from land, sea and air but their determined efforts saved many thousands of men from captivity and a very uncertain future.
To this day Operation Dynamo remains the biggest mass military evacuation in history and gave the Allied troops a boost in spirit despite in reality being a crisis; it became a “disaster turns to triumph” affair. It was tangible evidence that whatever dark times were to come, however bad things could get – the “Dunkirk Spirit” of the Allies would prevail and they would never give up. The NY Times reported on 1 June 1940 “so long as the English tongue survives the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence”.
Museum Operation Dynamo, Dunkirk
The event is commemorated in the Memorial du Souvenir – Dunkirk War Museum, located in Bastion 32 which served as the headquarters for the French and Allied forces during the Battle of Dunkirk. The Mémorial du Souvenir tells the incredible story of the battle and of the evacuation of the 338,000 allied soldiers from Dunkirk, two thirds of them British, the other third French, polish and Belgian. The museum, founded and run by volunteers has a very good exhibition of maps, pictures and both allied and German military material. Scale models of the sites of the operation, uniforms and weapons and there is a great introductory film (in English or French) with dramatic footage which gives visitors an excellent summary of the events of Operation Dynamo.
Most of those saved, subsequently took part in operations in various parts of the world and helped to liberate Europe in 1944 and 1945.
When I visited the little museum in Dunkirk, I bumped into Jenny and John Leach, from Upper Kedron, Queensland, Australia. They were in Dunkirk to see where John’s father, also John, had been in 1940. He was one of the men who had been evacuated, in fact he was on the last ship to leave on 4th June 1940…
One of the last to leave Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo
John Ernest Leach was born in Scarborough, north east England, 28 May 1920.
He joined the Army in late 1939 at the age of 19 and became a member of the 5th battalion, The Green Howards, known as Alexandra, Princess of Wales Own Yorkshire Regiment. They departed for France in January 1940 with the 50th Northumbrian Division which became part of the British Expeditionary Forces who served in Northern France.
On John’s 20th birthday, 28 May 1940, the evacuation of the troops from Dunkirk had already begun. It is doubtful if he had anything to celebrate that day, hemmed in by advancing German divisions, fighting for his life outside the town, wondering if he would be able to join the men on the steady stream of rag tag boats that were crossing the channel, attempting to ferry off to safety as many as they could of the allied troops making for the beaches of Dunkirk (34,000 men were captured).
John’s battalion was the last formed unit to be evacuated from Dunkirk – they had been protecting the Mole (a stone jetty) at Dunkirk from where the majority of soldiers were evacuated. His son says that his Dad never liked to speak about the war and his experiences, like so many who had gone through such a tragic experience, he preferred to forget. But he did mention that along with his comrades, he was on the last ship going home.
John’s unit was quickly redeployed and sent to North Africa to fight in the desert against Rommel and his troops. John (junior) tells me “Dad was eventually captured in North Africa in mid 1942, and shipped through Italy to Germany where he remained a POW for almost three years until the end of World War II. He was eventually demobilised in 1947 after serving a further period in the Territorial Army.”
Sixteen years later, John Ernest Leach, having survived the fighting in Dunkirk, Operation Dynamo and fighting in North Africa as well as being held in a prisoner of war camp in Germany, emigrated with his wife and three children to Australia in June 1963 where he became a serving member of the Australian Dunkirk Veterans Association until his death in 1988.
Meeting John and Jenny Leach, seeking to honour the memory of this old soldier was a humbling experience and one that bought home the human tragedy of it all.
Useful websites: Dunkirk Tourist Office; Musée Operation Dynamo