Dunkirk Rearguard - True Brits Who Sacrificed Everything
Ask 100 people on any British high street and those that have heard of this momentous event in British history will probably know about the story of the miracle of the little ships. Its a wonderful story of bravery, battling against the odds and pulling off a victory from the jaws of defeat. Hundreds of little fishing boats, pleasure steamers etc manned by civilians urgently made into Royal Navy ratings before they sailed the English Channel on their rescue mission, ferried between the beaches and the destroyers to help tens of thousands of exhausted, weary lads get back home. All around was death and destruction, burning vehicles, exploding mortars and terrifying, screaming dive bombing Stuka planes. Even once aboard Royal Navy battleships they were not safe, some were sunk and others suffered damage.
In total over 200 Allied sea craft were sunk and a similar number damaged. At the time many of the troops on the ground at Dunkirk were not happy about the lack of presence by the RAF. However, the crews of the RAF were doing everything they could in the skies over Northern France to prevent Luftwaffe planes getting through to the airspace over Dunkirk. Between the 27th May and the 4th of June the RAF lost 177 aircraft and the Luftwaffe 240. In that period the RAF flew a total of 4,822 sorties over Northern France.
Due to the amazing courage and the superb organisation of the Royal Navy and the men queueing in lines on the beaches and at the harbour as chaos reigned a total of 338,226 men escaped back to Britain between 27th May and the 4th june 1940.
However, for the evacuation to be a success thousands of British lads were not to be so lucky.
For the evacuation to be a success a rearguard had to be formed, these men had to resist the blitzkreig at all costs and do everything they could to slow the German advance. The chilling reality was that for these men there was only two options... death or capture. Some did manage to get to the Dunkirk beaches and got taken home on the last few boats. However, for every seven men taken home from Dunkirk, one would be taken prisoner of war. Tens of thousands of troops were taken east to the Stalag camps where they would spend five long years working as slave labour down mines and in fields and factories, ending in a terrible march of hundreds of miles in freezing winter in late 1944 as the Allies began to advance. This final tribulation would be a test to far and many died of sheer exhaustion and malnutrition, collapsing in the snow. Others paid the ultimate sacrifice as they defended the evacuation. In the town of Esquelbecq near Dunkirk, 80 lads were captured in the rearguard and were massacred after being put in a barn by the SS and attacked by machine gun and grenade. In Dunkirk Town Cemetery lie the bodies of 793 Allied servicemen. At the entrance is the Dunkirk Memorial with the names of more than 4,500 brave souls who have no known grave.
Those killed away from the beaches died not knowing what was to become of their comrades or their families back home. Not aware of the miracle of the little ships. the smallest being only 15ft in length. The situation was bleak, it looked like a huge defeat and they were not to know that thanks to their brave actions and sacrifice hundreds of thousands managed to escape and would later return to the beaches of Normandy a few years later, but this time on the attack, advancing to victory. Others would fight in North Africa, Burma and elsewhere.
When the Dunkirk story is told, these selfless, brave men of the rear guard should never be forgotten.
2011 update - Interview with John Lockyer, who fought in the Dunkirk rear guard and was badly injured and captured. He spent the next 5 years as a P.O.W. He is in the book, The Unknown Warriors. LISTEN HERE