The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the name of the British Army in Western Europe from 1939 to 1940 during the Second World War. In the 1930s, the British government had planned to deter war by rearming from the very low level of readiness of the early 1930s. The first step was the abolition of the Ten Year Rule but the bulk of the extra money went to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (RAF). Plans had been made to re-equip a small number of Regular and Territorial divisions, potentially for service overseas.

The BEF had been established in 1938, in readiness for war, after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss of March 1938 and made claims on Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, that led to the Munich Agreement (30 September 1938). The French and British governments forced the Czechoslovak government into ceding Sudetenland to Germany; the German occupation of Czechoslovakia took place on 15 March 1939. After the French and British governments had undertaken in the Franco-Polish Military Alliance to defend Polish independence, the German invasion of Poland began on 1 September; on 3 September, after the expiry of an ultimatum, the British and French declaration of war on Germany was promulgated.

The BEF (General Lord Gort) began moving to France in September 1939. The British assembled along the Belgian–French border on the left of the French First Army as part of the French 1er groupe d'armées (1st Army Group) of the Front du Nord-est (North-Eastern Front). Most of the BEF spent the Phoney War digging field defences on the French–Belgian border, before the Battle of France (Fall Gelb) began on 10 May 1940. The BEF constituted 10 percent of the Allied forces on the Western Front. The BEF participated in the Dyle Plan, a rapid advance into Belgium to the line of the river Dyle but had to retreat through Belgium and north-western France with the rest of the 1er groupe d'armées, after the German breakthrough further south at the Battle of Sedan. The BEF, French and Belgian forces cut off north of the Somme river were evacuated from the French North Sea coast through port and beaches of Dunkirk in Operation Dynamo.

Saar Force, the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and attached units, had been transferred from the BEF for service along the Maginot Line, as part of a plan for the BEF units to gain experience. The force fought with local French units until the German offensive began, then moved west to join the Tenth Army along the Channel coast, joining the Beauman Division improvised from troops on the lines-or-communications and the 1st Armoured Division from England, to fight in the Battle of Abbeville (27 May – 4 June) south of the Somme. The British government was attempting to re-build the BEF, with divisions training in Britain, troops from France and the lines-or-communications troops south of the Somme river (informally known as the 2nd BEF). After the success of the second German offensive in France (Fall Rot) over the Somme and Aisne rivers, British troops were evacuated from Le Havre in Operation Cycle (10–13 June) and the French Atlantic and Mediterranean ports in Operation Ariel (15–25 June, unofficially to 14 August).



After 1918, the prospect of war seemed so remote that Government expenditure on the armed forces, was determined by the assumption that no great war was likely. Spending varied from year to year and between the services but from July 1928 to March 1932, the formula of the Committee of Imperial Defence (CID) was

...that it should be assumed for the purpose of framing the estimates of the fighting services that at any given date there will be no major war for ten years.

— CID[1]

and spending on equipment for the army varied from £1,500,000 to £2,600,000 per year from 1924 to 1933, averaging £2,000,000 or about 9 percent of annual armaments spending. Until the early 1930s, the War Office intended to maintain a small, mobile and professional army and a start was made on motorising the cavalry and the artillery. By 1930, the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) had been mechanised, some of the artillery could be moved by tractors and a few engineer, signals and cavalry units had received lorries. From 1930–1934, the Territorial Army (TA) artillery, engineer, signals units were equipped with lorries and in 1938 the regular army gained its establishment of wheeled vehicles and half of its tracked vehicles, except for tanks. From 1923 to 1932, 5,000 motor vehicles were ordered at a rate of about 500 a year, just under half being six-wheeler lorries. By 1936, the army had 379 tanks, of which 209 were light tanks and 166 were mediums; 304 of the tanks were considered obsolete; 69 of the light tanks were modern but deliveries only began in 1935.[2] The Ten Year Rule had reduced war spending from £766 million in 1920 to £102 million when it was abolished on 23 March 1932. The British army had fewer men than in 1914, no organisation or equipment for a war in Europe and it would have taken the War Office three weeks to mobilise an infantry division and a cavalry brigade.[3]


Limited Liability

Light Tank Mk VIC

In March 1932, the Ten-Year Rule was abolished and in 1934, the Cabinet resolved to remedy equipment deficiencies in the armed forces over the next five years. The army was always the least favoured military force but equipment spending increased from £6,900,000 from 1933–1934 financial year (1 April to 31 March), to £8,500,000 the following year and to more than £67,500,000 by 1938–1939; the share of spending on army equipment grew beyond 25 percent of all military equipment spending in 1938. The relative neglect of the army led to a theory of limited liability until 1937, in which Britain would not send a great army to Europe in time of war. In 1934, the Defence Requirements Sub-Committee (DRC) of the CID assumed that a regular field army of five divisions was to be equipped as an expeditionary force, eventually to be supplemented by parts of the Territorial Army. The force and its air support would act as a deterrent greatly disproportionate to its size; plans were made to acquire sufficient equipment and training for the TA to provide a minimum of two extra divisions on the outbreak of war. It was expected that a British army in Europe would receive continuous reinforcement and in 1936, a TA commitment of twelve divisions was envisaged by Alfred Duff Cooper, the Secretary of State for War.[4]

As rearmament of the navy and the air force continued, the nature of an army fit to participate in a European war was kept under review. In 1936, the Cabinet ordered the Chiefs of Staff Sub-Committee of the CID to provide a report on the role of an expeditionary force and the relative values of the army and the air force as deterrents, for the same cost. The chiefs were in favour of a balanced rearmament but within financial limits, judged that the air force should be favoured. In 1937, the Minister argued that a continental commitment was no longer feasible and that France did not now expect a big land army along with the navy and air force. Germany had guaranteed Belgian neutrality and that if the quantity of money was limited, then defence against air attack, trade protection and the defence of overseas territories, were more important and had to be secured before Britain could support allies in the defence of their territories. The continental hypothesis came fourth in the order of tasks and the main role of the army was to protect the empire, which included the anti-aircraft defence of the British Isles (with the assistance of the TA). In 1938 limited liability reached its apogee, just as rearmament was maturing and the army was considering the new conspectus, a much more ambitious rearmament plan.[5]

In February 1938, the CID ruled that planning should be based on limited liability; between late 1937 and early 1939, equipment procurement for the five-division field army was reduced to that necessary for colonial warfare in the Far East. In Europe, the field force could only conduct defensive warfare and would need a big increase in ammunition and the refurbishment of its tank forces. The field force continued to be the least-favoured part of the least-favoured military arm and in February 1938, the Secretary of State warned that possible allies should be left in no doubt about the effectiveness of the army. The re-armament plans for the field force remained deficiency plans, rather than for expansion. The July 1934 deficiency plan was costed at £10,000,000 but cut by 50 percent by the cabinet; by the first rearmament plan of 1936, the cost of the deficiency plan for the next five years had increased £177,000,000. In the first version of the new conspectus, spending was put at £347,000,000 although this was cut to £276,000,000, still substantially more than the deficiency plan for 1936 but much of this was reserved for anti-aircraft defence, a new duty imposed on the army.[5]


Deployment of the BEF

Men of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards, part of the 1st Guards Brigade, arrive in Cherbourg, France, in the autumn of 1939.

During the summer of 1939, an amazed German military attaché in Britain watched troops on manoeuvres, marching with gas pipes and pieces of wood to represent anti-tank rifles and carrying blue flags to represent the trucks they rode in. One lieutenant stuffed his holster with paper because he had no pistol and one soldier who joined the Royal Artillery in April did not receive his uniform until July. There were immense pressures to produce equipment, which led to a rapid increase in output. Clothing items were one example of this, greatcoats and boots being produced at up to fifty times the normal peacetime rates. Twenty-five years of greatcoats were made in six months and 18 months' production of army boots were turned out in one week but shortages remained. After the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in May 1940, only three officers of the 5th Battalion, Green Howards, a TA unit in the 150th Infantry Brigade, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, had pistols and the unit similarly lacked compasses and binoculars.[6]

Following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, the BEF was despatched to France and sent to the Franco-Belgian border. Advanced parties of troops left Portsmouth on 4 September under Plan W4 and the first troops convoy left the ports on the Bristol Channel and Southampton on 9 September, the landings taking place at Cherbourg on 10 September and Nantes and St Nazaire the next day. German submarines had been limited by Hitler's orders to avoid provoking the Allies and only a few mines were laid near Dover and Weymouth. By 27 September, 152,000 soldiers, 21,424 army vehicles, 36,000 long tons (37,000 t) of ammunition, 25,000 long tons (25,000 t) of petrol and 60,000 long tons (61,000 t) of frozen meat had been delivered to France by the Navy and the Merchant Navy.[7]

Troops from the first contingent of the BEF embarking for France at Southampton, England, September 1939.

By 19 October, the BEF had received 25,000 vehicles to complete the first deployment. The majority of the troops were stationed along the Franco-Belgian border but British divisions took turns to serve with the French Third Army on the Maginot Line. In April 1940, the 51st Highland Infantry Division, reinforced by additional units and called Saar Force took over part of the French line.[8] Belgium and the Netherlands were neutral and no German, French or British troops were stationed in them. For troops along the Maginot Line the inactivity and an undue reliance on the fortifications, which were believed to be invulnerable, led to "Tommy Rot" (portrayed in the song "Imagine Me on the Maginot Line"). Morale was high amongst the British troops but the small-scale actions of the Germans by 9 May, had led many into assuming that there would not be much chance of a big German attack in that area.[9]

General Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, with General Alphonse Georges, commander of the French Ninth Army.

In March 1940, it was decided to send three further Territorial Army divisions to France; 12th (Eastern) Division, 23rd (Northumbrian) Division and 46th (North Midland and West Riding) Infantry Division. These consisted of 26 recently formed infantry battalions who had spent their first months guarding vulnerable points in England but had received very little training. They were formed into nominal brigades and divisions but aside from some engineers lacked all the other supporting units such as artillery, signals or transport which a division would expect. They were employed in various labouring tasks from St Nazaire in Normandy to St Pol in French Flanders, on the understanding that they would not be used before they had completed their training.[10]

By May 1940 the BEF order of battle consisted of 10 combat-ready infantry divisions in I Corps, II Corps, III Corps and Saar Force; the 1st Army Tank Brigade, the BEF Air Component Royal Air Force (RAF) detachment of about 500 aircraft and the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) long-range bomber force. These were commanded by General Headquarters (GHQ) which consisted of men from Headquarters (HQ) Troops (consisting of the 1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, the 9th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment and the 14th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers), the 1st Army Tank Brigade, 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, HQ Royal Artillery and the 5th Infantry Division.[11]

1st Royal Irish Fusiliers digging a trench near Nomain on the Franco-Belgian border, February 1940.

The section of the Franco-Belgian border to be held by the BEF, stretched from Armentières westward towards Menin, then south to the junction of the border and the River Escaut (the French name for the Scheldt) at Maulde, forming a salient around Lille and Roubaix. To the west of the British positions, the border was held by the French Seventh Army while to the south was the French First Army. All the forces along the Belgian border were under the command of the Commander-in-Chief of the North East Front, General Alphonse Georges. The British began to dig trenches, weapons pits and pill boxes, which became known as the Gort Line.[12] The period leading up to 10 May had been known as the Phoney War, as there was little combat apart from minor clashes of reconnaissance patrols. The first BEF fatality was 27-year-old Corporal Thomas William Priday, from the 1st Battalion, King's Shropshire Light Infantry. The battalion was attached to the 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division and Priday was killed on 9 December 1939, when his patrol set off a booby-trap and was fired upon by friendly troops.[13]

Escaut Plan/Plan E, 1939–1940

On the French declaration of war on 3 September 1939, French military strategy had been settled, taking in analysis of geography, resources and manpower. The French army would defend on the right and advance into Belgium on the left, to fight forward of the French frontier. The extent of the forward move was dependent on events, which had been complicated in 1936 by the Belgian repudiation of the Franco-Belgian Accord of 1920. As a neutral, the Belgian state was reluctant to co-operate openly with France but did communicate information about Belgian defences. By May 1940, there had been an exchange of the general nature of French and Belgian defence plans but little co-ordination especially against a German offensive to the west, through Luxembourg and the east of Belgium. The French expected Germany to breach Belgian neutrality first, providing a pretext for French intervention or that the Belgians would request support when an invasion was imminent. Most of the French mobile forces were assembled along the Belgian border, ready to make a quick move forward and take up defensive positions before the Germans arrived.[14]

An early appeal for help might give the French time to reach the German–Belgian frontier but if not, there were three feasible defensive lines further back. A line from Givet, to Namur, across the Gembloux Gap (la trouée de Gembloux), Wavre, Louvain and along the Dyle river to Antwerp, later termed Dyle Plan/Plan D could be reached, which was 70–80 km (43–50 mi) shorter than the alternatives. A second possibility was a line from the French border to Condé, Tournai, along the Escaut (Scheldt) to Ghent and thence to Zeebrugge on the North Sea coast, possibly further along the Scheldt (Escaut) to Antwerp, which became Escaut Plan/Plan E. The third potential defensive line was along field defences along the French border from Luxembourg to Dunkirk. For the first fortnight of the war, Maurice Gamelin, Général d'armée and Commander-in-chief of the French Armed Forces, favoured Plan E, because of the example of the fast German advances in Poland after the invasion of 1 September 1939. Gamelin and the other French commanders doubted that they could advance any further forward before the Germans arrived and in late September, Gamelin issued Général d'armée Gaston Billotte, commander of the 1st Army Group a directive for,

assuring the integrity of the national territory and defending without withdrawing the position of resistance organised along the frontier....

— Gamelin[15]

the 1st Army Group had permission to enter Belgium and deploy along the Escaut according to Plan E. On 24 October, Gamelin directed that an advance beyond the Escaut could only be possible if the French moved fast enough to forestall the Germans.[16]

Dyle Plan/Plan D, 1940

Crews of 13/18th Royal Hussars work on their Light Tanks Mk VI in a farmyard near Arras, October 1939

By late 1939 the Belgians had improved the defences along the Albert Canal and increased the readiness of the army, Gamelin and GQG began to consider the possibility of advancing further than the Escaut. By November, GQG had decided that a defence along the Dyle Line was feasible, despite the doubts of General Alphonse Georges, commander of the North-Eastern Front about reaching the Dyle before the Germans. The British had been lukewarm about an advance into Belgium but Gamelin talked them round and on 9 November, the Dyle Plan was adopted. On 17 November, a session of the Supreme War Council deciding that it was essential to occupy the Dyle Line and Gamelin issued a directive that day detailing a line from Givet to Namur, the Gembloux Gap, Wavre, Louvain and Antwerp. For the next four months, the Dutch and Belgian armies laboured over their defences, the BEF expanded and the French army received more equipment and training.[17][a]

In May 1940, the 1st Army Group was responsible for the defence of France from the Channel coast to the west end of the Maginot Line. The Seventh Army (Général d'armée Henri Giraud), BEF (General lord Gort), First Army (Général d'armée Georges Maurice Jean Blanchard) and Ninth Army (Général d'armée André Corap) were ready to advance to the Dyle Line, by pivoting on the right (southern) Second Army.[b] The Seventh Army would take over west of Antwerp, ready to move into Holland and the Belgians were expected to delay a German advance, then retire from the Albert Canal to the Dyle from Antwerp to Louvain. On the Belgian right, the BEF was to defend about 12 mi (20 km) of the Dyle from Louvain to Wavre with nine divisions and the First Army on the right of the BEF was to hold 22 mi (35 km) with ten divisions, from Wavre across the Gembloux Gap to Namur. The gap from the Dyle to Namur north of the Sambre, with Maastricht and Mons on either side, had few natural obstacles and was a traditional route of invasion, leading straight to Paris. The Ninth Army would take post south of Namur, along the Meuse to the left (northern) flank of the Second Army.[19]

The Second Army was the right (eastern) flank army of the 1st Army Group, holding the line from Pont à Bar 3.7 mi (6 km) west of Sedan to Longuyon. GQG considered that the Second and Ninth armies had the easiest task of the army group, dug in on the west bank of the Meuse on ground that was easily defended and behind the Ardennes, with plenty of warning of a German attack in the centre of the French front. After the transfer of the Seventh Army to the 1st Army Group, seven divisions remained behind the Second and Ninth armies and other divisions could be moved from behind the Maginot Line. All but one division were either side of the junction of the two armies, GQG being more concerned about a possible German attack past the north end of the Maginot Line and then south-east through the Stenay Gap, for which the divisions behind the Second Army were well placed.[20]

Breda variant

If the Allies could control the Scheldt Estuary, supplies could be transported to Antwerp by ship and contact established with the Dutch army along the Scheldt. On 8 November, Gamelin directed that a German invasion of the Netherlands must not be allowed to pass round the west of Antwerp by gaining the south bank of the Scheldt. The left flank of the 1st Army Group was reinforced by the Seventh Army, containing some of the best and most mobile French divisions, which moved from the general reserve by December. The role of the army was to occupy the south back of the Scheldt and be ready to move into Holland and protect the estuary by holding the north bank along the Beveland Peninsula (now the WalcherenZuid-Beveland–Noord-Beveland peninsula) in the "Holland Hypothesis". On 12 March 1940, Gamelin discounted dissenting opinion at GQG and decided that the Seventh Army would advance as far as Breda to link with the Dutch. Georges was told that the Seventh Army role on the left flank of the Dyle manoeuvre would be linked to it and Georges notified Billotte, that if it were ordered to cross into the Netherlands, the left flank of the army group was to advance to Tilburg if possible and certainly to Breda. The Seventh Army was to take post between the Belgian and Dutch armies by passing the Belgians along the Albert Canal and then turning east, a distance of 109 mi (175 km), against German armies only 56 mi (90 km) distant from Breda. On 16 April, Gamelin also made provision for a German invasion of only the Netherlands, by changing the area to be reached by the Seventh Army; the Escaut Plan was to be followed only if the Germans forestalled the French move into Belgium.[21]


10–12 May 1940

Morris CS9 armoured cars of the 12th Royal Lancers.

From 1:00 a.m. GQG received information from Brussels and Luxembourg that the German invasion was about to begin, and at 4:35 a.m., the German invasion of France and the Low Countries commenced. Gamelin was woken at 6:30 a.m. and ordered the Dyle Plan to start. The codeword "Operation David" initiated the British part of the Dyle Plan. The British vanguard, spearheaded by the armoured cars of the a 12th Royal Lancers, crossed the border at 1 p.m. on 10 May, cheered on by crowds of Belgian civilians who lined their route.[22] The section of the Dyle which had been allocated to the BEF ran from Louvain southwest to Wavre, a distance of some 22 miles (35 kilometres). Gort had decided to man the front line with only three divisions, 3rd Division from II Corps in the north with 1st and 2nd Divisions from I Corps further south,[23] leaving some battalions to defend a frontage double that recommended by British Army field manuals.[24] The remaining BEF divisions were positioned so as to provide defence in depth all the way back to the River Escaut. The riverbank to the north of Louvain was already occupied by Belgian troops who refused to move out for their British allies even when Brooke appealed to the King of the Belgians, and finally had to be directly ordered out by Georges. Those British infantry battalions posted along the bank of the Dyle began to arrive on 11 May and started to dig trenches, protected by a screen of light tanks and Bren carriers operating on the western side of the river to keep German reconnaissance patrols away; they were withdrawn on 14 May when all the front line units were in place and the bridges were then blown.[25]

The first organised German attacks commenced on the BEF's front on 15 May, the reconnaissance troops of three German infantry divisions having been dispersed on the previous evening. Attacks on Louvain by the German 19th Division were repulsed by 3rd Division.[26] Further south, the River was only about 15 feet wide, and while it prevented tanks from crossing, was a less effective barrier to a determined infantry assault. During one such assault at the south of the BEF line, Richard Annand of the Durham Light Infantry earned a Victoria Cross. The German bridgeheads across the Dyle were either repulsed or effectively contained by British counter-attacks,[27] but by the morning of 16 May, events far to the south had caused Gort to be ordered to withdraw the BEF back to the Escaut.[28]

British armoured vehicles passing through Leuven, Belgium, 14 May 1940.

The French Seventh Army drove forward on the northern flank and advanced elements reached Breda on 11 May. They found that the Moerdijk causeway had been captured by German paratroops, cutting the link between southern and northern Holland and forcing the Dutch Army to retire north towards Amsterdam and Rotterdam. The French collided with the 9th Panzer Division and the advance of the 25e Division d'Infanterie Motorisée was stopped by German infantry, tanks and Ju 87 (Stuka) dive-bombers as the 1ère Division Légère Mécanisée was forced to retreat. (French heavy tanks were still on trains south of Antwerp.) The Breda variant had been thwarted in fewer than two days and on 12 May, Gamelin ordered the Seventh Army to cancel the plan and cover Antwerp. The Seventh Army retired from the Bergen op Zoom–Turnhout Canal Line 20 mi (32 km) from Antwerp, to Lierre 10 mi (16 km) away on 12 May; on 14 May the Dutch surrendered.[29][30]

13–14 May

In Belgium, the Albert Canal defence line was based on the fortress of Eben-Emael and was broken when German glider troops landed on the roof and captured it by noon on 11 May; two bridges over the Maas (Meuse) were captured at Maastricht. The disaster forced the Belgian Army to retreat towards the line from Antwerp to Louvain on 12 May, far too soon for the French First Army to arrive and dig in.[31] The French Corps de Cavalerie had reached the Gembloux Gap on 11 May and officers reported that the area had been far less fortified by the Belgians than expected. Anti-tank defences had not been built and there were no trenches or concrete fortifications; there were some Cointet-elements (steel barriers) but none of the anti-tank mines supposed to protect them. Some of the Cointet-elements were so poorly sited that a French officer asked if the Germans had been asked where to put them. Prioux tried to persuade Billotte and Georges to scrap the Dyle Plan and revert to the Escaut Plan but with the 1st Army Group moving, Georges decided against changing the plan but Blanchard was ordered to accelerate the advance of the First Army, to arrive a day early on 14 May.[32]

The Corps de Cavalerie made contact with the Germans at 1:00 p.m. and fought a delaying action against the XVI Panzer Corps in the Battle of Hannut (12–14 May). The battle was the first ever tank-against-tank battle and the French Somua S35s proved superior to the German tanks in firepower and armour protection. The Corps de Cavalerie then withdrew behind the First Army, which had arrived at the Dyle Line. The corps had 105 tank casualties against 165 German tanks knocked out but by retiring, the French left their damaged tanks behind; the Germans were able to recover and repair 100 panzers. On 15 May, the Germans attacked the First Army along the Dyle, causing the meeting engagement that Gamelin had tried to avoid. The First Army repulsed the XVI Panzer Corps but during the Battle of Gembloux (14–15 May) GQG realised that the main German attack had come further south, through the Ardennes. The French success in Belgium contributed to the disaster on the Meuse at Sedan and on 16 May, Blanchard was ordered to retreat to the French border.[33]

Ardennes, 10–12 May

2005 photograph of a French SOMUA S35

On 10 May, five panzer divisions of Panzergruppe von Kleist advanced through the Ardennes, the XIX Panzer Corps with three panzer divisions on the southern flank towards Sedan opposite the Second Army and the XLI Panzer Corps with two panzer divisions, on the northern flank towards Monthermé, against the Ninth Army.[c] The XV Corps moved through the upper Ardennes with two panzer divisions towards Dinant as a flank guard against a counter-attack from the north. From 10–11 May, the XIX Panzer Corps engaged the two cavalry divisions of the Second Army, surprised them with a far larger force than expected and forced the French back. The Ninth Army to the north had also sent its two cavalry divisions forward, which were withdrawn on 12 May, before they met German troops. Corap needed the cavalry divisions to reinforce the defences on the Meuse, because some of the infantry had not arrived. The most advanced German units reached the Meuse in the afternoon but the local French commanders thought that they were far ahead of the main body and would wait before trying to cross the Meuse. From 10 May, Allied bombers had been sent to raid northern Belgium, to delay the German advance while the First Army moved up and attacks on the bridges at Maastricht had been costly failures, 135 RAF Fairey Battle and Bristol Blenheim day bombers being reduced to 72 operational aircraft by 12 May.[35]

Georges changed air force priority from the First to the Second Army on 12 May but Billotte only diverted a third of the air effort. Georges also began to reinforce the Second Army by ordering the 3e Division Cuirassée de réserve (DCr, reserve armoured division) and five other divisions from the general reserve but with no urgency. The reinforcements moved as transport arrived from 11–13 May and were positioned to stop a German wheel to the south-east, against the rear of the Maginot Line. Despite the precautions taken against a German attack through the Ardennes, Georges and Gamelin remained more concerned about events in Belgium and on 13 May, when the Germans were across the Meuse at three points, GQG reported that it was too soon to predict the main German attack. At 7:00 a.m. on 13 May, the Luftwaffe began bombing the French defences around Sedan and continued for eight hours with about 1,000 aircraft in the biggest air attack in history. Little material damage was done to the Second Army but morale collapsed. In the French 55e Division at Sedan, some troops began to straggle to the rear and in the evening panic spread through the division. German troops attacked across the river at 3:00 p.m. and had gained three footholds on the west bank by nightfall.[36]

14–16 May

The French and the RAF managed to fly 152 bomber and 250 fighter sorties on the Sedan bridges on 14 May but only in formations of 10–20 aircraft. The attackers suffered a loss of 11 percent, the RAF losing 30 of 71 aircraft and the French being reduced to sending obsolete bombers to attack in the afternoon, also with many losses. The 1e DCR, which had been intended to form part of the First Army reserve, was sent to Charleroi at the north side of the German salient on 10 May. Billotte was still unsure of the main German effort and hesitated to direct it to the Ninth Army until 14 May; the order took until the afternoon to arrive and the march was obstructed by refugees on the roads. When the Division d'infanterie nord-africaine (DINA, North African Infantry Division) counter-attacked that day, 1e DCR was still struggling forward and was caught refuelling by the 7th Panzer Division. The 1e DCR knocked out about 100 panzers but was defeated in detail and ceased to exist as a division. The Ninth Army had been bypassed on both flanks and was ordered to retreat from the Meuse to a line from Charleroi to Rethel. On the south side of the German salient, on the right flank of the Second Army, it took until 15 May for the 3e DCR to attack at Stonne and again the attacks were piecemeal, lasting for several days but having only local effect. On 16 May, the 1st Army Group was ordered to retreat from the Dyle Line, to avoid being trapped by the German breakthrough against the Second and Ninth armies but on 20 May, the Germans reached Abbeville on the Channel coast, cutting off the northern armies.[37]

16–19 May

The plan for the BEF withdrawal was that under cover of darkness, units would thin-out their front and make a phased and orderly withdrawal before the Germans realised what was happening. The objective for the night of 16/17 May was the Charleroi to Willebroek Canal (the Line of the Senne), the following night to the River Dendre from Maubeuge to Termonde and the Escaut to Antwerp (the Dendre Line), and finally on 18/19 May, to the Escaut from Oudenarde to Maulde on the French border (the Escaut Line). The order to withdraw was greeted with astonishment and frustration by the British troops who felt that they had held their own, but they were unaware of the deteriorating situation elsewhere.[38] The withdrawal went mainly according to plan but required hard fighting from the corps rearguards. A communication breakdown caused a loss of coordination with the Belgian Army to the north-west of II Corps and a dangerous gap opened up between the two; fortunately it was covered by British light armour before the Germans could discover and exploit it.[39]

20 May

The three Territorial divisions which had arrived in April, equipped only with small arms and intended for construction and labouring tasks, were distributed across the path of the German spearhead on its drive to the sea. On 16 May, Georges realised that the Panzer divisions might reach the coast and thus outflank all the Allied armies to the North of them. He therefore asked 23 Division to defend the Canal du Nord at Arleux. The British staff were of the opinion that the German breakthrough consisted of small detachments of light reconnaissance troops, and therefore using these lightly armed and largely untrained troops against them did not seem unreasonable. That area was otherwise devoid of Allied units, so there was little alternative. The three divisions were grouped together in an improvised corps called Petreforce and on 18 and 19 May, the Territorials, lacking motor transport, began to march or entrain towards their defence positions.[10]

The 70th Brigade of the 23rd Division dug in on the Canal Line but was ordered to withdraw towards Saulty on 20 May; in the process they were caught in the open by elements of 6th and 8th Panzer Divisions, from which only a few hundred survivors escaped. The 69th Brigade defended Arras and the 12th Division fought to delay 2nd Panzer Division on the Canal Line near Arras, at Doullens, Albert and Abbeville. The 138th Brigade of the 46th Division fought on the Canal Line but the 137th Brigade trains were attacked by the Luftwaffe en route; the survivors were able to withdraw to Dieppe and later fought on the Seine Crossings. The 139th Brigade fought on the River Scarpe and later defended the Dunkirk perimeter. By the end of 20 May, the divisions had ceased to exist, in most cases having only delayed the German advance by a few hours.[40]

21–22 May

On the British sector of the Escaut, seven BEF divisions were placed in the front line; they were from the north the 44th, 4th, 3rd, 1st, 42nd, 2nd and 48th divisions. The British divisions were facing nine German infantry divisions, who began their attack on the morning of 21 May with a devastating artillery barrage. Shortly afterwards, infantry assaults started along the whole front, crossing the canalised river either by inflatable boats or by clambering across the wreckage of demolished bridges.[41] Although the Escaut line was penetrated in numerous places, all the German bridgeheads were either thrown back or contained by vigorous but costly British counter-attacks and the remaining German troops were ordered to retire across the river by the night of 22 May. Later that same night, events further south prompted an order for the BEF to retire again, this time back to the Gort Line on the Franco-Belgian border.[42]

21–26 May

By 21 May, the push by Army Group A towards the coast, combined with the approach of Army Group B from the north-east, left the BEF surrounded on three sides and cut off from their supply depots by 21 May. The British forces attempted to stop the offensive and counter-attacked at the Battle of Arras. The BEF was unable to repel the Germans and it became clear that the Channel ports were threatened. Fresh troops were rushed from England to defend Boulogne and Calais but after hard fighting, both ports were captured by 26 May in the Battle of Boulogne and Siege of Calais. Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to Dunkirk, the only port from which the BEF could escape.[43]

Retreat to Dunkirk

Le Paradis rearguard

Men of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Ulster Rifles, part of the 3rd Division, awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940.

Certain BEF units, including the detached rifle companies of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment and the 1st Battalion, Royal Scots, both part of the 4th Brigade of the 2nd Infantry Division, were ordered to provide rearguards to delay the German advance in northern France, during the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk.[44] The 2nd Royal Norfolk, part of the 4th Infantry Brigade, which was holding the line at La Bassée Canal to cover the retreat to Dunkirk. Along with the 1/8th Lancashire Fusiliers, the 2nd Royal Norfolk and 1st Royal Scots were to hold the Allied line at the villages of Riez du Vinage and Le Cornet Malo and protect the battalion headquarters at Le Paradis, with orders to hold out for as long as possible.[45]

After a dawn engagement with German forces at in Le Cornet Malo, 'C' Company and HQ Company of the 2nd Royal Norfolks had fallen back to their headquarters at Cornet Farm, just outside Le Paradis. During the fighting, units had become separated, with the Royal Norfolk HQ Company eventually creating a defensive position in a local farmhouse, which lay on the Rue du Paradis, the boundary between the Royal Norfolk Regiment and the adjacent 1st Royal Scots. The company commanders were at that point informed by radio that their units were isolated and would receive no assistance. German forces attacked the farmhouse with mortars, tanks and artillery-fire, which destroyed the building and forced the defenders into a cowshed. The Royal Norfolk continued their stand into the evening, by which point many had been wounded by shellfire. The Norfolks' last contact with 4th Brigade Headquarters at L'Epinette occurred at 11:30 but despite no support the defenders held out against the Germans until 5:15 p.m. when the Norfolks ran out of ammunition.[46][47]

Outnumbered and with many wounded, the 99 surviving Royal Norfolks made a final push into an open field but eventually, under the orders of their commander, Major Lisle Ryder, surrendered to the German forces. Due to the boundary between the Royal Scots and Royal Norfolk regiments being a road, the Norfolks did not surrender to the German company they had been fighting but to the 2nd Infantry Regiment (SS-Hauptsturmführer and Obersturmbannführer Fritz Knöchlein) of the SS Division Totenkopf, which had been fighting the 1st Royal Scots nearby. The unit was already notorious for their ruthlessness and had been engaged in mopping-up operations against Allied forces to the north and east of Cambrai. The 99 prisoners were marched to farm buildings nearby and lined up along a barn wall. They were then fired on by two machine-guns; Knöchlein armed his men with bayonets to kill any survivors. The SS murdered 97 Norfolks and buried their bodies in a shallow pit. Privates Albert Pooley and William O'Callaghan, hid in a pigsty and were found later by the farm owner, Mme Creton and her son. The two were later captured by a Wehrmacht unit and spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war (POWs).[48]

II Corps rearguard

During the evacuation, Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, commanding II Corps, was ordered to conduct a holding action with the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 50th infantry divisions along the Ypres–Comines canal as far as Yser, while the rest of the BEF fell back. On 26 May, the Germans made a reconnaissance in force against the British position. At mid-day on 27 May, they launched an attack with three divisions south of Ypres. A confused battle followed among woods and villages, where British units became isolated, because they could not use radio below battalion level and the telephone wires had been cut. The German infantry infiltrated through the British defenders, who were beaten back.[49] Most fighting occurred in Major-General Harold Franklyn's 5th Division sector. On 27 May, Brooke ordered Major-General Bernard Montgomery to extend the 3rd Division line to the left, freeing the 10th and 11th Brigades of the 4th Division to join the 5th Division at Messines Ridge. The 10th Brigade arrived first, only to find that the Germans were closing in on the British field artillery. The 10th and 11th Brigades managed to clear the ridge of Germans and by 28 May, the brigades were dug in east of Wytschaete. That day, Brooke ordered a counter-attack led by the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards and the 2nd Battalion, North Staffordshire Regiment, both of the 1st Division. The North Staffords advanced as far as the Kortekeer River, while the Grenadiers managed to reach the Ypres–Comines canal but could not hold it. The counter-attack disrupted the Germans, holding them back a little longer while the remaining BEF retreated.[50]

Dunkirk evacuation

British and French troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive at Dover.

The British Royal Navy ships needed assistance after the docks, harbours and piers were bombed by the Germans. Because of shallow water along the coast, British destroyers were unable to approach the evacuation beaches and soldiers had to wade out to the ships, with many of them waiting for hours, shoulder-deep in water. On 27 May, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping telephoned boat builders around the coast, asking them to collect all boats with "shallow draft". Some of them were taken with the owners' permission—and with the owners insisting they would sail them—while others were requisitioned by the government with no time for the owners to be contacted. These flotillas of small boats, combined with the naval vessels, continued the evacuation until 3 June.[51][52] The German forces were unable to capture Dunkirk and on 31 May, General Georg von Küchler assumed command of all the German forces on the Dunkirk perimeter and planned a bigger attack for 11:00 on 1 June. The French held the Germans back while the last troops were evacuated and just before midnight on 2 June, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the officer commanding the evacuation, received the signal "BEF evacuated" and the French began to fall back slowly. By 3 June, the Germans were 2 mi (3.2 km) from Dunkirk and at 10:20 on 4 June, the Germans hoisted the swastika over the docks.[53] Before Operation Dynamo, 27,936 men were embarked from Dunkirk; most of the remaining 198,315 men, a total of 224,320 British troops along with 139,097 French and some Belgian troops, were evacuated from Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June, though having to abandon much of their equipment, vehicles and heavy weapons.[54]

After Dunkirk

Final evacuation

Initially headquarters in England were reluctant to accept that full evacuation from France was necessary. On 14 June during a long phone call Alan Brooke told Churchill "the French Army was .... dead" and he finally got approval; Churchill initially said that he had been sent back to France to "make the French feel that we were supporting them". On 15 June he was told by the CIGS, John Dill, that "for political reasons" the two brigades of the 52nd Division under Drew could not be embarked from Cherbourg at present. After further phone discussions that day with Dill and Anthony Eden the Secretary for War, when he said shipping and "valuable hours" were being wasted, he got permission to evacuate the gunners but not the infantry. On 16 June, he was told by Dill that he could prepare to evacuate the two brigades at Cherbourg and that confirmation would follow but to "wait a little longer as regards Cornwalls'<sic> force" with the French Tenth Army as they were "still working on the Brittany scheme"; though he could agree to evacuation of French from Cherbourg to England if they desired. He had already agreed with Weygand and Georges that the proposed "Brittany Defence Scheme" was quite impossible owing to lack of troops.[55] When he saw Dill at the WO on 20 June, Brooke gathered that "the fact that we did not get off more stores from Brest is now looming far larger than the fact that if I had followed out the Gov wishes at the start they would have lost both the Canadian and 52nd Divisions besides all stores and Line of communication (L of C) personnel".[56]

British lines-of-communication

The Somme Valley

On 13 June, Brooke had seen that there were too many British non-fighting troops and evacuated as many as possible, retaining only those needed for four rather than for the planned twelve divisions. Brooke told the French that they were just "thinning out the Base and L of C organisation", hoping that this misleading answer would satisfy them.[57] Allied forces north of the Somme were cut off by the German advance to St. Omer and Boulogne, on the night of 22/23 May, which isolated the BEF from its supply entrepôts at Cherbourg in the Cotentin peninsula, Brittany and Nantes. The Pays de Caux coastal area between the Somme and the Seine was known as the Northern District (Acting Brigadier A. B. Beauman) on the BEF lines-of-communication, with the Dieppe and Rouen districts as sub-areas.[d] Dieppe was the main medical base of the BEF and Le Havre the principal supply and ordnance source. From St. Saëns to Buchy, north-east of Rouen, lay the main BEF ammunition depot and its infantry, machine-gun and base depots were at Rouen, Évreux and Épinay. A main railway line linking the bases and connecting them with bases further west in Normandy and with the BEF in the north, ran through Rouen, Abbeville and Amiens. Beauman was responsible for base security and guarding 13 airfields being built for the RAF, with troops drawn from the Royal Engineers, Royal Army Ordnance Corps, Royal Corps of Signals and older garrison troops.[58]

Below the Seine in the Southern District, were three Territorial divisions and the 4th Border Regiment, 4th Buffs and the 1st/5th Sherwood Foresters lines-of-communication battalions, which were moved into the Northern District on 17 May, as a precaution.[58] Rail movements between these bases and the Somme quickly became difficult, due to congestion and German bombing, the trains from the north mainly carrying Belgian and French troops and the roads filling with retreating troops and refugees. Beauman lost contact with the BEF GHQ and was also unable to discover if Allied troops were going to dig in on the Somme or further south. On 18 May, Major-General Philip de Fonblanque, commanding the lines-of-communication troops, ordered Beauman to prepare defences in the Northern District. Beauforce was improvised from the 2nd/6th East Surrey of the 12th (Eastern) Division, 4th Buffs, four machine-gun platoons and the 212th Army Troops Company RE.[59] Vicforce (Colonel C. E. Vickary) took over five provisional battalions, created from reinforcement troops in infantry and general base depots, which held plenty of men but few arms and little equipment.[59] Beauforce was sent to Boulogne on 20 May by road but the Germans had already cut off the port and it returned to the 12th Division near Abbeville. When German troops captured Amiens on 20 May and then began patrolling south of the river, their appearance caused panic and alarmist rumours, in the absence of reliable information. Beauman ordered the digging of a defence line along the Andelle and Béthune rivers, which were the most effective tank obstacles south of the Bresle river, to protect Dieppe and Rouen against an attack from the east. Bridges were prepared for demolition and obstacles placed on the approaches.[59]

Saar Force

During the winter of 1939–1940, BEF brigades had been detached for a period in the Maginot Line, to gain experience of conditions close to German troops. Saar Force was composed of the 51st Highland Infantry Division (Major-General Victor Fortune) and attached mechanised cavalry regiment, machine-gun battalions, artillery, French troops and a composite RAF squadron, with fighters and army co-operation aircraft. From 30 April – 6 May, the force took over a line on the Saar from Colmen to Launstroff, between the French 42nd and 2nd divisions. In early May, German patrolling and skirmishing died down but on the night of 9/10 May many German aircraft flew overhead. On 13 May, the divisional front was bombarded and German infantry attacks were repulsed. More attacks followed on the Franco-British positions and on 15 May, the division was ordered back to the ligne de receuil, before being relieved by the night of 22/23 May to concentrate at Étain, 25 mi (40 km) west of Metz.[60]

Battle of Abbeville

From 1–3 June, the 51st Highland Division (still over-strength because of the attachments for Saar Force), the Composite Regiment and the remaining elements of the 1st Support Group of the 1st Armoured Division, relieved two French divisions opposite the Abbeville–St. Valery bridgehead, with the 153rd Infantry Brigade in reserve on the Bresle from Blangy to Senarpont; 9 mi (14 km) of the river on the right were held by a small force, with the Composite Regiment further back between Aumale and Forges; downstream a pioneer battalion held a 16 mi (26 km) stretch. The Beauman Division held a 55 mi (89 km) line from Pont St Pierre, 11 mi (18 km) south-east of Rouen to Dieppe on the coast, which left the British units holding an 18 mi (29 km) front, 44 mi (71 km) of the Bresle and 55 mi (89 km) of the Andelle–Béthune line, with the rest of IX Corps on the right flank.[61]

Second BEF


Men of the 7th Battalion, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, part of the 51st (Highland) Division, holding a position in the River Bresle area, France, 6 June 1940.

On 2 June, Brooke visited the War Office, having returned from Dunkirk on 30 May and was told by Dill to go back to France to assemble another BEF. In the emergency, the force would be the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and 1st Armoured Division already in France, with the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Infantry Division from Britain, to be followed by the 3rd Infantry Division as soon as it was re-equipped. Brooke was to command the new formation under the title of II Corps; once there were sufficient forces in France to create another corps, command would pass to General Lord Gort (Second BEF is an informal post-war term).[62] The II Corps headquarters was spread around Britain after its return from Dunkirk and his first choice of chief of staff (Pownall) was busy with General Gort, the former BEF commander, writing dispatches. Brooke warned Dill and Eden, that the enterprise was futile, except as a political gesture. He was told that on return to France he would come under the authority of Weygand. In France, Fonblanque was still in command of the lines-of-communication troops of the original BEF and lieutenant-generals Henry Karslake and James Marshall-Cornwall were assisting with command. A brigade group (the 157th Infantry) of the 52nd (Lowland) Division departed for France on 7 June and Brooke returned five days later.[63]

On 9 June, the French port Admiral at Le Havre sent word to the 10th Army and the 51st Highland Division, that the Germans had captured Rouen and were heading for the coast. Ihler, the IX Corps commander and Fortune, decided that the only hope of escape was through Le Havre and abandoned the plan to retire through Rouen. The port admiral requested enough ships from the Admiralty to remove 85,000 troops but this contradicted the plans given by Weygand for the IX Corps retirement and Dill hesitated, ignorant that delays in issuing the orders had made the retreat plan impossible. Karslake had also urged several times that the retirement be accelerated but had no authority to issue orders. Only after contacting the Howard-Vyse Military Mission at Weygand's headquarters to report the request from the Le Havre port Admiral and then receiving a message during the night from Fortune, that the 51st (Highland) Division was participating in a retreat by IX Corps towards Le Havre, did Dill learn the true situation.[64]

St. Valery

The retreat to the coast began after dark and the last troops left the Béthune at 11:00 p.m. without challenge. Fortune signalled to the War Office that there were two days' rations left and that evacuation from St. Valery to the mouth of the Durdent would be necessary. Units were ordered to dump non-essential equipment and guns were reduced to 100 rounds each to make room on the RASC transport for the men. The night move was difficult as French troops, many horse-drawn, encroached on the British route and alarmist rumours spread. Fortune and Ihler set up at a road junction near Veules-les-Roses to direct troops to their positions and by the morning of 11 June, IX Corps had established a defence round St. Valery. French transport continued to arrive at the perimeter and it was difficult in some places to recognise German troops following up, which inhibited defensive fire.[65]

Pre-war photograph of SS Bruges

That evening, the captain of Codrington was ordered to begin the evacuation and two hours later, Fortune signalled that it was probably now or never. Troops not needed to hold the perimeter at St. Valery moved down to the beaches and the harbour but no ships arrived, because thick fog prevented them from moving inshore. An armada of 67 merchant ships and 140 small craft had been assembled but few had wireless and the fog ruined visual signalling; only at Veules-les-Roses at the east end of the perimeter, were many soldiers rescued, under fire from German artillery, which damaged the destroyers HMS Bulldog, Boadicea and Ambuscade. Near dawn, the troops at the harbour were ordered back into the town and at 7:30 a.m., Fortune signalled that it might still be possible to escape the next night, then discovered that the local French commander had negotiated a surrender.[66]

Le Havre

Fortune had detached a force to guard Le Havre comprising the 154th Infantry Brigade, A Brigade of the Beauman Division, two artillery regiments and engineers, known as Arkforce (Brigadier Stanley-Clarke) after the village of Arques-la-Bataille, where it was formed. Arkforce moved on the night of 9/10 June towards Fécamp, where most had passed through before the 7th Panzer Division arrived. A Brigade managed to force its way out but lost the wireless truck intended to keep contact with the 51st (Highland) Division. The possibility of holding a line from Fécamp to Lillebonne was discounted and Stanley-Clarke ordered Arkforce on to Le Havre.[64] A Royal Navy demolition party had been in Le Havre since late May and the port was severely bombed by the Luftwaffe on 7 June and two days later, the Admiralty sent orders for an evacuation. Admiral William James, the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth sent a flotilla leader, HMS Codrington across the channel, accompanied by six British and two Canadian destroyers, smaller craft and many Dutch coasters (known as schuyts).[67]

A hasty plan was made to block Dieppe harbour and on 10 June, HMS Vega (Captain G. A. Garnon-Williams) escorted three blockships to the port. Two were sunk in the approach channel but the third ship hit a mine just outside, which prevented it being sunk at the entrance to the inner harbour.[67] (James had signalled that many IX Corps troops would probably be trapped against the sea near St. Valery, where he had assembled flotillas of smaller craft under the local Senior Naval Officer.)[68] Beach parties landed at Le Havre to take control of the evacuation on 10 June and after a 24-hour postponement, the evacuation began on 11 June. The embarkation was hindered somewhat by the damage to the port caused by Luftwaffe bombing that damaged the troopship SS Bruges, which was beached and cut the electric power, rendering the cranes on the docks useless. Vehicle loading was attempted by ramp but was too slow. On 12 June, RAF fighters began patrolling the port and deterred more raids; an attempt was made to save the transport and equipment by diverting it over the Seine via the ferry crossings at Caudebec or the ships at Quillebeuf at the river mouth. The quartermaster of the 14th Royal Fusiliers succeeded in getting the transport away.[69] From Le Havre, 2,222 British troops were evacuated to England and 8,837 were taken to Cherbourg to join the forces being assembled for a "Second BEF".[70]

Normandy retreat

On 13 June, the Germans were across the Seine in the west and the French armies near Paris fell back, isolating the Tenth Army on the Channel coast. The German advance threatened the airfields of the AASF, which was ordered to retreat towards Nantes or Bordeaux, while supporting the French armies for as long as they kept fighting. The AASF flew armed reconnaissance sorties over the Seine from dawn and German columns were attacked by a force of ten Battles then a second formation of 15 Battles followed by 15 Blenheims. On the Marne, 12 Battles attacked a concentration of German troops and tanks, followed by an attack by 26 Battles, which lost six aircraft and then a third attack by 15 Blenheims from Bomber Command, that lost another four. RAF attacks continued through the night, with 44 sorties over the Seine, 20 north of Paris, 41 on the Marne and 59 against road and rail communications and woods reported by the French to be full of German troops. Fighter sorties had been hampered by bad weather and were limited to coastal patrols.[71]

Next day, attacks resumed against German units south of the Seine but the weather had worsened and fewer sorties were flown. A raid by 24 Blenheims with fighter escort was made on Merville airfield for a loss of 7 aircraft and ten Fighter Command squadrons patrolled twice in squadron strength or provided bomber escorts, the biggest effort since Dunkirk, as fighters of the AASF patrolled south of the Seine. During the night, 72 bombers attacked German marshalling yards forests and dropped mines in the Rhine River for a loss of two aircraft. The remnants of the 1st Armoured Division and two brigades of the Beauman Division were south of the river, along with thousands of lines-of-communication troops but only the 157th Infantry Brigade of the 52nd (Lowland) Division, which had commenced disembarkation on 7 June, engaged in military operations, occupying successive defensive, positions under command of the Tenth Army. The French armies were forced into divergent retreats, with no obvious front line; on 12 June, Weygand had recommended that the French government seek an armistice, which led to the abortive plan to create a defensive zone in Brittany.[72]

On 14 June, Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke was able to prevent the rest of the 52nd (Lowland) Division being sent to join the 157th Infantry Brigade Group and during the night Brooke was informed that he was no longer under French command and must prepare to withdraw the British forces from France. Marshall-Cornwall was ordered to take command of all British forces under the Tenth Army as Norman Force and while continuing to co-operate, withdraw towards Cherbourg. The rest of the 52nd (Lowland) Division was ordered back to a defence line near Cherbourg, to cover the evacuation on 15 June. The AASF was also directed to send the last bomber squadrons back to Britain and use the fighter squadrons to cover the evacuations. The German advance over the Seine had paused while bridges were built but the advance began again during the day, with the 157th Infantry Brigade Group engaged east of Conches-en-Ouche with the Tenth Army. The army was ordered to retreat to a line from Verneuil to Argentan and the Dives river, where the British took over an 8 mi (13 km) front either side of the Mortagne-au-PercheVerneuil-sur-Avre road. German forces followed up quickly and on 16 June, Altmayer ordered the army to retreat into the Brittany peninsula.[73]

Operation Ariel

British troops being evacuated from Brest during Operation Ariel, 16–17 June 1940.

From 15–25 June, following the military collapse in the Battle of France against Nazi Germany, British and Allied ships were covered from French bases by five RAF fighter squadrons and assisted by aircraft based in England to lift British, Polish and Czech troops, civilians and equipment from the French Atlantic ports, particularly St Nazaire and Nantes. The Luftwaffe attacked the evacuation ships and on 17 June, sank the Cunard liner and troopship RMS Lancastria in the Loire estuary. The ship sank quickly and vessels in the area were still under attack during rescue operations, which saved about 2,477 passengers and crew but thousands of troops, RAF personnel and civilians were on board and at least 3,500 people died.[74][e] Some equipment was embarked but lack of information about the progress of the German Army towards the coast, rumours and alarmist reports, led some operations to be terminated early and much equipment was destroyed or left behind. The official evacuation ended on 25 June, in conformity with the terms of the Armistice of 22 June 1940 agreed by the French and German authorities but informal departures continued from French Mediterranean ports until 14 August. From Operation Cycle from Le Havre, elsewhere along the Channel coast and the termination of Operation Ariel, another 191,870 BEF troops were rescued, bringing the total of military and civilian personnel returned to Britain during the Battle of France to 558,032, including 368,491 British troops.[74]



Exhausted British troops rest on the quayside at Dover in England, 31 May 1940.

In 1953, Lionel Ellis, the British official historian, wrote that by the end of the informal evacuations on 14 August, another 191,870 men had been evacuated after the 366,162 rescued by Operation Dynamo, a total of 558,032 people, 368,491 being British troops.[76] In 2001, Brodhurst wrote that many civilians escaped from French Atlantic and Mediterranean ports to England via Gibraltar and that 22,656 more civilians left the Channel Islands, from 19–23 June.[77] Although much equipment was lost, 322 guns, 4,739 vehicles, 533 motor cycles, 32,303 long tons (32,821 t) of ammunition, 33,060 long tons (33,590 t) of stores, 1,071 long tons (1,088 t) of petrol, 13 light tanks and 9 cruiser tanks were recovered during the BEF evacuations and 2,472 guns were destroyed or left behind. Also destroyed or left behind were 63,879 vehicles, 20,548 motor cycles, 76,697 long tons (77,928 t) of ammunition, 415,940 long tons (422,610 t) of supplies and equipment and 164,929 long tons (167,576 t) of petrol.[78] A total of 331 Light Tanks Mk VI, 77 Matilda Is, 23 Matilda IIs and 184 Cruiser tanks of various marks were lost.[citation needed]

For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war. The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany to towns such as Trier, the march taking as long as twenty days. Others were moved on foot to the river Scheldt and were sent by barge to the Ruhr. The prisoners were then sent by rail to POW camps in Germany. The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for five years.[79] An intelligence report by the German IV Army Corps, which had been engaged against the BEF from the Dyle line to the coast, was circulated to the divisions training for Operation Sealion said of the men of the BEF

The English soldier was in excellent physical condition. He bore his own wounds with stoical calm. The losses of his own troops he discussed with complete equanimity. He did not complain of hardships. In battle he was tough and dogged. His conviction that England would conquer in the end was unshakeable.... The English soldier has always shown himself to be a fighter of high value. Certainly the Territorial divisions are inferior to the Regular troops in training, but where morale is concerned they are their equal.... In defence the Englishman took any punishment that came his way.

— German intelligence report[80]


The BEF lost 11,014 men killed or who died of their wounds, 14,074 soldiers wounded and 41,338 men missing or taken prisoner, a total of 66,426 men.[81]


No campaign medal was awarded for the Battle of France but servicemen who had spent 180 days in France between 3 September 1939 and 9 May 1940, or "a single day, or part thereof" in France or Belgium between 10 May and 19 June 1940, qualified for the 1939–1945 Star.[82]

The battle honours awarded to participating regiments during the campaign include: North-West Europe 1940, Dyle (10–16 May), Saar (13 May), Withdrawal to Escaut (17–19 May), Defence of Escaut (19–22 May), Amiens 1940 (20 May), Defence of Arras (19–24 May), Arras Counterattack (21 May), Boulogne 1940 (22–25 May), Calais 1940 (22–26 May), French Frontier 1940 (23–27 May), St Omer-La Bassée (23–29 May), Wormhoudt (28 May), Cassell (27–29 May), Forêt de Nieppe (28–29 May), Ypres-Comines Canal (26–28 May), Dunkirk 1940 (26 May – 3 June), Somme 1940 (24 May – 5 June), Withdrawal to the Seine (6–10 June), Withdrawal to Cherbourg (9–18 June), St Valery-en-Caux (10–12 June).[83]

Monuments to the fallen erected after the war in France include the Dunkirk Memorial to the Missing, the Allied Memorial at Dunkirk, the Defence of Calais Memorial, the St Valéry Memorial Stone and the HMT Lancastria Memorial at St Nazaire.[84]

Map gallery


  1. ^ Gamelin also considered a move towards Breda in the Netherlands; if the Allies prevented a German occupation of Holland, the ten divisions of the Dutch army would join the Allied armies, North Sea communications would be enhanced and the Germans denied bases for attacks on Britain.[17]
  2. ^ It is a French convention to list military forces from left to right.[18]
  3. ^ Panzergruppe Kleist had to move 134,000 men, 1,222 tanks and 378 vehicles through the Ardennes, creating the greatest traffic jam in Europe.[34]
  4. ^ The Pays de Caux in Normandy occupies most of the French département of Seine Maritime in Normandy. It is a chalk plateau to the north of the Seine Estuary, extending to the cliffs on the English Channel coast, that are known as the Côte d'Albâtre.
  5. ^ Brooke who was at Redon, north of St Nazaire said at midnight of 16 June that "some 45,000 have been evacuated in last 24 hours, 12,000 previous 24 hours, giving total of just under 60,000 in 48 hours. Transportation hopeful of making 60,000 figure in next 24 hours, which should complete evacuation".[75]


  1. ^ Postan 1952, p. 1.
  2. ^ Postan 1952, pp. 1–2, 6–7.
  3. ^ Collier 2004, p. 21.
  4. ^ Postan 1952, pp. 9, 27–29.
  5. ^ a b Postan 1952, pp. 29–30.
  6. ^ Atkin 1990, pp. 16–17, 58.
  7. ^ Ellis 2004, p. 15.
  8. ^ Ellis 2004, pp. 20, 249–252.
  9. ^ Ellis 2004, p. 33.
  10. ^ a b Tackle 2009, p. 23.
  11. ^ Ellis 2004, pp. 19, 357–368.
  12. ^ Sebag-Montefiore 2007, pp. 509–511, 7, 172.
  13. ^ Charman 2010, p. 284.
  14. ^ Doughty 2014a, pp. 5–6.
  15. ^ Doughty 2014a, p. 7.
  16. ^ Doughty 2014a, pp. 6–7.
  17. ^ a b Doughty 2014a, pp. 7–8.
  18. ^ Edmonds 1928, p. 267.
  19. ^ Doughty 2014a, p. 11.
  20. ^ Doughty 2014a, p. 12.
  21. ^ Doughty 2014a, pp. 8–9.
  22. ^ Sebag-Montefiore 2007, pp. 59–61.
  23. ^ Sebag-Montefiore 2007, pp. 512–513.
  24. ^ Sebag-Montefiore 2007, p. 78.
  25. ^ Sebag-Montefiore 2007, pp. 75–76.
  26. ^ Thompson 2009, pp. 37-38.
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Further reading




External links