As the German army swept through the Netherlands, Belgium, and northern France, the Royal Navy (RN) requested support from the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) in the English Channel. In response, the RCN sent seven destroyers. The HMCS Restigouche, Skeena, Fraser, and St. Laurent arrived in time to provide support for the RN as it evacuated 300,000 British, Canadian, French, and Belgian troops from Dunkirk during the period from 28 May to 4 June 1940. The Ottawa, Assiniboine, and Saguenay soon followed.
Once the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed, the RCN destroyers proceeded to evacuate isolated Allied units from French ports along the coast. On 11 June 1940, the Restigouche and St. Laurent rescued wounded soldiers from the French port of St. Valery. On 21 June, the Fraser, commanded by Commander Wallace Creery, evacuated diplomats from St. Jean de Luz near the French-Spanish border. They included the British and South African ambassadors to France and Lieutenant-Colonel Georges Vanier, the Canadian minister to France. (Vanier would later become the Governor General of Canada.)
On 24 June 1940, the RCN destroyers joined the RN cruiser HMS Calcutta for an attack on the oil tanks and shipyards at the Gironde River base. In the middle of the night, the Calcutta collided with the Fraser, which was cut in two. The collision killed 47 RCN and 19 RN sailors. Commander Creery survived. The planned assault on the Gironde River bases was cancelled.
Though Canadian troops joined the British Expeditionary Force in late 1939, there were not large numbers in France in May 1940. The Historic UK website notes some Canadians were evacuated from Dunkirk, along with French, Belgian and British troops.
Among the best-known Canadian heroes during the evacuation was Vancouverite Robert Timbrell, then a 20-year-old sub-lieutenant stationed at Whale Island, Portsmouth, who was given command of the Llanthony, an expensive but barely seaworthy yacht owned by Lord Astor of Hever Castle. Timbrell’s crew consisted of a Royal Navy petty officer, two civilian diesel engineers from London Transport and six sailors from Newfoundland. Despite being bombed and losing five crew members on one mission, the Llanthony rescued some 280 troops from Dunkirk, while four fishing trawlers placed under Timbrell’s command rescued another 600. For his efforts, Timbrell, who later rose to the rank of Rear Admiral in the Royal Canadian Navy, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
In a 1980 interview with the CBC, Timbrell spoke of the hazardous conditions at Dunkirk. “It was a very shallow beach and at low tide, the water went out a long way. We were being shelled by the Germans, the town was in flames,” Timbrell said
One of the enduring controversies about the Dunkirk evacuation was the name and nationality of the senior officer who played a big role.
Most survivors were not evacuated by small boats, a process that was slow, laborious and often chaotic. On Day 3 of the 10-day evacuation, the decision was made to try loading men directly onto large ships via the east mole, a narrow wooden pier that extended 1,280 metres into the English Channel.
A major risk in using the mole was obvious: it could become a death trap. While soldiers who were assembled on the beach could scatter when German dive-bombers attacked, troops who were lined along the congested, elevated pier had nowhere to run. Once the Germans realized that the mole was being used for large-scale escape, it would immediately become a prime target. The mole would need a pier-master capable of maintaining order among men who were mentally and physically exhausted, each of whom desperately wanted to be on the next ship home.
The task of pier-master was given to James Campbell Clouston. He was born and raised in Montreal, attended McGill and joined the Royal Navy in 1918. By 1940 he had risen to the rank of commander and was highly regarded by both his subordinates and fellow officers. Since his own ship was under repair, Clouston offered to help with the catastrophic situation unfolding at Dunkirk.
He assumed the role of pier-master on Day 3 and remained at his post near the tip of the mole for the next five days and nights. Armed only with a loud-hailer and a pistol (which he had to employ at least once to restore order) Clouston ushered more than 200,000 onto ships moored next to the precarious mole. A CBC film crew interviewed many evacuees for a 50th-anniversary documentary film in 1990. Multiple survivors recalled a remarkable Navy officer who spoke with a Canadian accent and had an uncanny ability to keep everyone calm.
On Day 7 (June 1, 1940) the exhausted Clouston was sent to Dover to confer with Admiral Ramsay. He rested overnight and when the decision was made to continue the evacuation, Clouston offered to return. There had been trouble on the mole during his absence and as an ex-Montrealer, his knowledge of French was an asset: increasing numbers of French troops were being evacuated.
While returning to Dunkirk the following afternoon Clouston’s speedboat was attacked by dive-bombers and sunk. Clouston and a dozen sailors eventually succumbed to the frigid water and drowned; two others survived. Campbell was 39 years old, leaving behind a young son and his pregnant wife in England.
Another of the long-standing controversies of the Dunkirk evacuation was the role of the RAF or the lack of it, depending on the viewpoint. There were many Canadians serving with the RAF whose contribution should not be overlooked. The following video helps explain the controversy.