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Jun 4

Operation Dynamo

Spirit of Dunkerque 1940
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Operation Dynamo
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"The beach, black with men, illumined by the fires, seemed a perfect target." ~ Henry Steele Commager, The Story of the Second World War, 1991

The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940. A flotilla of 900 naval and civilian craft, under RAF protection, managed to rescue 338,226 people from the French port.A further 220,000 Allied troops were rescued by British ships from Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest, and Saint-Nazaire, bringing the total of Allied troops evacuated to 558,000. A huge achievement which captured the nation's imagination, the heavy losses as well as as the sacrifice and fate of Scottish soldiers "left behind", including the famous 51st division (put under French command to bolster the country's defence against German forces) were not widely known at the time, nor for many years after the war.

The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, and also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940.

 

This tartan was designed as a tribute to the Dunkirk (Dunkerque) evacuation, code-named ‘Operation Dynamo’, which was the evacuation of Allied soldiers during the second World War from the beaches and harbour of Dunkerque, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940. Using black and red to represent the death and the blood of the soldiers; brown for the colour of the uniforms; dark green and green for the woods and meadows; yellow and light grey for the sand and beaches and the shade of the sea; blue and yellow for the beautiful sky and the hot sun of May 1940.

''Dynamo' began on 26 May. Strong defences were established around Dunkirk, and the Royal Air Force sent all available aircraft to protect the evacuation. Over 800 naval vessels of all shapes and sizes helped to transport troops across the English Channel. The last British troops were evacuated on 3 June, with French forces covering their escape. Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,000 men, but in all 338,000 troops, a third of them French, were rescued. Ninety thousand remained to be taken prisoner and the BEF left behind the bulk of its tanks and heavy guns. All resistance in Dunkirk ended at 9.30am on 4 June.

The geography of the beach meant the Navy's large warships could either pick up soldiers from a sea wall that extended into deep water or send their boats onto the beach to collect them. To speed up the evacuation an appeal went out to owners of pleasure boats and other small craft for help. These became known as the 'Little Ships.'

Some of the Scottish soldiers "left behind," including the famous 51st Highland Division, had been put under French command to bolster the country's defence against German forces.  But after days of fighting, about 10,000 members of the division were captured at St Valery-en-Caux, on 12 June 1940.

About one third of the 51st - which had recruited from every community in the Highlands and Islands - managed to get away while trying to secure a point of evacuation for the rest of the division.  According to military historican Brigadier Charles S. Grant, "They got out as the German army was crossing the roads behind them."  In some cases, the Scots were minutes from being captured.

Those captured at St Valery were force-marched to prisoner of war camps in east Germany and Poland. Some were put to work on farms, while others endured hard labour in salt mines.  According to Grant, what happened to the division was not widely known at the time, nor for many years after the war.

The evacuation, hailed as miraculous by the press and public, was a big boost for British morale. But losses were still heavy and Churchill was cautious in his praise of the operation. 

For more about this Operation Dynamo, click the illustration from the new 2017 documentary.