This year marks 80 years since the British retreat on the beaches of Dunkirk. Thousands of British and French troops were trapped on the beaches of the northern French town, surrounded on three sides by their enemy and with the sea behind them there was little hope of rescue.

When the Germans launched their ‘Blitzkrieg’ (Lightning War) invasion of France in May 1940 the French and British forces were pushed back towards the coast under intense pressure. For unknown reasons (even now) the German army just stopped their attack. The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) continued to attack the men on the beaches but the tanks stood still.

King George VI declared a ‘National Day of Prayer’ while attending a special service in Westminster Abbey.  It seemed that the entire British Expeditionary Force was about to be captured. General Alan Brooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, said “Nothing but a miracle can save the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) now.”

The Royal Navy struggled to evacuate the vast numbers of men on the beach but then the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ occurred.  The call went out for ‘little boats’ to cross the channel under control of the Royal Navy and rescue the army. This ‘armada’ of hundreds of ‘little boats,’ ranging from pleasure boats, fishing boats, tugs to lifeboats crossed the Channel and ferried the men from the beaches to the bigger boats that could not get close enough because of the tide. All this time the boats were under attack from the air, many were lost and their crews wounded or killed. But, over a 9 day period, 350,000 British and French troops were rescued, extremely tired, hungry and wet, from the beaches of Dunkirk and returned to Britain.

Many of those men were sent to this district to be cared for by public and private authorities.  Hospitals and private homes took weary men, often with badly blistered feet and other wounds, in and cared for them.  Sleep, food and tender care soon rebuilt these men who had feared they would be called ‘cowards’ but instead were hailed as ‘heroes’. The British Army lost much of its heavy equipment, guns and vehicles, but the men were returned to stand and face the enemy once again.  Defeat had been turned into some form of victory and among those rescued were a great many soldiers who formed part of the invasion force returning to France on ‘D-Day’ in 1944.

One local man trapped at Dunkirk was war artist Edward Bawden. Bawden was one of the first war artists to be appointed in 1939. He was 36 and already a successful commercial illustrator and designer. Born in 1903, Bawden spent his childhood in Woodfield Road, Braintree whilst his father worked as a manager for Crittall Windows. In the early 1930s, he settled in the nearby village of Great Bardfield with fellow artist Eric Ravilious.

In March 1940, Bawden was sent to France. Three months later he was evacuated from Dunkirk in just the clothes he was wearing and carrying several watercolours he had produced. The watercolours are now held in the collections at the Imperial War Museum. His lithograph Dunkirk depicts the chaos just before evacuation. It was created in 1986 for Curwen Press.

Bawden noted that when the retreat began, “Nobody wanted a war artist, and I was just tossed about like a bad penny”. He was holed up for two days until a boat came near enough and abandoned everything except his drawings, “Like a soldier I had to keep my only weapon.” What really irked him was that later given £16 compensation for the loss of his army gear, but nothing for the loss of his precious art satchel and his paints.  He spent much of the war abroad, later travelling to the Middle East and Northern Africa before finally returning home in July 1945.

More about Edward Bawden’s war experience can be viewed here

Edward Bawden Dunkirk 1986, lithograph edition 28/75. Braintree District Museum BRNTM 1991.11.2  © The Estate of Edward Bawden


Three local men died during the retreat to Dunkirk, these are:-

HEARD, ERIC WALTER.  Driver. T/82479.  Royal Army Service Corps 1 Corps Supply Column.  Died: Between 28/05/1940 and 02/06/1940.  Age: 20. DUNKIRK MEMORIAL Son of Walter and Agnes Heard, of Braintree, Essex.

WELLS, RONALD SYDNEY.  Bombardier. 824277. Royal Artillery 2 Medium Regt. Died: 29/05/1940.  Age: 28.  Born Fordingbridge, Hampshire 1912.  DUNKIRK MEMORIAL. Son of Percy James Wells and Emily Wells; husband of Dorothy Sarah Wells, of Panfield, Essex. Wed Braintree 1937.

YOUNG, WILLIAM THOMAS.  Private. 5946300 Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire Regiment 2nd Bn. Died: 08/06/1940.  Age: 29. Born Eire 1911.  ADEGEM CANADIAN WAR CEMETERY. Son of Mr. and Mrs. William Edward Young; husband of Doris Alexander May Young, of High Garrett. Wed Braintree 1939


“He died for his country

In a foreign land

But the memory of him

Is in England”

Withdrawal to Dunkirk.

Buried Klemskerke Churchyard, Belgium, reburied Adegem Canadian War Cemetery May 1973.