French troops and sailors on the deck of a destroyer during the evacuation from France, June 1940. IWM HU 104603.
Between 3-4 June 1940, British demolition parties destroyed military material at Dunkirk to deny its use by the enemy. This material included the port’s oil storage tanks. Dunkerque was the third-largest port in France and it was imperative that its facilities and its stores were either disabled or destroyed.
In addition to the demolitions on shore, the Royal Navy scuttled blockships in Dunkirk’s harbour to render it unusable by the Germans. These blockships were: SS Westcove (sunk 3 June), SS Holland (3 June), HMS Env. Nissan (3 June), SS Gurko (4 June), and SS Pacifico (4 June).
Ships off the beaches at Dunkirk, c.3 June 1940. Smoke billows from burning oil storage tanks. © IWM (C 1720)
Aerial view of burning oil tanks at Dunkirk, June 1940. © IWM (C 1723)
A Hudson of RAF Coastal Command patrols over Dunkirk, as oil storage tanks burn fiercely in the background, c. 3 June 1940. © IWM (C 1717)
Evacuated from beaches: 1,870
Evacuated Dunkirk harbour: 24,876
Daily total: 26,746
Accumulated total: 312,051
Source: Thompson, Julian. Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory. New York: Arcade, 2011.