Underwater Survey sheds light on shipwrecks from Dunkirk

New research has been charting the wrecks of ships lost during Operation Dynamo, the Allied evacuation from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940.

Historic England and its French counterpart, Drassm, carried out a survey of 30 wrecks in the waters around the French port in September and October this year.

Operation Dynamo saw the rescue of some 338,000 Allied soldiers from the French port town, which was surrounded by the Germany army in May 1940.

Over a fortnight, an armada of troop ships, as well as smaller fishing vessels and pleasure craft, were used to carry out the rescue.

Although many thousands of soldiers were rescued in the operation, Dynamo was also costly: more than 300 vessels were lost.

A multibeam survey of the wreck of destroyer HMS Keith, which took part in Operation Dynamo in 1940. The hull section has collapsed in recent years. Image: A Rochat (Drassm) and M James (MSDS Marine/Historic England)

During the survey, 27 wrecks from the evacuation were located and studied. The positions of 12 of these were not known precisely beforehand. A handful could not be located and are assumed lost.

A further 19 ‘features’ have been studied, according to Historic England, three of which appear to be previously undiscovered vessels lost during Dynamo.

Although some of the wrecks are in good condition, others, such as destroyer HMS Keith, have deteriorated significantly in recent years. The destroyer’s hull has degraded and collapsed since it was last surveyed in 2019.

The research was carried out using a multi-beam echo sounder mounted beneath the hull of André Malraux, the Drassm research ship. Geophysicists on board used the data to create detailed 3D models of the wrecks.

‘It’s very moving to see new details emerge from 30 shipwrecks linked to Operation Dynamo for the first time since the events at Dunkirk during the Second World War,’ Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said in a statement.

Praising Drassm’s ‘incredible team’ of scientists, Wilson added: ‘The results give us a striking insight into our shared heritage that still lies beneath the waters off Dunkirk.’

The results from this survey are due to support diving investigations at the wreck sites next year.