. Commanded by General
, the BEF constituted one-tenth of the defending Allied force.
The British Expeditionary Force
was started in 1938 in readiness for a perceived threat of war after Germany annexed Austria
in March 1938 and the claims on the Sudetenland
which led to the invasion of Czechoslovakia
in March 1939. After the French and British had promised to defend Poland
the German invasion began and war was declared on 3 September 1939.
The BEF was sent to France in September 1939 and deployed mainly along the Belgian—French border during the so called Phoney War leading up to May 1940. The BEF did not commence hostilities until the invasion of France
on 10 May 1940. After the commencement of battle they were driven back through France forcing their eventual evacuation from several ports along the French northern coastline in Operations Dynamo
. The most notable evacuation was from the Dunkirk region and from this the phrase Dunkirk Spirit was coined.
BackgroundThere were reports and the beginnings of a move to mobilise an armed force in 1936 when plans to expand the Territorial Army were put in place after a report was given to the House of Commons on 12 March 1936. It was realised that the invention of the aeroplane had moved the defence of Britain from her own shores to those of the continent as Mr Cooper
said in his report
"It was said in the leading article of the "TimesThe TimesThe Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...
" this morning: For more centuries than need be counted the destiny of Northern France and of the Low CountriesLow CountriesThe Low Countries are the historical lands around the low-lying delta of the Rhine, Scheldt, and Meuse rivers, including the modern countries of Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France and western Germany....
has been held vital to the security of Britain. That situation has not been changed by modern inventions. It was Napoleon who said that Antwerp in the possession of a hostile nation was like a pistol held at the head of Great Britain. The result of new inventions is that that menace is greater than it was before, because to-day it is a double-barrelled pistol. It is not only a base for shipping and submarines, but is also a taking-off ground for aeroplanes. The invention of flying, so far from rendering us more immune, has robbed us of a great part of our immunity. The sea, as Shakespeare said— The silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall. serves no longer in that office. More than ever we are part of the Continent of Europe; less than ever can we rely upon any special advantage from our insular position.
In that same report conscription was also discussed as it was realised that there would not be enough time to grow the army to satisfactory levels "To-day when there are still numbers of young active men unemployed and living on the dole, what better advice could be given to them than that they should join the Army? There they would find the opportunity of a healthy, open-air life." Conscription was not considered until war broke out as volunteers were preferred although by March 1937 there was still a shortfall of 60,000 men in the regular army. Recruiting had risen by 33% from 1936–1937, and in February 1938 it was 44% higher than the previous year. The demand was still not met with only 34,000 accepted for enlistment with 30% taken from the unemployment line. The Regular Army was backed up by the Territorial Army and both were expanded and equipped for more appropriate measures than had been previously anticipated.
In March 1937, the army stood at 121,000 at home and 89,000 overseas with 716 tanks of which 200 were obsolete First World War models. In a speech by Mr Hore-Belisha
on 10 March 1938, the numbers were given as 500,000 (excluding the colonies) and recruiting at 60,000 a year. Even still, there were shortages of 1,200 officers and 22,000 other ranks.
Talks about the formation of the BEF between British and French ministers were concluded after British ministers visited France in November 1938. The French delegation announced that they believed a larger force that had been sent in 1914 was necessary with the French cabinet saying that the British contingent would have been inadequate if war had broken out in September 1938. After questions in the House of Commons on 28 November 1938 the then Prime minister said there was no commitment to send an expeditionary force to France.
Sir P. Harris asked the Prime Minister whether this country is, in certain circumstances, committed to send an expeditionary force to France; and whether, as a result of his visit to Paris, there has been any increase in such commitments?
The Prime Minister answered "The answer to both parts of the question is in the negative"
—HansardHansardHansard is the name of the printed transcripts of parliamentary debates in the Westminster system of government. It is named after Thomas Curson Hansard, an early printer and publisher of these transcripts.-Origins:...
Vol 342, 28 November 1938.
According to the 1939 Army Estimates, Britain had home forces of 230,000 in the Regular Army with 183,000 in reserve and The Territorials numbering 270,000: a total of 683,000
DeploymentFollowing the German invasion of Poland
on 1 September 1939 the British Expeditionary Force was sent to the Franco-Belgian border in mid-September 1939. The BEF had been formed earlier in 1938 as a response to signs that war in Europe was likely.
The First deployment was completed by 11 October 1939 at which point 158,000 men had been transported to France. The "War Secretary
" Leslie Hore-Belisha
said "158,000 had been transported across the Channel within five weeks of the commencement of the present war. Convoys had averaged three each night and the B.E.F. had been transported intact without a single casualty to any of its personnel." There were immense pressures to produce the necessary equipment, which led to a rapid increase in output. Clothing items were one example of this with items such as greatcoats and boots being produced at up to 50 times the normal peacetime rates. Twenty-five years of greatcoats were produced in six months and 18 months of army boots were turned out in one week.
By 19 October the BEF had received 25,000 vehicles to complete the first deployment. The majority of the troops were stationed along the Franco-Belgian border and along the Maginot Line
(see pic 5 below). Belgium and The Netherlands were neutral countries at this point and so no troops were sent to either of them. For those troops along the Maginot line the inactivity and an undue reliance on the fortifications, which it was believed would provide an unbreakable defence, led to "Tommy Rot" – as portrayed by the song "Imagine me on the Maginot Line". Morale was high amongst the British troops but the small-scale actions of the Germans by 9 May had led many into assuming that there would not be much chance of a full scale German attack in that area.
Over the next few months troops, materials and vehicles continued to arrive in France and Belgium and by 13 March 1940 the BEF had doubled in size to 316,000 men. By May 1940 the BEF order of battle
consisted of 10 infantry
divisions in three corps
(I, II, and III), 1st Army Tank Brigade, the BEF Air Component RAF
detachment of about 500 aircraft and the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) long-range RAF force. These forces were led by the General Headquarters (GHQ) which consisted of men from Headquarters Troops (1st Battalion Welsh Guards
, 9th Battalion The West Yorkshire Regiment and the 14th Battalion The Royal Fusiliers), the 1st Army Tank Brigade, 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade and HQ Royal Artillery
5th Infantry Division.
A separate second expeditionary force was formed after 10 May consisting of the 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division and the 1st Canadian Infantry Brigade and was known as Norman Force
This period leading up to 10 May 1940 was known as the Phoney War
ActionThe German army began the blitzkrieg on 10 May 1940 and the German Army Group B
, led by von Bock
, assaulted the BEF on 14 May. As Army Group B pushed the Allied forces back towards the French frontier, the German Army Group A
, led by von Rundstedt
, invaded France through the Ardennes. The German forces simply bypassed the Maginot line which was a situation not anticipated by the defending Allies.
The offensive by Army Group A cut communications between French and British commands and after approaching Sedan
the German group turned northwards. On 10 May 1940, The Netherlands and Luxembourg surrendered and by 19 May were overrun. The push by Army Group A towards the coast combined with the approach of Army Group B from the Northeast left the BEF surrounded on three sides by 21 May (pic2 below). The British forces attempted to stop the offensive and launched counter-attacks including at Arras
on 21 May. The BEF was unable to repel the Germans and Gort ordered that the BEF should withdraw to Dunkirk to facilitate evacuation (pic3 below).
EvacuationThe BEF sustained heavy losses during the German advance and most of the remainder, approximately 198,229 men along with 139,997 French and some Belgian troops, were evacuated from Dunkirk
between 26 May and 4 June 1940; abandoning much of their equipment after disabling their vehicles and main weapons. The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division
was left behind at Saint-Valery-en-Caux
as it was not trapped by the Germans at the time and surrendered, along with elements of the French 10th Army, later in June. The short lived Second British Expeditionary Force (Second BEF), commanded by General Alan Brooke
, was evacuated from Western France during Operation Ariel
The Royal Navy ships needed assistance after the docks, harbours and piers were bombed by the Germans. Because of the shallow waters the British destroyers were unable to approach the beaches and soldiers were having to wade out to the warships, with many of them waiting for hours shoulder deep in water. On 27 May the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping telephoned boat builders around the coast, asking them to collect all boats with "shallow draft
" that could navigate the shallow waters. Some of them were taken with the owners' permission — and with the owners insisting they would sail them — while others were requisitioned by the government with no time for the owners to be contacted.
These flotillas of small boats combined with the naval vessels would continue until the evacuation was called off on 3 June 1940. The St George's Cross
flown from the jack staff is known as the "Dunkirk jack" and is only permitted to be flown by civilian ships and boats that took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation in 1940. The only other ships permitted to fly this flag, although at the mast, are those with a full Admiral on board.
The German forces were unable to press home an initial capture of the Allied Forces at Dunkirk and on 31 May General von Küchler
assumed command of all the German forces at Dunkirk. His plan was an all-out attack across the whole front at 11:00 on 1 June. The French held the Germans back while the last troops were evacuated. Just before midnight on 2 June, Ramsay received the signal "BEF evacuated" and the French began to fall back slowly. By 3 June the Germans were two miles from Dunkirk and the night of 3 June was the last night of evacuations — at 10:20 on 4 June, the Germans hoisted the swastika over the docks.
Several high–ranking German commanders, including Generals Erich von Manstein
and Heinz Guderian
as well as Admiral Karl Dönitz
, considered the failure of the German High Command to order a timely assault on Dunkirk, and so eliminate the British Expeditionary Force, as one of the major mistakes the Germans had made on the Western Front
AftermathWinston Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle" and the British press presented the evacuation as a "disaster turned to triumph". The rescue of the British troops at Dunkirk provided a psychological boost to British morale and coined the phrase "Dunkirk spirit" used to describe the tendency of the British public to pull together and overcome times of adversity.
While the British Army had lost a great deal of its equipment and vehicles in France, it still had most of its soldiers and was able to assign them to the defence of Britain
. Once the threat of invasion receded they were transferred overseas, to the Middle East and other theatres, and also provided the nucleus of the army that returned to France in 1944.
For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war
(POW). The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany
such as the town of Trier
with the march taking as long as 20 days. Others were marched to the river Scheldt
and were sent by barge to the Ruhr
. The prisoners were then sent by rail to POW camps in Germany. The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for five years.