D is for… the Dunkirk evacuation

Over 10 days in 1940, from the 26 May – 4 June, Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of Allied military personnel from Dunkirk, France was carried out. Sometimes known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, the evacuation involved the rescue of more than 338,000 British and French soldiers from the French port of Dunkirk.[1]   

On 10 May 1940, German troops invaded France and the Low Countries, and with this, the ‘Phoney War’ ended. By the end of May, the German’s rapidly advance through north-west Europe, not in the way the Allies had expected, but through the Ardennes Forest, towards the English Channel. Prepared for an advance along the Maginot Line, the Allies were caught off guard, and so the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), French troops and Belgium troops were pushed back to the French port of Dunkirk. By May 19, General John Gort, Commander of the BEF began to contemplate the possibility of evacuating his entire force across the English Channel, in order to save millions of trained troops from the approaching German forces.[2]

Just days before, on 13 May, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had resigned under the pressure of the war, and a new wartime coalition government was formed under Winston Churchill. At first, the British government was opposed to the proposed evacuation, however, with the BEF and its allies having been forced back to the beaches of Dunkirk, Churchill soon became convinced that an evacuation was the only option. 

British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation

Stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, many troops felt capture was almost certain. Operation DYNAMO, directed by Admiral Bertram Ramsey, was hastily organised by the Royal Navy, and emergency evacuation to get the troops off the beaches of Dunkirk and back to the safety of Britain. The operation began on 26 May, when strong defences were established around Dunkirk, and the Royal Air Force (RAF) sent all available aircraft to protect the evacuating infantry troops. The evacuation was slowed by the relentless bombing attacks carried out by the Luftwaffe, despite the RAF’s attempts to delay or stop the German planes from reaching the beaches. The RAF took heavy losses in the evacuations. 

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

The geography of beaches at Dunkirk meant that large warships could only pick up soldiers from the town’s East Mole, a sea wall which extended into deep water.[3] Mostly they had to send their boats to the beaches to collect the troops and bring them back to the warships. In order to speed up the process, the British Admiralty appealed to the owners of pleasure boats and other small craft for help, who became known as the ‘little ships.’ Over 800 naval vessels helped to transport the troops across the English Channel, with the final troops evacuating on 3 June, while French forces covered their escape. 

British troops crowd the deck of a Royal Navy destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940

On the first full day of Operation DYNAMO, it was only possible to evacuate approximately 7,500 men, with a further 10,000 evacuated the next day.[4] By 29 May, more than 47,000 British troops had been rescued, and with this number rising to 53,000 the following day, including the evacuation of the first French troops.[5] Churchill and his advisors had expected that it would only be possible to rescue approximately 20,000 – 30,000 men, but in the end 338,000 troops were rescued, thanks to the hard work of the Royal Navy and the ‘little ships.’[6] However, ninety thousand remained to be taken as prisoner, as well as most of the BEF’s tanks, ammunition, and heavy guns being abandoned as there was no way to bring them home.  

Nevertheless, the Dunkirk evacuation was a hugely important event for Allied morale. The press and public saw the evacuation as miraculous, but this did not mean that the losses were not heavy, and that Churchill was not cautious in his praise of the operation.[7] However, it is important to remember that if the events of Dunkirk had gone differently, it could have meant the capture of thousands of men, and the collapse of the Allied cause altogether. Germany had hoped the Allied defeat at Dunkirk would force Britain into a negotiation for surrender, but the evacuation had the complete opposite effect. With the fall of Paris on 14 June, and the signing of an armistice by Henri Petain, head of the Vichy government in France, Nazi ambitions now turned towards Britain, and it was clear to Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and his ministers, that their greatest challenge was still yet to come. 

[1] Imperial War Museum (IWM), ‘What you need to know about the Dunkirk Evacuations,’ last accessed 5 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-dunkirk-evacuations  

[2] History, ‘Battle of Dunkirk,’ last accessed 5 April 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/dunkirk  

[3] IWM, ‘What you need to know about the Dunkirk Evacuations,’ last accessed 5 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-dunkirk-evacuations

[4] History, ‘Battle of Dunkirk,’ last accessed 5 April 2021, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/dunkirk

[5] Ibid

[6] IWM, ‘What you need to know about the Dunkirk Evacuations,’ last accessed 5 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-dunkirk-evacuations

[6] IWM, ‘7 Photos From The Dunkirk Evacuations,’ last accessed 5 April 2021, https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/7-photos-from-the-dunkirk-evacuations

[Image 1] IWM, ‘Dunkirk 26-29 May 1940,’ NYP 68075, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194324

[Image 2] IWM, ‘Dunkirk 1940,’ HU 41241, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205083524

[Image 3] IWM, ‘The British Army in the UK: The Evacuation from Dunkirk, May-June 1940,’ H 1662, https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205197170

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