There is a mission underway to locate shipwrecks sunk during the Dunkirk evacuation in WWII.
According to an article in Marine Industry News UK, the aim is to uncover more historical information and artifacts surrounding Operation Dynamo, one of the most daring and inspiring events in maritime history.
From May 26th to June 4th, 1940, over 1000 boats, including military ships, civilian fishing boats, and various pleasurecraft worked desperately to evacuate nearly 340,000 Allied troops across the English Channel who were surrounded by the German army.
Allied troops were pushed back to the coast during the Battle of Dunkirk in May 1940, and were under a relentless barrage along the ports by German artillery and the Luftwaffe. With no terrain left to fallback, Allied and French soldiers became a sitting target for the German army.
Knowing their vulnerability, the Germany army unleashed over 300 Luftwaffe bombers to systematically attack the ports, oil refineries, and coastal installations. To hold them back, the RAF flew 287 aircraft in formations of up to 20 aircraft to keep them at bay. Over 3500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo. Throughout the nine day ordeal, the RAF engaged in dogfights over the Channel to protect ships racing back to Allied shores.
As for the maritime operation, on May 26th at the start of the evacuation, Allied forces had only one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft. Knowing the numbers of soldiers awaiting them in France, British Admiralty officers began combing marinas and shipyards for small craft, later referred to with endearment as ‘Little Ships,’ that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour. They also rounded up owners of larger vessels who could load personnel directly from the docks. An emergency call was put out for additional help across the England coast, and by May 31st nearly 400 ‘Little Ships’ were voluntarily taking part in the evacuation. Several hundred more would join before the end of the evacuation on June 4th.
The smallest vessel believed to take part in the evacuation was the 15-foot Tamzine, an open-top fishing boat now on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
The 1000 boats involved carried flags from countries including England, France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
The events of Dunkirk are revered as a remarkable civilian undertaking in which everyday citizens brazenly crossed the English Channel under the constant threat of German U-boats and aircraft. For nine consecutive days and nights, many of the ships made multiple crossings to Dunkirk and returned to Allied safe havens. However, of the roughly 850 civilian boats and 20 naval watercraft, more than 200 ships were sunk.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the evacuation of Dunkirk “a miracle of deliverance.”
“The evacuation from Dunkirk marked a critical point in the history of the Second World War,” said Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England in a press release. “We are honoured to have been invited by the French marine heritage agency, DRASSM, to join their investigation of ships sunk in those desperate days. These wrecks are a physical legacy to Operation Dynamo and all those it affected, including many who did not reach safety.”
It’s estimated that around 200 ships were lost during Operation Dynamo, and new research by Claire Destanque from Aix-Marseille University has uncovered information about the possible location of over 30 shipwrecks previously undiscovered.
Thus far, 37 wrecks linked to Operation Dynamo have been located in French waters — mainly by divers from Dunkirk and the surrounding area. Another 31 vessels are believed to have been lost in near proximity but have yet to be located.
Most of the ships lost during Dunkirk are resting along one of three routes used during the evacuation.
Route Z was a distance of 39 nautical miles (72 km) that hugged the French coastline but subjected the boats to bombardment from German artillery on shore.
Route X traveled through a mine-ridden portion of the English Channel for 55 nautical miles (102 km) north out of Dunkirk through the Ruytingen Pass until reaching safe haven at the white cliffs of Dover, England. This route was considered the safest, but due to minefields and hidden sandbanks, couldn’t be used at night.
Route Y was the longest route, traveling 87 nautical miles (161 km) along the French coast to Bray-Dunes, then heading northeast to the Kwinte Buoy before heading west to the North Goodwin Lightship. The ships on Route Y were the most likely to be attacked by German ships, submarines, and the Luftwaffe. This route also took roughly four hours, double the time of Route X.
“You knew this was the chance to get home and you kept praying, please God, let us go, get us out, get us out of this mess back to England. To see that ship that came in to pick me and my brother up, it was a most fantastic sight. We saw dog fights up in the air, hoping nothing would happen to us and we saw one or two terrible sights. Then somebody said, there’s Dover, that was when we saw the White Cliffs, the atmosphere was terrific. From hell to heaven was how the feeling was, you felt like a miracle had happened.”
— Harry Garrett, British Army, speaking to Kent Online. Passage from Hubert’s War by Colin Orr, pg. 60
According to Historic England, the new mission will search for undiscovered wrecks and document the already known sites using geophysical survey equipment including a multibeam echosounder, side scan sonar, and a magnetometer. The study will be followed by diving surveys in 2024 to generate an overview of the shipwrecks throughout the area and to begin introducing conservation and public engagement strategies.
The operation is being led by DRASSM and will be conducted from the André Malraux, a DRASSM research vessel captained by Fabien Géreux (Bourbon Offshore Surf). The campaign will involve geophysicists from DRASSM and Historic England.
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