A Royal Navy Commander beached at Dunkirk, 1940

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Our Library Assistant, Colin Starkey, looks at the story of a Royal Navy Commander who was captured at Dunkirk but soon escaped from a German prison camp. 

The story is told through a selection of papers presented to the Museum by Vice Admiral Sir Robert Elkins OBE (12 January 1903 – 27 April 1985) Manuscript reference ELK/1 to ELK/13 
Vice Admiral Sir Robert Elkins papers at the National Maritime Museum
The Dunkirk evacuation, Operation Dynamo of May-June 1940, invokes images of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), in a desperate bid to be repatriated to England, however not all at Dunkirk were soldiers.  A 37 year old Royal Navy Commander was to become embroiled in the evacuation from the French beaches, to find himself being captured with the men he had been sent to assist. Commander Robert Francis Elkins an acting liaison officer was despatched to expedite the proposed evacuation of two brigades of the 51st. Highland Division, the Highlanders were ordered to capture an area at the Somme, but following fierce fighting and heavy casualties they were forced to withdraw for evacuation to the town of St.Valary-en-Caux on the coast near Dieppe.
Withdrawal from Dunkirk by Richard Eurich
Withdrawal from Dunkirk by Richard Eurich
Commander Elkins spent his last moments of freedom under machine gun fire wrecking his wireless equipment to prevent it falling into enemy hands, by which time he and the 51st Highland Division had been cut off and surrounded. The fighting spirit of the Highlanders had not diminished, however with ammunition and food exhausted and their backs to the Channel, surrender was the only option. The surrender of the 51st. Highland Division marked the end of the BEF as a fighting force.  The fate of the Highland Division, was to spend the next five years in German captivity.  
Following his capture Commander Elkins, accompanied by Army Captain Leslie Hulls, made a daring bid for freedom and escaped from a prison camp on the eve of the removal of the prisoners by train to Germany. After walking for days, they finally reached the French coast and subsequently acquired a small sailing boat. After two days and nights of bad weather they succeeded in reaching the south coast of England, their only instrument of navigation was a small compass which had escaped the attention of the Germans when they searched their prisoners.   Commander Elkins escape made news headlines, for security he was simply named in the press as a naval officer.
Commander Elkins received his Captaincy in 1942 and retired from the Royal Navy in 1959 achieving the rank of Vice-Admiral.
The Dunkirk evacuation was a boost to British morale and enabled the Allies to continue the fight, Churchill tempered his appreciation for the success of Operation Dynamo with the words: "Wars are not won by evacuations".
To explore our archive collection for yourself visit the Caird Library and Archive