British and Allied troops continue the evacuation of France, as Churchill reassures his Countrymen
On this day in 1940, British troops evacuate France in Operation Ariel, an exodus almost on the order of Dunkirk. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill offers words of encouragement in a broadcast to the nation: “Whatever has happened in France… [w]e shall defend our island home, and with the British Empire we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted.”
With two-thirds of France now occupied by German troops, those British and Allied troops that had not participated in Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk, were shipped home. From Cherbourg and St. Malo, from Brest and Nantes, Brits, Poles, and Canadian troops were rescued from occupied territory by boats sent from Britain. While these men were not under the immediate threat of assault, as at Dunkirk, they were by no means safe, as 5,000 soldiers and French civilians learned once on board the ocean liner Lancastria, which had picked them up at St. Nazaire. Germans bombers sunk the liner; 3,000 passengers drowned.
Churchill ordered that news of the Lancastria not be broadcast in Britain, fearing the effect it would have on public morale, since everyone was already on heightened alert, fearing an imminent invasion from the Germans now that only a channel separated them. The British public would eventually find out—but not for another six weeks—when the news finally broke in the United States. They would also enjoy a breather of another kind: Hitler had no immediate plans for an invasion of the British isle, “being well aware of the difficulties involved in such an operation,” reported the German High Command.
On June 17, 1917, the Corpo Expedicionario Portugues (CEP), or Portuguese Expeditionary Corps, goes into action for the first time in World War I, on the battlefields of Flanders on the Western Front.
With the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914, Portugal entered the war on the side of the Allies in order to secure international backing of its colonial holdings in Africa. While Portuguese participation in the war was at first limited to naval support, Portugal sent its first troops–an expeditionary force of two divisions, or some 50,000 men–to the Western Front in February 1917.
On June 17 of that year, the CEP saw its first action of the war, against the Germans in Flanders, Belgium. From the beginning of the fighting, the Portuguese troops, fighting alongside the British, were plagued by problems, including negative reactions to the poor rations and harsh weather on the battlefield and low morale due to the fact that they were fighting far from their native land, on behalf of a foreign cause. On April 9, 1918, the CEP saw action again against Germany near the town of Lys, during the major German offensive of that spring. During the Battle of Lys, one Portuguese division of troops was struck hard by four German divisions; the preliminary shelling alone was so heavy that one Portuguese battalion refused to push forward into the trenches. All told, the victorious Germans took more than 6,000 prisoners at Lys and were able to push through the Allied lines along a three-and-a-half mile stretch. By the time World War I ended, a total of 7,000 Portuguese soldiers had died in combat.