Sambaluk on Raffal, 'Air Power and the Evacuation of Dunkirk: The RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation Dynamo, 26 May - 4 June 1940'

Harry Raffal. Air Power and the Evacuation of Dunkirk: The RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation Dynamo, 26 May - 4 June 1940. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021. 352 pp. $115.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-350-18049-9.

Reviewed by Nicholas Sambaluk (Air University)
Published on H-War (February, 2023)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version:

Harry Raffal works to bring greater clarity to the airpower activities connected to the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. Raffal notes that Operation Dynamo’s execution and influential pronouncements, particularly by then-prime minister Winston Churchill, helped establish a mythology of the Royal Air Force’s illustrious success in protecting the operation. Although the author does not belabor the point, common impressions of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler’s ill-conceived interference and the ignorant bluster of the Luftwaffe’s master, Hermann Goering, also facilitated the complementary assumption of German failure despite being closer to the fighting than their British rivals.

Raffal effectively dashes the hoary presumptions by digging into the actual operations themselves. The closest British airfields, for example, were nearer to the area of operations than were most of even Germany’s advanced airfields lying in occupied territory, while Germany’s medium bombers were still operating from western Germany itself; this fact seriously curtailed the Germans’ sortie rates. German night attacks were inadequate, but night flying was not a common skill in a Luftwaffe that had already begun to shave elements of its training program in order to accelerate pilot preparation; the ongoing character of the French campaign also meant that German airpower was needed on other fronts such as along the Somme, and the Luftwaffe could not simply concentrate against the Dunkirk pocket to the exclusion of other fronts. German mistakes included a slow realization of the importance of the concrete structure known as the Dunkirk Mole as an alternative evacuation site, and repeated bombing of wrecked ship hulks in the port’s shallow waters also detracted from German effectiveness.

RAF airpower mistakes were, in Raffal’s implicit estimation, at least as serious as those made by the Luftwaffe. It was reluctant to dedicate serious resources to protect an operation that had, after all, originally been envisioned as only lasting forty-eight hours. Fighter Command also constrained itself with rigid tactics that undid their roughly equivalent flight training and comparatively superior instrument flying preparation. Fixated on episodically gaining air superiority (rather than continually contesting air superiority and thereby hampering German air attacks against the evacuation), RAF fighters became concentrated in a smaller number of larger patrols. Raffal usefully links this idea to the later argument within Fighter Command about “Big Wings” that would reemerge during the subsequent Battle of Britain. The smaller number of patrols created gaps in the defensive air cover and this allowed the Luftwaffe to undertake punishing attacks such as the missions of June 1, which forced an end to daylight evacuation operations. This Luftwaffe achievement has typically been misattributed to specious German artillery, and Raffal provides analysis showing that German airpower—not artillery—drove the British to shift to entirely nocturnal evacuation during the last phase.

RAF Bomber Command, for its part, likewise wasted valuable resources in its attempts to undertake strategic attacks as well as close air support and interdiction missions that aimed to assist the forces in the Dunkirk area. Raffal goes to some effort to describe and arguably play up the minimal impact of British close air support and interdiction; such actions wrought little actual destruction and what impact they did exert was the product of already existing strain on German logistics in the midst of its western campaign. But Raffal’s point was that even these limited successes mattered more than the ineffectual strategic raids of 1940 that failed to impact German industry and failed also to divert Luftwaffe fighter strength and antiaircraft units from their other actions in France and Belgium.

In contrast, the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command are elements of British airpower that come in for praise. Despite their small size and the relative obsolescence of their planes, these organizations provided valuable service by contesting the skies of the evacuation routes when Fighter Command’s units were absent, by conducting reconnaissance, by conducting some close air support on the defense perimeter, and by warding off U-Boats and small torpedo attack boats that might otherwise have wreaked havoc with the evacuation ships and craft.

Ultimately, however, Operation Dynamo’s most crucial support in the sky came in the form of weather patterns that offered Germany relatively few opportunities to existentially threaten the evacuation. Raffal’s sources reflect extensive work with the British archives and a creative dedication in locating relevant German archival sources across holdings in Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States. The result is a professional, readable, and informative work that offers valuable understanding about an iconic (but frequently misinterpreted) chapter in military and airpower history.

Citation: Nicholas Sambaluk. Review of Raffal, Harry, Air Power and the Evacuation of Dunkirk: The RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation Dynamo, 26 May - 4 June 1940. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


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Thank you for this review.