THE SECOND WORLD WAR June 1940
Dunkirk and the North Sea
For Britain the 3rd June 1940 was the last day of Operation Dynamo. When the German army advanced through Northern France, British troops were cut off from their French allies and they were encircled on all sides by the Germans. With assistance of hundreds of British civilian small boats they ferried soldiers stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk to waiting warships anchored at sea. During the evacuation the Royal Air Force (RAF) successfully resisted the German Luftwaffe who were bombarding the beaches. The evacuation continued for nine days and the operation ended with over 335,000 soldiers transported to Britain. The campaign became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”. On the 4th June 1940 Prime Minister Winston Churchill made another of his great speeches to the British government. When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been encircled in France he remarked he thought 20,000 or 30,000 soldiers might be evacuated to Britain. When over 335,000 men including French servicemen were evacuated off the beaches at Dunkirk it was declared a triumph out of a tragic defeat. He promised to defend our island home by fighting on the beaches, landing grounds, streets and hills and that “we shall never surrender”.
When the main Allied force evacuated the beaches of Dunkirk, the 51st Highland Division, Commanded by General Victor Fortune, was tasked with holding the German army at bay for as long as possible. Churchill had placed the 51st Division under French command as part of the French 9th Army. With the Germans rapidly approaching, the French Army surrendered on the 10th June 1940. On the same day, Fortune realised his 51st Division would not reach the Dunkirk beaches therefore ordered a retreat to the coastal port of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux. The Highlanders formed a horseshoe defence, but Fortune realising he was outnumbered, surrounded and running short of ammunition, decided to surrender. Fortune made the decision after the French surrender in order not to unnecessarily waste British lives. General Major Erwin Rommel, commander of the German 7th Panzer Division accepted Fortune’s surrender on the 12th June 1940.
The lesser known Operation Aerial was the code name given to the evacuation of British and Allied troops from the ports of North West France. The evacuation took place between the 15th and 25th June 1940. When the German tanks reached the coast at Abbeville on the 20th May 1940 they had split the BEF in two. Another 150,000 Allied troops were present in bases leading back to the ports along the line of communications. With the Germans concentrating on the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Royal Navy was able to evacuate these troops to England, proving once again Britain’s control of the seas had saved her from military disaster.
Charles De Gaule was a brigadier general who became Undersecretary of State for defence and war in the French Raynaud government. When Raynaud resigned, De Gaule left for England on the 9th June 1940. Having set up headquarters in England and following a radio broadcast to the French people, De Gaule was formally recognised by Britain as the leader of the ”Free French forces” on the 28th June 1940. This term was little more than those French troops who were evacuated from Dunkirk and volunteers from Frenchmen already living in England.
Whilst travelling through the Norwegian Sea, HMS Glorious was a British aircraft carrier proceeding toward Scapa Flow escorted by two destroyers on the 8th June 1940 when they were spotted by the German Battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Destroyer HMS Ardent was despatched to investigate while Glorious continued on the original course and speed. Five Swordfish aircraft were ordered to the flight deck but before they could be despatched Scharnhorst had opened fire and hit the upper flight deck preventing any aircraft from taking off. Ardent, producing a smokescreen, was sunk after she had fired torpedoes at Scharnhorst. Further shells hit Glorious and the aircraft carrier sank. The other destroyer, HMS Acasta was also producing a smokescreen and managed to fire two volleys of torpedoes at Scharnhorst which was badly damaged. Acasta was sunk by further shells fired from Scharnhorst. The two German ships had suffered extensive damage and beat a hasty retreat unaware there were no British ships nearby to pick up survivors. The total killed or missing from the three British ships was 1,519 and only 40 survivors were brought to safety. Glorious was a Courageous-class-battlecruiser built during the Great War and began conversion to an aircraft carrier in 1924. She was completely converted in February 1930 and re-entered service with the Royal Navy.
The German air force, following the evacuation of Allied troops at Dunkirk, was wanting to provoke terror to the citizens of Paris by a bombing campaign. The bombing took place on the 3rd June 1940 and most of the 254 people killed were civilians including school children. On the 13th June 1940 the Germans marched into Paris in the early hours of the morning as French and Allied troops retreated. They took up a position south of Paris allowing the Germans to access and occupy the city without it being destroyed. The RAF had bombed German convoys, mechanical units and lines of communications prior to the Germans entering Paris. Bridges from Rouen to Mante had been destroyed by the RAF to prevent the enemy bringing up material and reserves.
The Cunard liner RMS Lancastria had been pressed into service as a troop ship. She took on board as many men, women and children as possible as there were tens of thousands of British military personnel left in France after the Dunkirk evacuations. Lancastria had not long left the port of St Nazaire on the 17th June 1940 when German bombers located her. The Lancastria sank twenty minutes after she was bombed and approximately 4,000 people lost their lives. Records of precise numbers of women and children lost do not appear to be readily available. Fewer than 2,500 people survived the largest loss of life from a single engagement in British Maritime history. The sinking of the Lancastria was covered by a news blackout as the British government feared the news would have a detrimental effect on morale after the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Anticipating a swift victory over Britain following the fall of France, the Germans were unaware the British government had decided the Channel Islands could not be defended without great loss of life. The islanders were given the option to leave as the islands were being demilitarised. This information was not communicated to Germany. As part of their invasion plans they bombed the Channel Islands on the 28th June 1940. After the islanders were instructed, by the British government, to fly the white flag and paint white crosses on the aerodromes, the German occupation began on the 30th June 1940. The Channel Islands were the only part of Britain occupied by Germany during the war. The occupation lasted until their liberation on the 9th May 1945.
Norway was forced to surrender to the Germans on the 10th June 1940 after two months of desperate resistance. The last Norwegian and British defenders were overwhelmed by the Germans and Norway had been conquered with all Allied forces having been driven out.
In France, after the German bombing, Paris was declared an open city on the 13th July 1940 and the French government fled to Bordeaux. The Germans marched into Paris on the 14th June 1940 without any resistance from the French population. On the 16th June 1940, Paul Raynaud resigned as French President and Marshal Philippe Pétain replaced him. What remained of the government decided to seek an armistice on the 17th June 1940. Franco/German armistice negotiations began on the 21st June 1940, then Hitler completed France’s humiliation on the 22nd June 1940. He insisted the document of capitulation was signed in the same railway carriage in the Compiegne Forest where Germany had been forced to sign the armistice after the Great War. Under the capitulation terms France was to be divided in two. Northern France was to be occupied by the Germans while southern France would collaborate with the Germans, with Pétain leading the “legitimate” French government and the regime having its capital at Vichy in central France. On the 25th June 1940, France officially surrendered to Germany.
The French government realised the Germans would not allow the war to continue against their Italian Allies following the Franco/German request for an armistice. The French sought an armistice with the Italians on the 20th June 1940, with the request being made via the Vatican in Rome. The Franco-Italian armistice was signed on the 24th June 1940 which ended the brief Italian invasion of France during the Second World War. The armistice remained until November 1942.
The British colony of Malta was crucial to the Mediterranean war. The island hosted several airfields and the only British harbour between Gibraltar and Alexandria in Egypt. Operations from Malta hindered German supply convoys destined for North Africa. On the 11th June 1940, the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy, who had declared war against Britain and France the day before, began a bombing campaign. The Siege of Malta had begun and Hitler showed no mercy toward Malta which became one of the most intensely bombed areas of the whole war. The island was defended by the RAF but there were no supplies getting through and the island was cut-off. The Siege of Malta lasted until May 1943 when supplies arrived intact, delivered by a convoy codenamed Stonehenge.
Benito Mussolini, the egotistical dictator of Italy declared war on Britain and France on the 10th June 1940. Up until this time Italy had been neutral as he had been in negotiations with both sides on account of Italy’s lack of raw materials. It will never be known whether he joined the Axis because of Germany’s occupation of Paris. Mussolini wanted to be on the winning side and the thought of Germany singlehandedly achieving this was too much for his ego to bear. Repercussions by the Allies was immediate. Italians living in Britain less than twenty years were interned. President Roosevelt of America promised support for Britain and France with “the material resources of this nation”.
The Italian Commander-in-Chief of Italian North Africa, Italo Balbo was killed by friendly fire on the 28th June 1940, when his plane was shot down over Tobruk by Italian anti-aircraft guns. Balbo was an Italian Blackshirt and was one of the principle architects who brought Benito Mussolini to power. He was given the government of Italian Libya to lead and was “heir apparent” to Italian dictator Mussolini. He had served as Italy’s Marshall of the Air Force popularising aviation in Italy.
Traditionally since the 1930s the French Navy and the Royal Navy agreed to split the theatres of war. The French would take charge in the Mediterranean and the British took over the Atlantic and North Sea area. Prior to the Italian declaration of war the joint French and British navies planned to raid the Mediterranean area to test Italy’s air and submarine forces. Technically the French/British raid was planned before the Italian declaration of war. On the 12th June 1940 a false report of German warships entering the Mediterranean scrambled the French fleet. On the 13th June 1940, the French navy launched Operation Vado from Toulon bound for Italy with Vado and Genoa as their objective. Two heavy cruisers and five destroyers targeted Genoa and two heavy cruisers and seven destroyers targeted Vado. Four submarines escorted them to cover the withdrawal if required. In the early hours of the 14th June 1940 the cruisers began their attack on the shore and were reasonably successful. The Italian coastal artillery were able to force the French to withdraw. On the 16th June 1940 an Italian submarine attacked a French convoy without success and the French launched a depth charge retaliation which damaged the submarine and forced her to surface. An escorting sloop rammed the submarine which sank, and it was only Italian submarine sunk by the French Navy. On the 21st June 1940, as part of the French/British operation a squadron of aircraft raided Italian airfields Italian. The very last French naval aircraft attack was on Livorno before the French surrender.
For the Soviet Union, in June 1916 the occupation of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania involved the military occupation by the Soviet Union. They intended to turn these states into puppet regimes and to have a newspaper campaign against the pro-Allied sympathies of the Baltic governments. On the 15th June 1940 the Lithuanian government had no choice but to agree to the Soviet ultimatum and permit Soviet troops to enter the country after they had been accused of military collaboration with Allies against the Soviet Union. The Lithuanian president proposed armed resistance but the government refused to comply. The Soviets sent their candidate to take charge of affairs, after having refused the Lithuanian proposal that they would have their own candidate taking charge. In the meantime the Red Army occupied the states of Latvia and Estonia, after they had both received the same ultimatum, on the 16th June 1940. On the 18th and 21st June 1940 respectively new governments were formed in these two states and rigged elections guaranteed they were accepted by the citizens.
On the 26th June 1940 the Soviet People’s Commissar presented an ultimatum to the Romanian Minister in Moscow. The note demanded that the Romanian military evacuate the Romanian area of Bassarabia and Northern Bukovina. Under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbontrop Pact in 1939, Romania remained neutral with the country being influenced by either the Soviet Union or Germany. Romanian troops began to mobilise on the 27th June 1940 after King Carl II had meetings with his ministers and the ambassadors of Italy and Germany. The Soviets declared that should the Romanians reject the ultimatum Soviet troops were crossing the border. The Romanian government replied it would agree to negotiations to discuss terms but the Soviets issued a second ultimatum requiring the Romanian government evacuate Bassarabia and Northern Bukovina. On the 28th June 1940 Romania agreed to Soviet demands and ordered the Army to step down. By 2.00 pm on the 28th June 1940 Romania was occupied by the Soviets.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR June 1940