The evacuation from Dunkirk on the French coast was hailed in Britain as an extraordinary achievement and the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ swiftly entered the mythology of wartime brave deeds.
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during the evacuation.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.
Some of the 'little ships' used during the evacuation of Dunkirk being towed back along the River Thames past Tower Bridge, 9 June 1940.
German forces moved into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Here German officers inspect a memorial on the sea front at Dunkirk.
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During the First World War, Britain came under air attack for the first time in its history. Britain’s home defence strategy initially focused on patrolling at sea and defending the shore with artillery. The threat of aerial attack was thus underestimated and defences were geared towards airships, leaving Britain ill-prepared to deal with enemy aircraft developments.
At the start of the war, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), forerunner of the RAF, was engaged in reconnaissance duties overseas, and few aircraft remained to defend Britain. Until 1916, the biggest aerial threat came from German airships, Zeppelins. At 11,000 feet, Zeppelins could turn off their engines, drifting silently to carry out surprise attacks.
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, planned Britain’s air defence strategy. Street lights were dimmed and guns, searchlights, and observers were mobilised. Successive damaging Zeppelin attacks in 1915 and 1916 caused public outcry and government embarrassment. Some RFC and Royal Naval Air Service squadrons were recalled to assist, and defence switched from anti-aircraft guns to aeroplanes. Incendiary ammunition for aircraft was developed for bringing down the airships; Britain looked to be winning the aerial war.
In 1917 German Gotha bombers caused chaos, and Britain’s defence strategy evolved again to meet the threat. Wireless communication, coupled with sophisticated observation and reporting of enemy movements, enabled fighters to be despatched to meet the bombers. Barrage fire and balloon barrage forced enemy aircraft higher, compromising their bombing accuracy. By the end of the war, a huge observation network had been successfully developed for Britain’s defence.
Lieutenant Warneford’s Great Exploit, 1919, by F Gordon Crosby. Crosby’s oil painting depicts LZ37, the first Zeppelin to be brought down by Allied aircraft on 7 June 1915. The aircraft was flown by Flight Sub-Lieutenant Reginald Warneford RN, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. Warneford was killed in a flying accident just ten days later.
Section of painted fabric from a Bristol fighter aircraft, 1918. The section of fabric is from the Bristol Fighter (serial number C4636) nicknamed 'Devil in the Dusk'. It was being flown by pilot Flying Officer A J Arkell with gunner A M Stagg of No. 39 Squadron, Royal Air Force when they shot down a German Gotha bomber over East Ham on the evening of 19-20 May 1918. This date marked the end of the Gotha raids on Britain.
vehicles, aircraft and ships
A letter from Patrick Blundstone, a schoolboy staying at Cuffley, Hertfordshire, to his father in London, describing in graphic schoolboy detail the landing of a Zeppelin in flames close to the house and the 'roasted' condition of the crew and mentioning the heroic action by 'Lieutenant Robertson' (aka Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson VC).
Metal remnant salvaged from the First World War German Army airship SL11, which was shot down in flames at Cuffley, Hertfordshire by Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson on 2-3 September 1916. Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross for the destruction of the SL11 airship. His plane was armed with specially developed incendiary ammunition, and he was aided by intense anti-aircraft fire.
vehicles, aircraft and ships