Operation Aerial

This was the British equivalent of ‘Dynamo’ initially intended for the maritime evacuation of British troops from the ports of north-western France but then extended to all the larger ports along the west coast of France to the Spanish frontier at the time of the French collapse in the face of ‘Rot’ (iii) (16/24 June 1940).

Undertaken in the immediate aftermath of the basically similar ‘Dynamo’ on the north-east coast of France, ‘Aerial’ further strained the already overtaxed forces of the Royal Navy’s southern commands. There were insufficient numbers of lighter warships to provide adequate escort of all the troopships, but control of the narrow seas and of the area of Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Nasmith’s Western Approaches Command was nonetheless provided by overall British naval strength as represented by Admiral Sir Charles Forbes’s Home Fleet at Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands group, local operations undertaken by light forces stationed in the south of England, and home-based air power.

In ‘Aerial’, therefore, the British were able to recover nearly 200,000 British and Allied troops as well as many civilians, and also to bring back to the UK much invaluable matériel of the type which had perforce been abandoned in ‘Dynamo’ as a result of German ground and air pressure.

A minor operation which can be considered part of ‘Aerial’ was the blocking of the port of Dieppe, for which plans were made and implemented very swiftly. Captain G. A. Garnons-Williams led the undertaking in the destroyer Vega and, on 10 June, supervised the sinking of two of his three blockships in the approach channel, though the mining of the third ship just outside prevented the intended blocking of the inner entrance to the port.

The decision to bring home the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force in ‘Aerial’ was taken on 15 June, the embarkation ports originally being designated as Cherbourg, St Malo, Brest, St Nazaire and La Pallice. The evacuations from the first two were to be directed by Admiral Sir William James, the commander-in-chief Portsmouth, while the others were entrusted to Dunbar-Nasmith, who was also commander-in-chief at Plymouth. James thought that he had insufficient numbers of escorts to operate a convoy system, and therefore arranged for a continuous flow of independently routed troopships, transport vessels and store ships to operate between Southampton and either Cherbourg or St Malo, while other crossings were made by coasters from Poole and schuyts from Weymouth. The few available warships patrolled the routes to be used by these vessels. Between 15 and 17 June most of Major General J. S. Drew’s 52nd Division was embarked at Cherbourg, and on 18 June Brigadier C. W. Norman’s composite ‘Norman’ Force, based on his own 1st Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, followed.

Meanwhile demolition of the fuel reserves at Caen and in the port was started, two destroyers covered the withdrawal of the rearguard, and home-based fighters provided air cover. Late in the afternoon of 18 June the last men were embarked and the final transport sailed. In all some 30,630 men were recovered, this total including the 9,000 already taken to Cherbourg from Le Havre. German air power was kept at bay and no ships were damaged.

Meanwhile embarkation had also been proceeding at St Malo, from which Major General A. G. L. McNaughton’s Canadian 1st Division was brought back to England on 16 June. By the evening of the following day, 21,474 men had been embarked without loss and, early next day, a final search was made for stragglers. Demolitions were continued until German forces were almost at the gates of St Malo.

While James was ending the part of the operation organised at Portsmouth, Dunbar-Nasmith at Plymouth was planning and controlling a more ambitious programme of rescues from the ports of France’s coast on the Bay of Biscay. On 16 June naval officers reached Brest and St Nazaire to supervise the evacuation of all troops and, if possible, the almost completed French battleship Richelieu. Though neither the French authorities nor the headquarters of the British Expeditionary Force initially realised the need to get troops embarked as rapidly as possible (the latter planning for the men to leave some 10 to 14 days later), the British cabinet ordered the operation to start on 16 June. The first of the required ships were already in the port and Dunbar-Nasmith was despatching more, including three liners in the form of the 14,694-ton Arandora Star, 22,284-ton Strathaird and 20,026-ton Otranto. Small craft were also assembled in several ports in the west of England, although there was as yet not need for them. Embarkation started as soon as the order was given from London, and proceeded swiftly.

The British believed that the Germans were closer to Brest than in fact they were, so on 17 June the senior naval officer in Brest was informed that the embarkation must be finished by the evening of the same day and, after a hectic and somewhat confused period, all of the troops had been embarked and the shipping departed. Some of the ships not wholly filled at Brest were diverted south to St Nazaire, while those which had been fully loaded steamed to England. In fact the evacuation was ended prematurely, for another day would have allowed many more vehicles and a greater quantity of stores to be loaded. The British total embarked was 28,145 men, including large numbers of RAF personnel. In addition 4,439 Allied soldiers were rescued for a total of 32,584 evacuated from Brest.

On the day after the evacuation’s end, demolitions were carried out in the port by the French in co-operation with a British party, and at 16.00 the French fleet sailed. Most of these French warships headed south to eventual Vichy French control at Casablanca and Dakar in North-West and West Africa respectively, but a few came to British ports to carry on the fight. By 19 June Brest was clear of shipping and the demolition party was withdrawn in the destroyer Broke.

The evacuation from St Nazaire was performed at the same time as that from Brest, but was rendered more difficult by the strength of the tides and the navigational problems in the estuary of the Loire river. Moreover the partially completed Jean Bart, the French navy’s second new battleship, was in the dockyard of St Nazaire, and could not be allowed to fall into German hands. It was believed that between 40,000 and 60,000 British and Allied troops were retreating in the direction of Nantes, which is some 50 miles (80 km) up the river from St Nazaire. Since the tide and navigation factors would inevitably slow the process of embarkation and sailing, the decision was taken to start the undertaking during the morning of 16 June. The destroyers Havelock, Wolverine and Beagle were already available, and four liners (27,759-ton Georgic, 20,021-ton Duchess of York, 14,287-ton Batory and 11,030-ton Sobieski) were waiting in Quiberon Bay to the north-west of the Loire river estuary, where there was a good but unprotected anchorage for large ships. On 15 June Dunbar-Nasmith ordered the 16,243-ton liner Lancastria and a number of cargo ships to move the Loire ports, so creating a major concentration of shipping, in and around Quiberon Bay, that was thus vulnerable to German aircraft and/or U-boat attack. After a short delay occasioned by the German aerial mining of the channel, embarkation started on the afternoon of 16 June and, by the evening of that day, about 13,000 base troops with their stores and vehicles had boarded four liners and some cargo vessels. Georgic, Duchess of York, Batory and Sobieski were then ordered to steam to England. On this day German bombers attacked the shipping concentration in Quiberon Bay, but succeeded in damaging only the 20,158-ton liner Franconia.

The loading of stores continued right through the night, and more ships were sent from England or diverted from Brest. The destroyers Highlander and Vanoc also joined the flotilla. On 17 June a several smaller British and French vessels were used to ferry troops out to the larger ships waiting in the roads, while still more ships arrived and fighters patrolled overhead. A successful morning’s work produced high hopes of accomplishing yet another successful evacuation, but at 15.35 a major German air attack resulted in hits on the 16,243-ton liner Lancastria, which had embarked 5,800 troops, and now caught fire and sank within 15 minutes: an unknown number (estimates ranging up to 4,000 men) died in this single most costly loss of ‘Aerial’. Even so, the embarkation continued right through into the night. Soon after dawn on 18 June a convoy of 10 ships, carrying 23,000 men, sailed for Plymouth.

Some 4,000 men now remained ashore and, as at Brest, mistaken reports of the speed of the German advance spurred a decision to hasten the end of the evacuation. At 11.00 on 18 June 12 ships sailed in convoy with the last troops, and by the early afternoon the operation was over, except for the usual search for stragglers by small vessels. The end was again too early, and again a considerably larger number of vehicles and quantity of equipment could have been saved.

At 12.00 on 18 June the destroyer Vanquisher arrived with Vice Admiral T. J. Hallett, who was to ensure that Jean Bart either sailed or was destroyed. The French base and dockyard staff laboured to get the battleship away early on 19 June or, failing that, to destroy the ship. Hallett sent tugs ahead to help with the undocking and waited anxiously in Quiberon Bay. Though the battleship was late in reaching the rendezvous with Vanquisher, she finally arrived with a French destroyer escort. Hallett remained in company until Jean Bart turned south for Casablanca.

During the same afternoon, Dunbar-Nasmith heard that 8,000 Polish troops were waiting at St Nazaire, and at once despatched seven transports and six destroyers to lift hem from the French coast. There were in fact a mere 2,000 men, however, so much of the shipping so urgently assembled therefore found itself in useless jeopardy. Embarkation at St Nazaire continued for two days after its official end. In all 57,235 persons, of whom 54,411 were British and 2,764 Allied troops, were lifted from St Nazaire and Nantes.

Well before this, the evacuation had begun at La Pallice which, with the nearby ports of Rochefort and La Rochelle, constituted an important French naval base. On 16 June the British senior naval officer for the port arrived by destroyer, but no personnel ships had arrived by the morning of the following day to embark the 10,000 troops expected there, for they had been diverted to Brest or St Nazaire. Cargo vessels were therefore requisitioned and the waiting troops embarked at once in them in a process which meath that all their vehicles had to be abandoned. The convoy sailed very early on 18 June but, once again, the evacuation was brought to a premature end. Told that more troops were expected, Dunbar-Nasmith therefore sent ships south from Brest and embarkation started once more during the evening 19 June. Despite air raids, 4,000 Polish troops left that night. On the following day reports of further arrivals reached Dunbar-Nasmith, who once more sent transports and destroyers to evacuate them. Actually very few were found at this third attempt, and the shipping collected for them was finally diverted farther south to the ports of the Gironde river estuary. In all 2,303 British and many Polish troops were ferried to the UK from La Pallice.

This evacuation completed the original ‘Aerial’ plan for the removal from France of the British Expeditionary Force’s last elements. But then the collapse of French resistance and the request for an armistice, which came into effect on 25 June, emphasised the need for a further rescue, which was launched without delay, to recover the last of the Allied troops, much valuable shipping, and all remaining British civilian refugees and diplomatic personnel. These final, improvised operations began from the ports of the Gironde river and moved finally to Bayonne and St Jean de Luz near the Spanish frontier.

To start the creation of the new organisational effort now required, the light cruiser Arethusa arrived at Le Verdon, at the south-western tip of tip of the Gironde river’s estuary, from Gibraltar on the evening of 16 June while the destroyer Berkeley, which had departed from England to deliver all the senior naval officers for the ports and distributed them down the coast, went up the river to Bordeaux to serve as the essential communications link. All British and some Allied shipping was cleared from the port on the following day and the embarkation of refugees started. Dunbar-Nasmith had meanwhile diverted to the Gironde estuary enough shipping to lift the Allied (chiefly Polish and Czechoslovak) troops who had finally arrived in the port.

Meetings were now taking place in Bordeaux, where a high-level British deputation had arrived to persuade Amiral de la Flotte François Darlan, commander-in-chief of the French navy, to remove the French fleet, including all the ships still in the Mediterranean, out of reach of the Germans.

On 18/19 June ships were sailed with some thousands of refugees and Allied troops, but most of the former had already been diverted to Bayonne. The British embassy and consular staffs came down river from Bordeaux, many of them in Berkeley, during 19 June, and embarked in Arethusa. The ambassador remained at Bordeaux for a few more days, but on 23 June left for Arcachon. He eventually sailed for England from St Jean de Luz in the light cruiser Galatea, and Arethusa had meanwhile sailed on 20 June with the president of Poland and much of the Polish government.

Meanwhile embarkations continued at Le Verdon and, early on 20 June, Rear Admiral F. Burges-Watson arrived in the destroyer Beagle with a demolition party for Bordeaux. The most important task to be accomplished by this party was the destruction of the great oil stocks at the port, but difficulties immediately arose with the French, becoming worse on 22 June when the terms of the Franco-German armistice became known. The French thereupon refused to allow any demolitions. Burges-Watson was about to use surprise to fulfil his orders when these were cancelled. Three days later the Admiralty ordered Dunbar-Nasmith to send a destroyer force to Bordeaux to destroy the oil stocks, but again this scheme was cancelled, this time at the behest of the war cabinet.

Meanwhile embarkations at Le Verdon were proving difficult as most of the Polish troops had arrived at this port rather than Bayonne, where the relevant ships were waiting for them. Dunbar-Nasmith took rapid steps to bring the ships and the soldiers together and, by the morning of 23 June the last 6,000 Poles had been embarked and the personnel vessels sailed.

On 19 June Dunbar-Nasmith sent the liners Batory, Sobieski, Ettrick and Arandora Star to Bayonne for the refugees known to be assembling there and also for the Polish troops believed to be moving toward that port. During the next two days some 9,000 of the latter embarked and sailed in Batory and Sobieski, but it was then decided to shift the evacuation from the Adour river estuary at Bayonne to the coast at St Jean de Luz, which offered superior facilities. Meanwhile ample shipping to accommodate the remaining refugees and Polish troops had arrived from England or the ports of the Gironde river. Adverse weather then delayed the embarkation until 24 June, when the French authorities ordered that, on account of the armistice terms, all evacuations must cease by 12.00 on the following day. At 14.30 that afternoon the last troopship sailed for home. In all about 19,000 soldiers, the greater majority of them Polish, were extracted from Bayonne and St Jean de Luz. All the troopships arrived back in the UK safely.

The British cabinet had also decided during this period to evacuate women, children and all men of military age from the Channel Islands, where embarkation took place between 19 and 22 June. Many types of ships were used, and the operation was supervised by James from Portsmouth in conjunction with the Home Office. By 23 June it was known that all who wished to leave the islands had done so, and the evacuation was ended. In all 22,656 persons were removed under the official scheme, but a good many more probably used private transport. The shipping sailed unescorted, but the Germans made no attempt to interfere. On 30 June the Germans landed in the Channel Islands.

So ended not only ‘Aerial’ for the withdrawal of the remainder of the BEF, but also a number of other hastily organised and extemporised parallel evacuations. In the main they were carried out successfully and the losses suffered were astonishingly small. ‘Aerial’ and the essentially contemporaneous ‘Cycle’ brought to England 191,870 fighting men, of whom 144,171 were British, 18,246 French, 24,352 Polish, 4,938 Czechoslovak and 163 Belgian. If the totals for the preliminary evacuations from Dunkirk (27,936) and that for ‘Dynamo’ (337,829) are added to this total, a final figure of 558,032 men is reached. Of this 368,491 were British and 189,541 Allied troops.

Moreover a large number of civilians also safely reached home from many different starting points. Except for the figure for the Channel Islands, there is no accurate assessment of the number of civilians evacuated, but it is that some 10,000 passed through Gibraltar from French Mediterranean ports. It therefore seems likely that between 30,000 and 40,000 more British persons also reached the UK during this period. Furthermore, though much equipment was abandoned, often without any real need, 310 pieces of artillery, 2,292 vehicles and 1,800 tons of stores had been saved.