Photos show vehicles and weapons abandoned to Nazis after Dunkirk

The spoils of Dunkirk: Unseen photos taken soon after historic Allied retreat reveal just some of the thousands of vehicles and weapons abandoned to the Nazis

  • In Operation Dynamo, an estimated 338,000 Allied troops were rescued between May 27 and June 4, 1940
  • British Expeditionary Force abandoned approximately 64,000 vehicles, including tanks and motorbikes 
  • Images in historian Stephen Wynn’s book Dunkirk and the Aftermath shed light on the material losses

Described as a ‘miracle of Deliverance’ by the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the escape from Dunkirk was the largest military evacuation in history.

Codenamed Operation Dynamo, an estimated 338,000 Allied troops were rescued from northern France between May 27 and June 4, 1940, after German forces had swept through Europe.

But whilst it is rightly remembered as a heroic effort against all the odds, it was also a catastrophic early defeat which – had it not achieved its purpose – could have put an end to the Second World War less than a year after it had begun.

More than 11,000 British soldiers were killed, with a further 40,000 captured and another 17,000 wounded.

Now, rare images featured in a new book shed new light on the cost of the evacuation in material terms.

Overall, the British Expeditionary Force were forced to abandon approximately 64,000 vehicles, including tanks and motorbikes; around 90,000 rifles and 2,472 field guns or artillery pieces.

The Royal Air Force also saw 177 aircraft which were trying to support the evacuation get shot down, whilst the Royal Navy lost six destroyers and suffered damage to 23 others. 

Stephen Wynn’s book Dunkirk and the Aftermath – Rare Photos from Wartime Archives, is published by Pen & Sword this month.

In one photograph from the book, a French woman is seen relaxing on the beach at Dunkirk as an artillery gun likes abandoned in the background.

Another shows how Allied forces lined up vehicles and crates of equipment to produce makeshift piers which they used to get to waiting rescue ships.

A third shows dozens of motorbikes which have had their fuel tanks damaged and headlights smashed to render them useless to the invading German troops. 

The scenes are reminiscent of the US’s disastrous evacuation from Afghanistan last month, which saw American forces leave behind thousands of vehicles, weapons and other equipment for the Taliban to use.  

Described as a ‘miracle of Deliverance’ by the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, the escape from Dunkirk was the largest military evacuation in history. Now, rare images featured in a new book shed light on the cost of the evacuation in material terms. Among the equipment lost by the British Expeditionary Force were 2,472 field guns or artillery pieces. Above: A French woman sits on the beach at Dunkirk as a Bofors anti-aircraft gun lies abandoned behind her

German soldiers examine British military vehicles which have been arranged side by side to make a pier for Allied soldiers to get to the larger rescue vessels that were unable to get too close to the beach because of the risk of running aground. Overall, the British Expeditionary Force were forced to abandon approximately 64,000 vehicles

The vehicles abandoned by Allied forces also included tanks and motorbikes. Above: Dozens of motorbikes are seen in Dunkirk after the evacuation. They appear to have been sabotaged to make them as of little use as possible to German forces

An inquisitive young French child, who has suddenly found a brand new playground, sits behind the wheel of an abandoned British Bedford truck on Dunkirk beach. The person who took the photograph was more than likely a German soldier

As well as rifles and other weapons, bullets were also left behind. Above: Boxes of bullets and gun magazines are seen after spilling their contents on the beach at Dunkirk. Historian Mr Wynn says the bullets were primarily used with Lee Enfield rifles – the British soldier’s main weapon in the Second World War. British forces left behind a staggering 76,097 tons of ammunition

A bizarre sight: After the evacuation, locals in Dunkirk would have seen some unusual sights around the town. One particularly peculiar one was that of a French naval coastal patrol vessel, oddly sat on the sand, as if someone had picked it up and placed it there

Three German soldiers are seen in conversation on the beach at Dunkirk. Behind them is an abandoned British six-wheel Morris CDSW artillery tractor. The vehicle was used by the British Army to tow its field guns. The letters CDSW stood for its class of model (C), a double rear axle (D), its six-cylinder engine (S), and its winch capacity (W)

This image, taken from one of the top floors of a seafront hotel, shows German soldiers milling around on the beach at Dunkirk shortly after Allied troops had escaped. Whilst the vehicles parked on the promenade appear to be German ones, British ones are seen on the beach itself 

Abandoned trucks are seen on the streets of  Dunkirk, with the bandstand in the background. Mr Wynn explains in his book: ‘The bandstand would have been a central point of identification for the men of the BEF in directing others where to go or where vehicles needed to be placed for such purposes as building a pier. It was so much easier and less confusing when giving a soldier an exact location to say, ‘in front of’ or ‘east or west of the bandstand’

This image shows how wooden boards were laid out across abandoned equipment and vehicles to make it easier for escaping troops to get to the waiting rescue ships

The evacuation from Dunkirk was one of the biggest operations of the Second World War and was one of the major factors in enabling the Allies to continue fighting.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940 after Nazi Blitzkreig – ‘Lightning War’ – saw German forces sweep through Europe. 

 The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned.

Described as a ‘miracle of deliverance’ by wartime prime minister Winston Churchill, it is seen as one of several events in 1940 that determined the eventual outcome of the war.  

The Second World War began after Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but for a number of months there was little further action on land. 

But in early 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and then launched an offensive against Belgium and France in western Europe.

Hitler’s troops advanced rapidly, taking Paris – which they never achieved in the First World War – and moved towards the Channel.

It was the largest military evacuation in history, taking place between May 27 and June 4, 1940. The evacuation, known as Operation Dynamo, saw an estimated 338,000 Allied troops rescued from northern France. But 11,000 Britons were killed during the operation – and another 40,000 were captured and imprisoned 

They reached the coast towards the end of May 1940, pinning back the Allied forces, including several hundred thousand troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Military leaders quickly realised there was no way they would be able to stay on mainland Europe.

Operational command fell to Bertram Ramsay, a retired vice-admiral who was recalled to service in 1939. From a room deep in the cliffs at Dover, Ramsay and his staff pieced together Operation Dynamo, a daring rescue mission by the Royal Navy to get troops off the beaches around Dunkirk and back to Britain. 

On May 14, 1940 the call went out. The BBC made the announcement: ‘The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned.’

Boats of all sorts were requisitioned – from those for hire on the Thames to pleasure yachts – and manned by naval personnel, though in some cases boats were taken over to Dunkirk by the owners themselves. 

They sailed from Dover, the closest point, to allow them the shortest crossing. On May 29, Operation Dynamo was put into action. 

When they got to Dunkirk they faced chaos. Soldiers were hiding in sand dunes from aerial attack, much of the town of Dunkirk had been reduced to ruins by the bombardment and the German forces were closing in.

Above them, RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters were headed inland to attack the German fighter planes to head them off and protect the men on the beaches.

As the little ships arrived they were directed to different sectors. Many did not have radios, so the only methods of communication were by shouting to those on the beaches or by semaphore. 

Space was so tight, with decks crammed full, that soldiers could only carry their rifles. A huge amount of equipment, including aircraft, tanks and heavy guns, had to be left behind.

The little ships were meant to bring soldiers to the larger ships, but some ended up ferrying people all the way back to England. The evacuation lasted for several days.

Prime Minister Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,000 men, but by June 4 more than 300,000 had been saved.

The exact number was impossible to gauge – though 338,000 is an accepted estimate – but it is thought that over the week up to 400,000 British, French and Belgian troops were rescued – men who would return to fight in Europe and eventually help win the war.

But there were also heavy losses, with around 90,000 dead, wounded or taken prisoner. A number of ships were also lost, through enemy action, running aground and breaking down. Despite this, the evacuation itself was regarded as a success and a great boost for morale.

In a famous speech to the House of Commons, Churchill praised the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ and resolved that Britain would fight on: ‘We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!’ 

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