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Operation Aerial

The Untold Story of the Evacuation from France in June 1940

Dunkirk resonates through British history. The “miracle of deliverance”, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the evacuation of nearly 340,000 troops from the small Channel port, in most people’s minds marks the end of British involvement in France in 1940. Dunkirk fell to the advancing German forces on 4 June 1940 but tens of thousands of troops and British civilians were still in France. By the end of June a further 220,000 had been brought back to England. The story of that second miracle has never been fully told.

There are  military history books dealing with the fate of the British Expeditionary Force in France after Dunkirk, especially the encirclement and capture of the Highland Division at Saint Valery-en-Caux. This was only part of the story, however.

Dunkirk was part of Operation Dynamo. As the curtain came down on that Churchill actually ordered 11,000 more troops to France to support a French plan to defend the Breton peninsula. No sooner had they arrived on French soil than that plan evaporated and Operation Cycle was launched to bring them home.

That was merely the prelude to Operation Aerial. During the remainder of June 1940 the Royal Navy, supported by a fleet of merchant navy ships, worked its way down the western coast of France trying to keep one step ahead of the Germans. As one port was captured they moved down the coast to the next from Cherbourg, to St Malo, to Brest, to Saint-Nazaire, to Lorient, to La Rochelle, to Bordeaux, to Bayonne and finally Saint-Jean-de-Luz.

When France, by then led by Marshall Petain, finally surrendered on 22 June the evacuation continued so that by the end of June nearly 200,000 British, French, Polish and Czech troops were safely back in the UK. Leaving France with them were over 20,000 civilians , each with their own dramatic story of fleeing from the Nazis.

There are several reasons why Operation Aerial is almost unknown alongside Operation Dynamo.

Aerial appeal copy

First, it doesn’t have the romance of the little ships. The Bay of Biscay was no place for the pleasure craft and tiny ships that put themselves in the firing line at Dunkirk. Second, it wasn’t focused on one port, so is a more complex, moving story as Hitler’s forces slowly fought their way down France’s western coast.

The biggest reason, however, is the disaster of the Lancastria, sunk by German dive-bombers as it left Saint-Nazaire with over 6000 troops on board. It sunk quickly and less than 2500 were saved, making it the largest loss of life in British maritime history. Churchill ordered all news of this to be suppressed, fearing that the boost Dunkirk had given to public morale would be seriously undermined if such a catastrophic loss of life was reported. This restriction wasn’t lifted until after the war by which time people were no longer interested in what had gone wrong several years before.

There are many personal stories that bring the final retreat from France in June 1940 vividly to life.

Now it is time those stories were told.

© David Worsfold 2016

• This book is currently being researched with a view to publication in 2020 or 2021.

• Among the stories that will feature will be those of the nurses who served on the hospital ships evacuating the troops from France. Some of those appeared in an article David wrote for The History Magazine in October 2018 – Nurses at War.

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