2018 marks the one hundredth anniversary of one of the most well recognised military units in the world, the Royal Air Force (RAF), which was formed on 1 April 1918 in response to the pressures of the First World War by the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service.
At the start of the First World War, the air borne troops consisted of an amalgamation of the Royal Navy’s aircraft, airship, balloon, and man-carrying kite companies and the Royal Flying Corps planes. They were formed into squadrons for the first time, in July 1914.
It wasn’t until, worn down by the continual barrage of the more advanced German flying squadron, that the British military planners created the RAF in order to carry out more strategic bombing campaigns against Germany. So, on April 1, 1918, the RAF was formed along with the Women’s Royal Air Force. On that same day, Bristol F.2B fighters from the 22nd Squadron carried out the first official mission as members of the RAF. So effective was the newly formed RAF, that by November 1918 consisted of almost 300,000 officers and airmen, and more than 22,000 aircraft.
During the period of peace between the First and Second World Wars’ the RAF’s troops was cut to just 2000 aircraft, so when Adolf Hitler had developed the Luftwaffe–with the specific aim of destroying all the ports along the British coast, his troops severally outnumbered.
The Battle of Britain, one of the most famous military engagements of the Second World War, was fought against Germany in the skies across the nation. The RAF was hugely outnumbered, yet through a combination of new radar technology, new and more manoeuvrable aircraft and exceptional bravery, it successfully resisted the intense German air invasion. For every British plane shot down, the Luftwaffe lost two. In May 1941 the Battle of Britain was declared a British victory; a feat which led Prime Minister Winston Churchill to say of the RAF pilots, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
By the war’s end in 1945, nearly one million people worked within the RAF. Once peacetime arrived, this number was reduced to about 150,000 men and women. It hasn’t just been during the two World Wars that the RAF has proved valuable to the safety of the UK, however. It has provided protection during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the Cold War, the Falkland Conflict, the Gulf War and beyond. By using modern technology, the RAF has developed and changed to stay relevant to the world in which it operates- and will continue to do so for years to come.
To help celebrate the anniversary, and to teach us more about their history, the RAF have put together a schools project. If you’d like to get involved you can find out about all the events and information here: https://www.raf100schools.org.uk/ There are also many events happening up and down the UK to commemorate the RAF’s 100th year. You can find out more here: https://www.raf.mod.uk/raf100/
At the age of 85, on 31st March 1727, Sir Isaac Newton died. He was the first scientist to be given the honour of being buried at Westminster Abbey in London. Considered to be the father of physics, Newton was born in Lincolnshire in 1642, coincidentally the same year that Galileo – the scientist who influenced him most – died.
Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Newton studied Galileo Galilee’s theories of motion. He went on to work at the University for 30 years as a Professor of Maths and while there, developed his own and Galileo’s theories further by applying them to laws of motion and gravity – the backbone of modern day physics.
Newton was also fascinated by light. He discovered that white light is made up of a range of colours, and went on to invent the first reflecting telescope; an instrument that could see tiny objects much more clearly than any telescope to date. It wasn’t just Galileo’s theories that fascinated Newton either. He was also passionate about the work of many others, including the French philosopher Descartes and the English chemist Robert Boyle. By learning as much as he could from his fellow scientists, he applied his own knowledge and skills to both light, the laws of force and – most famously – gravity.
Newton explained the pulling force of gravity by using the example of an apple falling from a tree. He used his theories to explain why things fell down to earth, rather than floated off to the side, or rose upwards into the sky. Newton used this same idea to go on to explain why the moon remained in the sky. This theory went on to become known as the ‘Universal Theory of Gravitation.’ Not only did Isaac Newton develop his gravitation theory, stating that two things will be attracted to one another and that the mass of each object will affect the amount of attraction, he also created the mathematical formulation of calculus.
Isaac Newton’s outstanding contribution to science led to him being made the president of the Royal Society in 1703. He didn’t just confine his work to science and mathematics, however. Newton was also appointed an MP in 1689, and went on to become the Master of the Royal Mint in 1700.Indeed, on 16th April 1705 he was knighted by Queen Anne, in recognition for his lifetime of achievements in both politics and science. His final honour was to become the first scientist to be buried at Westminster Abbey.
A hundred years ago, the weapons research facility know as Porton Down came into being. This will hardly see cause for much celebration due its nature, but is it something Britain still needs, or instead a grim relic of the past which should be confined to history?
Why did Porton Down come into being in the first place, though? Well, in response to the worldwide threat imposed by Germany’s use of chemical weapons during the First World War, in 1916, the UK government sanctioned the opening of a specialist investigative team known as the War Department Experimental Station, in London. The main purpose of this group of secretly operating scientists was to test and research the effects, and the possible future uses, of the terrifying nerve shattering chemicals, mustard gas, chlorine and phosgene on human beings.
By 1918, this research concentrated on the development of gas masks and respirators for the soldiers on the front line. The scientists work had become too extensive to be carried out in a heavily populated area, so the whole enterprise, now known as the Royal Engineers Experimental Station, was moved to a remote location on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire; Porton Down.
After the end of the First World War, it was decided to keep up work on the base. Now however, the work not only concentrated on defence, but also on how to use chemicals for weapons of our own. The staff at Porton, then as now, operated under the strictest secrecy. Bound by the official secrets act, very few of the scientists on site were/are allowed to talk about their work. This makes discovering what goes on behind closed doors difficult.
However, over the last century of investigation, Porton is known to have altered its approach to its work. Whereas it began by working on how to prevent and develop chemical, and then biological, weapons (in particular an anthrax bomb which – had it ever been used- would have cased death on a massive scale), its primary function now is to help with the destruction of all the chemical weapons made in the past, and to develop ways to treat those affected by exposure to such weapons, as well as extensive medical research.
In the 1980’s Porton Down was the subject of large scale and very public animal rights demonstrations in response to the number of animals used in the medical and weapon testing departments on site. Such was the public outcry when it was discovered just how much livestock was subjected to horrific experimentation in the name of science, that strict government guidelines were imposed. Now, government inspections at Porton Down are frequent, and occur without warning.
The ethos at Porton Down, 100 years on from its birth, has changed from the development of weapons to the treatment of those affected by chemical and nerve attacking agents, and on to in-depth research into worldwide medical emergencies. For example, in 1976, when there was an Ebola outbreak in Africa, the first samples for testing were sent to Porton Down.
Now split into two major departments – known as the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA) and the Defence Science and technology Laboratory (Dstl) – the work at Porton Down remains topical. Although the use of chemical weapons was banned as part of the Geneva Convention, they are being used more than ever before by terrorist groups and some governments – particularly in Syria. In 2013 Porton became the base from which to test the samples of Sarin (a horrifying nerve attacking chemical) after it was used against hundreds of civilians in there.
A hundred years on, the journey of Porton Down’s development is far from over. Working hand in hand with Public Health England, Porton has recently expanded beyond Salisbury Plain into premises once belonging to the pharmaceutical group, GlaxoSmithKline. By 2024, this new base in Harlow is likely to be the main base for Porton’s scientific future.
We will never know everything that goes on behind the closed doors of Porton Down. We do know however, that it has weathered its deep unpopularity of the 1980’s, and has developed military equipment and fail-safes that have saved many lives. The unknown scientists’ continuing medical research into the treatment of major viruses and pathogens is in my opinion indeed vital, as is their continued disarming of the chemical weapons that were made many decades ago both here and across the world.
February 2018 brings with it the 100th anniversary of women over the age of 30 being granted the right to vote. As such, it was the first step towards all women being awarded equal status to men in political society. Without women like Millicent Garrett Fawcett, though, even the initial allowance might not have been so forthcoming, let alone equality for all.
In 1867, at the age of only 19, Millicent helped form the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage. She even served on its executive committee.
Born at Aldeburgh, Suffolk in 1847, Millicent was one of ten children. She was most influenced by her elder sister Elizabeth, who in the early 1860’s became the first woman to qualify in Britain as a doctor.
It was also Elizabeth and her friend Emily Davies who in 1866 organised the first mass female petition to Parliament, asking for women to be given equal status to men. Although they were too young to sign the petition themselves, Millicent and her sister Agnes contributed significantly by going around the streets of Aldeburgh collecting signatures from the poor, ensuring they were represented as well as the areas wealthy women.
When she was 20, Millicent married Henry Fawcett, a radical Liberal MP for Brighton and professor of political economy at the University of Cambridge. Henry helped further her education, and within a year Millicent had published her first article, The education of women in the middle and upper classes. Later, in 1870, she wrote a second book, Political Economy for Beginners.
On 20 May 1867 Millicent was present in the Ladies’ Gallery of the House of Commons when John Stuart Mill MP campaigned for an amendment to the Representation of the People Bill. He wanted to replace the word ‘man’ with the word ‘person’, so that women could be included on the electoral register. His suggestion was defeated by 81 votes, but it inspired Millicent to campaign further for women’s right to vote.
In July 1869, at a time when it was unusual for women to be allowed to speak on a public platform, Millicent spoke at the first public meeting held by the London Society for Women’s Suffrage. The Brighton Herald recorded her performance: ‘She is a lady of small stature, and of fragile but very pleasing appearance; perfectly collected in her manner, and with a very clear, distinct, emphatic delivery, not at times without a sense of humour.’
Millicent continued to engage in public addresses including one on 10th May 1872, when she addressed a packed central London suffrage meeting. She spoke against speeches that had been delivered in the House of Commons on 1st May which had been anti the Second Reading of the Bill for the Removal of the Electoral Disabilities of Women.
On 6th May 1880 Millicent made a very personal speech during a large London meeting. She spoke about how, when she and her husband were making their wills, they saw how unfair the law was. She realised that if her husband died she could not become their daughter’s guardian unless he had appointed her to the role. Nothing she owned, including the books she had written, legally belonged to Millicent in the eyes of the law. Everything automatically belonged to her husband.
When her husband did pass away several years later, Millicent took a break from public life, but by 1886 she was touring as a public speaker again. In 1888 she became honorary secretary of the Central Committee of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage. By this time, more and more suffrage groups were forming across the country, and Millicent began to help the different groups unite; In 1893 she became the president of the Special Appeal Committee, which ensured all suffrage societies had the same goal.
Millicent continued to campaign until 1896, when she presided over a meeting which would, the following year, lead to the formation of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies. Ten years later she became the group’s president. This was a position she held until 1918, when she finally saw her life’s ambition realised, securing the first votes for women, and giving her a place in social and political history as the person most responsible.
On 29th October 1618, Sir Walter Raleigh was executed after being accused of plotting against King James I. His fortunes, once well in favour with the royal court, had fallen to the chopping block. During the Tudor times in which he lived, such dramatic reverses were not uncommon.
To begin with Raleigh, if you look at his earlier life at court, his eventual fall from grace once seemed unthinkable. Born to a well-connected gentry’ family at Hayes Barton in Devon in 1552, Raleigh was a renowned explorer. In 1578 he made his first exhibition to America, and in 1585 he attempted to set up the first English colony in America on Roanoke Island (now North Carolina). This attempt failed, as did others, but Raleigh was successful in introducing both potatoes and tobacco back to Britain.
Raleigh became a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I in 1580, after helping to suppress an uprising in Ireland. He was knighted and appointed captain of the Queen’s Guard in 1587. However, in 1592, Raleigh was to trigger his own downfall when he secretly married one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour, Elizabeth Throckmorton. The queen was intensely jealous, and threw both Raleigh and his wife into the Tower of London. After eventually gaining a plea for release, Raleigh soon set off on another expedition, this time to find the fabled land of gold, El Dorado. The trip inevitably failed, doing little to improve his standing in court.
When Elizabeth’s successor, King James I of England and VI of Scotland, came to the throne, it was clear that he and Raleigh would never get on; unsurprisingly, this would have worse consequences for Raleigh. In 1603 James accused him of plotting against him and sentenced Raleigh to death. The sentence was not immediately carried out, though, and he spent the next 12 years back in the Tower of London. Indeed, the need for funds then saw King James releasing Raleigh on the understanding he would try to find El Dorado again. However, Raleigh went against James’s orders and attacked the Spanish instead. Raleigh’s death sentence was reinstated, and after his recapture, on 29th October 1618 he was executed.
Sir Walter Raleigh was not the first Tudor favourite to be the most popular member of the Royal court one minute and in fear of their lives the next. One of the most famous falls from grace of all has to be that of Anne Boleyn. After a spectacular rise to prominence, her presence brought about both the divorce of the king, Henry VIII, from Catherine of Aragon, and the dissolution of the monasteries. Again there were to be grave consequences, including Anne’s decline from favour, which was to be no less dramatic than her rise.
Towards the end of January, 1536, Anne Boleyn miscarried a child, only three months into her pregnancy. Henry complained, ‘I see that God will not give me male children’ (Doran, 178). This statement signalled the beginning of the end of the royal marriage, and coincide with Henry moving his latest mistress, Jane Seymour, into the royal apartments.
Anne’s fall was ensured when she began to involve herself in political matters, particularly the dissolution of the monasteries. Anne argued with Thomas Cromwell, the man who was trying to organise the dissolution for the king. Cromwell insisted on filling the King’s depleted coffers with church money, while taking a cut for himself. Anne however, advocated that revenues taken from the church to be distributed to charitable and educational institutions. Unfortunately for Anne, she couldn’t deliver on her political promises or expectations, and Henry used this, as well as rumours of an affair she probably wasn’t having, to dispose of her. Ironically, it was only a matter of time before Thomas Cromwell himself also fell from grace.
After his skillful handing of making sure Henry could divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn, Cromwell gained high favour with the king. He became Principal Secretary in 1534, and in July 1536, he was appointed Lord Privy Seal; one of the most influential and trusted positions in court. However, only four years later, Cromwell was arrested for treason- a crime historians can find no evidence of him committing. It is uncertain what happened to spark Cromwell’s demise. It is possible that it was triggered after he arranged Henry VIII’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves. The marriage was meant to help form a closer alliance between England and the Protestant princes in Northern Germany. Although it was a disaster, Henry made Cromwell the Earl of Essex to thank him for arranging it for him. Unfortunately, the influential Duke of Norfolk took exception to a commoner being made an earl; Norfolk appears to have orchestrated Cromwell’s end by introducing his niece, the nineteen year old Catherine Howard, to Henry. Her beauty beguiled the king, and soon Catherine was providing the Duke of Norfolk with greatly increased influence in court.
The Duke of Norfolk convinced Henry that Cromwell was plotting to bring in a full version of Protestantism to England despite knowing that the king was adamantly against this. Believing himself in love with Catherine, and wanting to keep in favour with her family, Henry no longer listened to Cromwell. So, after further persuasion from Norfolk, Henry had Cromwell arrested, and only one month later, on July 28th 1540, he, like Raleigh and Boleyn, was executed.
Raleigh, Boleyn and Cromwell were only three of the era’s many high status figures who found favour and distinction one moment, and the executioner’s block the next. In a time filled with paranoia and treachery, it was a brave man or woman who aimed to rise to the top.
The top two bestselling hot beverages in the UK and America are tea and coffee. But does the quintessentially English association with the cup of tea still hold true? And do Americans, usually associated with coffee, ever drink tea? I’m going to have a look at the history of each drink in each country to try and get an answer. I’ll talk about coffee in a second article soon, but first, it’s time for Tea…
The cup of tea was something of a latecomer to the shores of Britain. The custom of drinking tea dates back to the third millennium BC in China, but it was not until Portuguese and Dutch traders first imported tea to Europe in the 17th century that it appeared in England. And it wasn’t for another century that the biggest tea trading organization of the Industrial Revolution, the East India Company, began to make money out of tea’s rising popularity. Somewhat ironically, it was the London coffee houses that were responsible for introducing tea to England. Coffee house merchant Thomas Garway sold both liquid and dry tea to the public as early as 1657. Three years later he issued a broadsheet advertising tea as “making the body active and lusty”, and “preserving perfect health until extreme old age.”
By 1700 over 500 UK coffee houses were selling tea as well as coffee. By 1750 tea was outselling coffee and had become the lower classes’ most popular drink, being cheap and easily available.
According to the UK Tea and Infusions Association (https://www.tea.co.uk/tea-faqs), the British drink 165 million cups daily, amounting to 60.2 billion per year. Although China, India and Kenya produce the most tea in the world (China produced 2, 230,000 tonnes in 2015), it is the Republic of Ireland that drinks the most tea per head of population, followed by Britain. Of all the tea drunk in Britain, 96% is brewed by using a tea bag rather than tea leaves, and 98% of all tea made is served with milk rather than black with lemon, honey or single infusion.
In America, it is coffee that is considered the national beverage. It poses the question, why haven’t they embraced tea in the same way as the UK? America was introduced to tea at the same time as the British discovered the country, after all. However, the War of Independence between Britain and America that erupted shortly afterwards meant that trade routes providing tea were restricted. Britain controlled the shipping routes to and from America and so very little tea reached the US, making it hard to get, and therefore expensive. As a result, during this time a lot of Americans switched over to drinking liberty tea, which is mainly made from a goldenrod plant. When the American Revolution was over, the shipping lines did return, and Americans did go back to drinking tea, but a new war broke out in 1812 and the lines closed again. It meant that the next generation of Americans had grown up during the American Revolution and spent a lot of their formative years not drinking tea. And because they’d grown up without much of the drink, they didn’t consider it as important as the British did.
Today, tea is a popular drink in the US, especially in the American South, but they usually drink it iced rather than hot. Although cold or iced tea is drunk in the UK, it has had little impact on the traditional hot cuppa, whether served in a cup and saucer, a mug, or a takeaway beaker.
The so called Cold War was a state of dangerous tension between the USA and the Soviet Union (USSR) that lasted from 1945 until 1991. Distrust and suspicion were at the root of the Cold War. The political and economic systems of the capitalist USA and communist USSR were incompatible. In a capitalist state, the economy is largely free from state control, while the government is democratically elected and freedom of speech is allowed. In contrast, a communist state government has complete control of its economy and society. Each side (the “superpowers”) in this ideological war wanted the other to conform to their own political system.
The Cold War began shortly after World War II ended in 1945. Although the Soviet Union was an important member of the Allied Powers during the war, there was great distrust between them and the rest of the Allies. Britain, France and the USA were particularly concerned about the brutal leadership of the USSR’s Joseph Stalin. The Allies were always unsure of Stalin’s loyalty as he had previously allied himself with Hitler in 1939, through the Nazi-Soviet Pact. There was also a growing concern about how fast communism was spreading. This mistrust was a great source of anger to Stalin because, since the British retreat at Dunkirk, the Soviets had been left fighting the German Army single-handed. It was only on D-Day in 1944 that the British and Americans went to help the Soviets; by then thousands and thousands of Russians had been killed.
Although it is called The Cold War, no direct warfare took place between America and the USSR. However, they did fight each other in proxy wars. These were wars fought between other countries, but with each side getting support from either Russia or America, such as in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. The scars of Vietnam, to which the US deployed their own troops, are still felt in America today, whilst the legacy of the Korean war left open wounds to fester until they became dangerously significant, as any current news report will testify.
As well as fighting these proxy wars and maintaining an uneasy disapproval of each other’s way of life, the Cold War was fought out in the arena of power and technology. Each country wanted to prove that they were the most technologically advanced and held the most powerful weapons. This led to both the Arms Race and the Space Race.
The Arms Race saw each side try to possess the best weapons – and the most nuclear bombs. The theory was that a large stockpile of weapons would deter the other side from ever attacking them. Although some have been destroyed since the end of the Cold War, both America and Russia still have a huge arsenal of them as a result.
As well as the Arms race, the USA and USSR competed in the Space Race. Each side tried to show that it had the better scientists and technology by accomplishing certain space missions first. Both countries wanted to be the first to get a rocket into space and to get a man on the moon. Russia achieved the former, with the first man in space Yuri Gagarin. However, it was the US who succeeded in getting the first man on the moon. Interestingly, in terms of the amount of money put into the American Lunar Space Programme, it is unlikely NASA would receive enough from its government to repeat the feat today. It would not now be regarded as important enough to warrant the still huge expense.
It wasn’t until the economic and subsequent border collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 that the Cold War officially came to an end. Today, as the issue of state-authorised cyber-hacking becomes increasingly prevalent, and when words and treaties become ever more difficult to be agreed on with Russia, some people are suggesting we are entering a new type of “phoney” cold war, one for the digital age. If that is true, judging by the first, it is not an appealing prospect.
Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service, provides a home educated families scheme, giving you access to its incredible array of castles, houses and monuments. The only problem is deciding which to visit first.
Caernarfon Castle, at the very north edge of Wales in the county of Gwynedd, is one of the most impressive Norman fortresses in Britain. Built on the site of an existing Norman mote and bailey castle on the orders of Edward I, it was to become his largest Welsh castle.
Caernarfon was built with polygonal towers rather than the usual cylindrical ones, made with colour coded stones carefully arranged in bands. The Eagle Tower is the most impressive of these.
Built to stamp Edward I’s power over the region, Caernarfon Castle’s appearance was designed to intimidate the locals into accepting English rule and to warn off any potential attackers. Standing at the mouth of the Seiont River, the fortress still dominates the walled town.
An educational visit to Caernarfon Castle can teach you about the architecture of medieval fortresses, battle tactics, building techniques, and what it would have been like to live and work in both the castle and the stone walled town that surrounded it. Not only can you learn about the medieval way of life at Caernarfon, you can also visit the Royal Welsh Fusiliers Museum, which is housed in two of the castle’s towers and gives insight into the life of the modern soldier. Classes will be able to compare and contrast fighting techniques, weaponry, and the country at large by visiting both the castle and the museum.
In 1284, the very first Prince of Wales, the future Edward II, was born at Caernarfon. Centuries later, in 1911 and 1969, Caernarfon Castle was used for the investiture of the Prince of Wales; thus continuing its role as a royal castle.
Details about booking an educational experience as a home studying family can be found at http://cadw.gov.wales/learning/educational-visits/home-educating-families-scheme/?lang=en
The National Trust provides Education Group Membership to home-educating families during school terms time. There are hundreds of properties and gardens for you to explore and learn from across England, Wales and Scotland. The only problem is which to visit first.
The Battle of Culloden (marked by the monument above) was one of the most famous battles between Scotland and England. Now managed by the Scottish National Trust, the battlefield of Culloden, on Drummossie Moor, is an excellent place to discover the story of the Jacobites, information about the battle itself, and its implications for the future of Scotland.
The Jacobite Rising was an attempt to overthrow the House of Hanover and restore the Scottish House of Stuart to the British throne. Having failed in their attempt to gain support in England, the Jacobites had left London and retreated back to Scotland.
On 16th April 1746, the Battle of Culloden, which was to be the last ever pitched battle fought on British soil, saw an 8000 strong Hanoverian Government army led by the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, fight the 6000 man force of the Scots Charles Edward Stewart.
On a desolate moor near Inverness, in what was to become the final confrontation of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, Charles Stewart ignored warnings that the marshy, rough ground might favour the larger Government forces. Although slowed by the land, many of the Highlanders did manage to reach the Government lines, but in the fierce hand to hand fighting that followed, the new English tactic of bayoneting the exposed side of the man to the right rather than confronting the one directly in front had a catastrophic effect on the Scottish troops. The Highlanders fled, and when they did so, it was found that the entire battle had lasted less than an hour.
Culloden is now respected as a war grave, with more than 1,300 men losing their lives there, and is a place where children can get a feel of the human cost of battle. While visiting Culloden, you can take advantage of the marked paths around the battlefield. You can imagine the battle in progress by following the lines of red flags which indicate the front line of the government army, or the blue flags, which show the position of the Jacobites.
In the years before Culloden, the Jacobite plotters had met in secret. They had developed a number of Jacobite symbols so they could work out who was on their side without risking asking out loud. Visitors to Culloden can therefore enjoy cracking the code of Jacobite symbols as they go round the exhibition, such as a red rose and rose bud. The rose symbolises the exiled King James; (spoiler alert…) the buds are his heirs, Charles and Henry.
Amongst other treasures to discover, there is also a white cockade, a ribbon worn by many Jacobites, which is said to have been derived from the wearing of a white rose in earlier Jacobite risings, a moth, a butterfly, and an oak tree and acorns.
There are many learning opportunities at Culloden for home schooled children. For more details, email the National Trust of Scotland’s learning team Culloden@nts.org.uk.
Code-named Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk took place during the Second World War, between 26th May and 4th June 1940.
The decision to trigger Operation Dynamo was made when large numbers of Belgian, Canadian, British, and French troops were cut off and surrounded by the German army during the Battle of France.
In England, hundreds of small vessels came forward to assist in the evacuation after an order was issued via BBC Radio to “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30′ and 100′ in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty”.
Although a handful of fishing boats did travel over to Dunkirk to help in the rescue, the idea that hundreds of civilians travelled across the channel to help is largely a myth. Most of the boats surrendered by fisherman and boat owners were crewed by naval reservists and were used, not to cross the entire channel, but to help ferry men from Dunkirk’s beaches to waiting Royal Navy destroyers. In all, a flotilla of 900 naval and borrowed civilian craft went across the Channel under RAF protection.
The German air force, the Luftwaffe, made the evacuation as difficult as possible. In their attempts to halt the Allies efforts, the town of Dunkirk was reduced to rubble, and 106 Allied aircraft and 235 boats were destroyed, leading to the death of 5000 soldiers. However, despite the attempts of the German troops to sabotage the evacuation, Operation Dynamo saw the rescue of 338,226 people. A further 220,000 Allied troops were rescued by British ships from the French ports of Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest, and Saint-Nazaire.
When the rescued men arrived in England they were welcomed as heroes, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, although proud of his troops, admitted that the events that led to the evacuation having to take place had been a “colossal military disaster.” A large amount of equipment had been left behind, and France was considerably weakened, leaving Britain vulnerable to invasion by the Nazi troops. It was this threat of German invasion that led to one of Churchill’s most memorable speeches:
“We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”
Churchill’s determination paid off, and Hitler never managed to invade Britain. The Second World War however, would not be over for another five years.
– A major film centring around Dunkirk is due in cinemas soon, directed by Christopher Nolan.