A black and white image of a Second World War destroyer ship on open water
The destroyer Havant, sunk by bombardment on 1 June 1940. © IWM FL 10170
The destroyer Havant, sunk by bombardment on 1 June 1940. © IWM FL 10170

New Mission Seeks Shipwrecks Lost During ‘Operation Dynamo’

A research project to detect and identify undiscovered shipwrecks lost during ‘Operation Dynamo’ is being launched by Drassm, France’s Department of Underwater Archaeological Research, in partnership with Historic England, the public body responsible for England's heritage.

'Operation Dynamo' was a key event in the early stages of the Second World War. It involved the evacuation across the English Channel of 338,226 Allied soldiers surrounded by the German army. From 26 May to 4 June 1940, military, transport, fishing and service vessels, as well as pleasure craft, were used to carry out the rescue by sea from Dunkirk in the north of France. Over a thousand ships flying British, French, Belgian, Dutch, Polish, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish flags were involved in the nine days and nights of the evacuation.

The evacuation from Dunkirk marked a critical point in the history of the Second World War. We are honoured to have been invited by the French marine heritage agency, Drassm, to join their investigation of ships sunk in those desperate days. These wrecks are a physical legacy to Operation Dynamo and all those it affected, including many who did not reach safety.
Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive Historic England

What the research project involves

More than 305 vessels were lost during Operation Dynamo. Research from 2021 to 2023 by Claire Destanque (Aix-Marseille University) has revealed new information about the location and condition of these wrecks.

37 wrecks linked to Operation Dynamo have already been located in French waters, particularly by divers from Dunkirk and the surrounding area. A further 31 vessels are believed to have been lost in the area but have yet to be located.

This new mission will search for these undiscovered wrecks and document the already known sites using geophysical survey equipment (multibeam echosounder, side scan sonar and magnetometer). The study will be followed by diving surveys in 2024, providing an overall view of this heritage and enabling the introduction of conservation and public engagement strategies.

The operation is being led by Drassm (operation managers Cécile Sauvage and Claire Destanque, archaeologists). It will be conducted from the André Malraux, a Drassm research vessel captained by Fabien Géreux (Bourbon Offshore Surf). The campaign will involve geophysicists from Drassm and Historic England.

Working in partnership

This research mission is the first collaboration between Drassm and Historic England.

It is a unique opportunity to:

  • Expand historical and scientific knowledge on both sides of the Channel about Operation Dynamo and the maritime dimension of the evacuation
  • Enrich the content of the Dunkirk War Museum (data, photos, videos, etc.) and, in particular, the future permanent exhibition at the Maison d'Accueil du Grande Site at the Ferme Nord in Zuydcoote
  • Inform discussions about a memorial for the Allied soldiers and seafarers who died at sea during Operation Dynamo.

The initial results of this research will be shared with the public at events organised from 13 to 15 October in partnership with the Communauté Urbaine de Dunkerque.