British Expeditionary Force (World War II)

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For force during the First World War, see British Expeditionary Force (World War I).
British armoured vehicles passing through Leuven in Belgium on 14 May 1940

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the part of the British Army in Europe from 1939 to 1940, early in the Second World War. Commanded by General Lord Gort, the BEF constituted 10 percent of the Allied force.

The British Expeditionary Force was established in 1938, in readiness for war, after Germany annexed Austria in the Anschluss of March 1938 and made claims on Sudetenland, that led to the invasion and German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. After the French and British government had promised to defend Poland, the German Invasion of Poland began on 1 September and on 3 September, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

The BEF went to France in September 1939 and mostly assembled along the Belgian–French border during the Phoney War before May 1940. The BEF did not commence hostilities until the German invasion that began the Battle of France on 10 May 1940. The BEF was driven back through Belgium and north-western France, forcing its evacuation from several ports along the French northern coastline in Operation Dynamo, followed by Operation Cycle, an evacuation from Le Havre and Operation Ariel, evacuations from the French Atlantic and Mediterranean ports. The most notable evacuation was from Dunkirk and from this the phrase Dunkirk Spirit was coined.


There were reports and the beginnings of a move to mobilise an armed force in 1936, when plans to expand the Territorial Army were established after a report was given to the House of Commons on 12 March 1936.[1] It was realised that the invention of the aeroplane had moved the defence of Britain from its shores to those of the continent as Mr Duff Cooper (the Secretary of State for War) said in his report,

It was said in the leading article of the "Times" this morning: For more centuries than need be counted the destiny of Northern France and of the Low Countries has been held vital to the security of Britain. That situation has not been changed by modern inventions. It was Napoleon who said that Antwerp in the possession of a hostile nation was like a pistol held at the head of Great Britain. The result of new inventions is that that menace is greater than it was before, because to-day it is a double-barrelled pistol. It is not only a base for shipping and submarines, but is also a taking-off ground for aeroplanes. The invention of flying, so far from rendering us more immune, has robbed us of a great part of our immunity. The sea, as Shakespeare said — the silver sea, which serves it in the office of a wall, serves no longer in that office. More than ever we are part of the Continent of Europe; less than ever can we rely upon any special advantage from our insular position.

— Hansard[1]

In that same report, Conscription in the United Kingdom was discussed as it was realised that there would not be enough time to expand the army to satisfactory levels,

To-day, when there are still numbers of young active men unemployed and living on the dole, what better advice could be given to them than that they should join the Army? There they would find the opportunity of a healthy, open-air life.

— Hansard[1]

Conscription was not considered until war broke out, as volunteers were preferred, although by March 1937 there was still a shortfall of 60,000 men in the Regular Army (that is, the full-time army consisting of professional soldiers).[2] Recruiting had risen by 33 percent from 1936–1937 and in February 1938 it was 44 percent higher than the previous year.[3] The demand was still not met with only 34,000 accepted for enlistment, with 30 percent taken from the unemployed.[4] The Regular Army was supplemented by the Territorial Army and both were expanded and a beginning was made to equip them for operations against a continental opponent.

In March 1937, the army stood at 121,000 men at home and 89,000 overseas, with 716 tanks, of which 200 were obsolete First World War models.[5] In a speech by Leslie Hore-Belisha (Cooper's successor) on 10 March 1938, the number were given as 500,000 (excluding the colonies) and recruiting was at 60,000 men a year but the army remained short of 1,200 officers and 22,000 other ranks.[6]

Talks about the formation of the BEF between British and French ministers were concluded after British ministers visited France in November 1938. The French delegation announced that they believed a larger force than had been sent in 1914 was necessary, with the French cabinet saying that the British contingent would have been inadequate if war had broken out in September 1938.[7] After questions in the House of Commons on 28 November 1938, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Neville Chamberlain, said there was no commitment to send an expeditionary force to France.[8]

Sir P. Harris asked the Prime Minister whether this country is, in certain circumstances, committed to send an expeditionary force to France; and whether, as a result of his visit to Paris, there has been any increase in such commitments?

— Hansard

The Prime Minister answered

The answer to both parts of the question is in the negative.

— Hansard Vol 342, 28 November 1938.[9]

According to the 1939 Army Estimates, Britain had home forces of 230,000 in the Regular Army with 183,000 in reserve and The Territorials numbering 270,000: a total of 683,000 men.[10]


Men of the 2nd Battalion, Coldstream Guards arrive in Cherbourg in the autumn of 1939.

Following the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, the BEF was sent to the Franco-Belgian border in mid-September. The first deployment was completed by 11 October 1939, when 158,000 men had been transported to France. Hore-Belisha, said

158,000 had been transported across the Channel within five weeks of the commencement of the present war. Convoys had averaged three each night and the BEF had been transported intact without a single casualty to any of its personnel.

— Glasgow Herald[11]

He also claimed in Parliament that the BEF was "as well, if not better, equipped than any similar army", which was false. During the summer, an amazed German military attaché in Britain watched troops on manoeuvres, march with gas pipes and pieces of wood to represent anti-tank rifles and carry blue flags to represent trucks they rode in. One lieutenant stuffed his holster with paper because he had no pistol and one soldier who joined the Royal Artillery in April, did not receive his uniform until July.[12] There were immense pressures to produce equipment, which led to a rapid increase in output. Clothing items were one example of this, greatcoats and boots being produced at up to fifty times the normal peacetime rates. Twenty-five years of greatcoats were produced in six months and 18 months of army boots were turned out in one week but shortages remained. After the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries in May 1940, only three officers of the 5th Battalion, Green Howards had pistols and the unit similarly lacked compasses and binoculars.[12][11]

Troops from the first contingent of the BEF embarking for France at Southampton, September 1939.

By 19 October, the BEF had received 25,000 vehicles to complete the first deployment. The majority of the troops were stationed along the Franco-Belgian border; a reinforced division called Saar Force served with the French Third Army on the Maginot Line (see pic. 5 below). Belgium and The Netherlands were neutral countries and no troops were stationed in them. For those troops along the Maginot Line the inactivity and an undue reliance on the fortifications, which it was believed would provide an unbreakable defence, led to "Tommy Rot" – as portrayed by the song "Imagine Me on the Maginot Line". Morale was high amongst the British troops but the small-scale actions of the Germans by 9 May, had led many into assuming that there would not be much chance of a big German attack in that area.[13]

Over the next few months, more troops and equipment arrived in France and Belgium and by 13 March 1940, the BEF had doubled in size to 316,000 men.[14] By May 1940 the BEF order of battle consisted of 10 infantry divisions in I Corps, II Corps and III Corps, the 1st Army Tank Brigade, the BEF Air Component Royal Air Force (RAF) detachment of about 500 aircraft and the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF) long-range bomber force. These were commanded by General Headquarters (GHQ) which consisted of men from Headquarters Troops (1st Battalion, Welsh Guards, 9th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment and the 14th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers), the 1st Army Tank Brigade, 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade and HQ Royal Artillery, 5th Infantry Division.

This period leading up to 10 May was known as the Phoney War, as there was little combat apart from minor clashes of reconnaissance patrols. The first BEF fatality was 27-year-old Corporal Thomas William Priday, from the 1st Battalion, King's Shropshire Light Infantry, attached to 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, killed on 9 December 1939, when his patrol set off a booby-trap and was fired upon by friendly troops.[15]

General Sir John Dill, Commanding I Corps of the BEF, inspecting soldiers digging trenches at Flines, France.

The Allied generals believed that time was on their side and hoped to weaken Germany by blockade, before going on the offensive. The plan of General Maurice Gamelin, the Commander-in-Chief of Allied Forces, to counter a German attack through Belgium, was to move his most mobile armies (including the BEF) across the border to the line of the River Dyle. This operation was known as the Dyle Plan and it depended on the Belgians being able to contain a German invasion for several days with their border fortifications of the Fortified Position of Liège, on the Albert Canal and River Meuse.[16]


Main article: Battle of France

Hitler's forces began the Blitzkrieg on 10 May; Army Group B, led by Fedor von Bock, crossed into Belgium; the lynchpin of the Belgian defence at Fort Eben-Emael having been captured by airborne assault early that morning. By 12 May, 35 Allied divisions, including 10 of the BEF, had reached the River Dyle as planned but advanced elements of Army Group B arrived on 15 May. Although the initial German attacks were held, it was clear that the main threat was further south, where Army Group A, led by General Gerd von Rundstedt, had unexpectedly emerged from the Ardennes Forest and crossed the River Meuse at Sedan, routing the French Second Army and Ninth Army. With Army Group B close behind, the Allies began a withdrawal towards the River Escaut on the French border.[17]

The push by Army Group A towards the coast, combined with the approach of Army Group B from the north-east, left the BEF surrounded on three sides and cut off from their supply depots by 21 May (pic. 2 below). The British forces attempted to stop the offensive and counter-attacked at the Battle of Arras on 21 May. The BEF was unable to repel the Germans and it became clear that the Channel ports were threatened. Fresh troops were rushed from England to defend Boulogne and Calais but after hard fighting, both ports were captured by 26 May in the Battle of Boulogne and Siege of Calais.[18] Gort ordered the BEF to withdraw to Dunkirk, the only port from which the BEF could withdraw (pic. 3 below).

Evacuation from Dunkirk[edit]

British and French troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive at Dover

The BEF had many casualties during the German advance and most of the remaining 198,229 men along with 139,997 French and some Belgian troops, were evacuated from Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June, though having to abandon much of their equipment and disable their vehicles and heavy weapons. The Royal Navy ships needed assistance after the docks, harbours and piers were bombed by the Germans. Because of shallow water along the coast, British destroyers were unable to approach the evacuation beaches and soldiers had to wade out to the ships, with many of them waiting for hours, shoulder-deep in water. On 27 May, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping telephoned boat builders around the coast, asking them to collect all boats with "shallow draft". Some of them were taken with the owners' permission—and with the owners insisting they would sail them—while others were requisitioned by the government with no time for the owners to be contacted.[19] These flotillas of small boats, combined with the naval vessels, continued the evacuation until 3 June.

Certain BEF units, including the detached companies of the Royal Norfolk Regiment and Royal Scots, were ordered to provide rearguards to delay the German advance in northern France, during the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk.[20][21] The 2nd battalion of Royal Norfolks were attached to the 4th Infantry Brigade (part of 2nd Infantry Division) which was holding the line at La Bassée Canal to cover the retreat to Dunkirk. Along with the 8th Lancashire Fusiliers, the 2nd Royal Norfolks and Royal Scots were to hold the Allied line at the villages of Riez du Vinage and Le Cornet Malo and protect the battalion headquarters at Le Paradis, with orders to hold out for as long as possible.[22]

The Royal Norfolks became victims of a German war crime known as the Le Paradis massacre in the Pas-de-Calais on 27 May.[23] After an engagement with German forces at dawn in Le Cornet Malo, C Company and HQ Company of the 2nd Royal Norfolks had fallen back to their headquarters at Cornet Farm, just outside Le Paradis. During the fighting, units had become separated, with the Royal Norfolk HQ Company eventually creating a defensive position in a local farmhouse, which lay on the Rue du Paradis, the boundary between the Royal Norfolk Regiment and the adjacent 1st Royal Scots. The company commanders were at that point informed by radio that their units were isolated and would receive no assistance.[24] German forces attacked the farmhouse with mortars, tanks and artillery-fire, which destroyed the building and forced the defenders into a cowshed.[25][26] The Royal Norfolks continued their stand into the evening, by which point many had been wounded by shell-fire. The Norfolks' last contact with Brigade Headquarters at L'Epinette occurred at 11:30 but despite no support the defenders held out against the Germans until 17:15, when the Norfolks ran out of ammunition.[25][26]

Outnumbered and with many wounded, the 99 surviving Royal Norfolks made a final push into an open field but eventually, under the orders of their commander Major Lisle Ryder, the Norfolks surrendered to the German forces. Due to the boundary between the Royal Scots and Royal Norfolk regiments being a road, the Norfolks surrendered not to the German company they had been fighting but to the 2nd Infantry Regiment (SS-Hauptsturmführer and Obersturmbannführer Fritz Knöchlein) of the SS Division Totenkopf, which had been fighting the Royal Scots nearby.[24] The Knöchlein Totenkopt unit, notorious for their ruthlessness, had previously been engaged in "mopping up" operations against Allied forces to the north and east of Cambrai.[27][28] The 99 prisoners were marched to farm buildings nearby and lined up along a barn wall. They were then fired on by two machine guns; Knöchlein armed his men with bayonets to kill any survivors. 97 Norfolks were killed and their bodies then buried in a shallow pit. Privates Albert Pooley and William O'Callaghan hid in a pigsty and were discovered later by the farm's owner, Mme Creton and her son. The two were later captured by a Wehrmacht unit and spent the rest of the war as prisoners of war.[24]

During the evacuation, General Alan Brooke was ordered to conduct a holding action with the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 50th Divisions along the Ypres–Comines canal as far as Yser, while the rest of the BEF fell back.[29] On 26 May, the Germans made a reconnaissance in force against the British position. At mid-day on 27 May, they launched an attack with three divisions south of Ypres. A confused battle followed among woods and villages, where British units became isolated, because they could not use radio below battalion level and the telephone wires had been cut. The German infantry infiltrated through the British defenders, who were beaten back.[30]

Most fighting occurred in the 5th Division sector. On 27 May, Brooke ordered Major-General Montgomery to extend the 3rd Division line to the left, freeing the 10th and 11th Brigades of the 4th Division to join the 5th Division at Messines Ridge. The 10th Brigade arrived first, only to find that the Germans were closing in on the British field artillery. The 10th and 11th Brigades managed to clear the ridge of Germans and by 28 May, the brigades were dug in east of Wytschaete.[31] That day, Brooke ordered a counter-attack led by the 3rd Grenadier Guards and 2nd North Staffords battalions of the 1st Division. The North Staffords advanced as far as the Kortekeer River, while the Grenadiers managed to reach the Ypres–Comines canal but could not hold it. The counter-attack disrupted the Germans, holding them back a little longer while the remaining BEF retreated.[32]

The German forces were unable to capture Dunkirk and on 31 May, General Georg von Küchler assumed command of all the German forces on the Dunkirk perimeter. His plan was an all-out attack across the whole front at 11:00 on 1 June. The French held the Germans back while the last troops were evacuated. Just before midnight on 2 June, Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the officer commanding the evacuation, received the signal "BEF evacuated" and the French began to fall back slowly. By 3 June, the Germans were 2 mi (3.2 km) from Dunkirk and at 10:20 on 4 June, the Germans hoisted the swastika over the docks.[33][34][35] Several high–ranking German commanders, including Generals Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian as well as Admiral Karl Dönitz, considered the failure of the German High Command to order an early assault on Dunkirk and to so eliminate the BEF, as one of the major mistakes the Germans had made on the Western Front.

The Second BEF and operations Cycle and Ariel[edit]

British troops packed on the deck of a merchant ship during the "Operation Ariel" evacuation, June 1940

Once the Dunkirk evacuation had started, the attentions of Churchill and the Chiefs-of-Staff were drawn to the troops who had been cut off to the south of Army Group A. Saar Force, chiefly composed of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division. Most of the 1st Armoured Division was dispatched from England and the Beauman Division was improvised with lines-of-communication troops south of the Somme. The 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division was rushed to Cherbourg and the 1st Canadian Infantry Division reached France by mid-June. It was hoped that these forces might be sufficient to help stabilise the French defence and if all else failed, create a redoubt in the Brittany peninsula. Brooke had distinguished himself by his handling of II Corps and returned to London on 29 May, to command the new corps in the south which became known as the 2nd BEF.[36] Brooke requested that the 3rd Infantry Division (Major-General Bernard Montgomery), that had just returned from Dunkirk, be made ready to join his new command.[37]

The 51st (Highland) Division had been fighting with the French Tenth Army to defend the River Bresle, east of Rouen. The decision to withdraw them to Le Havre on 10 June was left too late and then only two brigades, known as Arkforce, were able to reach the port for Operation Cycle. The remainder of the division reached the coast at Saint-Valery-en-Caux but bad weather and German intervention prevented their escape and they were forced to surrender on 12 June.[38]

Brooke arrived in France on 13 June and he quickly realised that there was little hope of success for the rest of his command, which included more than 100,000 supply troops who were not trained or equipped for military operations. On 14 June, Brooke persuaded Churchill that British troops should be evacuated from France without delay.[39] From 15 to 25 June, 191,870 Allied troops (144,171 of them British) and a large amount of their equipment were rescued from eight sea ports on the south-west coast of France in Operation Ariel.[40] The only disaster was the bombing of the troopship RMS Lancastria off St Nazaire, resulting in the deaths of about 4,000 of those on board; the exact number has never been established.[41]


Winston Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle" and the British press presented the evacuation as a "disaster turned to triumph". The rescue of the British troops at Dunkirk provided a psychological boost to British morale and begat the phrase "Dunkirk spirit", when used to describe the tendency of the British public to pull together in times of adversity.

In the various evacuations, an estimated 384,000[42] British servicemen came home but the BEF had suffered 12,431 killed (roughly a third of those were on the Lancastria),[43] 14,070 wounded had been evacuated and 41,030 were taken prisoner.[44] While the British Army had lost a great deal of its equipment and vehicles in France, it still had most of its soldiers and was able to assign them to the defence of Britain during the anti-invasion preparations. Once the threat of invasion had receded, they were transferred overseas to the Middle East and other theatres and also provided the nucleus of the army that returned to France in the Normandy landings of 1944.

For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war. The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany to towns such as Trier, the march taking as long as twenty days. Others were moved on foot to the river Scheldt and were sent by barge to the Ruhr. The prisoners were then sent by rail to POW camps in Germany.[45] The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for five years.[46]

No campaign medal was awarded for the Battle of France but serviceman who had spent 180 days in France between 3 September 1939 and 9 May 1940, or "a single day, or part thereof" in France or Belgium between 10 May and 19 June 1940, qualified for the 1939–1945 Star.[47]

An intelligence report by the German IV Army Corps written in the summer of 1940 in preparation for Operation Sealion said of the men of the BEF

The English soldier was in excellent physical condition. He bore his own wounds with stoical calm. The losses of his own troops he discussed with complete equanimity. He did not complain of hardships. In battle he was tough and dogged. His conviction that England would conquer in the end was unshakeable.... The English soldier has always shown himself to be a fighter of high value. Certainly the Territorial divisions are inferior to the Regular troops in training, but where morale is concerned they are their equal.... In defence the Englishman took any punishment that came his way.

— German intelligence report[48]


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  4. ^ "Draft is Seen for British Army". Pittsburgh Post Gazette. 6 November 1937. Retrieved 18 June 2010. 
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  6. ^ "Army Estimates, 1938". Hansard. 332: cc2133–255. 10 March 1938. Retrieved 18 June 2010. 
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  14. ^ "Britain's Armies in France Doubled". The New York Times. 12 March 1940. p. 8. 
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  17. ^ Buell, Bradley & Bradley 2002: pp. 45–47
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  21. ^ Wilson, Dunkirk: From Disaster to Deliverance, pp. 42–56.
  22. ^ Major John L. Raybould. "Le Paradis Massacre". Britannia and Castle. Cambridgeshire, Suffolk, Royal Norfolk, East Anglian and Royal Anglian Regimental Associations. Archived from the original on 5 December 2008. Retrieved 2012-05-27. 
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  25. ^ a b Uwe Schweisfurth. "Ritterkreuzträger Fritz Knöchlein" (in German). Uwe Schweisfurth. Archived from the original on 23 December 2007. Retrieved 2007-12-20. 
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  27. ^ Sydnor, Soldiers of Destruction, p. 93.
  28. ^ Tim Ripley (2004). The Waffen-SS at War: Hitler's Praetorians 1925–1945. Zenith Imprint. pp. 39–42. ISBN 9780760320686. Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
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  30. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 179.
  31. ^ Thompson 2009, pp. 182–183.
  32. ^ Thompson 2009, pp. 183–184.
  33. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 18.
  34. ^ Liddell Hart 1970, p. 46.
  35. ^ Lord 1982, p. 246.
  36. ^ Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord 1940–45, Max Hastings, Harper Press 2009, ISBN 978-0-00-726368-4 (pp. 49–51)
  37. ^ Robin McNish. The Iron Division: The History of the 3rd Division 1809–2000, HMSO 1978, ISBN 0-7110-2820-6 (p. 90)
  38. ^ Operation Cycle, the evacuation from Havre, 10–13 June 1940
  39. ^ "Operations of the British Expeditionary Force, France from 12th June, 1940 to 19th June, 1940". Supplement to the London Gazette. 21 May 1946. Retrieved 1 August 2015. 
  40. ^ Ellis, L. F. (1954) The War in France and Flanders 1939–1940. HMSO London (p. 305)
  41. ^ The Sinking of the Lancastria, Jonathan Fenby, 2005 Simon & Schuster UK, p. 247
  42. ^ Hansard: France, Evacuation (Figures) - House of Commons Debate 2 December 1941. Vol 376 cc1020-1W
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  46. ^ Longden 2007
  47. ^ The 1939-1945 Star Regulations
  48. ^ Ellis, L. F. (1954) (p. 326)