Unsung Heroes of Dunkirk Evacuation Revealed on 80th Anniversary

Dunkirk 1940: The Making of the Miracle – English Heritage's online event tells the story of the evacuation day-by-day

From an underwater telephone line, an inspiring Vice Admiral and a dedicated Wren to a hot cup of cocoa, English Heritage is calling on the public to recognise the unsung heroes of the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’.

Exactly 80 years ago an operation controlled from Dover Castle in Kent rescued 338,226 soldiers from the jaws of defeat in France. 

To mark the anniversary, the charity will host an online event on Twitter (@EnglishHeritage), recreating the tension and unfolding events of the evacuation day-by-day from 26 May – 4 June.

Still regarded as one of the most successful rescue missions in history, the operation codenamed ‘Dynamo’ brings forth visions of lines of men on the beaches of France and Belgium and the ships that came to their aid.

It is often overlooked that behind the frontline were a group of men and women who, there but for the grace of circumstance, made this mission a success from deep underground, in the Secret Wartime Tunnels at Dover Castle.

With its list of unsung heroes, English Heritage hopes to shine a light on those who worked tirelessly in the shadows to save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force and Allied troops trapped in the harbour and beaches of Dunkirk.

Paul Pattison, English Heritage’s Senior Properties Historian, said:

'What makes the evacuation of Dunkirk a unique, heroic feat is the amount of lives that were saved during those nine frantic days.

'Operation Dynamo was not planned. For something of its scale, a planned operation would normally take months. It was a makeshift, desperate piece of improvisation guided by the dedicated team at Dover Castle.

'We hope our list of unsung heroes shows how different it might have been were it not for the right people in the right place at the right time, and the bravery of all concerned.

'It’s often referred to as the ‘Miracle of Durkirk’ because of the achievement of something that was thought to be impossible. Despite the modest expectation of saving 45,000 at the maximum, instead 338,226 men saw the White Cliffs of Dover on the horizon as they were brought safely to England.

'Dover Castle is closed at present so we will be marking the 80th anniversary of the rescue mission online, using first-hand accounts to give a real sense of those desperate days.'

To mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of Dunkirk, English Heritage is hosting a unique online Twitter event from 26 May.

This online event will reveal the role of the historic fortress from deep within the Secret Wartime Tunnels of Dover Castle in Kent. This was where the extraordinary rescue mission was coordinated and controlled during the Second World War.

Using real historic records of the codenamed Operation Dynamo, re-enactor videos and animation, the event will tell the story day-by-day as it happened.

It will start from 19 May 1940 when a War Office conference first considered the mission, to the culmination of the rescue itself from 26 May – 4 June.

Using the stories told from on land, at sea and in the air, this event will evoke the tension and unfolding events of the evacuation from the perspective of the men and women who made it happen.


Operation Dynamo’s Surprising Heroes

Along with the formidable contributors to this incredible effort, these offered some lesser-known assistance:

The Vice-Admiral who wouldn’t take no for an answer

Vice Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay was a unique character. He was incredibly single-minded and that determination coupled with lateral thinking made him perfect to take on a desperate mission.  

An underwater telephone line

Against orders, Ramsay had sunk a telephone line from Dover to Dunkirk earlier that year. This proved to be one of the only reliable lines of communication at the height of the rescue when it mattered most.

The art of teamwork

From the Dynamo room in Dover Castle’s tunnels, 20 senior officers from the Royal Navy, the Army, the Ministry of Transport and the Ministry of Shipping worked together around the clock, to plan, co-ordinate and disseminate the orders which made the whole operation tick.

The women and men who took on any job and never tired 

The women of the Wrens and ordinary male Royal Navy ratings played a vital role in the Dover command – from coding and de-coding messages, to helping a newly rescued soldier take off his boots – whatever it took.

The Big ships

The crews of the Royal Navy and of the Merchant Navy did most of the heavy lifting during the operation. Destroyers alone with their exhausted crews made repeated trips to bring over 96,000 back.

The rallying cry

Inspiring signals sent by Ramsay to keep the effort going made a significant contribution to boosting morale.

The humble cup of cocoa

Arriving back in Blighty, having not eaten for days, what better to fuel the exhausted men as they were whisked onto trains and away up the country, than a hot cup of cocoa.

To follow the events as they happened, visit our Twitter channel.

To learn more about Operation Dynamo on its 80th anniversary, visit our teaching resources webpage.  

For more from English Heritage, follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

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