The crowds of people gathered on the cliff tops of Dover could see the French ports of Calais and Boulogne ablaze across the Channel. Britain was becoming a haven for those still wanting to carry on the fight against Nazi oppression and some of the resilient Czech pilots who had been fighting in France flew their aircraft over.
On 22 May 1940, the German High Command issued a halt order with Adolf Hitler’s approval. Hitler believed that once Britain’s troops left Europe, they would never re-group or return. His failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk was a major German mistake on the Western Front and would become one of the great turning points of the war. It was, however, an opportune moment for German agents who prepared themselves to infiltrate the retreating army and slip into Britain while her defences were down.
This fortunate respite gave the trapped Allied forces time to construct defensive works and pull back large numbers of troops toward Dunkirk. Over the next couple of days, the remaining forty thousand men of the once-formidable French First Army fought a fierce delaying action in Lille against seven German divisions, including three armoured ones. A long trail of abandoned tanks, trucks, field guns and stores lined the roads to Dunkirk. Soldiers drained the engines of the vehicles of oil and then ran them until they seized up, to prevent them being used by the enemy. The mass of remaining soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force flooded into Dunkirk and came to a halt, filling the quays of the port and overflowing on to the long, wide beaches, their backs to the sea. Although the German army was temporarily halted, the Luftwaffe kept up the pressure by mounting intensive bombing and strafing attacks. At seven o’clock on the evening of the 24 May, a radio signal sent from the Admiralty in London to Vice-Admiral Ramsay in Dover ordered the start of the BEF’s evacuation from Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo was put into effect and Royal Navy and Merchant Marine ships sailed from England towards the allied soldiers waiting in the harbour and on the beaches of Dunkirk.
On the first day of the evacuation, some seven thousand men got away from Dunkirk. Many of the troops could embark from the harbour’s protective mole onto some forty navy destroyers and other large ships. Because of wartime censorship and the need to keep up British morale, the full extent of the disaster unfolding at Dunkirk was not broadcast. However, the morning was declared a national day of prayer and King George VI attended a special service held in Westminster Abbey. The Archbishop of Canterbury led the prayers for “our soldiers in dire peril in France” and priests and congregations prayed in other churches throughout the country, revealing to the public the desperate plight of the troops.
On the second day, the Luftwaffe sank or put out of action no less than ten destroyers, eight merchant ships and a paddle steamer, including the Dover Castle ferry from Dover. The admirals in London upset by the heavy losses and not wanting to risk the seven remaining larger and more modern fleet destroyers withdrew them, but allowed the fifteen older destroyers to carry on. Admiral Ramsay realised that he would need many more ships, as he estimated over three hundred thousand men waited rescue.
An urgent search began for small vessels all over the south of England. They included speedboats, Thames barges, car ferries, pleasure craft, and many other types of small craft. Agents for the Ministry of Shipping, accompanied by a naval officer, scoured the River Thames for likely looking vessels and requisitioned them without the owner’s knowledge or consent. Checking them for seaworthiness, they took them down river to Sheerness, where naval crews were took over. Later, because of shortages of naval personnel, many small craft crossed the Channel manned by their own civilian crews.
The first of the so-called “little ships” arrived at Dunkirk on 28 May. The wide, shallow sandy beaches meant that large vessels with deep drafts could not get in close to the shore, and even small craft could not approach closer than a hundred yards from the waterline. Soldiers queued on the beaches waiting their turn to wade out to the boats. Others helped the situation at points along the beaches by constructing improvised jetties by driving rows of abandoned vehicles onto the beach at low tide, anchoring them with sandbags, and connecting them with wooden walkways.
However, the beaches were becoming more crowded with waiting troops and long queues formed out to the sea as troops waited for hours in the shoulder-deep water for smaller boats to ferry them to the larger ships. During this time, the Luftwaffe kept up a constant attack by diving under the clouds and flying along the beaches, bombing and strafing the troops below. The soldiers could only return fire with Bren machine guns, rifles and anything else they could get their hands on.
Among the soldiers waiting on the harbour’s mole stood Johnny Faulkner and a tall, black haired man with a thin, pinched face. The dark blue of his Czech Air Force pilot officer’s uniform contrasted with the light blue of the RAF officer. Johnny had been shot down the previous afternoon by the rear gunner of a Heinkel 111 bomber he had been attacking. Crash-landing his damaged Hurricane on a beach some fifteen miles away from Dunkirk, an army ambulance driver had treated his minor wounds. Thumbing a lift and then stealing a bicycle, he had made his way through the throng of refugees blocking the roads but a puncture had forced him to walk the last few miles to the port. There he met a Czech officer who explained in broken English that he was trying to get to England to join the RAF. Johnny befriended the Czech, Paul Sadoskwi and offered to help him. They joined a queue waiting to embark on one of the evacuation destroyers, HMS Firefly, which was tied up alongside the mole. Both their blue air force uniforms stood out starkly among the brown kaki of the waiting soldiers. An angry looking army major stopped them, just as they got to the gangplank.
‘Where do you think you’re going?’ challenged the major.
’I ‘m an RAF officer,’ answered the bedraggled, roughly bandaged Johnny. ‘And I’m trying to get back to my squadron.’
‘I don’t give a damn who you are!’ shouted the major. ‘For all the good you chaps seem to be doing, you might as well have stayed on the ground.’
Faulkner shouldered his way past the major and with the Czech officer in tow, boarded the destroyer. They made their way below decks and found the wardroom. A group of army officers packed inside greeted them in stony silence.
‘Why so friendly?’ asked Johnny. ‘What have the RAF done?’
‘That’s just it’, said one of the “brown jobs”. ‘What have they done?’
Johnny Faulkner turned away, only too aware of his own and other pilots efforts to keep the skies above the beaches clear enough to evacuate the maximum number of troops. The Luftwaffe, attacking with all its strength to thwart the evacuation lost many aircraft before reaching the beaches, shot down by the RAF fighters flying above the dark, smoke-filled skies above Dunkirk, which accounted for the soldiers not seeing the RAF presence.