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R.A.F. Dunkirk
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The role of the RAF in the miracle of Dunkirk

A Hudson of RAF Coastal Command patrols over Dunkirk, as oil storage tanks burn fiercely in the background, c. 3 June 1940.
The story of the British evacuation from France through Dunkirk is well known. Operation Dynamo was an amazing display of ingenuity and bravery and although the retreat was the result of the defeat of the BEF in France, the evacuation was an incredible success.

The aspect of the story that is perhaps less well known is the role the Royal Air Force played in the evacuation. Many were, and still are, quick to disparage the RAF for their efforts in protecting the evacuation from the Luftwaffe. On reading the accounts of many of the men retreating through Dunkirk, it is not hard to understand why. However, as is so often the case, what was seen to be happening and what was actually happening were very different.

When the BEF were first sent to France in September 1939, a number of RAF bomber, reconnaissance and fighter squadrons were sent with them. Based at various locations across northern France, they spent the eight months of the phoney war impatiently waiting for their chance to prove themselves, with airborne time spent on patrols, recce missions and leaflet drops.

The RAF had grown rapidly in the months preceding the war and continued to do so during the phoney war. The bulk of the pilots in most squadrons were young and inexperienced, freshly trained in the RAF’s rigid formation-flying doctrine. Most of their aircraft were outdated, and their numbers were relatively low, with many squadrons kept in Britain.

The enemy they yearned to meet boasted a large force of battle-hardened veterans, many having flown in the Spanish Civil War and sharpened their skills in the invasions of Poland and Norway. They too were eager, buoyed by early successes.

When the German advance came, the RAF quickly and painfully discovered their weaknesses. The Fairey Battle and Bristol Blenheim bombers were decimated as they tried to attack the German forces, with losses of 75% or more on some missions. The pilots of the Hawker Hurricane fighters struggled with the sheer number of Luftwaffe fighters, and many young pilots and their aircraft were lost as they tried desperately to protect the vulnerable bombers. In a matter of days many squadrons were all but destroyed, and several remaining had more pilots than aircraft.

The German army quickly broke through the allied defences and in just eleven days they reached the Channel coast, a feat they had been unable to achieve in four years during World War I. As the Luftwaffe gained dominance in the skies over eastern France, the RAF was pushed further and further west, with some squadrons relocating their bases three or four times before evacuating to Britain.

As the BEF retreated, the RAF was tasked with protecting the evacuation. Over the nine days of Operation Dynamo, the RAF flew 171 reconnaissance, 651 bombing and 2,739 fighter sorties. Fighter Command claimed 262 enemy aircraft, losing 106 of their own, losses worse than they would experience in the upcoming Battle of Britain.


A German Junkers Ju 87B Stuka dropping bombs.
In spite of the RAF’s untiring efforts, to the men on the beaches awaiting passage home, the Luftwaffe’s bombers seemed to have unfettered access to the skies over Dunkirk. On one day alone, Stukas, Heinkels and Dorniers dropped 15,000 high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs on Dunkirk harbour and the approaching fleet of British ships and boats.

The challenges piled on the RAF over Dunkirk can not be easily overstated. Inexperienced pilots had to fly across the Channel to face vast swarms of enemy aircraft, with many flown by experienced pilots. Their outdated tactics made it difficult to effectively engage the enemy and when their formations broke up the green youngsters found themselves on their own, fighting for their lives against five times their number or more.

Whilst it is easy, in hindsight, to find ways the RAF could have better protected Operation Dynamo, it is unreasonable not to recognise the huge challenges they faced and the successes they did achieve. It is also important to remember that even after their losses in France and over Dunkirk, the defense of England would soon fall squarely on the RAF’s shoulders in the Battle of Britain, a campaign whose outcome is well known and celebrated.
God bless them.
William



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