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As the German army advances through northern France during the early days of World War II, it cuts off British troops from their French allies, forcing an enormous evacuation of soldiers across the North Sea from the town of Dunkirk to England.
The Allied armies, trapped by the sea, were quickly being encircled on all sides by the Germans. By May 19, 1940, British commanders were already considering the withdrawal of the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sea.
On May 26, the British began to implement Operation Dynamo—the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk. As there were not enough ships to transport the huge masses of men stranded near the beaches, the British Admiralty called on all British citizens in possession of any seaworthy vessels to lend their ships to the effort.
READ MORE: These Photos Depict the "Miracle of Dunkirk"
Hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure yachts, lifeboats, ferries and other civilian ships of every size and type raced to Dunkirk, braving mines, bombs, torpedoes and the ruthless airborne attacks of the German Luftwaffe.
During the Dunkirk evacuation, the Royal Air Force (RAF) successfully resisted the Luftwaffe, saving the operation from failure. Still, the German fighters bombarded the beach, destroyed numerous vessels and pursued ships within a few miles of the English coast.
The harbor at Dunkirk was bombed out of use, and smaller civilian vessels had to ferry the soldiers from the beaches to the warships waiting at sea. But for nine days, the evacuation continued—a miracle to the Allied commanders and the rank-and-file soldiers who had expected utter annihilation.
By June 4, when the Germans closed in and the operation came to an end, more than 338,000 soldiers were saved. In the days following the successful evacuation, the campaign became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”
The Story Behind the Dunkirk Miracle
Maybe one of the most devastating conflicts in human history, World War II (1939–1945) left approximately 60–80 million dead victims behind, its shadows following us even to this day. Swiftly rising to power, Germany lead by the Nazi leader party Adolf Hitler, and together with its Axis allies sought after world domination. Their opposition, the Allied forces, faced many setbacks before Germany’s eventual surrender on May 8, 1945. At the beginning of WW2, when everything seemed lost, only a miracle could have saved the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) and its French and Belgian counterparts. Today, we remember it as the Dunkirk miracle — an unparalleled military evacuation for its urgency and dimensions — but why was it so important for the Allies?
It was named Operation Dynamo — a rather courageous endeavor initiated by the British Cabinet to use naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats to rescue the troops of British and Allied forces circled on the coast of France and Belgium by the German army. Despite the approaching German threat, the Dunkirk evacuation will remain one of the biggest and successful military evacuations in history with about 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops saved.
On May the 10th, 1940, at the beginning of World War II, the Germans started the invasions of Belgium and the Netherlands. All the same, German tanks marched gloriously through Luxembourg whilst their other armies aimed to weaken the French defense lines at Sedan. After a few days, they successfully managed to gain control of the region and swept across northern France, trapping the remaining Allied forces closer to the coastline near Dunkirk. On May 21, at the Battle of Arras, the British led an attack with two divisions consisting of a brigade of infantry tanks — their only armored troops still left — that proved surprisingly effective which truly alarmed the Germans.
However, on May 24, Hitler and his high command issued a halt order which gave the Allies three days to retreat at Dunkirk. No one knows for sure why the Germans postponed the operation. There exists speculation about them being worried about logistical deficiencies or a potential counterattack. Some even go as far as to suggest that Hitler became superstitious and feared that his spectacular luck from before would not last for much longer.
Regardless, the Allied forces did not have any other attempts to break the trap, and shortly after their enemies took Boulogne on the 25th and Calais on the 26th of May. Just two days later, Belgium was forced to surrender. This meant that if the BEF and the remaining French and Belgian armies wished to escape, their only hope lied at the port in Dunkirk placed between Calais and the Belgian frontier.
Blitzkrieg and the Allied collapse
The immediate context of the Dunkirk evacuation was Germany’s invasion of the Low Countries and northern France in May 1940. On May 10 the German blitzkrieg attack on the Netherlands began with the capture by parachutists of key bridges deep within the country, with the aim of opening the way for mobile ground forces. The Dutch defenders fell back westward, and by noon on May 12 German tanks were on the outskirts of Rotterdam. Queen Wilhelmina and her government left the country for England on May 13, and the next day the Dutch army surrendered to the Germans.
The invasion of Belgium also began on May 10, when German airborne troops landed on the fortress of Eben Emael, immediately opposite Maastricht, and on bridges over the Albert Canal. On May 11 the Belgian front was broken, and German tanks ran on westward while Belgian, French, and British divisions fell back to a line between Antwerp and Namur.
The German invasion of France hinged on Gen. Paul Ludwig von Kleist’s surprise advance through the hilly and dense Ardennes Forest. On May 10 German tanks crossed Luxembourg to the southeastern border of Belgium, and by the evening of May 12 the Germans were across the Franco-Belgian frontier and overlooking the Meuse River. The next day they crossed the Meuse, and on May 15 they broke through the French defenses into open country, turning westward in the direction of the English Channel. That same day, Gen. Henri Giraud assumed command of the French Ninth Army and drew up a plan for a counteroffensive on a line 25 miles (40 km) west of the Meuse. On May 16 Giraud found that the forces for such an undertaking were not available, while the Germans had advanced in strength far beyond that line. He now decided to withdraw to the line of the Oise, 30 miles (48 km) farther back, and to block the Germans there. Once again he was too late, for the German panzer divisions outran his retreating troops and were across that barrier on May 17.
Even if the French had been able to mount a counteroffensive, they would not have found it easy to crush the invader. Kleist’s southern flank was progressively lined by his motorized divisions, which in turn were relieved by the infantry corps that were marching on as fast as possible. This lining of the Aisne had an important indirect effect of playing on the most instinctive fear of the French. When, on May 15, French commander-in-chief Maurice Gamelin received an alarming report that the Germans were crossing the Aisne between Rethel and Laon, he told the government that he had no reserves between that sector and Paris and could not guarantee the security of the capital for more than a day. After Gamelin’s startling message, French Premier Paul Reynaud hastily decided to move the seat of government from Paris to Tours. By evening more reassuring reports had come from the Aisne, and Reynaud broadcast a denial of “the most absurd rumours that the government is preparing to leave Paris.” At the same time, he seized the opportunity to replace Gamelin and for that purpose summoned Gen. Maxime Weygand from Syria. Weygand did not arrive until May 19, and thus for three critical days the Supreme Command was without direction.
While Allied leaders were still hoping for an attack that would cut off the expanding “bulge,” German armoured forces raced to the Channel and cut off the Allied forces in Belgium. The remaining obstacles that could have blocked the advance were not manned in time. After crossing the Oise on May 17, German Gen. Heinz Guderian’s advance troops reached Amiens two days later. On May 20 they swept on and reached Abbeville, thus blocking all communications between north and south. By the next day motorized divisions had taken over the line of the Somme from Péronne to Abbeville, forming a strong defensive flank. Guderian’s corps then turned north up the coast in a drive for Calais and Dunkirk on May 22. Gen. Georg-Hans Reinhardt swung south of the British rear position at Arras, headed for the same objective—the last escape port that remained open for the British.
933 vessels of all sizes took part in the evacuation, from the Royal Navy, Merchant Navy and civilian owners, supported by French, Belgian, Dutch and Norwegian naval ships.
Dunkirk’s 10 mile beach shelved gently into the sea making it difficult for large warships to approach, except to pick up soldiers from the sea wall – the ‘Mole’ – that extended into deep water.
Time was of the essence as the massive German advance pushed towards the Channel ports. Ramsay and his team realised they needed to speed up the evacuation and use small boats that could get close to the shore.
An urgent Admiralty order went out for small civilian boats with shallow draft to help with the evacuation – pleasure steamers, private yachts and launches, lifeboats, sailing barges, fishing boats, passenger ferries. Many were requisitioned others taken without their owner’s knowledge. These boats were dubbed the ‘Little Ships.’
Very few owners, except for fishermen, took their own vessels. The Little Ships were mainly crewed by Royal Navy personnel from Chatham and Portsmouth.
Operation Dynamo was no orderly evacuation. It was an extraordinary feat of military improvisation, but chaotic and dangerous.
The Luftwaffe and German artillery launched a ferocious assault to disrupt the evacuation, dropping high explosives and incendiary bombs on Dunkirk, strafing soldiers on the beaches and bombing the rescue ships. U-Boats attacked vessels. The sea was sown with enemy mines.
Fighters from the Royal Air Force flew over 3,500 sorties, engaging in dogfights with the Luftwaffe to protect the troops and vessels.
In the Dunkirk movie, the Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) engages in aerial battles to help prevent the Luftwaffe from assaulting the men stranded on the beach and sinking the boats in the water. In researching the Dunkirk true story, we discovered that while the character Farrier is not directly based on an actual person, his experience most closely resembles that of Alan Christopher "Al" Deere (pictured below), a New Zealand Spitfire pilot. Deere's plane was hit in the cooling system by the rear gunner of a German Dornier, and like Tom Hardy's character in the movie, Deere crash-landed on the beach. He landed wheels up on the water's edge and gashed his eyebrow in the process.
After a woman in a nearby cafe helped Al Deere with his bleeding eyebrow, he made his way to the soldiers waiting on the mole and eventually onto a ship. Many of the soldiers he encountered were angry, "Where the hell have you been?" they asked of the air force. Toward the end of the movie, RAF pilot Collins (Jack Lowden), is asked this by a soldier. Mark Rylance's character, Mr. Dawson, overhears and reassuringly tells Collins, "I know where you've been."
Did the soldiers on the beach really accuse the Royal Air Force of not doing enough to help them?
When did the evacuation of Dunkirk take place?
The evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, took place on the beaches around Dunkirk, France from May 27 to June 4, 1940.
Why was the Dunkirk evacuation called Operation Dynamo?
In fact-checking the Dunkirk movie, we learned that Operation Dynamo was named after the dynamo room that generated electricity for the British Naval Headquarters located in the secret tunnels underneath Dover Castle. The tunnels are buried deep within the rock of the White Cliffs of Dover and are where the Dunkirk rescue was planned. The dynamo room contained a dynamo, an early electrical generator. The tunnels opened for tours in 2011.
Did Germany really drop propaganda flyers on the pinned down soldiers at Dunkirk?
Yes. The Germans dropped propaganda leaflets on the Allied soldiers who were cornered at Dunkirk. The closest example we could find to the menacing fictional flyer shown in the movie is pictured below on the left. The filmmakers appear to have dramatized it a little for the screen but the overall look is fairly close (minus the color). Other leaflets were dropped as well, some without graphics, that echoed a similar message. Some Dunkirk flyers even tried to convince the trapped soldiers that they would be treated humanely. "Do you really believe the nonsense, that Germans kill their prisoners? Come and see yourselves the contrary!" Of course, in many cases the Germans did execute their captives.
How did close to 400,000 Allied soldiers end up being pinned down at Dunkirk, France?
In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland by way of a blitzkrieg to start WW2, and the British Empire and France declared war on Germany. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) went to France to help the country defend against the Germans, who invaded the Netherlands and Belgium on May 10, 1940. At the same time, three German Panzer corps pushed rapidly into France through the rugged terrain of the Ardennes Forest. The German Blitzkrieg ("lightning war") drove British, French and Belgian forces west and northward toward the English Channel. Hitler's sights were set on eliminating the retreating Allied forces that soon found themselves pinned down at Dunkirk with nowhere to go. -Daily Mail Online
Did the British Admiralty really give the order that private boats were to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk?
Yes. On May 14, 1940, the BBC delivered a nationwide announcement from the British government: "The Admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30ft and 100ft in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned." The boats, which included everything from small boats to large pleasure yachts, were often manned by the members of the Royal Navy. However, while exploring the Dunkirk true story, we learned that in many cases, due to a shortage of naval personnel, the owners of the boats took them to Dunkirk themselves. Some decided outright to captain their own boats like Mark Rylance's character Mr. Dawson does with his boat the Moonstone in the movie. In all, a total of about 700 private vessels assisted in the evacuation. They became known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk and were largely used to ferry soldiers out to the bigger boats that could not get close to the beach.
Interestingly, one of the private boats, a 62ft naval pinnace named Sundowner, was skippered by Charles Lightoller, the highest ranking officer to have survived the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Lightoller had also commanded a destroyer during World War I.
How far away is Dunkirk, France from Great Britain?
Located at the northern tip of France near the border with Belgium, Dunkirk sits on the English Channel at one of the waterway's narrowest points. This allowed British rescue vessels, including private boats and yachts, to reach France in less time. Most of the evacuation boats departed from Dover, England. Three evacuation routes were used, with the shortest being 39 nautical miles and taking roughly 2 hours to reach the stranded soldiers on the beaches. On a side note, the closest point across the English channel is 20.7 miles and is just south of Dunkirk at Cap Gris Nez, a cape near Calais in the French département of Pas-de-Calais. From there, one can see the White Cliffs of Dover across the English Channel's Strait of Dover.
Were mines really a concern for the evacuating vessels?
Did the Royal Air Force (RAF) send fighters inland to push back Germany's aerial assault on the beaches around Dunkirk?
Yes. RAF pilots like the fictional character Farrier (Tom Hardy) flew Spitfire and Hurricane fighters and attacked approaching German fighter planes in an effort to protect the Allied soldiers on the beaches until they could be rescued.
Had most of the town of Dunkirk been destroyed?
Yes. During our research into the true story behind the Dunkirk movie, we learned that German bombardment had left much of the town of Dunkirk in ruins as Nazi forces closed in. After the water supply was knocked out, fires burned uncontrollably. In an attempt to avoid the German aerial assault and put themselves in the best potential position for rescue, Allied soldiers hid in the sand dunes on the beaches.
Where can I learn about the eyewitness accounts that inspired the movie?
Joshua Levine, the historical consultant for the movie, wrote the book Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture, which explores the gripping true stories that inspired the Christopher Nolan film. The book relays eyewitness accounts that were shared by both veterans and civilians. It's definitely a worthwhile read, especially the parts that confirm the things that are seen in the film. The book draws largely from Levine's 2011 book, Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk, which is a collection of firsthand accounts that are both humorous and tragic. Director Nolan used Levine's Forgotten Voices in his research for the movie.
Did Christopher Nolan attempt to adhere strictly to the facts when writing the Dunkirk script?
Are the main characters in the movie based on real people?
No. Much in the same vein as Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, director Christopher Nolan chose to create fictional characters for his film. Some were inspired in part by actual eyewitness stories but were not slavishly based on real people. Nolan explained that he had first worked out "a precise mathematical structure" for the story, which involved telling it from three perspectives: the land (soldiers on the beach), the sea (boats assisting in the evacuation), and the air (fighter planes). The best way to maintain that structure was to create fictional characters who could be utilized freely for the greatest benefit of the story.
Did some of the men really try to either swim to the boats or across the English Channel?
Yes. Like the British soldier does in the movie, some of the men really did strip off their gear and try to make a lengthy swim toward the boats, while others went as far as trying to swim the English Channel, which was ultimately committing suicide. However, most men accepted their own limitations and opted to stay on the beach and wait for the "little ships."
Did the British really not send all of their destroyers and planes to help at Dunkirk?
In analyzing the fact vs. fiction in the Dunkirk movie, we discovered that Britain really did hold back some of their ships and planes from assisting at Dunkirk. They even called back some of their destroyers that were already there. Britain had a justifiable reason to do so. They wanted to be prepared for a German invasion of Britain and their primary means of defense was the Royal Navy. Regardless, they still lost significant numbers during the evacuation, including six destroyers and 145 planes.
How many soldiers were rescued during the evacuation of Dunkirk?
"There are 400,000 men on this beach," says Kenneth Branagh's character in the movie. Of those men, an estimated 338,000 Allied soldiers were rescued during the evacuation, which was officially known as Operation Dynamo. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and government officials had at first predicted that it would only be possible to rescue around 45,000 men before German forces blocked further evacuations. British citizens helped to shatter that estimate by offering their own boats to help assist in the Dunkirk rescue. It also helped that Hitler made the mistake of holding off a ground attack.
Did some soldiers really panic and try to rush the boats out of turn?
Yes, the Dunkirk movie true story confirms that things did become chaotic at times, with some soldiers who were waiting in line with their units desperately jumping out of line and making a dash for the boats. These soldiers were warned off at gunpoint. Men who were there recalled not being proud of such moments, but it was hard to resist when everyone was so desperate to survive.
How many British soldiers were killed during the evacuation of Dunkirk?
Approximately 11,000 British soldiers lost their lives during the evacuation from Dunkirk, also known as Operation Dynamo. An additional 40,000 soldiers were captured or imprisoned. In all, around 90,000 Allied soldiers were either wounded, killed or taken prisoner. -Daily Mail Online
How many boats were lost during the evacuation of Dunkirk?
The Germans destroyed 177 Allied aircraft and sunk more than 200 ships, including six British and three French destroyers. Still, the British managed to rescue approximately 338,000 soldiers from the beaches around Dunkirk, and Allied planes shot down 240 German aircraft.
Would Germany really have won WW2 if the evacuation from Dunkirk had failed?
Why didn't Hitler send in ground troops to take out the pocket of Allied soldiers trapped at Dunkirk?
Though this has been a subject of debate among historians, many believe that the reason Hitler halted his ground forces was because of Nazi commander Hermann Göring, who was the head of the Luftwaffe, Germany's air force. Anxious to claim the glory of defeating the British, Göring convinced Hitler to allow the German air force to eliminate the Dunkirk pocket. It proved to be one of the greatest military blunders of WW2, as most of the trapped men escaped across the English Channel to Britain. It was evidence that air power alone could not single-handedly eradicate ground forces. -The German Blunder at Dunkirk
Hitler was also in favor of using the air force because he could preserve his tanks and men on the ground, which he had plans to direct elsewhere. James D'Arcy's character, Captain Winnant, echoes this in the movie when he says, "Why waste precious tanks when they can pick us off from the air like fish in a barrel." There was also a concern that the marshy ground around Dunkirk might be difficult for tanks. In addition, German ground forces needed time to rest and regroup after suffering heavy losses during the invasion of France.
Another theory was that Hitler held off sending in ground forces because he was showing compassion toward the British in hopes that Churchill would join Germany's fight against Russia. This far-fetched theory is not widely supported by historians, as Britain had already declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939 and Hitler would have little reason to believe Britain would ever switch sides. Furthermore, Hitler's Directive 13 contradicts this, as it called for the Luftwaffe to defeat the cornered Allied soldiers and prevent their escape.
Was Hitler's halt order the only reason German ground forces didn't reach more Allied soldiers waiting on the beaches?
No. The halt order, which was approved by Hitler and issued by the German High Command on May 22, 1940, was rescinded four days later on May 26. As we were fact-checking the Dunkirk movie, we discovered that one big reason so many Allied soldiers were able to make it off the beaches around Dunkirk was because of 40,000 soldiers of the French First Army, who were able to delay the Germans at the Siege of Lille from May 28-31. They battled seven German divisions, including three armored divisions. Winston Churchill called the First Army's effort a "splendid contribution," which hardly summed up its significance in allowing the British Expeditionary Force time to evacuate the beaches. When food and ammunition ran out, a surrender was negotiated and 35,000 men marched into captivity.
Other British and French rearguard units assisted in holding other areas of the perimeter as well, and in the end, it was mostly French soldiers who surrendered after covering the final Dunkirk evacuations.
Was Kenneth Branagh's character based on a real person?
It is likely that the movie's Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) was inspired by the real-life Captain William Tennant, who arrived on the beaches of Dunkirk via the destroyer HMS Wolfhound. His assignment was to oversee the evacuation and organize the men waiting on the beaches. Like Commander Bolton in the movie, Tennant stayed right up until the last ships departed on June 2, 1940. He was heralded for his efforts at Dunkirk and was nicknamed "Dunkirk Joe" by the sailors under him. -BBC
William Tennant's noteworthy experiences in WW2 didn't end at Dunkirk. He was captain of the battlecruiser Repulse, which was sunk by the Japanese after a commendable campaign. Later as an admiral, Tennant was put in charge of naval transport for the Normandy invasion, which involved supervising the setup of two Mulberry harbors (portable harbors) for the rapid offloading of supplies during the invasion. He also oversaw the laying of the Pluto pipelines across the channel to send fuel supplies from England to France to support the Allied forces.
Did the soldiers who were rescued feel like they had let their country down?
Was the evacuation from Dunkirk considered a success?
Yes. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as "a miracle of deliverance," inspiring him to declare to the House of Commons of Parliament on June 4, 1940, "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender!" However, in the same speech, Churchill also cautioned, "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations."
Have there been any other English-language feature films made about the WW2 Dunkirk evacuation?
Yes, just one, the 1958 British war movie Dunkirk starring Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Bernard Lee. That film was based on two novels about Operation Dynamo, Elleston Trevor's The Big Pick-Up and Lt. Col. Ewan Hunter and Maj. J. S. Bradford's book Dunkirk. Its story is told primarily from the perspectives of two characters, a newspaper reporter named Charles Foreman (Bernard Lee) and a soldier named Corporal "Tubby" Binns (John Mills). The reporter ends up taking out his own private boat to help aid in the Dunkirk rescue. Watch the Dunkirk 1958 movie trailer.
Was the Christopher Nolan film actually shot in Dunkirk, France?
Yes. While investigating the Dunkirk true story, we learned that the movie was actually filmed on location in Dunkirk, France, as well as several other locations, including Urk, Netherlands Dorset, United Kingdom and Rancho Palos Verdes, United States. The evacuation in the film was shot at the same historical Dunkirk location where the real evacuation took place. Twelve boats used in the filming had actually taken part in the real Dunkirk evacuation.
Dive deeper into the Dunkirk movie's true story by watching the videos below, including a documentary about the evacuation and the German blunders at Dunkirk.
Why was evacuation from Dunkirk so difficult?
The Allies had to defend a small pocket around Dunkirk that was under constant attack. Many thousands of men were crammed into streets and buildings, and along the beaches – so they were very vulnerable to intense German air attacks and shelling. There was little time to plan and organise an orderly evacuation, and effective means of communication were scarce.
The Germans had put the main docks at Dunkirk – the best place from which to evacuate troops – out of action. The two alternatives – the spindly breakwater, or mole, on the east side of the harbour, and the beaches to the north of the port – were far from ideal. The beaches at Dunkirk shelve gently into the sea. Even at high tide, a destroyer couldn’t approach within a mile of the shore, and troops had to be ferried out in small craft.
Rescue was painfully slow at first – only 8,000 men were rescued on the first day. It took several days for the operation to gather pace.
On Columns Edit
Name (Pennant Number) These are listed in alphabetical order disregarding any ship prefixes, which are not used by the French or Belgians. Pennant numbers are provided in brackets where known. These were generally displayed on the ship's hull, though not on destroyer leaders such as HMS Montrose (D01/I01). In May–June 1940 the Royal Navy was in the process of re-allocating the pennant numbers of many of its destroyers, in most cases the number remained the same whilst the initial letter (known as the flag superior) changed, D and F became I and G respectively. Where it has not been possible to confirm which was being displayed on a destroyer at the time of Dunkirk, both have been shown in brackets.
Flag The ensign flown by each vessel to indicate its nationality. The civil ensigns of France and Belgium, as well as the naval ensign of France, are the same as their national flag, although with differing dimensions. The United Kingdom uses the White Ensign for all commissioned naval vessels and the Red Ensign for civilian vessels, collectively known as the Merchant Navy. The Blue Ensign was used for non-naval vessels in Government service, for example hospital ships and troopships. There is some evidence they flew the Admiralty Ensign, now known as the Government Service Ensign, but this has not been confirmed by any photographic evidence from World War II.
Tonnage Different measures are commonly used for the size of commercial and naval vessels: Gross register tonnage (GRT) is the total internal volume of commercial vessels, including those requisitioned and converted for naval use, whilst displacement is the weight of water displaced by the hull, used for fleet naval vessels such as destroyers, fleet minesweepers and sloops. These are therefore not comparable but have been placed in the same column for conciseness.
Spirit of Dunkirk
In May and June of 1940, Dunkirk was the scene of a major turning point in history. During the Second World War, the famous Operation Dynamo succeeded in evacuating more than 338,000 soldiers to England, in only nine days.
The relative calm of the “Phoney War” period that followed the 1939 declaration of war between Britain and Germany suddenly ended on 10th May 1940, when Germany launched an attack on Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. In the space of just a few days, the German army had pushed through and the allies were retreating towards the North. Fearing that its troops would be trapped, and judging the battle to be lost, Britain decided to evacuate the troops retreating on Dunkirk by sea. Admiral Ramsay led the evacuation, which the British called ‘Operation Dynamo’.
England sent over everything and anything that could float: warships, commercial vessels, fishing boats, sailing boats, barges and “little ships” that had never before been more than a few miles off the coast. Under continual aerial attack, more than 340,000 allied soldiers, including 120,000 French and a few thousand Belgian soldiers were evacuated through Dunkirk, and about a third of the soldiers left from the beaches. 40,000 soldiers were left behind and taken prisoner. Most of them belonged to the divisions in charge of slowing down Germany’s advance, a crucial element in the operation’s success.
This glorious moment in the Second World War has inspired many filmmakers and writers. As early as 1949, Robert Merle published “Weekend at Zuydcoote” which won the Prix Goncourt. Henri Verneuil took this novel as the inspiration for his 1964 film, “Weekend at Dunkirk”, and there’s a new film by Christopher Nolan, released in 2017, called “Dunkirk”.
More than a century later, you can hunt down the traces of this unique episode in history at a great number of sites and exhibitions.
Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, 27 May-4 June 1940
Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk of 27 May-4 June 1940, is one of the most celebrated military events in British history, and yet it was the direct result of one of the most crushing defeats suffered by the British army. Only eighteen days before the start of the evacuation the combined British and French armies had been seen as at least equal to the Germans. If Belgium and Holland came into the war, then the combined Allied armies could field 144 divisions, three more than the Germans. Even without Belgium and Holland the Allies outnumbered the Germans by almost two-to-one in artillery and by nearly 50% in tanks. For over six months the two armies had faced each other across the Franco-German border, but on 10 May the German offensive in the west began, and that all changed. After only ten days German tanks reached the Channel at Abbeville, splitting the Allied armies in two. All the Germans had to do to trap the BEF without any hope of escape was turn north and sweep along the almost undefended channel coast.
Instead the BEF was able to fight its way to Dunkirk, where between 27 May and 4 June a total of 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from Dunkirk and the beaches. At the end of 4 June enough of the BEF had escaped from the trap to enable Churchill to convince his cabinet colleagues to fight on, regardless of the fate of France.
The Land Battle
The evacuation from Dunkirk was made possible by a combination of German mistakes and a brave decision made by Lord Gort, the commander of the BEF. The whole purpose of the German &ldquosickle cut&rdquo strategy in 1940 was to cut the Allied armies in half by breaking through the French lines in the Ardennes and then dashing for the Somme estuary. The Germans expected the Allies to help them by advancing into Belgium at the start of their offensive, exposing more Allied troops to capture.
Two German Army Groups were to be involved in the plan. Army Group B, under General von Bock, was to attack in the north, occupying Holland and northern Belgium. Army Group A, under General von Rundstedt had the job of breaking the French lines on the Meuse and reaching the sea. Rundstedt had three armies in his front line, and an armoured group under General von Kleist to lead the way.
The BEF, under Lord Gort, was located to the north of the line that Kleist would take to the coast. Just as expected, when the German attack began, the British and French advanced into Belgium, hoping to link up with the Belgian army and stop the German advance.
The Germans soon broke through the French line at Sedan. On 16 May General Guderian, commanding a Panzer corps in von Kleist&rsquos armoured group, was given a free hand for twenty four hours to expand the bridgehead, and instead plunged straight through the Allied lines, reaching the Oise at Ribemont on 17 May.
This sudden success began to lay the seeds of the German mistake that would let the BEF reach Dunkirk. Kleist caught up with Guderian on 17 May, and instead of praising him for his success, attacked him for taking too big a risk. The German High Command was beginning to worry that their panzer spearhead was dangerously exposed to a combined Allied counterattack from north and south. Guderian promptly resigned, but General Rundstedt persuaded him to return to his post, and also gave him permission to carry out an armed reconnaissance to the west.
Guderian took advantage of this new order, and on 20 May captured Amiens and Abbeville. The Germans had reached the sea and the Allied armies were cut in two. At this point the Germans were indeed vulnerable to a counterattack. Belatedly General Gamelan, the French supreme commander, issued orders for a breakout to the south, supported by an attack from the south, exactly what the Germans were afraid would happen, but on 19 May, before the plan could be put into place, Gamelan was replaced by General Weygand. The Gamelan plan was suspended while Weygand visited the front. Three days were lost, and by the time Weygand decided to carry out a very similar plan, it was too late.
On 21 May Guderian&rsquos Panzers paused on the line of the Somme. General Hehring, Guderian&rsquos chief-of-staff at this time, believed that the high command had not yet decided which way to move &ndash north towards the channel ports, or south to deal with the larger part of the French army, which was still intact south of the Somme.
On the same day the British launched their one major counterattack of the campaign, the battle of Arras. This attack achieved some limited local success before it was repulsed, but it had a much bigger impact on the German High Command. The British attack confirmed their view that an Allied counterattack would soon follow.
After a two day pause, Guderian&rsquos panzers finally began the move north on 22 May. That day they reached the outskirts of Boulogne, where they encountered serious resistance for the first time. The fighting at Boulogne would last for another three days, before the garrison surrendered on 25 May.
On the same day the bulk of the BEF had pulled back out of Belgium and had returned to the defensive lines east of Lille that it had constructed over the winter of 1939-1940. At this point both the British and the Germans were forty miles from Dunkirk. The British also had a garrison at Calais, and Lord Gort was beginning to place scattered forces on the route back to the coast.
On 23 May Kleist reported that he had lost half of his tanks since the start of the campaign in the west. Accordingly, that evening Rundstedt stopped his advance, and ordered him to simply blockade the Allied garrison in Calais. The Army High Command decided to give Army Group B the job of attacking the Allied pocket, while Army Group A would concentrate on guarding the southern flank of the German advance against a possible counterattack.
24 May was the pivotal day of the campaign. On the north eastern flank of the Allied pocket the Belgian army came under heavy attack, and was close to collapse. On the coast the Germans were blockading Calais, and were only twenty miles from Dunkirk, the last port available to the Allies. Meanwhile much of the BEF was still on a line running north from Arras, still attempted to maintain what was left of the front line.
The most important event of the day took place when Hitler visited the headquarters of Rundstedt&rsquos Army Group A. Rundstedt&rsquos own war diary records that he suggested halting the tanks where they were and letting the infantry tackle the Allied troops trapped in the north. Hitler agreed, and issued an order forbidding the tanks from crossing the canal running from La Basseé-Béthune-Saint Omer to Gravelines (ten miles west of Dunkirk). The BEF would be left to the infantry and to the Luftwaffe.
At the start of 25 May Lord Gort was still under orders to attack to the south to support the French, but it was becoming increasingly clear that this was a forlorn hope, and that to obey that order would risk losing the entire army. At 6.00pm that evening Lord Gort made his courageous decision. On his own authority he ordered the 5th and 50th Divisions to move from Arras, at the southern end of the British pocket, to the north to reinforce II Corps, as the first step in an attempt to break out to the sea. The reinforced II Corps would have the job of holding the northern flank of the corridor to the sea if the Belgian army surrendered.
On the same day Churchill made his final decision not to evacute the garrison defending Calais, hoping to gain crucial hours to improve the western defences of the Dunkirk beachhead. The fighting at Calais continued until late on 26 May, and tied up one Panzer Division.
By 26 May the British and French had both decided to form a beachhead around Dunkirk, but for different reasons. While the British hoped to escape from the German trap, the French still hoped to fight on.
On this day Lord Gort met with General Blanchard, the French command of the First Army Group, and together they put plans in place to create a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk, apparently without either side realising what the other had in mind. The French were to defend the line from Gravelines to Bergues, and then the British would take over from Bergues and hold a line along the canal to Furnes, then Nieuport and the sea.
The same day finally saw the Germans begin to take notice of the activity at Dunkirk. Hitler lifted the &ldquohalt order&rdquo, allowing Kleist&rsquos armoured group to advance to within artillery range of Dunkirk. On the same day the brave defence of Calais also finally came to an end, after having held the Germans up for a crucial few days.
On the same day that the evacuation from Dunkirk finally got under way, the German advance finally brought the port within artillery range, and for the rest of the evacuation the town suffered from a constant heavy artillery bombardment. By now the Allies had defences in place around Dunkirk. One of the most important aspects of those defences were the inundations, which flooded large areas of the low lying ground around the port, acting as a very effective anti-tank ditch. Heavy fighting would follow, but the Germans had missed their best chance to cut the BEF off from the coast.
The BEF was still not safe. Rearguard elements of I and II Corps did not leave the frontier defences until the night on 27-28 May, and most of the BEF was still outside the Dunkirk perimeter at the end of the day. Worse was to come, for during the day the German Sixth Army reported that a Belgian delegation had arrived to request surrender negotiations.
28 May was a day of crisis for Lord Gort. On that day Belgium signed an unconditional surrender, which left the northern flank of the Allied pocket dangerously exposed to German attack. Lord Gort was only given one hours formal notice of the surrender, which had the potential to destroy any hope of an evacuation, but over the previous days King Leopold III had indicated that his army was close to collapse, so the armistice didn't come as a complete surprise, and the Belgian army had played a vital part in the defence of the Allied left since the start of the fighting. During a day of hard fighting the BEF was able to prevent the Germans from crossing the Yser and reaching the beaches before the Allies. By the end of the day a large part of the BEF had reached the defended perimeter. A second crisis came during a meeting with General Blanchard. Only now did the French commander realise that the British were planning to evacuate their troops. Lord Gort&rsquos Chief of Staff described Blanchard as having gone &ldquocompletely off the deep end&rdquo. He made it clear that he did not believe any evacuation was possible, and refused to retire in line with the British.
Despite Blanchard&rsquos attitude on 28 May, eventually most of the French First Army would reach Dunkirk. However, on 29 May the Germans finally managed to cut off the Allied troops fighting around Lille. Four British divisions had managed to escape the trap, but the French V Corps was captured. By the end of 29 May the most of the BEF had reached Dunkirk. The ground campaign was effectively over, and the attention turned to the naval evacuation.
The Halt Order
One of the most controversial aspects of the fighting around Dunkirk was the Hitler&rsquos &ldquohalt order&rdquo, issued on 24 May 1941. After the war the surviving German generals did their best to shift the blame for this order on to Hitler. Even Rundstedt, on whose advice the order had been issued, would later claim that it had been Hitler&rsquos idea, and that the intention had been to spare the British a humiliating defeat. Hitler was known to have expressed some admiration for the British Empire, and to have said that he wanted to arrange a division of the world with the British, but his pre-war admiration for Britain seems to have evaporated rather quickly once the war began.
Lord Gort had first raised the possibility of an evacuation from Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk on 19 May. The Admiralty appointed Admiral Bertram Ramsey to take command of the planning for this possible evacuation, under the codename &ldquodynamo&rdquo. On 20 May he held his first planning meeting at Dover.
He had a number of serious problems to overcome. The shallow waters around Dunkirk meant that the largest ships could not be used. At the start of the evacuation Ramsey had a fleet of destroyers, passenger ferry steamers and Dutch coasters (Schuyts). What he lacked was enough small boats to get men from the beaches to the ships waiting offshore. Dunkirk itself had been under heavy bombardment for some days, and the inner harbour was out of use.
Once the ships were loaded they then had to get back to England. Sandbars just off the French coast meant that the ships would have to travel along the coast for some distance to reach a channel into deeper water. The western route (Route Z) was the shortest, at 39 sea miles, but it would soon be vulnerable to attack from the French gun batteries at Calais, which were captured intact by the Germans. Ramsey was then forced to use Route Y, the eastern route, but that was much longer, at 87 sea miles, and would itself become vulnerable as the eastern perimeter at Dunkirk shrank. A final route, X, of 55 sea miles was eventually created by clearing a gap in the minefields.
Even once back at Dover the problems did not end. The port of Dover had eight berths for cross channel ferries, each of which would soon be used by up to three ships at once. Once off the ships the men then needed to be moved away from the dock, fed and housed. With all this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that when planning began the best Ramsey hoped to achieve was to rescue 45,000 men over two days.
The evacuation got underway on the afternoon of Sunday 26 May, when a number of personnel ships were sent into Dunkirk harbour (these were mostly fast passenger ships that had been used on the cross-channel routes before the war, and were manned by Merchant Navy Crews). This type of ship would eventually evacuate 87,810 men from Dunkirk and the beaches, second only to the destroyers. Operation Dynamo itself did not start until 6.57pm on 26 May, when the Admiralty ordered Admiral Ramsey to start the full evacuation.
A key figure over the next few days was Captain W. G. Tennant, the Senior Naval Officers, Dunkirk, who was appointed to take charge of the naval shore embarkation parties. At this point the navy was planning to evacuate most men from the beaches east of Dunkirk. Each British army corps was allocated one of three beaches &ndash Malo beach, close to Dunkirk, Bray beach, further along the coast and La Penne beach, just inside Belgium. The inner harbour at Dunkirk had been closed by German bombing, and would never be used during the evacuation.
The outer harbour was protected by two moles. These long concrete constructions had not been designed to have ships dock alongside, but on the evening of 27 May Captain Tennant ordered one ship to try using the east mole. Despite the difficulties this was a success, and the east mole was used for the rest of the evacuation. The use of the mole allowed Tennant to make the best use of the destroyers, and over the rest of the evacuation they would rescue 102,843 men. Despite this initial success, by the end of the day Tennant had closed the harbour, and directed all ships to the beach.
This day also saw the navy abandon Route Z, the shortest route between Dover and Dunkirk. For the first twenty miles from Dunkirk this route followed the French coast, and was thus vulnerable to German artillery, especially at Calais. A new route, Route Y, had to be adopted. This avoided the danger of coastal artillery but was 87 miles, reducing the number of trips each ship could make. It also exposed the ships to German aircraft for much longer.
Over the first two days of the evacuation 7,699 men disembarked in England, virtually all of them from the harbour.
On 28 May the evacuation from the beaches began to pick up speed, and one third of the 17,804 rescued during the day were taken from the beaches. Tennant re-opened the harbour early in the day, and six destroyers all picked up large numbers of men from the mole. The same day also saw the personnel ships withdrawn from daylight work, after the Queen of the Channel was sunk. These large fast valuable ships were reserved for night time work only, and the daylight operations restricted to warships and smaller ships. Fortunately the same day saw the Dutch schuyts begin to operate a continuous to Ramsgate and Margate. These forty ships would eventually evacuate 22,698 men, for the loss of only four ships.
By 29 May the evacuation was getting up to speed &ndash three times as many men were rescued as on the previous day. Despite this success, the day was marred by heavy losses. HMS Wakeful was sunk by an E-boat, HMS Grafton by U.62 and the personnel ship Mona&rsquos Queen was sunk by a magnetic mine. Another destroyer and six major merchant ships were sunk by bombing in Dunkirk harbour. Despite this the harbour remained open, but rumours to the contrary reached Dover, and for some time Admiral Ramsey ordered all ships to use the beaches.
As a result of this 30 May was the only day when more men were evacuated from the beaches than from the harbour. The loss of two destroyers on 29 May also convinced the Admiralty to withdraw all modern destroyers from the evacuation. Fortunately that morning Rear-Admiral Wake-Walker arrived to take over at Dunkirk. When he realised that he only had fifteen old destroyers at his disposal he contacted Admiral Ramsey, who was able to convince the Admiralty to return seven of the new destroyers to Dunkirk. Despite the lack of the new destroyers, 30 May was the most successful day yet. Seven of the older destroyers each managed to rescue 1,000 men, while low cloud and burning oil hid the beaches from German attack. The day also saw the little ships at work, ferrying men from the beaches to the larger ships offshore.
By 31 May the number of British troops at Dunkirk had been reduced to point where a Corps commander could take over. At the start of the evacuation it had been decided that Lord Gort must not be captured &ndash the propaganda value to the Germans would have been far too high. On 31 May Lord Gort and General Brooke returned to Britain, and command of the troops at Dunkirk was passed to General Alexander.
The day was not well suited to the evacuation. The wind dispersed the smoke and haze and the shelling and bombardment of the beach reached new heights. For part of the day the beach was unusable, and the harbour difficult. Despite this the day also saw the highest number of men evacuated &ndash a total of 68,014. By the end of the day the shrinking British forces had been forced to abandon the easternmost beach at La Panne.
1 June saw the second highest number of men evacuated, most from the harbour, where a number of ships took off very large numbers of men &ndash 2,700 on the Solent steamer Whippingham alone. The day also saw four destroyers sunk by enemy action, including Admiral Wake-Walker&rsquos own flag ship, HMS Keith. By the end of the day only part of the British I Corps and the French troops guarding the perimeter remained at Dunkirk.
It had been hoped to finish the evacuation by the early morning of 2 June, but progress was slower than expected, and so work continued until 7.00am. At that point it was estimated that there were 6,000 British and 65,000 French troops left in Dunkirk. A final effort was planned for the evening and Allied ships began to move across the channel at 5pm. By midnight the last British rearguard had been rescued from Dunkirk.
The effort that began on 2 June successfully evacuated 26,746 men from Dunkirk, most from the harbour. Of these men three quarters were French, but there were still estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000 French troops left in Dunkirk. One final effort was made to rescue these men from the shrinking perimeter at Dunkirk. At 10.15 pm the destroyer HMS Whitshed became the first of fifty ships to take part in this final evacuation.
This last operation continued until 3.40am on the morning of 4 June, when the old destroyer Shikari, carrying 383 troops, became the last ship to leave Dunkirk. On the night of 3-4 June a total of 26,175 French troops were rescued from Dunkirk harbour, 10,000 in small ships from the west mole and the remaining 16,000 in the destroyers and larger personnel ships from the east mole. As the Shikari left the harbour, two blockships were sunk in the channel. By now the Germans were only three miles from the harbour, and there was no chance of any further evacuations. At 10.30 am on 4 June the fleet of small ships was officially dispersed, and Operation Dynamo officially ended at 2.23pm.
British and Allied losses at Dunkirk were very heavy. The BEF lost 68,111 killed, wounded and prisoner, 2472 guns, 63,879 vehicles, 20548 motorcycles and 500,000 tons of stores and ammunition during the evacuation, while the RAF lost 106 aircraft during the fighting. The number of prisoners captured is not entirely clear &ndash German sources suggest that 80,000 men were captured around Dunkirk, other sources give much lower figures, but few go lower than 40,000. At least 243 ships were sunk, including six Royal Navy destroyers, with another 19 suffering damage.
The Air Battle
One of the most controversial aspects of the evacuation at the time was the role of the RAF. Many troops evacuated from Dunkirk returned to Britain angry at what they felt was the failure of the RAF to protect them from German attacks. The Luftwaffe seemed to be constantly over the beaches, while British fighters were rarely seen. The problem facing the RAF was one of balance. A large number of fighter squadrons had been virtually destroyed in France. Fighter Command had fought to retain enough squadrons in Britain to defend against a German attack, famously keeping the Spitfire squadrons out of the battle in France and the Low Countries. Now those Spitfire squadrons had to be thrown into the battle over Dunkirk. Between 26 May and 4 June the RAF flew a total of 4,822 sorties over Dunkirk, losing just over 100 aircraft in the fighting. The problem was that much of the fighting took place away from the beaches. It was preferable to break up German raids before they reached the beaches, not once they were dropping their bombs. The RAF also had to patrol over the sea lanes being used to carry out the evacuation. Despite these difficulties, Dunkirk was the Luftwaffe&rsquos first real setback. The exact number of German aircraft lost is not clear - British claims at the time were massively over-inflated, while some more recent revisions are probably too low. The Luftwaffe almost certainly lost more aircraft than the RAF, but that includes a large number of bombers. On some occasions during the fighting the Luftwaffe admitted that it had lost air superiority for the first time since the start of the war.
The Small Boats
Hundreds of small privately owned boats took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk, making their main contribution from 30 May onwards. Anything that could float and could cross the channel made its way to Dunkirk in unknown numbers. Close to 200 of the little ships were lost during the evacuation. An examination of the Admiralty figures might suggest that they didn&rsquot actually make a big contribution to the evacuation, for fewer than 6,000 men are recorded as having been rescued by the small boats. This is entirely misleading. The Admiralty figures record the numbers of men disembarking in England, and most of the small boats were not used to transport men across the channel. Their critically important role was to ferry men from the shallow inshore waters to the larger vessels waiting off the beaches. For around 100,000 men the journey home from Dunkirk began with a short trip on one of the small ships.
Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk ends - HISTORY
In World War II, the Dunkirk evacuation, code named Operation Dynamo, refers to the evacuation of thousands of Allied troops from northern France in the late spring of 1940. It occurred after French, British, and Belgian soldiers had been pushed back to the coast by the German advance. Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, emphasized that the evacuation should not be seen as a military victory. Nevertheless, the almost miraculous saving of hundreds of thousands of men who had seemed doomed to capture by the advancing Germans came to be seen as emblematic of British refusal to admit defeat.
German troops marched into Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg in the early hours of May 10, 1940. Responding to the invasion, units of the British Expeditionary Force and sections of the French army came to give aid, but the Low Countries were quickly occupied by the Nazis. Four days later, German tanks rapidly advanced across the Ardennes and began a powerful push northward toward the English Channel.
The BEF and the French army proved unable to resist this push effectively. Once the Germans had reached the northern coast, the BEF troops were cut off from aid, as were a considerable number of other Allied soldiers in the area. The Germans then mounted an all-out offensive to capture the northern coastal ports and capture or kill the Allied soldiers who were trapped there. Hitler realized that doing this would be both a military and a propaganda victory, and could have a devastating effect on British morale.
On May 24, Adolf Hitler traveled to the town of Charleville, where Army Group A of the Wehrmacht had its headquarters. Hitler impressed on General von Rundstedt, who commanded the group, the importance of a quick attack. After surveying the situation for himself, von Rundstedt suggested that his armor would hold station to the southwest of Dunkirk. Meanwhile, Army Group B’s infantry, supported by overhead cover from the air force, would deal with the BEF.
The Evacuation Takes Shape
On May 25, General Lord Gort, who was in command of the BEF, decided that the deterioration of his position had made it imperative that he attempt to evacuate his soldiers from France. His troops, backed by Belgian and French forces, set up a perimeter defense around Dunkirk, one of the most significant of the Channel ports. The port was considered the best chance of getting the largest possible number of men back to England.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, Churchill met with Vice Admiral Ramsay to plan the evacuation. Their meeting, which was held at Dover Castle, resolved that the Allied servicemen would be evacuated by both naval destroyers and large merchant ships. However, these would be supplemented by the so-called “little ships”, numbering more than 700, which ranged from small commercial boats from pleasure crafts to fishing trawlers.
The British fully expected that they would have a maximum of 48 hours to mount the evacuation, and after that the Germans would prevent the operation from continuing. As such, they planned for around 45,000 soldiers to be brought away from Dunkirk. As the rescue fleet reached the port, the Allied troops, abandoning heavy equipment in order to save space and time, prepared for the voyage. Some of the men had no choice but to wade into the sea to reach the waiting boats, although others managed to use the harbor mole to board directly.
Operation Dynamo commenced on May 27, and on that day around 7,600 men were rescued from Dunkirk. The following day proved more productive, with close to 18,000 men being brought away. Despite strong support from the Royal Air Force in keeping Luftwaffe planes away from the embarkation points, the port’s perimeter defense gradually began to be squeezed inward. Nevertheless, the evacuations continued. May 29 saw more than 47,000 troops brought to safety, while the last two days of the month accounted for another 121,000 men.
The Germans were desperate to stop the evacuations, and mounted a heavy air attack late in the day on the 29th. By the end of the month, the Allied-held pocket around Dunkirk had been reduced to a strip measuring a mere three miles across. Even so, a further 64,000 soldiers were rescued on June 1. Luftwaffe operations intensified, and it became impossibly dangerous for the ships of the evacuation fleet to carry out their mission in the daytime.
Night-time rescues continued at speed, however, with well over 50,000 Allied soldiers being evacuated from what remained of the Dunkirk pocket until the early hours of June 4. By now, the German front line was almost within sight of Dunkirk harbor, and the decision was made to call off the evacuations after the Royal Navy ship HMS Shikari had departed a little before four o’clock in the morning of June 4. Two French divisions remained behind in order to try to defend the ever-shrinking perimeter. Although they resisted gallantly, they eventually had no choice but to surrender to the Germans.
Aftermath and Legacy
Rather than the modest 45,000 men originally expected to be rescued, Operation Dynamo in fact saved more than 330,000 Allied troops from certain death or capture at German hands. In Britain especially, popular sentiment was thrilled by the success of the rescue mission, and the “gallant little ships” that had assisted in the evacuation drew particular praise, it being felt that they represented the true fighting spirit of the United Kingdom and its refusal to give in to the Nazi menace.
Churchill himself was more circumspect “Wars,” he said, “are not won by evacuations” and he warned against turning what in fact was a last-ditch rescue after a crushing defeat into a great victory. Operation Dynamo was a costly operation for the British: more than 68,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured, while over 240 ships and more than 100 aircraft were lost. The requirement for a speedy evacuation had also mean that half a million tons of supplies had to be left on the French side of the Channel. Crucially, however, the success of the evacuation meant that a strong defensive force would now be available for the anticipated invasion of England itself.