The epic evacuation of 338,000 troops from Dunkirk was one of the defining moments of the Second World War.
Officially known as Operation Dynamo, the evacuation was masterminded from a naval base beneath Dover Castle. Long, brick lined tunnels, known as ‘casemates’, had been cut into Dover’s famous white chalk cliffs during the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. Deep, dark and underground, they were the nerve centre of the evacuation.
English Heritage took these tunnels over from the Home Office in 1983. Ever since, our curators have been collecting the personal stories of the people who worked in them during the twentieth century.
World War Two has left us an extraordinary legacy of oral histories, letters and diaries. Held by local museums and major archives like the Imperial War Museum and the Mass Observation archive, they reveal what war was like for ordinary men and women at home and abroad.
In this blog we’ve collected some of those extraordinary stories of ordinary people. They open a window onto life in Dover during those long, gruelling days in May and June 1940.
Mrs P J Phillimore, Cypher Office Wren
A ‘Wren’ was a worker in the Women’s Royal Naval Service.
“[I worked in a] little office in the Casemates … there was a bed and mattress, table, chairs and 3 bar electric stove and a typewriter.
“I was broken into the tedious work …of deciphering and enciphering… Fortunately I had done office training so could “touch type” which proved invaluable when there was a rush on.
“One day in May 1940 … Captain Cull, the Admiral’s Secretary … [came in] with a signal [and asked us] ‘Please double check this signal’ V.A. Dover – To evacuate the B.E.F. from France – Operation Dynamo thus began.
“All stops were out. … All signals seemed to be immediate and every day we sent out a signal to 11 Group at Biggin Hill for ‘More air cover for the beaches of Dunkerque.’
“The Dynamo room, a small stuffy room 20ft X 12ft was suddenly full of Naval Officers. They came from everywhere, and having found a bed in Dover, hardly saw the bed again for the duration of the operation.
“Always the fresh air at the end of the tunnel was a great tonic.”
George Partridge, Royal Navy Wireless Operator
During the evacuation Dover had to direct something like 200 – 300 shipping movements every 24 hours and relay information about the situation on the ground in Dunkirk back to those in command in the tunnels.
George worked… “without relief (except for the visits to the toilet) conducting the two-way wireless communications between the naval rescue craft and Admiral Ramsay at Dover.
“Apart from the small auxiliary craft who used radio telephony, all communications was conducted on the Morse key, which even today is probably the most reliable and efficient means of communications at sea.
“My [watch] lasted one hundred and seventy-four hours. I was eventually relieved when the Dunkirk evacuation was considered virtually complete. I went to bed and slept continuously, so they told me, for thirty-six hours.”
Diana Wheatley, First Aid Nursing Yeomanry
“Some of us had to drive to the harbours in the Black Out in large army Morris ambulances … So often we would get a call to the harbours at night only to find the ship we were to meet had been blown up before coming into harbour…
“The faces of the men remain in my memory … they felt they had let us down, and their faces showed defeat and shame.”
Mrs Chandler, Royal Navy Wren
“We all looked along [the Promenade] … out to sea. Later it was full of little boats, barges and large planks of wood. Never knew then what for, all very secret. Two days later wounded came back, laid out along Promenade, Navy and Army together.
“[We] Covered them in newspaper anything we could lay our hands on. While they were sorted out, living from dead, it was awful. … [We weren’t] allowed to touch the dead, [there were] special people for that. …Dr. Richardson, civilian doctor, tried to make [the] dead decent for burial, fixing on arms, legs and heads. [We] worked day and night.
“… Many wounded had been without food and drink for days. We all tried to do our best for them, many had shell shock.
“[I] saw many boats arrive in [the] harbour, rowing boats to barges, anything they could get going. Never saw such a sight in your life, really a miracle, the sea so calm sun shone for three days, beautiful weather to get them back.”
Mr F.C. Overton, civilian
“[What] stood out most to me was to see the blokes with only a blanket round them and one in Wellington boots that they had been given, get what they could, nothing else on.
“I saw the Dunkirk blokes walking down the pier. There was a big pub there called the Esplanade Hotel… the blokes were absolutely dead beat. …They were given these big biscuits they were given tea if possible, and army rations that’s all… They were lucky at times when the women sent over sandwiches.”
Operation Dynamo Exhibition at Dover Castle
You can find out more about Operation Dynamo in our interactive exhibition in the tunnels at Dover Castle.
One of the biggest films of the summer, Dunkirk, is inspired by the events of Operation Dynamo. It opens worldwide on July 21. It’s directed by Christoper Nolan and it stars Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Harry Styles.
Costumes worn by Harry Styles, Kenneth Branagh and Fionn Whitehead will be on display in the Dover tunnels until the end of August.
Image of soldiers lining the beach at Dunkirk – Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo