Unlocking the secrets of the wrecks of Operation Dynamo

Unlocking the secrets of the wrecks of Operation Dynamo

A collaborative survey of 30 shipwrecks from Operation Dynamo offers new insights into the historical significance and preservation status of these submerged remnants from the historic event.

Denis Papin, a French minesweeper lost during Operation Dynamo in World War II.

Thirty shipwrecks associated with Operation Dynamo, a massive World War Two rescue operation, were surveyed by the French marine heritage agency Drassm in collaboration with Historic England.

This significant initiative, which took place between 25 September and 8 October, offers a detailed account of the wrecks' locations, characteristics and conditions, shedding light on the magnitude and human toll of this historic event.

Historic Partnership

Conducted under the leadership of Drassm archaeologists Cécile Sauvage and Claire Destanque, this survey marks the first-ever joint effort between Drassm and Historic England. The data collected will aid in the future research and management of these wrecks.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, described the emotional resonance of the project, saying, " It’s very moving to see new details emerge from thirty shipwrecks linked to Operation Dynamo for the first time... […] The results give us a striking insight into our shared heritage that still lies beneath the waters off Dunkirk."

Peering Beneath the Surface

The survey was carried out using a multibeam echosounder affixed beneath the hull of the André Malraux. This equipment emitted sound waves which, upon reflecting off the seabed, were recorded. Geophysicists used this data to create a detailed three-dimensional representation of seabed features, inclusive of the shipwrecks.

Out of the 27 Operation Dynamo wrecks studied, the precise locations of 12 were previously unknown. Unfortunately, four wrecks could not be located, presumably they had been destroyed or buried under layers of sand.

Additionally, the survey examined 19 other features, pinpointing three previously undiscovered vessels lost during Operation Dynamo. Notably, the identification of two wrecks, previously confused, was rectified, confirming them as the French auxiliary minesweepers Denis Papin and Moussaillon, both sunk by air attacks on 1 June 1940.

Identifying the Wrecks

The survey data not only confirmed the identity of 19 shipwrecks but also revealed the relatively good condition of many Operation Dynamo wrecks.

Recent changes of some wrecks were uncovered: For instance, the destroyer HMS Keith, which had been previously surveyed in 2016 and 2019 by the Port of Dunkirk, exhibited the degradation and collapse of a section of its hull in a 2023 survey. 

Serving as the initial phase of a multi-year undertaking, the joint survey lays the foundation for upcoming diving investigations, which are set to commence in 2024.

As these explorations progress, the collected information will be available to the public through museums and online platforms, thereby contributing to a deeper understanding of the maritime heritage of the region.