Find Dunkirk ancestors

By Guest, 1 June 2017 - 11:35am

As we mark the anniversary of the Allied evacuation from France in 1940, Janet Dempsey explains how you can trace your family's involvement in Operation Dynamo

Members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) withdraw to England from Dunkirk during World War 2, 1940 (Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/ Getty Images)

Over the course of ten days 77 years ago, nearly 65,000 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were rescued from the northern French port of Dunquerke, or Dunkirk.

The evacuation operation will be commemorated next month with the release of a major new film, Dunkirk, starring Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance and Harry Styles.

Officially known as Operation Dynamo, the rescue mission has taken its place in history as a ‘Miracle of Deliverance’ and gave rise to the legend of the ‘Little Ships’ racing across the Channel to save an army.

The popular myth of lines of soldiers waiting on the beaches to be collected by pleasure craft, while Hitler’s forces held back to give them a chance to escape, largely came about from the propaganda spread at the time of the evacuation.

The reality of Operation Dynamo was far bloodier and far more hard-fought, and mythology has not been kind to those who were there.

The BEF had been sent to France after the German invasion of Poland and was to operate along the Franco-Belgian border.

Despite being commanded by General Lord Gort, a man decorated for bravery many times, the BEF were poorly trained and poorly equipped.

They were no match for the superbly organised German army and, when Blitzkrieg came, it was deadly.

German forces broke through the Ardennes on 14 May 1940 and immediately began to surround the opposing troops in the north and move towards the Channel ports.

The French, Belgian and British armies were powerless to stop this relentless push. Heavy fighting followed, but the Allies found themselves trapped in an ever-shrinking ‘sack’ around the coast.

On 25 May, General Lord Gort took the decision to evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk. Churchill insisted that the evacuation was to include French soldiers in an equal number to British troops, and it was originally hoped that 45,000 men could be evacuated in a combined operation by the Royal and Merchant Navy.

However, on the first day of the evacuation it was discovered that the harbour was far too shallow for many of the larger vessels to get close to shore and, as a consequence, ships were left sitting outside the harbour as a target for the Luftwaffe.

This meant that troops were forced to wade out, shoulder deep, to get to some of the waiting vessels. Consequently, on 27 May just 7,669 men were got away from the beaches, many of them on the passenger ferries used on the pre-war cross-channel routes.

Having now been made aware of the problem, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping contacted boat builders and owners from around the coast, telling them to make ready all vessels that could navigate shallow waters.

Defeated British and French troops waiting on the dunes at Dunkirk to be picked up by the Destroyers and taken back to England (Credit: Topical Press Agency/ Getty Images)

At the forefront of the mobilisation were boats moored on the Thames and in ports on the south coast.

All crews were offered ‘Navy Pay’ to take the vessels themselves, while others were requisitioned and manned by naval personnel.

The Little Ships started arriving at Dunkirk the next day. On 28 May nearly 18,000 men were evacuated and more small ships arrived, including merchant fishing vessels, private yachts and even a Mersey ferry!

Some of these vessels were large enough to take troops directly back to England, but most were used to carry soldiers to the larger waiting boats.

On 29 May more than 47,000 men were evacuated, but the day was marred by major losses to both Merchant and Royal Navy fleets. Just under 54,000 men were rescued on 30 May, and 68,000 a day later.

Among those leaving France as the month drew to a close was General Lord Gort. The approaching German army was dangerously close to Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe was in control of the air over the port and the harbour was constantly being bombed. If Gort had been captured, it would have been a propaganda coup for Germany.

The last day of May was also the point at which the British public were made aware of the events at Dunkirk. The operation was reported as an ‘undefeated army returning home’, in spite of the fact it was an army in full retreat.

On Saturday 1 June nearly 65,000 men were evacuated, despite the loss of four more Royal Navy Destroyers. More than 26,000 men were successfully removed on each of the following three days.

In total, 338,226 men made it back from Dunkirk. Over 100,000 had been ferried to larger vessels by the Little Ships and in excess of 6,000 had been brought directly home by them.

About 250 ships were sunk during the operation, including six Destroyers, and many more were damaged.

The Royal Air Force came in for a great deal of hostility from returning troops. The skies over Dunkirk had been full of Luftwaffe but the RAF had rarely been seen, and the returning troops had felt that the RAF had abandoned them.

In fact, this was far from the truth, as the RAF had flown 4,922 sorties over the operational area and lost more than 100 aircraft.

Their presence hadn’t been felt because they engaged the enemy away from the beaches to keep the evacuation routes open for as long as they possibly could.

They were also charged with patrolling the sea lanes, which would not have been witnessed by the men being evacuated.

British soldiers fight a rearguard action during the evacuation at Dunkirk, shooting rifles at attacking aircraft (Credit: Grierson/ Getty Images)

Discover your ancestor’s role

So how do you know if your ancestor was there and what role they played? The first step is to get hold of their service record.

Records for the Army, Navy and RAF are still with the Ministry of Defence, and you will need to apply to them for a copy of the service record. They will usually only issue this to the person themselves or their nearest living relative (or with that person's permission) and there is normally a charge of £30. Applications are by post and can take some time to process.

Once you have a copy of the service record it will give you the names of ships for the Royal and Merchant Navy, a Unit for Army and a Squadron for RAF.

For Merchant Navy ships it is possible to check records in The National Archives (TNA) series BT 382 and details of the ships’ movements in BT 389, which is available on Documents Online via their website.

You can check for Royal Navy ships in the Logs in ADM 53, searchable by vessel name on the online catalogue.

Any reports of action will be in ADM 1 (ask staff for help using these records if you are unfamiliar with them).

RAF Operational Record Books are in AIR 27, searchable on the catalogue by Squadron Number.

The surviving War Diaries for the Army Units who made up the BEF are in WO 167 with BEF Headquarters Diaries in WO 197.

Although these are once again searchable on the catalogue, some of the abbreviations used can make it difficult.

With the exception of BT 389, these records can only be accessed by visiting TNA in Kew.

If you are looking for records of the Little Ships, you can find out more from the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.

Ships carrying members of the BEF leaving Dunkirk during the evacuation of British troops (Credit: Keystone/ Getty Images)

Prisoners of war

For very many of the troops involved, the ‘Miracle of Deliverance’ tag applied to Operation Dynamo was far from the truth.

When General Harold Alexander called out “Is anybody there?” from the perimeter established around the beach at Dunkirk, many thousands of soldiers were not in earshot.

These unfortunate men were left behind when the last boats sailed from Dunkirk and forced to find their own way out of France.

Although some were evacuated in later operations, roughly 40,000 British soldiers became prisoners of war.

Among these prisoners were a great number from the 51st Highland Division, who, at the time of the evacuation, had been fighting a rearguard action alongside the French.

Once captured, these soldiers were subjected to a horrific forced march through the countryside of France, Belgium and Germany, suffering hunger, thirst and brutality. Any man that couldn’t keep up died at the side of the road or was shot.

Those that did survive found themselves in prisoner of war camps in Germany and Poland. For these men the war had been short but brutal, and five long years of captivity stretched ahead.

Escape and evasion reports for those who slipped out of enemy hands are held in TNA record series WO 208.

Some records for Second World War POWs can be viewed online by subscribers at Findmypast and Ancestry.

Liberation surveys of some of those who made it back at the end of the war are also available in series WO344. For a guide to Second World War records at The National Archives, click here.

This article is reprinted from Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine issue 35, June 2010


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