Early in 1940, the British Government received reports of hostages being bullied, tortured and even shot in the German occupied countries, apparently to keep control by terror. The scent of fear that had spread earlier across the English Channel like a dark fog returned as parts of Europe were vanishing into the darkness of a tyranny without precedent. Events sped up when on 3 May the first bomb dropped on English soil fell close to a house in Chilham in the Kent countryside. No one was hurt but it annoyed the owner because some tiles were lifted from the roof in the blast. Later in the day, people in Dover saw a German reconnaissance aircraft high overhead, and there were attempts to drop sea mines on the approaches to Dover harbour in the path of ferries bringing soldiers of the BEF in France home on leave. Barriers were being put up on all main roads into the town and everyone stopped had to prove their identity. Wooden poles were erected in fields and wires stretched across wide roads to prevent enemy gliders landing.
Finally, on the 10 May 1940, Hitler’s forces began their Blitzkrieg of the Low Countries when the German Army Group B crossed the border into Belgium, having already captured the lynchpin of the Belgian defence at Fort Eben-Emael by airborne assault early that morning. Thirty-five Allied divisions, including ten of the BEF, reached the River Dyle and held against the initial German attacks. Although it became clear later that the main threat was further south, where the German Army Group A had unexpectedly emerged from the Ardennes Forest and crossed the River Meuse at Sedan, in the process defeating the French Second and Ninth Army. With Army Group B close behind, the Allies began a withdrawal towards the French border. On the same day 79 Squadron RAF deployed from RAF Biggin Hill to Merville Aerodrome in Northern France to support the British Expeditionary Force, where the RAF pilots found two squadrons of the French Armee de l’Air based at the airfield, made up from mainly Czech pilots.
In London, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced to his war cabinet that with this new development, a coalition government bringing the Labour and Liberal opposition parties into the war-making circle was essential. However, Labour Party leaders refused to serve under Chamberlain’s leadership as for them, he was the man principally responsible for Britain’s lack of preparedness in the build up to war. In the circumstances, Chamberlain resigned. Having fought for peace for so long, the war had become a bitter pill for Chamberlain to swallow. Winston Churchill became prime minister, who had been the principal critic of Chamberlain’s pre-war policies, and was the man who Labour leaders believed would have the will and ability to direct the course of the war with energy and zeal.
Churchill, who also became Minister of Defence, formed a new government with additional authority as head of the special Defence Committee with the Chiefs of Staff, to make strategic decisions from day to day. Churchill was determined that Britain would fight to the last despite calls by some ministers to seek peace with Hitler. He ordered fresh troops to be rushed from England to defend Boulogne and Calais but after hard fighting, the Germans captured both ports.
Hundreds of pitiful refugees began arriving at Dover from the fierce fighting in France and were provided with food and clothing. Several were marched away under armed guard as suspected enemy spies. Most of the German Luftwaffe was engaged in the attack on the Low Countries and France, so there was very little air activity over Dover during the first two weeks of May, although an RAF Spitfire crashed on St Margaret’s Road in Westcliffe, close to Lord Barker’s manor house.
On the 14 May, fearing an immediate invasion of Britain, war minister Anthony Eden called for Local Defence Volunteers, later to become known as the Home Guard. There was a quick response in Dover, with over six hundred men of all ages trying to get into the police station to sign on. In the harbour Southern Railway ferries, no longer carrying holidaymakers, were converted into hospital ships and were attacked despite being painted with large Red Crosses in the continental ports by the Luftwaffe. Workers in Dover Harbour witnessed Royal Marines from Chatham rushing in to the port to board the Royal Navy destroyers Verity and Venomous, which sailed for the Hook of Holland. On arrival there, the Marines went straight into action against enemy troops. They arrived back a few days later after covering the evacuation of the Queen of the Netherlands and her government, together with the country’s gold reserves and several captured German prisoners.
By 21 May, the German forces had trapped the BEF, the remains of the Belgian forces and three French armies in an area along the northern coast of France. The British forces rallied and attempted to stop the offensive and counter-attacked at Arras, but could not repel the Germans and it became clear that they now threatened the Channel ports. The commander of the BEF General John Vereker, the 6th Viscount Gort, saw that evacuation across the Channel was the best course of action and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest location with good port facilities. Also on this day, the Maid of Kent, was bombed in Dieppe and set ablaze, killing several crew who came from Dover. The enemy fought its way along the French coast and the fierce British and French rear-guard action was heard across the Channel in Dover; the reality of war was becoming closer.
The two German army groups pushed towards the coast and left the BEF surrounded on three sides and cut off from their supply depots. Many allied aircraft were lost in dogfights and by ground attacks on French airfields, which were overrun and 79 Squadron, who had been in the aerial battle’s forefront, was forced to return to England. As the surviving pilots took off in their Hurricanes the ground crews loaded up stores and equipment in three-ton trucks, torched any unserviceable aircraft and made their way with their army colleagues towards the coast. The Hurricane pilots flew through French skies darkened by the smoke of burning oil and petrol dumps and out over the English Channel. As they approached the white cliffs of Dover, Messerschmitt 109 fighters came in to land at their old airfield in Merville. Johnny Faulkner would have been surprised to know that one was emblazoned with the five coloured rings of the Olympic emblem, painted brightly on its fuselage sides.