British soldiers on the rail watch long lines of their comrades wade from the beach to the transport ship. Dunkirk, May 1940. Photo: Time-Life.
Situation Leading to Dunkirk
The evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk in late May 1940 was an unexpected miracle, an epic rescue from a hopeless situation. For nine days, from 26 May through 3 June 1940, the relentless advance of the German army was held off while 338,000 men were brought out of France, across the English Channel to safety.
The Blitzkrieg against Belgium was a German masterstroke that surprised and overwhelmed prepared defensive positons and rendered Allied military plans instantly obsolete. Airborne infantry seized bridges and other key transportation points, then Panzers attacked through the lightly defended Ardennes Forest, crossed the Meuse River and other waterways, and enveloped the British Expeditionary Force and parts of the French and Belgian army in northern France near the Belgian border. As Belgium capitulated to Hitler on 28 May, the Allies were caught in a pocket with their backs to the Channel waters surrounded by Germans who expected to mop them up in a few more days.
The Dunkirk Evacuation
In a miraculous operation, about 900 vessels, every civilian and military craft afloat in Britian, were sent to the Channel port of Dunkirk (or Dunkerque (Fr.) or Duinkerke (Dutch)), opposite Dover in northern France, a few miles from the Belgian border. Planning had begun as early as 20 May, called Operation DYNAMO by the Royal Navy. The civilian population of England worked along side the Royal Navy in a mass movement of large and small craft that included America's Cup racing yachts as well as hard worn fishing boats. The Navy provided antiaircraft cover and general coordination, as well as the available larger and faster vessels, while merchant ships, sloops, tugs, pleasure boats, lifeboats, fishing boats, ferries and odd barks hard to classify made a life-bridge across the Channel. They were manned by experienced salts as well as raw volunteers. They didn't need navigation skills -- you could see the fires or smoke of the Dunkirk battle on the French coast and steer by dead reckoning. They did need guts. Boats collided in blacked out conditions, German planes and subs made every attempt to attack, there were unmarked mines, and no one got any sleep, food, or even rest for days on end.
At Dunkirk beach, over 1,300 nurses dressed the wounded out in the open. Long lines of bedraggled soldiers waded into the water and were pulled on board the next available boat as waves washed over them. Often the bloody, dirty and famished soldiers fell asleep as soon as they were in the boat. The listing, overloaded craft carried the soldiers to the English shore where thousands waited to receive and care for them. The boat then returned to France, a cycle that went on around the clock for nine days. Only personnel were evacuated -- equipment and supplies were sacrificed to make maximum room for the men.
On the water, the Germans were held at bay by the Royal Navy with an intense barrage of antiaircraft fire, anti-ship and anti-submarine tactics. On the beach, the RAF, naval shellfire and a defensive perimeter kept the Wehrmacht at bay while over 338,000 men -- including 140,000 French and Belgians -- were evacuated to England. On the beach and in the water the evacuation was under intense fire from artillery, dive bombers, and infantry machine guns. Still, it was possible to maintain order and conduct operations day by day until the swarming beaches were cleared.
The pocket around Dunkirk gradually shrank to nothing. On 4 June the Germans entered the city and began to round up French soldiers left at the docks. A few hidden stragglers managed to escape in the next few days until the Germans gained complete control. About 5,000 Allied troops were killed or captured at Dunkirk. The captured were marched to the east to be POWs for the entire war.
Evaluation of Dunkirk
The evacuation of Dunkirk has assumed almost mythical status and deservedly so. The Germans thought the Allies were trapped and expected to annihilate them. The successful rescue baffled the Germans and heartened the Allies, preserving vital manpower for battles to come.
Dunkirk was also a key demonstration of Luftwaffe fallibility. Although Reichmarschall Hermann Göring assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could turn the British evacuation effort into another Warsaw or Rotterdam, the Royal Air Force inflicted such heavy losses that the Luftwaffe ceased operations against Dunkirk by 2 June. Valuable intelligence from this experience was used against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain a few months later.
Another puzzling question is why Hitler did not allow his panzers to take Dunkirk? Before the Allies consolidated their retreating forces, the Wehrmacht could have extended its drive to Dunkirk and the escape route would have been cut off. But Hitler ordered a stop at the Aa Canal on May 24, within sight of Dunkirk, fearful that his onrushing columns were exposed on the flanks. With perfect hindsight this appears to be a blunder; a more daring commander might have gone all the way to the coast to seal a complete victory. At the time, Dunkirk had no significance and preserving the panzers to ensure the fall of Paris was the priority.
For the Allies, it was the spirit of Dunkirk that had the longest and most profound effect. The seemingly invincible Germans could not crush the spirit of a people fighting for their freedom. Ringing calls to rise to the occasion "like Dunkirk" buoyed spirits throughout World War II and beyond.
Recommended Books about Dunkirk
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