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1940: Dunkirk evacuation,
Operation Sealion & the Battle of Britain

dunkitk evacuation 1940
Soldiers wading out towards naval ships

Nazi Germany invades France May 1940
War was declared between Nazi Germany and the allies Britain and France in September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland. As in 1914, Britain sent an army to help defend France against the expected Geramn invasion. But there were months of "phony war" before the German war machine suddenly launched a carefully planned knockout blow.

As defences collapsed and the Germans swept towards key targets like Paris and the Channel ports, hundreds of thousands of defeated British and French troops were surrounded in an "island" of not-yet-conquered territory around Dunkerque.

190 evacuated troops landing in Dover
..Troops cheer with relief when they arrive in Dover harbour after the perilous Channel crossing, where they faced attacks by German planes, E-boats and mines. It was standing room only for all but the wounded.

1940 Map-German invasion of France

MAP: showing Nazi German invasion of France through southern Belgium, by-passing France's elaborate fixed defences, the "Maginot Line".

Evacuation - "miracle" of Dunkirk
The German armies inexplicably waited around the perimeter of Dunkerque. Maybe the Panzer tanks and armoured divisions were short of fuel and supplies after their successful but frantic dash into France.

Whatever the reason, this gave a window of opportunity to save as many as possible of the Allied troops to fight on another day - though all their equipment and weapons had to be left behind.

Navy ships were hastily gathered and sent to the port of Dunkerque. Troops waited their turn to be evacuated on the surrounding sandy beaches.

As the port, ships and beaches came under increasing aerial attack, civian small boats were requisitioned and sent across to help take men directly off the beaches.

1940 dunkirk beaches - dugouts in sand dunes 1940 soldier changes into dry clothing in Dover 1940 feeding station at Paddock Wood
3. British troops dig into the dunes at Malo-les-Bains awaiting their turn to go out to a ship.
4. Survivor at Dover dressed in mixed French and British equipment changes into dry clothing at Dover
5. Returning troops stop at a feeding station at Paddock Wood in Kent on the way inland from Dover.

1940 German air attacks in Battle of Britain
MAP 2: 1940 Nazi Germany used the newly-conquered lands as a platform for air attacks in the Battle of Britain

Operation Sealion
It took several weeks for the German Air Force - the Luftwaffe - to organise taking over and repair abandoned airfields in France, Belgium and Holland, and stock them with fuel, ammunition and supplies.

Meanwhile the Army prepared for "Operation Sealion" - the invasion of Britain. They collected thousands of barges in Calais and Boulogneharbours, and up the canals and rivers of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Belgium, ready to carry the German army and its fearsome armour across the Channel to invade Britain.

The Battle of Britain
Before this fleet could safely cross the narrow sea, the Luftwaffe had to destroy Britain's air and naval power. Goering told Hitler this could be done in a few massive air strikes. He planned to start on 13th August, "Eagle Day", with Operation Sealion following 1 month later.

German bombers needed fighter-escorts
Goering relied on his force of 1,200 high-level bombers, which had already had devastating success in the invasions of Poland, France and the rest of Europe.

So long as the RAF had fighters to attack them, each lightly-armed bomber needed 2 fighters to escort it over England. Since they had only 700 fighters (slightly more than the RAF) this limited the number of bombers that could b sent in any one raid. Also the German fighters had a short range - even from bases near the coast in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, they could on;y provide max. 20 minutes protective cover over Kent, reaching just about as far as London .

The bombers came from safer bases away from the coast. Whilst they had the flying range to penetrate further into Britain, they soon discovered that, without fighter escorts, they were too vulnerable.

British fighters only fought over Kent, guided by radar to meet the German bombers.

Failure of the invasion plan
At first the German attack was concentrated on the RAF fighter airfields, and it almost succeeded. Although Britain was still manufacturing replacement fighters faster than they were shot down, they were running short of trained pilots and the airfields were badly battered.

But on 7th September, they switched tactics and started bombing London in massive daylight raids - believing perhaps that British resistance would crumble, and that the RAF would be forced to use its remaining reserve squadrons. But once the RAF had made its Kent airfields operational again, the German losses mounted. The Luftwaffe was clearly not invincible, and on 17th September, Hitler postponed the invasion "until further notice".

The Route 39-45

A group of museums and historic sites have joined together to offer you a special rate if you join their Association, and show your card on entry. These are:
Blockhaus bunker, Eperlecques: - bunker for assembling V2 rockets
V3 Base Fortress, Mimoyecques
3. WW2 Museum, Ambleteuse
Atlantic Wall Museum - gun turret at Cap Gris-Nez
5. War Museum, Calais
+ others in Belgium


 BBCi History - The German Threat to Britain in World War Two
 A fuller account of Operation Sealion and the Battle of Britain.

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Other Places to visit:
La Coupole - museum of 1943-44 V2 rocket base, with displays on German occupation and resistance.
General de Gaulle Museum - Lille birthplace of wartime leader of the Free French

Related background information
Second World War 1939-45
V1 and V2 'vengeance weapons'
Fortitude South - D-Day deception




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