Churchill called the mass evacuation of allied forces from the beach and pier at Dunkirk a “miracle of deliverance”, but the operation to rescue more than 330,000 troops trapped by German forces in May 1940 came at a heavy cost.
Of the up to 1,000 vessels, from military warships to fishing boats, lifeboats and pleasure craft, that scrambled to help the stranded men, hundreds were sunk during the nine-day Operation Dynamo with the loss of many lives.
More than eight decades later, French and British archaeologists are embarking on a joint survey of the waters off the northern French town, using the latest technology to scour the seabed for shipwrecks from the heroic rescue armada.
They hope to learn more about 37 wrecks whose locations are known in the vicinity, and to locate other sunken ships – the exact whereabouts of which are unknown.
The project, jointly run by France’s department of underwater archaeological research (Drassm) and Historic England, will begin next week with a surface-level scan of the seabed, using geophysical survey equipment including a multibeam echosounder, side-scan sonar and magnetometer.
The hope, said Cécile Sauvage, an archaeologist co-leading the expedition for Drassm, is to build a detailed picture that will allow divers to return next year for closer investigations. Having carried out a similar survey of vessels involved in the Normandy landing, she is aware that those that survive may be in a precarious condition after more than 83 years underwater.
“We want to save them by studying them,” she said, adding that she hoped the survey would encompass the wide range of craft that took part. “I do not want to find one warship or just one type. I [would love] to understand the event by finding different types of ships that were involved.”
Many different vessels, flying British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish flags, were involved in the evacuation – from military destroyers and gunboats to yachts, lifeboats, fishing boats, tugs and (famously) small private boats that rushed from the English coast to help.
Those that survive underwater are likely to be the larger vessels, said Antony Firth, Historic England’s head of marine heritage strategy. “The popular imagination is around Dunkirk’s ‘little ships’, and there’s no taking away from their significance, but more troops were lifted by larger vessels.
“Because they are more robust, they will tend to be more visible to the kinds of methods that we’re using.” While smaller craft are unlikely to have survived intact, they may have left remnants, such as engines and boilers, that could be detected in the seabed, said Firth.
Many of the wrecks are known by name and one that will be examined is the Brighton Queen, a paddle steamer that had been pressed into service as a minesweeper. It was carrying 700 French Moroccan troops, of whom nearly half perished when it was sunk by German gunfire. “Dunkirk is not just a British event – I think it’s important to remember that,” said Firth.
The survey, he said, would “bring the focus back to the maritime dimension of Dunkirk and the fact that physical remains of that are still there on the seabed, as they are with many different aspects of our maritime heritage”.
The Dunkirk evacuation, despite its celebrated position in British memories of the second world war, is much less well known in France, said Claire Destanque, a French archaeologist who will co-lead the operation. She has conducted research which found at least 305 vessels were scuttled, burned, destroyed, abandoned, stranded or lost during the operation.
“I don’t think I had ever heard about Operation Dynamo before starting my research. But with everything I have read about it, and every aspect of my research – yes, of course, it was a retreat, but it was an extraordinary one.
“And French forces really made a difference … it was because of French forces that we could hold Dunkirk, and all the soldiers could go across the Channel. So I really think it was British and French combined that make this an extraordinary moment of the war.”