British Expeditionary Force (World War II)
The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the British force in Europe from 1939–1940 during the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

. Commanded by General
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

 Lord Gort
John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort
Field Marshal John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, VC, GCB, CBE, DSO & Two Bars, MVO, MC , was a British and Anglo-Irish soldier. As a young officer in World War I he won the Victoria Cross at the Battle of the Canal du Nord. During the 1930s he served as Chief of the...

, the BEF constituted one-tenth of the defending Allied force.

The British Expeditionary Force
Expeditionary warfare
Expeditionary warfare is used to describe the organization of a state's military to fight abroad, especially when deployed to fight away from its established bases at home or abroad. Expeditionary forces were in part the antecedent of the modern concept of Rapid Deployment Forces...

 was started in 1938 in readiness for a perceived threat of war after Germany annexed Austria
The Anschluss , also known as the ', was the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938....

 in March 1938 and the claims on the Sudetenland
Sudetenland is the German name used in English in the first half of the 20th century for the northern, southwest and western regions of Czechoslovakia inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans, specifically the border areas of Bohemia, Moravia, and those parts of Silesia being within Czechoslovakia.The...

 which led to the invasion of Czechoslovakia
German occupation of Czechoslovakia
German occupation of Czechoslovakia began with the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia's northern and western border regions, known collectively as the Sudetenland, under terms outlined by the Munich Agreement. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's pretext for this effort was the alleged privations suffered by...

 in March 1939. After the French and British had promised to defend Poland
Franco-Polish Military Alliance
The Franco-Polish alliance was the military alliance between Poland and France that was active between 1921 and 1940.-Background:Already during the France-Habsburg rivalry that started in the 16th century, France had tried to find allies to the east of Austria, namely hoping to ally with 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
Battle of France
In the Second World War, the Battle of France was the German invasion of France and the Low Countries, beginning on 10 May 1940, which ended the Phoney War. The battle consisted of two main operations. In the first, Fall Gelb , German armoured units pushed through the Ardennes, to cut off and...

 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
Operation Dynamo
The Dunkirk evacuation, commonly known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo by the British, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 26 May and the early hours of 3 June 1940, because the British, French and Belgian troops were...

, Ariel
Operation Ariel
Operation Ariel was the name given to the World War II evacuation of Allied forces from ports in western France, from 15–25 June 1940, due to the military collapse in the Battle of France against Nazi Germany...

 and Cycle
Operation Cycle
During World War II, Operation Cycle was the evacuation of Allied troops from Le Havre, France at the end of the Battle of France. From 10 to 13 June 1940, 11,059 British and Allied forces were evacuated....

. The most notable evacuation was from the Dunkirk region and from this the phrase Dunkirk Spirit was coined.


There 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
Duff Cooper
Alfred Duff Cooper, 1st Viscount Norwich GCMG, DSO, PC , known as Duff Cooper, was a British Conservative Party politician, diplomat and author. He wrote six books, including an autobiography, Old Men Forget, and a biography of Talleyrand...

 said in his report
"It was said in the leading article of the "Times
The Times
The 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 Countries
Low Countries
The 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
Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha
Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha PC was a British Liberal, then National Liberal Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister. He later joined the Conservative Party...

 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"


Hansard 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


Following the German invasion of Poland
Invasion of Poland (1939)
The Invasion of Poland, also known as the September Campaign or 1939 Defensive War in Poland and the Poland Campaign in Germany, was an invasion of Poland by Germany, the Soviet Union, and a small Slovak contingent that marked the start of World War II in Europe...

 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
Secretary of State for War
The position of Secretary of State for War, commonly called War Secretary, was a British cabinet-level position, first held by Henry Dundas . In 1801 the post became that of Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. The position was re-instated in 1854...

" Leslie Hore-Belisha
Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha
Isaac Leslie Hore-Belisha, 1st Baron Hore-Belisha PC was a British Liberal, then National Liberal Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister. He later joined the Conservative Party...

 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
Maginot Line
The Maginot Line , named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, was a line of concrete fortifications, tank obstacles, artillery casemates, machine gun posts, and other defences, which France constructed along its borders with Germany and Italy, in light of its experience in World War I,...

 (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
British Expeditionary Force order of battle (1940)
This is the British Expeditionary Force order of battle on 9 May 1940, the day before the German forces initiated the Battle of France-General Headquarters:General Officer Commanding-in-Chief: General the Lord Gort...

 consisted of 10 infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...

 divisions in three corps
A corps is either a large formation, or an administrative grouping of troops within an armed force with a common function such as Artillery or Signals representing an arm of service...

 (I, II, and III), 1st Army Tank Brigade, the BEF Air Component RAF
Royal Air Force
The Royal Air Force is the aerial warfare service branch of the British Armed Forces. Formed on 1 April 1918, it is the oldest independent air force in the world...

 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
Welsh Guards
The Welsh Guards is an infantry regiment of the British Army, part of the Guards Division.-Creation :The Welsh Guards came into existence on 26 February 1915 by Royal Warrant of His Majesty King George V in order to include Wales in the national component to the Foot Guards, "..though the order...

, 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
Royal Artillery
The Royal Regiment of Artillery, commonly referred to as the Royal Artillery , is the artillery arm of the British Army. Despite its name, it comprises a number of regiments.-History:...

 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
Norman Force
In the Battle of France in June 1940, Norman Force was a formation of units of the British Expeditionary Force, following the Dunkirk evacuation....


This period leading up to 10 May 1940 was known as the Phoney War


The German army began the blitzkrieg on 10 May 1940 and the German Army Group B
Army Group B
Army Group B was the name of three different German Army Groups that saw action during World War II.-Battle for France:The first was involved in the Western Campaign in 1940 in Belgium and the Netherlands which was to be aimed to conquer the Maas bridges after the German airborne actions in Rotterdam...

, led by von Bock
Fedor von Bock
Fedor von Bock was a German Generalfeldmarshall who served in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. As a leader who lectured his soldiers about the honor of dying for the German Fatherland, he was nicknamed "Der Sterber"...

, assaulted the BEF on 14 May. As Army Group B pushed the Allied forces back towards the French frontier, the German Army Group A
Army Group A
Army Group A was the name of a number of German Army Groups during World War II.-Western Front, 1940:During the German invasion of the Low Countries and France Army Group A was under the command of General Gerd von Rundstedt, and was responsible for the break-out through the Ardennes...

, led by von Rundstedt
Gerd von Rundstedt
Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt was a Generalfeldmarschall of the German Army during World War II. He held some of the highest field commands in all phases of the war....

, 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
Battle of Sedan (1940)
The Battle of Sedan or Second Battle of Sedan was a Second World War battle fought during the French Campaign. The battle was part of the German Wehrmacht's operational plan codenamed Fall Gelb , to encircle the Allied armies in Belgium and north-eastern France...

 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
Arras is the capital of the Pas-de-Calais department in northern France. The historic centre of the Artois region, its local speech is characterized as a Picard dialect...

 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).


The 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
Operation Dynamo
The Dunkirk evacuation, commonly known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo by the British, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 26 May and the early hours of 3 June 1940, because the British, French and Belgian troops were...

 between 26 May and 4 June 1940; abandoning much of their equipment after disabling their vehicles and main weapons. The 51st (Highland) Infantry Division
British 51st (Highland) Infantry Division (World War II)
For the First World War unit, see 51st Division .The 51st Infantry Division was a British Territorial Army division that fought during the Second World War...

 was left behind at Saint-Valery-en-Caux
Saint-Valery-en-Caux is a commune in the Seine-Maritime department in the Haute-Normandie region in northern France.-Geography:A small fishing port and light industrial town situated in the Pays de Caux, some west of Dieppe at the junction of the D53, D20, D79 and the D925 roads...

 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
Alan Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke
Field Marshal The Rt. Hon. Alan Francis Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke, KG, GCB, OM, GCVO, DSO & Bar , was a senior commander in the British Army. He was the Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the Second World War, and was promoted to Field Marshal in 1944...

, was evacuated from Western France during Operation Ariel
Operation Ariel
Operation Ariel was the name given to the World War II evacuation of Allied forces from ports in western France, from 15–25 June 1940, due to the military collapse in the Battle of France against Nazi Germany...


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
Draft (hull)
The draft of a ship's hull is the vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull , with the thickness of the hull included; in the case of not being included the draft outline would be obtained...

" 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
St George's Cross
St George's Cross is a red cross on a white background used as a symbolic reference to Saint George. The red cross on white was associated with St George from medieval times....

 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
Georg von Küchler
Georg Karl Friedrich Wilhelm von Küchler was a German Field Marshal during the Second World War. He was also a recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves...

 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
Erich von Manstein
Erich von Manstein was a field marshal in World War II. He became one of the most prominent commanders of Germany's World War II armed forces...

 and Heinz Guderian
Heinz Guderian
Heinz Wilhelm Guderian was a German general during World War II. He was a pioneer in the development of armored warfare, and was the leading proponent of tanks and mechanization in the Wehrmacht . Germany's panzer forces were raised and organized under his direction as Chief of Mobile Forces...

 as well as Admiral Karl Dönitz
Karl Dönitz
Karl Dönitz was a German naval commander during World War II. He started his career in the German Navy during World War I. In 1918, while he was in command of , the submarine was sunk by British forces and Dönitz was taken prisoner...

, 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
Western Front (World War II)
The Western Front of the European Theatre of World War II encompassed, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands, France, and West Germany. The Western Front was marked by two phases of large-scale ground combat operations...



Winston 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
British anti-invasion preparations of World War II
British anti-invasion preparations of the Second World War entailed a large-scale division of military and civilian mobilisation in response to the threat of invasion by German armed forces in 1940 and 1941. The British army needed to recover from the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force in...

. 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
Prisoner of war
A prisoner of war or enemy prisoner of war is a person, whether civilian or combatant, who is held in custody by an enemy power during or immediately after an armed conflict...

 (POW). The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 such as the town of Trier
Trier, historically called in English Treves is a city in Germany on the banks of the Moselle. It is the oldest city in Germany, founded in or before 16 BC....

 with the march taking as long as 20 days. Others were marched to the river Scheldt
The Scheldt is a 350 km long river in northern France, western Belgium and the southwestern part of the Netherlands...

 and were sent by barge to the Ruhr
The Ruhr is a medium-size river in western Germany , a right tributary of the Rhine.-Description:The source of the Ruhr is near the town of Winterberg in the mountainous Sauerland region, at an elevation of approximately 2,200 feet...

. 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.
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