Operation Dynamo: Air Operations at Dunkirk 1940

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Operation Dynamo – men wait in an orderly fashion for their turn to be rescued.

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The fighting around Dunkirk had a sobering effect on the German military. The Luftwaffe in particular met a formidable foe for the first time in the war. They lost 240 aircraft in the 9 days of the evacuation; 30 percent of their aircraft were forced out of action between the opening of the invasion in early May and the armistice in late July. The Royal Air Force showed that its Hurricane and Spitfire fighters could more than hold their own against the German Messerschmitts, which had met little effective opposition in previous campaigns. The decision by the British government not to reinforce the Royal Air Force in France, once it was clear that the Germans would succeed, kept a solid core of planes and pilots ready to defeat German attempts at gaining air superiority in the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain.

The few days of air battle over Dunkirk, France, in May 1940 were unique in air warfare: the RAF had the single mission of destroying German aircraft which were molesting the evacuation effort on the beach below; they employed only fighters while the Germans initially used mostly bombers. When the bombers suffered high losses at the hands of RAF fighters, the Germans threw in fighter escorts to protect their bombers. Neither side attempted to destroy operating airfields for the British had few aircraft to spare for such airdrome attacks and the Luftwaffe had all the bombing work it could handle over France.

May 26, 1940 – Following the fall of Calais and Boulogne, Dunkirk remains the only port available for the evacuation of Allied troops from the Continent. RAF No. 11 Group, under the command of Vice-Marshal Keith Park, assigns 16 squadrons to the protection of the port. During the evacuation (codenamed Operation Dynamo), a total of 32 participate, although they are rotated to provide rest periods and preserve aircraft for the inevitable defence of Britain.

May 29, 1940: The Wehrmacht High Command announced: “On May 28, enemy air losses totalled 24 aircraft, 16 of which were shot down in aerial combat, 8 by Flak. Three German aircraft are missing. [German air ace] Captain Molders has won his 20th air victory.’

May 30, 1940: The Wehrmacht High Command announced: ‘On the afternoon and evening of May 29, strong formations from two air corps under the command of Generals Grauert and Wolfram von Richthofen, attacked British war and transport vessels in the port and sea territory of Dunkirk and Ostend, as they were trying to evacuate the remains of the British Expeditionary Force.

May 31, 1940: In the air over Dunkirk the RAF looses 28 fighters, and claims 28 German fighters.

[RAF records show that Boulton Paul Defiants have shot down 65 EA, mainly over Dunkirk against bomber formations. The Boulton Paul Defiant got a bad reputation because 141 Squadron used appalling tactics whilst their sister Squadron, 264, did very well with the type, even in daylight against Bf109s. The Defiant was also the most effective night-fighter in the early stages of the war. 264 Squadron claimed more aircraft in one day over Dunkirk than the Luftwaffe lost in the whole if its operations that day. There can be no doubt that the (in good faith) claims on that day were grossly in excess of the truth – probably an early example of the difficulties experienced by aerial gunners in accurately assessing results. 264 Squadron operated the Defiant extensively over Dunkirk and devised effective tactics for dealing with German fighters. Basically, the Defiants would go into line-astern and then form a circle, thereby providing mutual protection. The whole circle would then gradually descend to prevent attacks from beneath. Sadly, 141 Squadron did not adopt these tactics, and on their first engagement in the Battle of Britain lost 7 Defiants for a claimed 4 Bf109s shot down; the Squadron was then immediately removed from the Battle and sent to Scotland. …and most of ‘Real’ Defiant kills were due to the fact that many Luftwaffe Pilots mistook it from a Hurricane then approached from 5-6-7 O’clock then encounter the rear turret’s four machine-guns.

According to Francis Mason, the Defiants shot down between 15-20 German aircraft at battle of Dunkirk 1940.

The Defiant shot down some aircraft until the Germans realised that it wasn’t a single-seat fighter and that it was not a good idea to close in behind for a shot. Once they changed their tactics the Defiant was slaughtered and had to be withdrawn from combat. It did have some success as a night fighter after that, but was really too small for the task.]

June 1, 1940: The RAF sorties 8 large patrols over Dunkirk. British decide that the air battles are becoming too dangerous for continued evacuation operations during daylight hours.

June 3, 1940 – The last day of Operation Dynamo sees the RAF carry out 171 reconnaissances, 651 bombing and 2,739 fighter sorties. During the previous nine days, the RAF has lost 177 aircraft, including 106 fighters and the attrition is such that the first-line strength of Fighter Command stands at 331 Hurricanes and Spitfires with only 36 fighters in reserve. German aircraft also carry out the first attacks against Paris.

June 4, 1940: The Germans enter Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo has evacuated 338,226 of which 112,000 are French. The initial estimate was 50,000 to be evacuated. The last ship, destroyer HMS Shikari, left at 3:40 am. Credit for this success should go to the British land and naval commanders and their troops along with the German hesitation. The RAF played an important part and lost 80 pilots KIA and 106 aircraft during the seven days of the evacuation, the Luftwaffe 150 aircraft.

Note: Air losses at Dunkirk

Between May 8, 1940 and May 18, 1940 the RAF lost 250 Hurricanes on May 13, 1940 Churchill ordered the transfer of 120 Hurricanes to France. On May 15, 1940 Air Marshall Downing wrote to Churchill “If the present rate of wastage continues for another fortnight, we shall not have a single Hurricane left in France.” There is no mention of the losses of Spitfires. Critically, the worst day the RAF had at Dunkirk they lost 30 fighters. Weather and a lack of intensity are to blame.

French squadrons in UK

Two French squadrons were stationed in England between the May 27, 1940 up to June 5, 1940 for the GR I/14 with Potez 63 and between May 30, 1940 up to June 5, 1940 for the GC II/8 with Bloch 152. The 5 Potez and 13 Bloch aircraft were at the airfield of Lympne for the ‘Operation Dynamo’ above the beaches of Dunkerque. Two Glenn Martin aircraft from GB I/63 were also at Lympne some hours to drop medicine parcels above the beaches. A Bloch 220 and a Caudron Goeland were also in England to bring stores and supplies.



Operation Dynamo, the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force from France, was activated on May 26, 1940. From May 27 to June 4 the Royal Navy and civilian auxiliary extracted 338, 226 Allied soldiers from the Dunkirk beachhead.

Shipping losses were heavy and RAF Fighter Command was pilloried for not preventing the Luftwaffe from interfering with the embarkation. This was a natural reaction of troops who did not see the physical presence of friendly aircraft, but does not reflect the role of RAF Fighter Command over Dunkirk.

The effectiveness of the RAF can be seen in that, during Operation Dynamo, the Luftwaffe was only able to seriously threaten the evacuation on two and a half days – May 27, the afternoon of May 29 and June 1. Luftwaffe II Air Corps’ war diary described May 27 as a “bad day”, and reported the loss of 23 aircraft to RAF fighters protecting the beachhead.

The Dunkirk evacuation route, the shortest distance across the English Channel from Britain to Europe, had a psychological effect on the German military mindset. The German assessment that the invasion of Europe would be aimed at a lodgement in the Pas De Calais may have had its roots in the successful embarkation of the BEF in 1940.


During the evacuation of Dunkirk, Ansons were used aggressively to protect the beleaguered British troops. During this operation one Anson was attacked by ten Messerschmitts but managed to shoot down two and damage a third before the action was broken off. However, the Anson was severely limited in range, fire-power, and bomb load and was soon limited to training, transport, and other non-combat roles.

Nevertheless there were occasions when it had a more attacking role. It was used during the Dunkirk evacuation, on 1 June 1940 an Anson of 500 squadron was attacked by three Messerschmitt Bf109s and managed to shoot down two of them, and in the same mode there is an apparently reliable report of three Ansons being attacked by 10 Messerschmitt 109s with the Ansons managing to shoot down three of them.


During the Dunkirk evacuation, RAF Fighter Command together with elements of Coastal Command sought to protect the troops massed on the beaches below them. Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, Fighter Command alone lost 106 aircraft and somewhere between 75-80 pilots in the efforts to defend the BEF. Although unrecognised and unappreciated by many on the ground, the RAF’s efforts were heralded by the Prime Minister when he said that ‘There was a victory inside this deliverance. It was gained by the Royal Air Force’. .By agreeing with the Navy that their ships should arrive at Dunkirk around dusk and depart before dawn and then applying maximum fighter coverage at those times, sufficient local control of the air was achieved to prevent the Luftwaffe from interfering decisively with the evacuation.

The destruction of 2 more Fighter Command squadrons during the disastrous defence of Norway in April and May 1940 exacerbated the shortage of aircraft and pilots. While many of those aircraft were obsolescent Battles and Gladiators, 250 Hurricanes alone were lost between 8-18 May and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the AOC-in-C of Fighter Command refused to send any more fighters to France. Yet Hitler and his staff feared to put into motion an invasion of England immediately after the British Army had been evacuated from Dunkirk at the beginning of June. Hitler felt, with some justification, that Britain’s position was so hopeless that she was bound to come to terms without being invaded – with Britain out of the War, he would be able to attack Russia without the worry of a war on two fronts. However, by the time direct orders were given at the beginning of August for an invasion to be carried out – Operation Sealion – the RAF had replaced much of the losses. The balance sheet was still so much in favour of the Luftwaffe that neither Hitler, nor Goering, the Luftwaffe’s Commander, had any reason to doubt that the RAF could be destroyed and the invasion undertaken.


SPITFIRE “KIWI” N31383/KL-B FLOWN BY AL DEERE.  Pilot Officer Alan Deere used this aircraft to shoot down a Bf109E on the 24th May 1940 and a Bf110 on the 25th May during actions in support of the Dunkirk evacuation where he was credited with seven victories (plus one shared, one unconfirmed and one damaged) in just five days. On the 9th July 1940 this aircraft was shot down by elements of ll./JG51 over the Channel and its pilot, Pilot Officer A. Evershed was killed. No. 54 squadron lost two other Spitfires in this action, with a second pilot being killed and Al Deere suffering minor burns upon being forced to land P3938 near Manston.

08 May 40 Sqn Ldr R B Lees Convoy Patrol 1937 2100 Seaham Harbour-Tynemouth

01 Jun 40 Sgt Hamlyn R F Acklington – 1510 1645 Squadron move. Dunkirk cover. Gravesend Relieved 610 Sqn.

02 Jun 40 Flt Lt F M Smith Offensive 1845 2030 12 aircraft plus 5 from 609 Sqn. Patrol over 5 enemy aircraft destroyed, 2 Dunkirk damaged one presumed destroyed (Ju 87s)

04 Jun 40 Sgt Hamlyn R F Offensive Patrol 0510 0745 Landed at Manston in very bad over Dunkirk weather.

This sortie is covered in the RAFM 3/4/1 Spitfire 1 file letter from P.M. Joslin dated 21st September 2000; ‘ I met this plane at 7am on 4th June 1940. My father then farmed near the coast in the Lewes district of Sussex; Sgt Staples (not Hamlyn as recorded above) of 72 Squadron was piloting, and was forced to land in our 38-acre field, as he had then run out of fuel after a sortie over Dunkirk. He was asking for Gravesend where he was based at that time’. A photo, allegedly of this incident, appeared in the Daily Telegraph 11 Dec 2000, with the aircraft upended on its nose with a bent prop, which might question the other flights listed for that day.


Sir Keith Park

Prior to World War Two Keith Park was appointed senior air staff officer to Hugh Dowding, who developed the utmost respect for Park.  He appointed him Commander-in-Chief of 11 Group, the most important in Fighter Command. Group 11 was assigned to not only defend the southern coastline of Britain and south-east England from enemy attack, but also to protect London, which it was obvious would be the prime target of the Luftwaffe at some stage of the war.

His first experience of action in WWII came when he was in charge of organising air-protection for the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk on the French coast. The British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army had become cornered by advancing German forces and between 26 May and 4 June 1940 nearly 350,000 troops needed to be evacuated by ship. The air support’s job was to intercept the Luftwaffe before they could attack the exhausted Allied troops on the beaches. It was a juggling act that required shuttling fighters, often crewed by pilots with limited experience and at the end of their fuel range, back and forth across the English Channel.

Park was often in the air himself over Dunkirk, spotting weak enemy positions and taking note of targets for his own pilots. When the order came to evacuate, Park was up in a Hurricane fighter making reconnaissance missions within range of German guns. He watched the last two British ships set sail while making a final survey. He was the last airman to leave.



Shown here is a Hudson Mk.I of an unidentified Sqd off Dunkirk during early June 1940 at the time of Operation Dynamo.

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