Operation Ariel (also Operation Aerial) was the name given to the World War II evacuation of Allied forces and civilians from ports in western France from 15–25 June 1940, following the military collapse in the Battle of France against Nazi Germany. It followed Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk and Operation Cycle, an evacuation from Le Havre, which finished on 13 June. British and Allied ships were covered from French bases by five RAF fighter squadrons and assisted by aircraft based in England to lift British, Polish and Czech troops, civilians and equipment from Atlantic ports, particularly from St. Nazaire and Nantes.
Luftwaffe aircraft attacked the evacuation ships and on 17 June, evaded RAF fighter patrols and sank the Cunard liner and troopship HMT Lancastria in the Loire estuary, which had thousands of troops, RAF personnel and civilians on board. An unknown number of the passengers died in the sinking, because in the haste quickly to embark as many people as possible, keeping count broke down. The loss of at least 3,500 people, made the disaster the greatest loss of life in a British ship, which the British government tried to hide on the orders of Winston Churchill. The ship sank quickly and vessels in the area were still under attack during rescue operations, which saved about 2,477 passengers and crew.
Some equipment was embarked on the evacuations ships but lack of reliable information about the progress of the German army towards the coast, rumours and alarmist reports, led some operations to be terminated early and much equipment was destroyed or left behind. The official evacuation ended on 25 June in conformity with the Armistice of 22 June 1940 agreed by the French and German authorities but informal departures continued from French Mediterranean ports until 14 August. From the end of Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk and Operation Cycle from Le Havre and elsewhere along the Channel coast and the termination of Operation Ariel, another 191,870 troops had been rescued, bringing the total of military and civilian personnel rescued to 558,032 people, including 368,491 British troops.
- 1 Background
- 2 Prelude
- 3 Evacuations
- 4 Aftermath
- 5 Gallery
- 6 Notes
- 7 Footnotes
- 8 Bibliography
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Operations Dynamo and Cycle
Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk (26 May – 3 June) had evacuated much of the fighting element of the British Expeditionary Force. Some combat units from the 1st Armoured Division, the Beauman Division and more than 150,000 support and line-of-communication troops, had been cut off in the south by the German "dash to the sea". By the end of May, medical stores had been removed from Dieppe and a demolition party landed, ready to blow up the port infrastructure. A big depot at Le Havre had been run down by using it to feed troops in the area and removing the military stores not immediately needed. A reserve of motor transport collected at Rouen had been used as transport for improvised units and specialised ammunition had been moved from the reserve around Buchy but the removal of the huge quantity of ordinary ammunition accumulated there was impossible.
The 52nd (Lowland) Infantry Division (Major-General James Drew) and the 1st Canadian Division (Major-General Andrew McNaughton) had been rushed to France in early June to bolster the defence of the west of the country, commanded by General Sir Alan Brooke, who had returned from England on the night of 12/13 June. The force became known as the Second British Expeditionary Force (2nd BEF). After meeting with Général d'armée Maxime Weygand, Brooke quickly realised that the French plan to fall back and make a stand in Brittany had no chance of success. In a telephone call on the evening of 14 June, he was able to persuade the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, that all British troops in France should be disengaged and evacuated.[a] Naval operations to cover the departure of non-combatant troops began at Dieppe, Le Havre, Cherbourg, Brest, St. Nazaire, La Pallice and then after the débâcle, the French ports down to the Spanish border and the Mediterranean coast.
The evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk left a surplus of men on the lines-of-communication, base depots and other establishments among the 140,000 troops still in France. Sufficient lines-of-communication personnel for an armoured division and four infantry divisions and an Advanced Air Striking Force were to be retained and the rest returned to Britain. Naval operations in the Norwegian Campaign and the evacuation of Dunkirk had suffered losses, which temporarily weakened the Home Fleet, particularly in smaller vessels needed to escort evacuation ships from the French Atlantic coast. Losses inflicted on the surface ships of the Kriegsmarine made it impossible for the Germans to challenge British naval supremacy in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay. Seven German submarines patrolling off the west coast of France made no attempt to interfere and only the Luftwaffe was used against the evacuations. Operation Ariel was commanded by Admiral William Milbourne James, the Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. James lacked the vessels necessary for convoys and organised a flow of troopships, storeships and motor vehicle vessels from Southampton, coasters to ply from Poole and Dutch schuyts to work from Weymouth, while such warships as were available patrolled the shipping routes. Demolition parties sailed in the ships but it was hoped that supplies and equipment could be embarked as well as troops.
After Dunkirk, the AASF squadrons in France had been moved to the area between Orléans and Le Mans during the lull before Fall Rot, the German offensive over the Somme and Aisne rivers. From the new bases, the AASF was able to operate anywhere along the front but after the German breakthrough on 11 June, British Air Forces in France (Air vice-marshal Arthur Barratt) was warned by the Air Ministry to be ready for a quick getaway from France. The British squadrons were moved west to bases around Angers, Saumur, Rennes and Nantes, which were already full of French aircraft and severely congested. Barratt sent the light bomber squadrons back to England on 15 June and kept the five fighter squadrons to cover the evacuation of RAF ground staff and the three British divisions commanded by Brooke. After Marshal Philippe Pétain requested an armistice on 17 June, Barratt had to defend seven ports on the Atlantic coast and sent the AASF anti-aircraft batteries to La Pallice and La Rochelle, the least important embarkation harbours. Nantes and St. Nazaire, the most important ports were covered by 1 Squadron, 73 Squadron and 242 Squadron, with a small detachment covering Brest. St. Malo and Cherbourg were protected by 17 Squadron and 501 Squadron from the aerodrome at Dinard across the bay from St. Malo, then later from the Channel Islands. Fighter Command squadrons from RAF Tangmere were also available for Cherbourg and Coastal Command prepared to escort returning ships. Once the arrangements were made, Barrett left for England and the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO), Air Vice-Marshal Douglas Evill took over.
Cherbourg and St Malo
Most of 52nd Lowland Division and 1st Armoured Division embarked from 15–17 June. The Beauman Division and Norman Force, which were composite formations, left on the evening of 17 June and the rearguard battalion was evacuated in the afternoon of 18 June. A total of 30,630 men were evacuated from Cherbourg and taken to Portsmouth. At St Malo, 21,474 men, mostly of the 1st Canadian Division, were evacuated from 17–18 June; all but 789 passengers being British; no-one was killed and no ship was damaged. The Luftwaffe tried to intervene but was thwarted by the RAF. The 1st Canadian Division suffered six losses during its brief excursion to the Continent; five men were reported missing and one man was killed; four of the missing were interned and then made it back to England.
The evacuation from the southern ports on the Bay of Biscay was commanded by Admiral Sir Martin Dunbar-Nasmith, the Commander-in-Chief of Western Approaches Command based in Devonport. The evacuation was made more difficult by a lack of information from Brest, St. Nazaire and Nantes. A sense of urgency was imparted by the Cabinet in London and the evacuation was conducted quickly, with some confusion and guns and vehicles which could have been removed, were destroyed needlessly. The Germans were known to be in Paris and advancing southwards but information about German progress was inaccurate, mainly being rumour. Brest is a port city in the Finistère département in Brittany in north-western France. The ships rescued 28,145 British and 4,439 Allied personnel, mostly RAF ground crew from 16–17 June and the French wrecked the harbour facilities with assistance from the British demolition party. The French ships sailed and on 19 June the demolition party was removed aboard the destroyer Broke.
St. Nazaire and Nantes
Saint-Nazaire in Brittany, is a commune in the Loire-Atlantique department and Nantes is the capital of the Pays de la Loire region, in the same département and is the largest city in Brittany. Operations at St. Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire, where strong tides and other hazards to navigation and Nantes 50 miles (80 km) upriver took place concurrently. Vague and contradictory information led the navy to believe that 40,000–60,000 men were en route to Nantes but not when they would arrive. To lift so many men, Dunbar-Nasmith assembled the destroyers Havelock, Wolverine and Beagle and the liners Georgic, Duchess of York, Franconia, RMS Lancastria, the Polish ships Batory and Sobieski and several commercial cargo ships but these had to anchor in Quiberon Bay 20 miles (32 km) north-west of the Loire estuary, which was used despite having no anti-submarine defences. The evacuation began on 16 June, with 16,000 troops leaving for home on the Georgic, Duke of York and the two Polish ships. German bombers attacked the bay but were only able to damage the Franconia. Loading of equipment continued overnight and more ships from England and Brest arrived, along with two more destroyers, Highlander and Vanoc. The large troopships would have been exceedingly vulnerable, had German bombers been able to make daylight attacks but British fighter cover had restricted the Luftwaffe to minelaying, which only delayed movement while channels were swept. The RAF fighters each flew up to six sorties per day and the final patrol over Nantes was flown by 73 Squadron, then the airworthy Hurricanes flew to Tangmere.
The last 4,000 British troops left for Plymouth at 11:00 a.m. on 18 June in 12 small merchant ships in two convoys; much equipment was abandoned after alarmist reports led to the sailing in haste. In the afternoon, Dunbar-Nasmith heard that 8,000 Polish troops were approaching the port and sent six destroyers and seven troop transports to St. Nazaire, which arrived on 19 June but only 2,000 men appeared and no German forces were in hot pursuit. Unserviceable Hurricanes were burned by their ground crews, a staff car was given to a friendly local café proprietor and an airman tried to sell off an Austin 7. The rear parties then departed in transport aircraft, a few hours before German tanks arrived. (On the journey home during the night of 17/18 June, Floristan, a merchantman with 2,000 men on board, of the 27,000 troops and civilians in its convoy, was attacked by a Ju 88 but being under way, dodged the bombs as soldiers fired back with Bren guns and riddled the cockpit. The bomber carried away the mast tops and the aerial, then crashed into the sea to the cheers of the rest of the convoy.)
On 17 June, there were still about 67,000 troops waiting ashore, many at St. Nazaire and ferrying men to the big ships offshore resumed early in the morning, soon joined by lighters, tenders and destroyers. The men being transported were reinforcements and lines-of-communication troops, tradesmen, labourers, mechanics and engineers of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), pioneers and tradesmen from RAF maintenance units from Nantes aerodrome. Several merchantmen and railway ferries from the Dover–Calais route were among the armada off St. Nazaire but the largest ship was the 16,243 long tons (16,504 t) Lancastria of the Cunard Line. Lancastria was normally permitted to carry 1,700 passengers and 375 crew but in the emergency Captain R. Sharp was ordered to take as many troops as could be crammed aboard. Among the military personnel were about 40 civilians, including embassy staff, men from Avions Fairey in Belgium and their families came aboard.
As the boarding progressed, a soldier heard Sharp and his Chief Officer H. Grattidge say that 6,700 people were on the ship, as a lighter came alongside and Sharp decide that it would be the last to deliver passengers. Sharp and Grattidge kept watch on the sky, as aircraft fought above the Loire estuary and German bombers tried to hit the Oronsay about 0.5 miles (0.80 km) distant; at 1:50 p.m., Oronsay was hit and part of the bridge destroyed. Sharp was advised by the captain of the HMS Havelock to leave at once but for fear of U-boats, Sharp wanted a destroyer escort. No destroyer was forthcoming and Sharp decided to leave with Oronsay; Lancastria stayed at anchor rather than being made a moving target. At 3:45 p.m. more German bombers appeared while the RAF Hurricanes were at the far end of their 30 miles (48 km) patrol line and a bomber hit Lancastria with three or four bombs. The ship tilted to starboard and the bridge crew shouted for everyone to go to the port side and Lancastria came level again, then keeled over to port.
Grattidge called out "Your attention please. Clear away boats"; there were far too few for the number of people crammed aboard and some boats had been smashed in the bombing. After the remaining lifeboats had been launched, some sinking in the process after falling into the sea or being swamped, the order "every man for himself" was given. Some men in life jackets, jumped overboard from the starboard side and broke their necks, others walked down the side of the hull, where they could see the men trapped inside through portholes and stepped into the water as the ship settled. Once in the water, they were strafed by German bombers, which also dropped flares on patches of oil and burned alive some of the shipwrecked men. While Lancastria was on its side, the hull was covered by men who could not swim, singing "Roll out the Barrel" until they sank with the ship, about fifteen minutes after the bombing. As time passed, exhaustion and despair led people in the sea to give up and slip underwater without a struggle. About 2,477 people were rescued but more than 3,500 men, women and children were killed.[b]
La Pallice, the grand port maritime de La Rochelle is the commercial deep-water port of La Rochelle. A senior British naval officer arrived by destroyer on 16 June and the evacuation began next day. The naval officer found 10,000 men and no transports so requisitioned ships in the port, embarked the troops but not their vehicles and departed on 18 June. Dunbar-Nasmith sent ships twice more, which picked up 4,000 Polish troops on 19 June. Few men were found on 20 June and surplus ships were sent south to the Gironde ports. Most of the British troops in France had gone but more Polish and Czech troops, Embassy and Consular staffs, British and other civilians remained.
Bordeaux, Le Verdon, Bayonne and St Jean-de-Luz
Bordeaux and Le Verdon-sur-Mer are ports on the Garonne River in the Gironde départment in Aquitaine. Bayonne at the confluence of the Nive and Adour rivers and Saint-Jean-de-Luz are ports and communes in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques départment, all four ports being on the south-western coast of France. The Arethusa was stationed off Bordeaux on 16 June as a wireless link and on 17 June, British and some Allied ships were cleared for England and the embarkation Polish and Czech troops and civilians began. A Hunt-class destroyer HMS Berkeley (Lieutenant-Commander H. G. Walters), had been made available to Paul Reynaud and the French Government, as a venue for discussions with Churchill and on 19 June, the ship evacuated the remaining British Consular staff from Bordeaux. British diplomatic staff, the President of Poland and his cabinet were given preferential treatment.
The Berkeley was replaced by the cruiser Galatea and sailed for England with the VIPs. Evacuation continued at the nearby ports of Le Verdon at the river mouth and Bayonne, where the Polish ships Batory, Sobieski and the Ettrick and Arandora Star took on everyone they could find on 19 June, then sailed for St Jean-de-Luz on 20 June. The evacuation at St. Jean de Luz ended officially at 2:00 p.m. on 25 June, just after the deadline set by the terms of the Armistice. On the final day of the operation, the Canadian destroyer Fraser was accidentally rammed and sunk by the anti-aircraft cruiser Calcutta in the Gironde estuary. Minor evacuations continued informally from the Mediterranean coast of France, until 14 August.
In 1953, L. F. Ellis, the British official historian, wrote that by the end of the informal evacuations on 14 August, another 191,870 men had been evacuated after the 366,162 rescued by Operation Dynamo, a total of 558,032 people, 368,491 being British troops. In 2001, Brodhurst wrote that many civilians escaped from French Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, to England via Gibraltar and that 22,656 more civilians left the Channel Islands from 19–23 June. Brodhurst gave figures of 368,491 British, 189,541 Allied troops and 30,000–40,000 civilians evacuated.[c] Although much equipment was lost, 322 guns, 4,739 vehicles, 533 motor cycles. 32,303 long tons (32,821 t) of ammunition, 33,060 long tons (33,590 t) of stores, 1,071 long tons (1,088 t) of petrol, 13 light tanks and 9 cruiser tanks were recovered during Operation Ariel and the earlier evacuations.[d] German submarines could have sunk British ships in the Bay of Biscay, many of the troopships being unescorted and out of range of England-based fighters but the seven in the area did not intervene. The Luftwaffe managed to sink the Lancastria but German operations against Operation Ariel, showed a lack of co-ordination between the Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. Brodhurst wrote that the success of the operation, was due to the professionalism of the Royal Navy, the decisions of middle-ranking officers like Ramsay and the conduct of the navy and civilian crews, who took grave risks to rescue the army.
From May–June, including the period of Operation Ariel, the Luftwaffe lost 1,284 aircraft and the RAF lost 1,526 men killed, wounded, died of wounds or injury, injured, lost at sea or taken prisoner and 959 aircraft, including 477 fighters were shot down, destroyed on the ground or written off. The AASF lost 229, the Air Component 279, Fighter Command 219, Bomber Command 166 and Coastal Command 66 aircraft. In the course of the operations from 5–18 June, the AASF lost 13 more Battles, two Bristol Blenheims, and 15 Hurricanes. Fighter Command lost a Spitfire, 26 Hurricanes and three Blenheims. During the Battle of France, the British army lost 68,111 casualties, killed, died of wounds, wounded, missing or taken prisoner and 599 men died of injury or illness. Navy casualties could not be separated from operations elsewhere in the world. German casualties in the Battle of France (only a few Luftwaffe losses of which occurred during Operation Ariel), were 27,074 killed. 111,034 wounded and 18,384 men missing.
British soldiers destroy stores at a Royal Army Service Corps depot: June 1940
- In 2009, Max Hastings wrote "in that conversation, Brooke saved almost 200,000 men from death or captivity".
- In 2005, Fenby wrote that estimates of the death toll vary from fewer than 3,000–5,800 people, the largest loss of life in British maritime history. The British government suppressed news of the disaster on Winston Churchill's orders through the D-Notice system but the story was broken by the Press Association on 25 July.
- Brodhurst did not specify if this was for Operation Ariel or for all evacuations from France but the number is the same as that given by the official historian for the total of British troops evacuated from France.
- 2,472 guns were destroyed or left behind, 63,879 vehicles, 20,548 motor cycles, 76,697 long tons (77,928 t) of ammunition, 415,940 long tons (422,610 t) of supplies and equipment and 164,929 long tons (167,576 t) of petrol were also destroyed or left behind.
- Ellis 2004, p. 296.
- Ellis 2004, p. 264.
- Ellis 2004, p. 299–300.
- Hastings 2009, p. 51.
- Ellis 2004, p. 263.
- Ellis 2004, pp. 263–265.
- Ellis 2004, p. 302.
- Richards 1974, pp. 147–148.
- Richards 1974, pp. 147–149.
- Stacey 1956, p. 284.
- Ellis 2004, pp. 302–303.
- Ellis 2004, p. 304.
- Brodhurst 2001, pp. 136–137.
- Richards 1974, p. 149.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, p. 496.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, pp. 486–487.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, pp. 488–491.
- Sebag-Montefiore 2006, pp. 491–495.
- Fenby 2005, p. 247.
- HDM 1940.
- Ellis 2004, pp. 304–305.
- Ellis 2004, p. 305.
- English 1993, pp. 47–48.
- Warner 2002, p. 222.
- Roskill 1998, p. 80.
- Brodhurst 2001, p. 137.
- Ellis 2004, p. 327.
- Richards 1974, pp. 149–150.
- Terraine 1998, p. 161.
- Ellis 2004, pp. 325–326.
- Horne 1982, p. 649.
- Brodhurst, R. (2001). "The Royal Navy's Role in the Campaign". In Bond, B.; Taylor, M. D. The Battle for France & Flanders Sixty Years On. Barnsley: Leo Cooper. ISBN 0-85052-811-9.
- Ellis, Major L. F. (2004) [1st. pub. HMSO 1953]. Butler, J. R. M., ed. The War in France and Flanders 1939–1940. History of the Second World War United Kingdom Military Series. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1-84574-056-6. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
- English, John (1993). Amazon to Ivanhoe: British Standard Destroyers of the 1930s. Kendal, England: World Ship Society. ISBN 0-905617-64-9.
- Fenby, Jonathan (2005). The Sinking of the Lancastria: Britain's Greatest Maritime Disaster and Churchill's Cover-up. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-74325-930-0.
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- "LANCASTRIA SUNK, SAYS U.S.". Hull Daily Mail. 25 July 1940. Retrieved 19 June 2015 – via British Newspaper Archive. (subscription required (. ))
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- Stacey, C. P. (1956) . Six Years of War: The Army in Canada, Britain and the Pacific (PDF) (pdf). Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War I (2nd rev. online ed.). Ottawa: Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationary. OCLC 606401122. Retrieved 1 September 2015.
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- Bond, Brian (1990). Britain, France and Belgium 1939–1940 (2nd ed.). London: Brassey's Publishing. ISBN 0-08-037700-9.
- Cooper, M. (1978). The German Army 1933–1945, its Political and Military Failure. Briarcliff Manor, NY: Stein and Day. ISBN 0-8128-2468-7.
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- Operation Aeriel – Admiralty War Diary
- "Second BEF Home Again" Pathé Newsreel
- Allied Warships of WWII, Destroyer HMCS Fraser uboat.net (22 October 1940)
- Operation Ariel