Following the German conquest of Poland in September 1939, the war against Hitler entered a period of inactivity. The Phoney War, the press called it, while the British and French concentrated their forces along the borders of neutral Belgium and France.
In April 1940, the Germans invaded Denmark and Norway, moving with great force and a ruthlessness that caught London and Paris short. Then on May 10, the Phoney War ended when the Germans attacked the Low Countries and, moving through the supposedly impassable Ardennes, sent their armoured panzer divisions rolling at speed into France.
The Netherlands surrendered on May 15, the government fleeing to England. The 20 French and eight British divisions on the Belgian border moved east, precisely as the Germans had expected. The German armoured divisions then made a sweeping movement west and north, soon reaching the English Channel. By May 20, they had effectively cut off the Anglo-French forces in the north from the French forces to the south.
On May 28, the Belgians surrendered, leaving a hole in the already battered Allied defences, and the formations of the British Expeditionary Force began to retreat hurriedly toward the unoccupied Channel ports. Directing the move was Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke, commander of Britain’s II Corps. Brooke and his 3rd Division commander, Major-General Bernard Montgomery, were two of the very few Allied commanders to emerge with credit from what had quickly turned into a debacle.
As British and French units retreated to Dunkirk, the overriding task now was to get them back to England. The evacuation was code-named Operation Dynamo.
The Admiralty had already begun mobilizing a fleet of some 900 ships—destroyers, ferries, fishing boats, pleasure craft—to cross the Channel. Small boats could get close to the beach and troops could wade out to them. But this was excruciatingly slow. Only the harbour’s narrow concrete breakwater topped with a wooden walkway—known as a mole—allowed larger vessels to load a procession of soldiers.
Commander James Campbell Clouston, a 40-year-old Montrealer serving in the Royal Navy, was in charge of the evacuation from the mole. On May 27, the first day of the evacuation, only a few thousand men reached England. But by using the mole, the process ramped up, at times loading 2,000 men an hour aboard ships.
With skill and courage, Clouston kept the evacuation moving while the Luftwaffe strafed the waiting troops on the beaches and bombed the mole. Fortuitously, the Wehrmacht had halted its panzers on May 23 to rest the troops and prepare for action against the main French forces, an order that was rescinded on May 26. The delay allowed the British and French defences around Dunkirk to be strengthened enough so the evacuation could proceed.
Robert Timbrell, 20, an acting sub-lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Navy, was in training at the RN’s Gunnery School on May 29 when he was ordered to take command of a 77-foot yacht.
His crew consisted of six Newfoundlanders recruited into the RN, two diesel engineers, and a petty officer. Quickly he was off to Dunkirk, told to load off the beaches and to avoid the mole.
“It was during this first trip with about 50 soldiers loaded,” Timbrell wrote later, “that a nearby explosion off the port bow caused the loss of the anchor, ruptured the fuel lines to both twin-screw engines, rendering them unserviceable and resulting in the yacht drifting onto the beach. We unloaded (the soldiers were not all that keen to return whence they had come).”
Timbrell somehow found a sergeant who located an abandoned tank, drove it into the sea, and used it as an anchor and fulcrum to pull the repaired yacht off the beach. Timbrell managed to carry 100 soldiers back to port at Ramsgate.
The young officer then found himself put in command of five trawlers. With a “small rowboat and the power boat with a carrying capacity of 16,” Timbrell loaded all five ships.
On his third trip, a German E-boat—a fast attack craft—targeted Timbrell’s little armada.
“We were fortunate to have loaded eight Bren guns and two anti-tank guns—small—on wheels firing a 40-millimetre shell…. [What] looked like ripe plums for the picking turned into a prickly opponent as we held fire until the last possible moment and then fired with all 10 guns….”
The German craft backed off and Timbrell made it back to Ramsgate. In all, he brought 900 soldiers home. Timbrell received the Distinguished Service Cross, the first Canadian to receive that decoration in the Second World War. He ended his career in the RCN as a rear admiral.
By June 4, Operation Dynamo was over: 338,226 British and French troops had been carried to England. But this was no victory. The Germans had hoisted the swastika over the docks of Dunkirk.
“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory,” said British prime minister Winston Churchill in one of his soul-stirring speeches. “Wars are not won by evacuations.”
The troops retreated with only their personal weapons. Most of the BEF’s guns, tanks, vehicles and supplies had been destroyed on orders of the British high command, and there were few formed and trained formations left in Britain.
The 1st Canadian Division was deemed the most battleworthy. It had arrived in England in December 1939 and encamped at the British Army training centre in Aldershot, preparing to take its place with the BEF in France in the summer.
The troops were raring to see action. In April, when the Nazis invaded Denmark and Norway, plans were made to send 800 Canadian troops to Trondheim, Norway. But this was aborted at the last moment.
After the German invasion of France in May, the War Office ordered General Andrew McNaughton, the 1st Division’s general officer commanding, to survey the situation of the French Channel ports. Plans were quickly developed to send the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade to Calais or Dunkirk.
McNaughton briefed the brigade’s officers on May 23, telling them—according to the diary of Captain Harry Foster, a junior staff officer in the 1st Brigade—“it’s going to be a sticky business. You must be absolutely ruthless…. Tell the men we are not particularly interested in prisoners.”
Foster’s May 24 diary then told that day’s story:
“Dover Marine 06:30. Place congested by arrival of thousands of refugee civilians and French soldiers…. It is quite obvious Calais is now out of the question. Why don’t we get going for Dunkirk while it is still free?”
After a brief visit to France, McNaughton rightly concluded that the speed of the Wehrmacht advance had made the deployment—Operation Angel Move—senseless, and it was scrubbed.
“At 18:00 hours,” Foster’s diary noted, “a liaison officer from [division headquarters] arrived to tell us we would entrain [back to] Aldershot at 20:00 hours. How to tell the troops? Their blood is up.”
The Hastings and Prince Edward Regiment, the 48th Highlanders of Canada and the Royal Canadian Regiment all prepared to return to barracks. But not for long.
On May 26, the 1st Brigade once more received a warning order to prepare to move to France; 10 hours later the order was cancelled. The next day, Foster’s diary noted, “At 15:45, received warning order. We do not go to France but will be mobile reserve for defence of [Great Britain].”
The miracle of Dunkirk then took place.
Desperate to keep a crumbling, demoralized France in the war, Churchill wanted to create a new expeditionary force in western France.
On June 8, the Canadians received orders to prepare to become the key component of Britain’s reformed II Corps, alongside the British 52nd (Lowland) Division. The 1st Brigade was again tapped for the first phase, and its transport left for Falmouth the same day.
On June 13, the main body of troops arrived at Plymouth and embarked on a French transport. The intention had been that the Canadians would concentrate northeast of Brest, France, before linking up with the 52nd. Instead, the troops loaded their trucks or boarded trains and moved toward Le Mans, well east of the proposed defence line. Within hours, the brigade’s elements were scattered over western France.
Foster’s diary from June 15 described the scene near Brest. “As dawn broke, we arrived at our destination SABLE—two hours late. We were greeted by a rather upset [railway transport officer] who announced that the French were folding up, the Bosche were only 25 kilos away last night, that we were to return to Brest and he was off immediately—he then disappeared. Doubts immediately—was he fifth column? What to do? The French railway men say ‘la guerre est fini.’”
The transport officer’s direction to the Canadians had been correct.
Since being tapped to command the new BEF, Brooke had been dubious about the prospect of reforming an Allied defence line, and he finally persuaded his superiors and Churchill that it made no sense to throw away the only two remaining divisions in the British order of battle that were fully equipped and deemed battleworthy.
The Canadians set off back to Brest on their trains, but somehow the lead elements ended up at Saint-Malo by mistake.
Foster’s June 15 diary continued: “We detrain at Saint-Malo at 17:00 hours and embark on SS Biarritz—a British ship, thank God. We are mixed up with [Royal Engineers], Naval Expeditionary Force and odds and sods, all are full of fight. The French have let us down…but we are all cheerful and everyone seems to feel we have a tough job ahead but there’s no doubt we can take him—will fight our own battle from now on.”
Three days later, Foster heard “that the whole of our precious new transport was wrecked at Brest and all our kits burned.”
There was more panic and confusion in Brest than Foster knew. The brigade’s new 25-pounder guns had arrived there, but the British officer commanding the embarkation ordered them to be destroyed. Lieutenant-Colonel J. Hamilton Roberts, commander of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, was appalled, argued vehemently for two hours, and managed to get the destruction order rescinded. Roberts got his 24 guns loaded onboard, even managing to get an abandoned 25-pounder from a British regiment stowed away as well.
Lieutenant Robert Moncel, commanding the Royal Canadian Regiment’s Bren gun carrier platoon, similarly received orders to destroy his carriers. Years later, he recalled that he flatly refused and managed to get the vehicles loaded aboard ship as ballast—but only after ordering his platoon sergeant, if necessary, to shoot the British officer in charge on the docks. When the ship arrived at Southampton, Moncel was told to turn over his carriers to the general pool. Again he refused and managed to keep them for the RCR, thanks to the intervention of a British officer he had met on a course. Both the guns and carriers were in short supply in Britain, and Roberts and Moncel showed great initiative in saving them despite the panic all around them. Both would quickly rise to senior positions as the war progressed.
France surrendered on June 22. The Canadians had been saved from almost certain death and destruction by Brooke’s orders. But there was grumbling among the troops. The “Big Bust of Brest,” the soldiers called it, while others groaned that the “Canadians Almost Saw France,” using the initials of the Canadian Active Service Force.
After their return to Britain, their task was to defend against the expected German invasion, and the 1st Division was soon joined by the 2nd Division. The long wait for action had begun.
“Get down into those bloody ships!“
Born in Montreal in 1900, James Campbell Clouston joined the Royal Navy and received his commission in 1923. He served on destroyers and cruisers and took command of HMS Isis, a destroyer, in 1937.
During the 1940 Norway campaign, Isis was damaged and Clouston returned to England. Detailed for duty with a naval shore party sent to Dunkirk on May 26 to manage the evacuation of British and French troops, he took charge of the harbour’s eastern mole, a narrow wooden walkway atop a concrete breakwater. Although not designed for this purpose, the mole served as a makeshift pier where larger vessels could take hundreds of men aboard.
Armed with a megaphone and courage, Clouston directed the evacuation of tens of thousands of troops over an extraordinary six-day period. He organized evacuees into 50-man groups, each assigned a leader. When the group was called, the soldiers marched onto the mole and aboard a waiting ship. Up to 2,000 men an hour were soon being evacuated.
After one air attack, soldiers panicked and Clouston had to pull his revolver out to restore order. “We have come to take you back to the UK,” he shouted. “I have six shots here and I am not a bad shot. The lieutenant behind me is an even better one…. Now get down into those bloody ships!” They did.
On June 1, Clouston returned to Dover to report to his superiors. He was en route back to Dunkirk for the final night of the evacuation when Luftwaffe dive bombers sank his vessel, and Clouston drowned.
Brooke’s strategic withdrawal
Born in 1883 in France to Anglo-Irish parents, Alan Brooke graduated from the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and received his commission in the Royal Artillery in 1902.
He served with the guns in France, and in 1916 began to perfect the creeping barrage. As the Canadian Corps’ senior artillery staff planner, his fire plan was instrumental in the victory at Vimy Ridge. As a lieutenant-colonel, he became the artillery General Staff Officer (Grade 1) of Britain’s First Army. He commanded a division in the mid-1930s, and when the BEF went to France in 1939, Brooke was a corps commander.
He was praised for his handling of the British retreat to Dunkirk in May 1940, and he was tapped to lead the reconstituted BEF in western France in June. As the French collapsed in the face of the Wehrmacht onslaught, Brooke recognized the utter futility of attempting to create an Anglo-French defence line in western France. He argued strenuously for the withdrawal of the BEF, including the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade that had landed at Brest in June.
To Brooke, there were no possibilities of military success, no matter what British prime minister Winston Churchill might have believed were the political imperatives of having British troops continue the fight on French soil. Brooke won the point, and some 200,000 men were evacuated.
By December 1941, Brooke was Chief of the Imperial General Staff. He became the architect of the resurrection of the British Army, and the planner of the Allied victory over Hitler.