View Full Version : Air Cover at Dunkirk

eastern wiseguy
22nd Feb 2004, 00:30
Sitting at home watching the Beebs' Docu-Drama Dunkirk last night when my other half asked "where was the British air cover?"I had to concede I had no idea and volunteered to ask you lot. Any answers? Thanks

22nd Feb 2004, 00:48
Basically, the RAF fighter guys had the same problem the Luftwaffe guys had during the Battle of Britain - short range, (comparatively) long distance to travel, leading to short loiter time over the beaches. Add to that the fact that much combat occurred at high level, out of sight of the troops on the ground, and you have the classic conditions for "where were the Brylcreem boys?" questions.

One point for research may be the number of RAF pilots shot down/interred in France during May/June 1940 - try the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Tocsin (whose dad escaped from the beach...)

henry crun
22nd Feb 2004, 03:43
ACM Park, in charge of 11 group, only had 16 squadrons to fight that battle.
He was expected to provide continuous air cover for the beachhead, and thus there was a conflict between providing continuity of cover and strength.
He choose to increase the size of the patrols at the expense of their frequency.

It was the stronger but less frequent cover that gave rise to the impression that the RAF was absent from the battle because there were occasions when the Luftwaffe took advantage of the gaps between the patrols.

To enable the evacuation to proceed without interuption as far as was possible, the fighters object was to prevent the Luftwaffe reaching the beaches.
Thus, as Tocsin has pointed out, most combats took place at high level and away from the beach area.

A few stats will show what the the RAF achieved.
In the 9 days of the battle Coastal Command flew 171 sorties, Bomber Command 651, and Fighter Command 2,739.

Fighter Command lost 99 aircraft against the Luftwaffe's 132.

22nd Feb 2004, 05:59
The whole story of Dunkirk raises many questions, and some odd answers.

German ground forces could have easily over-run the defenders, who would have no choice but to surrender en-masse, leaving England without a large part of the army.

Why didn't they? Some say it was cockyness on the part of the Germans, who figured the English would concede defeat if they were evacuate.

Whatever the reason, and it may even have been divine intervention as some suggest, they were wrong.

Another thing that always troubled me was the absence of The Home Fleet, with Battleships, Cruisers, and Desrtroyers covering the operation, and hammering the Germans at the same time.

I have control
22nd Feb 2004, 06:09
From what I have read about the whole Battle of France period the British leadership was being tugged between the desire to support operations on the continent, and the desire to preserve sufficient numbers of aircraft on home soil to defend the island if France fell.

So you'd like to have more aircraft defending the troops coming out of Dunkirk, and you'd like to answer the desperate pleas of the French to supply more squadrons... but you're worried about leaving the home defences too thin if (as seems increasingly likely) France is lost.

I recall John Terraine's history of the RAF is good on this.

History would seem to show that our leaders got it just about right. Air cover over Dunkirk was as much as could be spared, and we scraped through the Battle of Britain by the skin of our teeth.

Side point - I seem to recall that the Defiants did very well over Dunkirk, their first true combat test. But when the Germans worked out that they had no forward-firing armament things changed.

I once met a Hurricane pilot who was over Dunkirk and said he saw the bomb that went down the funnel of the Lancastria.

henry crun
22nd Feb 2004, 08:56
Smedley, The reason the German ground forces did not overrun the defences was Goering.

He wanted to share in the glory of victory and persuaded Hitler that his beloved Luftwaffe could annihilate the allied forces in the Dunkirk beachhead.

Chimbu chuckles
22nd Feb 2004, 16:05
I remember reading that the second in command of the Titanic completed many crossings in his relatively small private motor yacht and succeeded in rescueing many soldiers.


22nd Feb 2004, 16:30
Hi folks,
If you really want t know, there's a very readable book called, if I recall correctly (I've just taken it back to the Library!) 'Air Battle Dunkirk' by Norman Franks - can't recall the publisher. Lots of first hand accounts, and a day by day summary. Highly recommended.
James K

Dr Jekyll
22nd Feb 2004, 17:56
"Whatever the reason, and it may even have been divine intervention as some suggest, they were wrong."

If so, it's a pity God didn't give a toss about six million Jews.

Malcolm G O Payne
22nd Feb 2004, 20:53
I may be wrong, but I thought the Lancastria was sunk off St. Nazaire, not Dunkirk.

22nd Feb 2004, 21:57
Lancastria sunk 17th June 1940, 5 miles off St. Nazaire.

Mr G.

23rd Feb 2004, 03:49
I read somewhere that a large part of the reason the Germans did not wipe out the BEF at Dunkirk was that Hitler thought he could negotiate an "Honorable Peace" with the British and save the effort of invading. I'm sure there were a lot of reasons both for and against.

Either way the British got lucky.

Always fascinates me how other country's armies celebrate only their victories but the British celebrate gallant defeats almost more. Dunkirk, Light Brigade, Karthoum etc

23rd Feb 2004, 07:03
Generally forgotten is that large elements of the RAF and army remaind in france after Dunkirk to be evacuated at Nantes (i think)

23rd Feb 2004, 19:43
Quote from Smedley:
Another thing that always troubled me was the absence of The Home Fleet, with Battleships, Cruisers, and Desrtroyers covering the operation, and hammering the Germans at the same time.

From what I've gathered I think the main reason the Home Fleet were kept away from the Channel during the Dunkirk period was the fact the channel is not conducive to large fleet operations. In the relative narrow confines of the channel, with little room to manoeuvre the fleet would have provided an ideal target. With the main threat coming not from the air (although still a significant threat) but from the rapid motor torpedo E-boats. I think there was a very real worry that the fleet could have easily been lost.

24th Feb 2004, 06:59
hello all
The mention of the Defiant turret-fighter prompts me to ask why it was never fitted with forward-firing guns. Surely, it must have been considered. Also, what prevented the British and Germans from fitting heavier calibre machine-guns to their bombers? The crews of the luckless bombers must have cursed the designers from high heaven when facing cannon-armed fighters with only rifle-calibre guns. It seems to have persisted until well into the war, on both sides. After all, the Belgians had 0.5in brownings in their Hurricanes in 1940. Perhaps less German bombers would have made it back across the Channel in the Battle of Britain or more Bomber Command crews might have survived encounters with night-fighters over Europe.