Retro: ‘The Greatest rearguard action in history’ (1940)

Looking through the old News Letter from May and June 1940 you will find the drama and tragedy of the Dunkirk Evacuation in stark black and white.

By Darryl Armitage
Monday, 6th June 2022, 9:16 am

The columns of the News Letter capture the many stories from the time which have now passed into both history and legend.


The ruthless destruction of civilian property caused by the German air raids at Dunkirk, and the adjoining seaside town of Malo les Bains, was vividly described by a young Frenchwoman who reached England during this week in 1940

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British soldiers fire at low flying German aircraft at Dunkirk

She was one woman among thousands of French as the troops landed and her coat was riddled with holes made by shrapnel. When asked for her address by the authorities, she smiled pitifully and replied: “It used to be at Malo.”

She escaped after her home had collapsed above her head.

“There is not a building standing in Malo or Dunkirk,” she said. “Practically every house was razed to the ground in 48 hours, but the civilian population had no time to escape and they are still living there in cellars.”

She added: “The streets were littered with the dead whose bodies could not be removed. The chief destruction was caused by thousands of small, incendiary bombs, which set fire to the whole town.”


The evacuation of men of the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] and the French Army from Northern France was ongoing.

The News Letter reported: “Many men are going direct to France with their French Navy rescuers. Nothing can be added to Mr Eden’s statement on Sunday that four-fifths of the men have been evacuated.

“It is difficult in such a short time to obtain figures of this double evacuation, and in any case it would be dangerous to give them, as the Germans are just as anxious to know them as we are.

“It is emphasised that both the British and the French are in this great battle in the north, and it would be as impossible as it would be invidious, to try to assess the relative contributions of the French troops under their gallant commander, General Blanchard, and of our own. Each has been dependent on the other.

“Some of the BEF troops who reached England spoke enthusiastically of an ingenious device which was adopted to speed up the embarkation. A line of lorries was run on to the sands and into the sea, forming an improvised pier. While the seas broke against the lorries, nearly overturning some of them, the men walked along the tops to the boats, which brought them to England.

“There is no confirmation in London of a statement made in Paris on Sunday that a British detachment was still holding out at Calais on Saturday night.”


Throughout Ulster, and especially in Co Fermanagh, the news that the Earl Erne had died from wounds in Northern France had been received with keen regret, reported the News Letter during this week in 1940.

Born on November 22, 1907, he was the son of Major Viscount Crichton, MVO, DSO, Royal Horse Guards, who was killed in action on October 31, 1914, and succeeded to the title on the death of his grandfather, the fourth Earl, on December 2, 1914.

For six months after his grandfather’s death he continued to be known as the Honourable John Henry George Crichton owing to an erroneous report that his father was a prisoner of war in Germany.

Lord Eme was educated at Eton, and from 1921 until 1924 he was a Page of Honour to King George V.

From 1936 until 1939 he had been Lord-In-Waiting and a government whip, and frequently spoke for the government in the House of Lords where he sat as Baron Fermanagh.

He resigned because he wanted to devote more time to the management of his estate in Co Fermanagh. Crom Castle, the historic seat of the Crichtons, stands amid magnificent scenery on Upper Lough Erne, and was one of the finest mansions in the British Isles.

The News Letter noted: “Kindly and courtly like his grandfather and father. Lord Erne took a deep interest in local affairs and was beloved by all classes in Fermanagh.”

For a time he served as a lieutenant in the Royal Horse Guards. Soon after the outbreak of war he joined the North Irish Horse and was given the rank squadron leader. About seven weeks previously he had been sent to France for a course of training with a mechanised unit. In 1931 he married Lady Davde (Davina) Lytton, younger daughter of the Earl and Countess Lytton, and they had had three children, a boy and two girls. The boy, Viscount Crichton, will be three years of age within a week and had succeeded to the title.


Meanwhile, Major Hercules D W Pakenham, the only son of the late Senator Colonel H A Pakenham of Langford Lodge, Crumlin, had also died of wounds received in action. He was 38.

Major Pakenham, who had been educated at Wellington College, entered Sandhurst, and subsequently was posted to the Grenadier Guards.

He was survived by his wife (who was Miss Hetty Margaret Hebeler, daughter of the late Captain Rowland Hebeler) and a son and two daughters.

The News Letter noted: “The Pakenham family have a long and distinguished association with the British Army. Major Pakenham’s father was an old Guardsman, and he raised and commanded in the field the 11th (Service) Battalion, the Royal Irish Rifles, Ulster Division.

“His grandfather, Lieutenant-General T H Pakenham, CB, MP, was twice wounded in the Crimean War, and his grandfather’s brother, Lieutenant-Colonel B W Pakenham, M.P., was killed action at Inkerman. His great-grandfather, Lieutenant-General Sir Hercules Pakenham, served with distinction in the Peninsular campaign.”