Operation Cycle

This was the British evacuation of troops from Le Havre on the French coast of the English Channel during the middle stages of the collapse of France (10/13 June 1940).

The operation was supervised by Admiral Sir William James, the commander-in-chief Portsmouth, and extricated 11,059 British troops, although nearly 9,000 of these were merely shifted farther to the west along the northern coast of France to Cherbourg so as to remove them from immediate danger. Even before Dieppe had been blocked, troops were being embarked at Le Havre in an operation planned on the same general lines as earlier British maritime lifts.

A demolition party had despatched to Le Havre even before the end of May. The Germans began to bomb the port and town a a time early in June, and on 7 June the bombers caused considerable damage. The order was given to start the embarkation two days later, and on that day James sent the destroyer leader Codrington and eight destroyers (six British and two Canadian) as well as a number of smaller warships to meet off the French coast early in the morning of 10 June. Large numbers of small craft were also sent across the English Channel, beach parties were landed to control the movement of men and equipment to the ships which would evacuate them, and naval officers were nominated to take charge afloat and in the port.

After a postponement of one day, the work proceeded smoothly except for the problems caused by the German bombing. On 11 June the personnel vessel Bruges was destroyed by air attack, but on the next day strong patrols of home-based fighters were made available and the German bombers were then kept at bay. The largest lift was made on the night of 12/13 June, and by dawn on 13 June the evacuation had been completed.

Meanwhile the French formation, including Major General V. M. Fortune’s 51st Division, had been cut off from the main strength of the French armies by German thrust which had captured Rouen and penetrated to the lower reaches of the Seine river in the direction of Le Havre. The 51st Division fell back with the French toward Le Havre, detaching part of its strength to proceed ahead of the main body and ensure that the port was protected. This detachment reached Le Havre and was later evacuated, but the remainder of the French and British formation was cut off by the German armour-spearheaded advance, which turned north from Rouen and reached the coast near St Valéry en Caux.

James had reached Le Havre on 10 June and quickly realised that evacuations might be necessary from one or more of the small ports farther to the east. He therefore sent destroyers along the coast to reconnoitre, and these came under fire from German artillery on the cliff top near St Valéry, Ambuscade being damaged in the course of the evening. James reported that he expected that many men would have to be taken off from St Valéry, and prepared for this eventuality. The 51st Division and associated French forces were heading in that direction, but their progress was slow along roads already choked with refugees and damaged by German attacks. As the Allied forces came into a defensive posture to shield the evacuation, German armour broke through to the cliff commanding the little port and the beaches.

The rescue had to be completed during the night before the arrival of dawn provided the German artillery with conditions ideal for attacking the ships. All of the British troops who could be spared from the perimeter moved to the beaches and the harbour, all of which were under German fire. There they waited throughout the night, but no ships came in because of thick fog. Toward dawn Fortune had to move them back into the town, and at 07.30 signalled James that there was still ‘a faint possibility of withdrawal…being accomplished’ during the next night. It was too late, however, for the French commander had ordered a surrender, and although the 51st Division held out for a short time longer, and even launched a final effort to drive the Germans from the cliffs, there could now be only one end and some 6,000 men of the 51st Division surrendered.

This was the sole instance during the French campaign of 1940 in which a cohesive body of British troops fell back to the sea but could not be evacuated. Although a significant force of 67 merchant ships and 140 small craft had been assembled, most of these had no radio and the fog had made its impossible to control them visually. Only at Veules, at the eastern end of the perimeter, were any number of men taken off under heavy German fire. In all 2,137 British and 1,184 French troops were rescued, and the Royal Navy suffered damage to three destroyers.