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Pen & Sword- Dunkirk Evacuation - Operation DYNAMO

ISBN Number:
Thursday, May 28, 2020
Pen and Sword Books
Retail Price:
Reviewed By:
John Ratzenberger

Dunkirk Evacuation
Operation DYNAMO


Dunkirk Evacuation - Operation DYNAMO, Nine days that Saved an Army
Frontline Books, an imprint of Pen & Sword, Images of War series
by John Grehan and Alexander Nicoll
Published by: Casemate Publishers, Havertown, PA,
and: Casemate Publishers, Oxford, UK,


The Book is soft-cover, 7.5in x 9.5in size, with 168 pages. It is profusely illustrated with some 140 mostly (*Note below) period B/W photographs - all are well laid out and captioned. I will note that the review copy was provided in PDF format, so I cannot comment specifically on the production quality of the soft-copy or e-book format - in particular, the photos shown in this review are a screen-capture from the PDF.

There is a 1-page Table of Contents, a 12-page Introduction, and 10 Chapters, one per day plus an aftermath. There is no bibliography, sources, references, etc, although three books are cited in footnotes to the Introduction. Several photographers are cited in the text.

The book is from the Images at War series and captioned images are the main point. Each chapter leads off with 1-2 pages of introductory text, setting the scene for that day, but the bulk of the information comes from the photographs and their extensive captions. The photos are in a large format - not thumbnails - generally two per page, but sometimes larger and spread across adjacent open pages.

The publisher's notes, on their website, make the important note that ”So rushed and chaotic was the retreat to the Channel coast, with thousands of guns, vehicles and tanks being abandoned, there was little time for soldiers to consider taking photographs of the shocking scenes of death and destruction which surrounded them. Yet images do exist of the ships and boats of all descriptions …" some by individuals with personal cameras and a few official photographers. The hazards of evacuation by wading in salt-water are shown in damages to some images.    (*Note: there are several photos from movies, most notably the 1958 film Dunkirk, but they are arguably indistinguishable from the real ones.)

Introduction; Retreat to Dunkirk, 12 pages.

Starting from 10 May when the German attacked through the Ardennes, where no one had expected them to, and all of the French defensive plans were left in tatters, it became very clear that the Belgian, British, and French forces in Belgium were in danger of being cut-off from the main French Army and surrounded. Within a few days, the French Army was all but defeated, physically and mentally.

At this point, the British decided to try and evacuate what they could of the BEF through the ports of Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk. By 19 May, Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey, Flag Officer Commanding Dover, was given the task to plan for the evacuation of large numbers of troops. His staff was in a large room at Dover -- the dynamo room of a former auxiliary electric plant -- and thus the name Operation DYNAMO.

It was originally hoped that 10,000 men per day could be evacuated every 24 hours using the 50 cross-channel ferries, steam drifters, and coastal cargo ships available. Unfortunately the speed of the German advance was such that Boulogne and Calais became unavailable and the effort focused on Dunkirk and the open sandy beaches to the north.

The decision to evacuate was made, although it was felt that at most 25% of the BEF could be saved. The British, French, and Belgian forces began a fighting withdrawal to a perimeter around Dunkirk, reducing their lines and shortening the distance to the port. As rear-most troops arrived, they would be evacuated, leaving the area clear for the fighting troops to pull back.

But it was chaos - a fighting retreat under at best an ad hoc plan. Fortunately, the Germans didn't have a plan either. The plan to conquer France didn't include this rapid collapse/advance -- much like when the Allies broke out at Normandy. Luftwaffe staff told Goring that the BEF was trapped and stood little chance of getting away, particularly as the British did not have the transport to do so over an open coast. Unsure what to do, someone paid too much attention to the Luftwaffe's claims and let them handle it, even though much of the Luftwaffe was still occupied with the rest of France.

Meanwhile, the movement of troops had slowly begun ….


Above is the only map/chart in the book.  Note the length of two of the routes along the French shoreline, increasing the time spent in range of German guns and aircraft.  I suggest a few more maps showing the (shrinking) perimeter would have helped place the defense described, and the dangers to the beach, in context.

Chapter 1: Day 1 - Sunday, 26 May 1940, 8 pages.

Admiral Ramsey formed a protective screen to the east to protect the shipping, tasked minesweepers to clear around Dunkirk, and asked the RAF Fighter Command to defend the port and the beaches. Then he set about to find enough shipping and this task fell on Vice Admiral Sir Lionel Preston, Director of Small Vessels Pool, who used the lists of vessels and facilities available from the Small Craft Registration Order to identify those within a reasonable distance from Dover.

This meant rustling up every suitable vessel in the area, military or civilian. There were about 200 "ships" available at the start -- cross-channel ferries and barges, coastal craft, and others. Because much of the evacuation would be over the beaches, shallow draft vessels would have to get close in-shore, pick up wading troops, and take them off shore to be transloaded onto larger vessels -- and then do it again and again. But for now the harbor was available to use.


Chapter 2: Day 2 - Monday, 27 May 1940, 12 pages.

General Lord Gort VC was informed his sole task was 'evacuate to England the maximum of your force possible. 11 Group RAF,under Air Vice Marshall Keith Park was given the aforementioned air responsibility, a task performed daily from 0430 to 1930 by alternating waves at squadron strength.

And, Captain David Tennant, RN, Chief Staff Officer to the First Sea Lord, volunteered to go to Dunkirk and report his findings back to the Admiralty. He didn't just write a report - he assumed the position of Senior Naval Officer and took control of the evacuation using a shore party which accompanied him and stayed for the duration.




Chapter 3: Day 3 - Tuesday, 28 May 1940, 16 pages.

With the port, the East Mole, coming under increasing aerial attack, Capt Tennant shifted embarkation to the beaches and asked Adm Ramsey to send all vessels there. The shallow-draft vessels brought troops out to an increasing number of RN destroyers which carried them back to Dover.

In the meantime, the Germans -- GeneralOberst Heinz Guderian, XIX Army Corps -- concluded 'Further tank attacks would involve useless sacrifice of our best troops' and some of the pressure was relieved on the perimeter.




Chapter 4: Day 4 - Wednesday, 29 May 1940, 16 pages.

By morning, almost 25,000 had been rescued so far, more than anticipated, and the perimeter was holding. The French 1st Army was withdrawing toward Dunkirk, enabling more of the BEF to disengage and withdraw into the perimeter. The prospect of extending the operation and evacuating more than planned seemed possible. The Admiralty was committing every resource and the "Little Ships" began to arrive off the beaches in greater numbers, particularly as an appeal had gone out over the BBC for "recruits" which most people seemed to understand that meant boats and seamen.




Chapter 5: Day 5 - Thursday, 30 May 1940, 14 pages.

The disaster was looking more like a success. Churchill ordered they take off as many French soldiers as possible and Adm Ramsey pulled some of his modern destroyers off (they had 11 of 18 sunk or disabled in the previous 2 days, seriously degrading Channel defense) and substituted older models. Rear Admiral William Wake-Walker arrived to assume Senior Naval Officer Afloat, thus freeing Captain Tennant to direct all operations ashore. To speed up evacuation, trucks connected by planks were used to make long piers into the shallow waters.

Final planning assumed the BEF would be out of the perimeter on 1st June and sufficient boats would be available to take them off before daylight. Much of this lift was to be provided by ocean-going tugs and lifeboats of the Royal National Lifeboat Institute.


Chapter 6: Day 6 - Friday, 31 May 1940, 36 pages.

Originally thought to only have 48 hours before the Germans seized Dunkirk, the evacuation was in its 6th day and the perimeter was holding. Although artillery continued to pound the town and beaches while assaults on the perimeter continued German pressure was lessening -- it was felt that an awful lot of soldiers and equipment were being expended against a force that no longer posed a threat and was evacuating. In the meantime, roughening seas hindered the evacuation over the beaches, but more vessels were arriving to help. By the end of day, over 68,000 troops more had been evacuated.



Chapter 7: Day 7 - Saturday, 1 June 1940, 18 pages.

Dawn broke and there were few ships off the beaches - most were dropping off evacuees in Dover and yet to return. Stukas were having a field day, pounding the beaches and the ships. The RAF had to enlist Blenheim "fighters" to provide cover over the beaches. It was a brutal day but an additional 64,000 were brought off, although many were drowned by enemy action.

While 1st June had seemed like the last feasible day, it now seemed like the 2nd would work as there were still thousands of soldiers to be evacuated if only the beaches could be protected, on the ground and in the air. It was becoming more dangerous for the soldiers to attempt evacuation than to try and save themselves or surrender. Nonetheless, over the night of 1/2 June, over 26,000 more reached England.


Chapter 8: Day 8 - Sunday, 2 June 1940, 8 pages.

Daylight shipping/evacuation was now impossible, so all resources were gathered for the night of 2/3 June resulting in the evacuation of another 26,000 troops, which completed the BEF evacuation.


Chapter 9: Day 9 - Monday, 3 June 1940, 8 pages.

And on the night of 3/4 June, a further 26,000 troops, mostly French, were evacuated and that closed Operation DYNAMO.


Chapter 10: The Aftermath, 26 pages.

Dunkirk fell to the Germans on the 4th; some 40,000 allied troops were captured. Overall, some 338,000 British, French, and Belgian troops were evacuated. Once again, the British could feel that victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat despite the loss of men and equipment, of rescuing vessels, and defending aircraft.


I put in two armor photos, above, now one for me.  I'm working on a 1/350 resin kit of Queen of Thanet and this image, plus a couple others, were of interest.



The text isn't smooth - there are many places where too many commas and clauses complicate things.  Here's one extract from Chapter 2 "The [approximately 100] Norfolks were lined up against the wall of the barn - and then the machine guns opened fire.  All but two were murdered, though wounded, severely so in the case of Private Albert Pooley, and under the cover of darkness were able to escape the horror of the massacre." that am still not sure I understand.  

Even more problematic, is the description of the arrival of Captain Tennant which takes place in images/captions and text on pages 6, 12, and 16.  Did he arrive on May 26th or May 27th and was it on HMS Wolsey or HMS Wolfhound.   The book left me confused and I think I know the answer. 

Lastly, the organization of the book is by day (implying 0001-2400), but as the emphasis is on the evacuation much of the description is based on overnight events - for example Day 4 is 29 May,  but really encompasses the nights of 28/29 May and 29/30 May.  The book is not always clear about this particularly as time can get out of order, so to speak, when jumping back and forth between text and the pictures/captions which may not be in time sequence.

Highly Recommended to anyone with an interest in the early war and the evacuation of Dunkirk.

I would like to sincerely thank Pen & Sword and Casemate Publishing for providing the review sample to AMPS.

Reviewed by John Ratzenberger, AMPS Eastern Carolina Plastic Modelers and AMPS Central Virginia.


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