Coachlines - May 2020

30.05.20 Past Master Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence KCVO CB ADC(p) for The Telegraph

Reflections on Operation Dynamo

In an article from The Telegraph, Past Master Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence KCVO CB ADC(p) (who is also Chairman of English Heritage), reflects on the 80-year anniversary of Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk.

“Eighty years ago a new phrase entered the British lexicon – the Dunkirk Spirit. Defined as “the spirit of the British public pulling together to overcome times of adversity”, it has particular resonance today. On 26th May 1940, Operation Dynamo, the mission to rescue the British Expeditionary Force from France, began. The herculean efforts of the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy and civilian volunteers have become embedded in our national story. In his “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech nine days later, Churchill said that “wars are not won by evacuations”. True, but he knew they can be lost if such operations go badly wrong, as for many days in that torrid time seemed all too likely.

“The Dunkirk story is now legendary. The qualities of courage and resilience in the face of extreme adversity are part of our identity, how we think of ourselves. This is exemplified by the Little Ships – the story of how a civilian armada helped save an army. Some say it was a miracle – an event so extraordinary that it surpasses all human powers. The truth is far more gutsy and practical, and utterly remarkable. Dunkirk was not a planned operation but an improvised one, where initiative largely took the place of planning. Behind it all, and led by the brilliant – and now overlooked – Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, was a small team of men and women who, in tunnels deep under Dover Castle, hatched and guided the plan, adapting it to bounce back after every setback. In only a few days this team somehow found all the resources in ships, people and supplies required to lift an army. It was an almost superhuman effort, conducted by ordinary men and women.

“When it is safe to do so, you will be able once again to visit those tunnels, where English Heritage’s superb series of videos unfolds the story in the place where it actually happened. In France, retreating British and French forces dug in and held an area around Dunkirk while the evacuation proceeded. On the way in and out, ships had to fight off aircraft, E-boats and shore batteries, and negotiate explosive mines.

“Another, largely invisible, battle took place in the sky as the RAF engaged the Luftwaffe: catastrophic though the bombing of ships and beaches was, with over 230 vessels sunk, it could have been so much worse. It was an inferno in which the courage and determination of all those involved from all three services enabled it enormously to exceed expectations. Having initially thought that about 50,000 could be saved, the total recovered was nearly 340,000, including some 140,000 French, Belgian and Dutch. Without the guiding hand of Ramsay and his team, it would have been a shambles. In a letter to his wife on 5th June he wrote: “…now all is done and the task is behind. The relief is stupendous. The results beyond belief. The success is mostly due to the first-class direction and management of the show, equally with glorious courage, skill and endurance of the personnel of all the ships. The one without the other would have been ineffective.

“Although the circumstances of today are totally different, inevitably people will seek parallels. Improvisation was the key, together with quick decision-making 24 hours a day, often based on very limited information. Ideas had to be tried; if they didn’t work, try something different. Many mistakes were made and opportunities lost – it’s inevitable in chaotic situations like this. No decision one can take is without risk. Behind the apparent chaos, detailed planning, ruthless oversight by small, focused teams, and constant adjustments as the situation on the ground changed. If any of this is sounding at all familiar, I could add that one of Ramsay’s great joys at the end of it all was a long-overdue visit to a hairdresser!

“English Heritage cares for Dover Castle and Ramsay’s tunnels on behalf of the nation. While the charity will not be able to mark the 80th anniversary of the rescue mission from where it was masterminded, it will evoke on its Twitter channel –using storytelling and first-hand accounts – those desperate, glorious days.

An article from The Telegraph by Past Master Vice Admiral Sir Tim Laurence KCVO CB ADC(p)