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The shrapnel-riddled jacket that tells the story of the RAF at Dunkirk

a photo of an raf jacket in blue serge with four pockets and a wing badge on the left breast

Pilot Officer (later Group Captain) Ronald N H Courtney’s RAF Service jacket which sustained shrapnel damage when he was shot down over Dunkirk on 29 May 1940. © Courtesy of the Courtney family

Imperial War Museums acquire the bullet-riddled jacket of a pilot shot down during the evacuation of Dunkirk

Still bearing the shrapnel holes that nearly ended his life over the English Channel during the evacuation of Dunkirk on May 29 1940, Group Captain Ronald N H Courtney’s RAF Service jacket is a fragile but potent relic of a momentous event that has since been written into English myth and the national psyche.

Operation Dynamo was the biggest military evacuation in history and the first of several critical moments in Britain’s war.

Between May 26 and June 4 1940, nearly 340,000 soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force and French Army were evacuated from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk under the noses of the advancing forces of Nazi Germany.

Courtney successfully bailed out of his Hurricane after being shot down during the massive rescue mission and was luckily picked up by a Royal Navy corvette, HMS Shearwater.

His jacket and other fascinating items have now been acquired by Imperial War Museums (IWM) together with his flying logbooks, in which he recorded the incident, as well as photographs from the period, Courtney’s Distinguished Flying Cross & Bar and his numerous other awards.

a photo of a man in RAF uniform in front of a hurricane

Pilot Officer (later Group Captain) Ronald N H Courtney standing in front of a Hawker Hurricane at RAF North Weald in August 1940 during the Battle of Britain where he was part of 151 Squadron. © Courtesy of the Courtney family

a photo of a small line of small boats packed with troops

Three of the armada of ‘little ships’ which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk, to the safety of British warships
and other vessels.

As the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation approaches, the rare acquisition is an important one for the museum in that it helps them tell more fully the story of the tumultuous events in northern France 80 years ago.

“It is a rarity to acquire a battle-damaged uniform and be able to say definitively where and when it was worn and link it to such an important event,” says IWM’s Head of Second World War, John Delaney.

“At the time, the Royal Navy’s contribution at Dunkirk eclipsed the role of the RAF, who many considered to have provided insufficient protection to the stranded troops. Today, we are much more aware of the challenges the RAF faced and the vital part they played in the rescue mission.”

A stunning feat of military planning, the operation at Dunkirk very likely saved Britain from total defeat.

The assistance provided by civilian ‘Little Ships’ boosted public morale as hundreds of vessels set sail for northern France to bring stranded soldiers home. Following the successful operation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered one of his most stirring speeches to the House of Commons on 4 June declaring “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds… we shall never surrender.”

a photo of a crashed Spitfire on the beach

German soldiers inspect and pose with Spitfire Mk. 1a N3200 of 19 Squadron, which crash-landed on a beach near Calais while covering the evacuations from Dunkirk on May 26 1940. © Peter Arnold Collection

a colour photo of a Spitfire in flight

IWM’s Supermarine Spitfire MK 1a N3200 in flight at IWM Duxford. © IWM

“The spirit of Dunkirk has endured and still resonates with people today as a demonstration of how individual and unselfish acts can help towards a much greater cause,” adds Delaney who works with a collection containing several items relating to Dunkirk including IWM Duxford’s Mark 1a Supermarine Spitfire which patrolled the evacuation before being shot down.

The aircraft was recovered 45 years after sinking into French sands and has been restored to flying condition to perform in poignant flypasts at IWM Duxford’s annual air shows. The former RAF base also exhibits a German Messerschmitt Bf 109 which was flown during the Battle of France and Dunkirk evacuations before being shot down during the Battle of Britain in September 1940. Exhibited at IWM London is Tamzine, a 15-foot-long wooden fishing and sailing boat that is thought to be the smallest vessel to have participated in the evacuation.

Beyond the exhibition spaces, IWM’s Second World War collection also includes a rare and recently discovered RAF life preserver – also known as a Mae West – worn by Leading Aircraftman Lewis George Smith, an Avro Anson air gunner who won the Distinguished Flying Medal for shooting down a Bf 109 over Dunkirk.

IWM’s archives also feature a hastily scribbled “diagrammatic lay out of embarkation” sketch by Captain Ken Theobald of the 5th Battalion Royal West Kent Regiment.

a photo of two soldiers leaning out of window one them in German helmet being fed a sandwich by a female soldier

A member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) serves tea and sandwiches to evacuated troops aboard a train at Addison Road station, London, 31 May 1940. One of the soldiers is wearing a captured German helmet. © IWM (H 1635)

a photo of bedraggled soldiers walking next to a railway carriage

Evacuated troops, one clad only in a blanket and pyjamas, at Dover, 31 May 1940. © IWM (H 1619)

Explore the IWM website to discover more about the Dunkirk evacuations. 

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