“We shall fight on the beaches…”

Winston Churchill, speech to the House of Commons, 4th June, 1940:

The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength. Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

French soldiers & sailors during the evacuation of France, June 1940

French troops and sailors on the deck of a destroyer during the evacuation from France, June 1940. IWM HU 104603.

Men of the British Expeditionary Force arrive in London after evacuation from Dunkirk 1940

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BBC archive: Bernard Stubbs reports on troops returning from Dunkirk (1940)

“There was every kind of ship I that saw coming in this morning, and every one of them was crammed full of tired battle-stained and  blood-stained British soldiers.”

Reporting from Dover, Bernard Stubbs describes the scene as the ships return from Dunkirk and the troops disembark. He then follows the soldiers onto trains as they head home and also boards a ship to see what the conditions were like. Stubbs notes that, regardless of the strife, the port was well organised and the troops in good spirits.

Recorded: 31 May 1940

Duration: 4 minutes, 23 seconds

Destruction of oil stores at Dunkirk and blocking the harbour

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)

Dunkirk evacuation 3 June 1940

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.

War Walks: Dunkirk

Documentary by the late military historian Richard Holmes, one of the greats, on the miracle of Dunkirk.

From the BBC archives: A member of the crew aboard HMS Malcolm recounts the evacuation at Dunkirk.

From the BBC archives: A member of the crew aboard HMS Malcolm recounts the evacuation at Dunkirk.

Mechanic F. C. Turner recounts how HMS Malcolm was sent to Dunkirk to help pick up troops, including soldiers who had to be rescued from the SS Clan McAlister which was bombed by German aircraft. He describes in detail the scene at Dunkirk, including when the ship came close to being bombed, and the notorious mud that hindered the evacuation. Typically, he had no food or sleep and only one cup of tea throughout the entire mission. This recording was made for the programme ‘Dunkirk: A Personal Perspective’ (broadcast 1950).

HMS Malcolm, one of the Royal Navy destroyers that gave sterling service during Operation Dynamo

HMS Malcolm, a Scott-class flotilla leader, one of the Royal Navy destroyers that gave sterling service during Operation Dynamo.