A start had been made on removing the ‘useless mouths’ earlier, but the order for Operation Dynamo to commence was given shortly before 7pm on 26 May 1940. It was almost four days later that the first official acknowledgement that the British Expeditionary Force was being withdrawn from the pocket around Dunkirk was made on the BBC. There were, however, numerous hints before then for anyone who kept his eyes open.
22 May A number of provincial newspapers, including the Liverpool Daily Post, published a syndicated article, evidently written by a war correspondent sent back with the useless mouths. “The B.E.F. now have their backs to the wall in the great battle which is about to take place for the Channel ports.” “Separated from their French Allies, the B.E.F. in France and Belgium must decide whether to attempt an evacuation in hazardous conditions under constant air bombing of the area of the Channel ports or fight it out against the might of the right wing of the invading German forces.”
26 May Given that a national day of prayer was held on the day the Dunkirk evacuation officially started, it is natural to connect the two. In fact, the King’s decision was made public on 16 May, so either he displayed remarkable foresight or he was thinking in terms of a general clash of armies. No doubt the services held on the 26th took account of the changing situation.
27 May French newspapers were not allowed to print enemy propaganda, including military communiqués. This undoubtedly contributed to the shock experienced by the French when they were told (by Reynaud on the 21st) how bad things had got. British newspapers were free to print the German communiqués but, for various reasons, differed in how much they thought it appropriate to use.
The Liverpool Evening Express seems to have been typical in passing on the German claim that: “British attempts to rescue their hemmed in troops and take them home over the channel are being foiled by German air attacks against those channel ports which are still in the enemy’s hands. The port of Dunkirk was destroyed by fire.” Also, an aircraft carrier had been sunk off Norway. “Informed circles in London” denied (correctly) that any carrier had been sunk. The Dunkirk story was not denied.
28 May Several warnings were issued from the British side on this day. Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, thought there was a need for “a frank statement of the desperate situation of the British Expeditionary Force,” and that public confidence would be shaken unless more accurate news was provided. He spoke to that effect on the wireless that evening, concluding that: “It will be necessary to do our utmost to withdraw our Army from the positions that they now occupy.”
Churchill made a brief statement in Parliament, warning that “the House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings.” (This was in the evening papers.)
Mason MacFarlane, Director of Military Intelligence, gave a talk to war correspondents explaining the dangerous position that the BEF was now in, which had now to be broken to the British public. His main object was to stress that the BEF was not responsible for this situation.
29 May The Daily Herald was doubtless not unique in containing an article that might have been written by Mason Macfarlane. “In the near future it is very possible that there will be news of our force which will provide a considerable shock for the public… So long as Dunkirk remained in British possession there was a fair prospect of the evacuation of the B.E.F. from Belgium and Northern France.” But now Belgian surrender – danger of Germans cutting British Army off from the ports. The Liverpool Daily Post included a quote from a German communiqué in its main article. “’EMBARKATION BEGUN‘ According to the official German News Agency, ‘most of the British forces in a position to be evacuated from Belgium have already embarked.”
The Luftwaffe had been making heavy attacks on the town of Dunkirk for several days. That evening, they went for the shipping for the first time, no doubt because of the large number assembled. It was the first really damaging attack so far as the embarkation went.
30 May Nicholas Harman (Dunkirk, The Necessary Myth) claims that: “The almost-truthful German communiqué of May 29th was not printed in any British paper.” We can now make use of the online British Newspaper Archive to test this assertion. Without making a full survey, I note that the Hull Daily Mail of 30 May quotes the Germans as saying that the battle in Flanders and Artois was “approaching its end with the annihilation of the British and French armies fighting there. Since yesterday the British Expeditionary Force has completely disintegrated. It has fled to the sea, leaving behind all its war material.” The Birmingham Mail, under the front-page headline “MORE AMAZING CLAIMS FROM BERLIN”, includes the passage in the Hull paper and adds: “More than 60 ships were hit. Three warships and 16 transports were sunk and 10 warships and 21 merchant ships of various tonnages were seriously damaged or set on fire.” This comes with the editorial comment that: “While we publish it for the information of our readers, we suggest that the statements be regarded with the greatest reserve until they are confirmed or denied by British or French official quarters.” (I cannot say if there was anything in the German communiqué so demoralizing that it appeared in absolutely no British newspaper.)
The Liverpool Evening Express quoted that morning’s communiqué. “By swimming or in small boats, the enemy tried to reach the British ships waiting outside.“
Then the BBC broadcast the official announcement that the BEF had been coming home for several days past on its 6pm news. To anyone who had been paying attention, this was hardly a bolt from the blue; no doubt the clarification was welcome, as was the news that a large part of the BEF had already been saved from death or capture.
As to why there was a news blackout over the evacuation until the 30th, there may have been an element of news management so far as the British public was concerned, but given that it was hardly possible to keep this event secret for more than a few days there were strong objections to such a policy. The obvious reason, surely, was to keep the Germans in the dark as far as possible. The German communiqués show that they had a fair idea of what was going on, but that does not mean they knew everything. Kesselring wrote that: “we were quite unaware in 1940 that the number of British and French who escaped was over 300,000, the figure given today. Even 100,000 would have struck us as greatly exaggerated.” It may be significant that the news was released the day after the first really heavy attacks on ships by the Luftwaffe; if the first such attacks had followed British claims that the army was being successfully brought back it would not have looked good.