The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 27 May and 4 June 1940. The operation became necessary when large numbers of British, French, and Belgian troops were cut off and surrounded by the German army during the Battle of France in World War II. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the events in France "a colossal military disaster", saying that "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his We shall fight on the beaches speech on 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a "miracle of deliverance".
After the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in 1939, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to aid in the defence of France. Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, and three of their Panzer corps attacked France through the Ardennes and rapidly drove to the English Channel. By 21 May, the German forces had trapped the BEF, the remains of the Belgian forces, and three French armies in an area along the northern coast of France. Commander of the BEF General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort immediately saw that evacuation across the Channel was the best course of action, and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest location with good port facilities. A controversial Halt Order was issued with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler's approval on 24 May, which gave the trapped Allied forces time to construct defensive works and pull back large numbers of troops toward Dunkirk. From 28–31 May 1940, in the Siege of Lille, the remaining 40,000 men of the once-formidable French First Army fought a delaying action against seven German divisions, including three armoured divisions.
On the first day of the evacuation, only 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the ninth day a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by a hastily-assembled fleet of over 800 boats. Many of the troops were able to embark from the harbour's protective mole onto 39 British destroyers and other large ships, while others had to wade out from the beaches, waiting for hours in the shoulder-deep water. Some were ferried from the beaches to the larger ships by the famous little ships of Dunkirk, a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, and lifeboats called into service for the emergency. The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and had to abandon nearly all of their tanks, vehicles, and other equipment. In his speech to the House of Commons on 4 June Churchill reminded the country that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." The events at Dunkirk remain a prominent folk memory in the United Kingdom.
Background[edit | edit source]
In 1939, after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, the British sent troops – the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – to aid in the defence of France, landing troops at Cherbourg, Nantes, and Saint-Nazaire. By May 1940 the force consisted of ten divisions in three corps under the command of General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort. Working with the BEF were the Belgian Army, the French First Army, the French Seventh Army, and the French Ninth Army.
The initial plan for the German invasion of France called for an encirclement attack through the Netherlands and Belgium, thus avoiding the fixed defensive emplacements of the Maginot Line. However, Erich von Manstein, then Chief of Staff of the German Army Group A, felt the operation would fail to wipe out the enemy—as it did in the First World War—leading to only partial success and trench warfare. Manstein prepared the outline of a different plan and submitted it to the OKH (German High Command) via his superior, Generaloberst (Colonel General) Gerd von Rundstedt. Manstein's plan suggested that Panzer divisions should attack through the wooded hills of the Ardennes, where no one would expect them, then establish bridgeheads on the Meuse River and rapidly drive to the English Channel. The Germans would thus cut off the Allied armies in Belgium and Flanders. This part of the plan later became known as the Sichelschnitt ("sickle cut"). German dictator Adolf Hitler approved a modified version of Manstein's ideas, today known as the Manstein Plan, after meeting with him on 17 February.
On 10 May, Germany attacked Belgium and the Netherlands. Army Group B, under Generaloberst Fedor von Bock, attacked into Belgium, while the three Panzer corps of Army Group B under Rundstedt swung around to the south and drove for the Channel. The BEF advanced from the Belgian border to positions along the River Dyle within Belgium, where they fought elements of Army Group B starting on 10 May. They were ordered to begin a fighting withdrawal to the Escaut River on the 14th when the Belgian and French positions on their flanks failed to hold. During a visit to Paris on 17 May, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was astonished to learn from French General Maurice Gamelin, Commander in Chief of the French forces, that the French had committed all their troops to the ongoing engagements and had no strategic reserves. On 19 May, Gort met with French General Gaston Billotte, commander of the French First Army and overall coordinator of the Allied forces. Billotte revealed that the French had no troops between the Germans and the sea. Gort immediately saw that evacuation across the Channel was the best course of action, and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest location with good port facilities. Surrounded by marshes, Dunkirk boasted old fortifications and the longest sand beach in Europe, where large groups could assemble. After continued engagements and a failed Allied attempt on 21 May at Arras to cut through the German spearhead, the BEF was trapped, along with the remains of the Belgian forces and three French armies, in an area along the northern French coast.
Planning and commencement of evacuation[edit | edit source]
Without telling the French, the British began planning on 20 May for Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF. Dynamo took its name from the dynamo room that provided electricity in the naval headquarters below Dover Castle. It was in this room that British Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay planned the operation and briefed Churchill as it was under way. Under the direction of Ramsay, ships began gathering at Dover for the evacuation. On 20 May the BEF sent Brigadier Gerald Whitfield to Dunkirk to start evacuating unnecessary personnel. Immediately overwhelmed by what he later described as "a somewhat alarming movement towards Dunkirk by both officers and men", due to a shortage of food and water he had to send many along without thoroughly checking their credentials. Even officers ordered to stay behind to aid the evacuation disappeared onto the boats. On 22 May Churchill ordered that the BEF should attack southward in co-ordination with the French First Army under General Georges Blanchard to reconnect with the remainder of the French forces. This proposed action was dubbed the Weygand Plan after General Maxime Weygand, appointed Supreme Commander after Gamelin's dismissal on 18 May. On 25 May, Gort had to abandon any hope of achieving this objective, and on his own recognizance withdrew, along with Blanchard's forces, behind the Lys Canal, part of a canal system that reached the sea at Gravelines. Sluice gates had already been opened all along the canal to flood extra water into the system to create a barrier (the "Canal Line") against the German advance.
The retreat was undertaken amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading the opposite direction. Due to wartime censorship and the desire to keep up British morale, the full extent of the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk was not initially publicised. A special service attended by King George VI was held in Westminster Abbey on 26 May, declared a national day of prayer. Throughout the country, people prayed for the safety of the troops. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers "for our soldiers in dire peril in France". Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout the UK that day, confirming to the public their suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.
Just before 7 pm on 26 May Churchill ordered Dynamo to formally begin. By this point some 28,000 men had already departed by sea. Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation. Only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day.
German advance halted[edit | edit source]
By 24 May the Germans captured the port of Boulogne and surrounded Calais. Captain (later Generaloberst) Heinz Guderian's engineers of the 2nd Panzer Division constructed five bridgeheads over the Canal Line, and only a single British battalion blocked the Germans from seizing the port facilities at Dunkirk. At this point, at the urging of Rundstedt and Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe Hermann Göring, Hitler issued the Halt Order: the Panzers were ordered to stop their advance. After the war, several commanders, including Runstedt and OKH Chief of Staff General Franz Halder, tried to put the blame for this decision exclusively on Hitler. However, according to Rundstedt's official war diary, Rundstedt ordered the halt, concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks and the question of supply to his forward troops. He was also concerned that the marshy ground around Dunkirk would prove unsuitable for the use of tanks, and he wished to save some of the armour for the upcoming advance on Paris. Both these concerns were shared by Hitler, who merely validated the order several hours after the fact. Hitler was urged by Göring to let the Luftwaffe (aided by Army Group B) finish the British off, to the consternation of Halder, who noted in his diary that the ability to effectively use the air force was dependent upon the weather. In addition, the pilots were worn out after two weeks of battle.
Army Group B and the Luftwaffe were unable to complete their mission due to heavy activity in the area by the Royal Air Force, a lack of motorised transport that slowed the advance of the infantry, and bad weather. On 26 May, Hitler ordered the Panzer groups to continue their advance, but the delay allowed the construction of defences vital to the evacuation.
The Halt Order has been the subject of much discussion by historians. Guderian considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major mistakes the Germans made on the Western Front. Rundstedt called it "one of the great turning points of the war", and Manstein described it as "one of Hitler's most critical mistakes".
Ongoing evacuation efforts[edit | edit source]
On 27 May, the first full day of the evacuation, active were one cruiser, eight destroyers, and twenty-six other craft. Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards for small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour, as well as larger vessels that could load from the docks. An emergency call was put out for additional help, and by 31 May nearly four hundred small craft were voluntarily and enthusiastically taking part in the effort. Also on 27 May, the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations. As the water supply was knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished. An estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town. The Luftwaffe was met by sixteen squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on the 27th while experiencing the loss of 14 aircraft. Altogether over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo. The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help. Knowing the truth of it, Churchill made a point of stating in his address in the House on 4 June that the evacuation had been made possible through the efforts of the Air Force.
On 25 and 26 May, the Luftwaffe focussed their attention on Allied pockets holding out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens, and did not attack Dunkirk. Calais, held by the BEF, surrendered on 26 May. Remnants of the French First Army, surrounded at Lille, fought off seven German divisions (several of them armoured) until 31 May, when the remaining 35,000 soldiers were forced to surrender, having run out of food and ammunition. The Belgian Army surrendered on 28 May, leaving a large gap in the protective forces to the east of Dunkirk. Several British divisions were rushed in to cover that side. On 30 May, Churchill received word that all British divisions were now behind the defensive lines, along with more than half of the French First Army. By this time the perimeter ran along a series of canals about 7 miles (11 km) from the coast, in marshy country not suitable for tanks.
With the docks in the harbour rendered unusable by German air attacks, Senior Naval Officer Captain (later Admiral) William Tennant initially ordered men to be evacuated from the beaches. When this proved too slow, he re-routed the evacuees to two long stone and concrete breakwaters, called the East and West Mole, as well as the beaches. Almost 200,000 troops embarked on ships from the East Mole (which stretched nearly a mile out to sea) over the next week. On 28 May 17,804 soldiers arrived at British ports. On 29 May, 47,310 British troops were rescued. The next day, an additional 53,823 men were embarked, including the first French soldiers. Lord Gort and 68,014 men were evacuated on 31 May, and Major-General Harold Alexander was left in command of the rearguard. A further 64,429 Allied soldiers departed on 1 June before the increasing air attacks prevented further daylight evacuation. The British rearguard of 4,000 men left on the night of 2–3 June, along with 60,000 French soldiers. An additional 26,000 French troops were retrieved the following night before the operation finally ended. The remainder of the rearguard—40,000 French troops—surrendered on 4 June.
Evacuation shipping routes[edit | edit source]
Three routes were allocated to the evacuating vessels. The shortest was Route Z, a distance of 39 nautical miles (72 km), but it entailed hugging the French coast and thus ships using it were subject to bombardment from on-shore batteries, particularly in daylight hours. Route X, although the safest from shore batteries, travelled through a particularly heavily mined portion of the Channel. Ships on this route travelled 55 nautical miles (102 km) north out of Dunkirk, proceeded through the Ruytingen Pass, and headed towards the North Goodwin Lightship before heading south around the Goodwin Sands to Dover. The route was safest from surface attacks, but the nearby minefields and sand banks meant it could not used at night. The longest of the three was Route Y, a distance 87 nautical miles (161 km); using this route increased the sailing time to four hours, double the time required if Route Z was used. This route followed the French coast as far as Bray-Dunes, then turned north-east until reaching the Kwinte Buoy. Here, after making an almost 270 degree turn, the ships sailed west to the North Goodwin Lightship and headed south around the Goodwin Sands to Dover. Ships on Route Y were the most likely to be attacked by German surface vessels, submarines, and the Luftwaffe.
Ships used[edit | edit source]
The Royal Navy provided the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Calcutta, thirty-nine destroyers, and many other craft. The Merchant Navy supplied passenger ferries, hospital ships, and other vessels. Britain's Belgian, Dutch, and French allies provided vessels as well. Admiral Ramsay arranged for around a thousand copies to be made of the required charts, had buoys laid around the Goodwin Sands and down to Dunkirk, and organised the flow of shipping. Larger ships such as destroyers were able to carry about 900 men per trip. The soldiers mostly travelled on the upper decks for fear of being trapped below if the ship sank. After the loss on 29 May of nineteen British and French navy ships plus three of the larger requisitioned vessels, the Admiralty withdrew their eight best destroyers from the operation to ensure they would be available for the future defence of the country.
Little ships[edit | edit source]
A wide variety of small vessels from all over the south of England were pressed into service to aid in the Dunkirk evacuation. They included speedboats, Thames vessels, car ferries, pleasure craft, and many other types of small craft. The most useful proved to be the motor lifeboats, which had a reasonably good capacity and speed. Some boats were requisitioned without the owner's knowledge or consent. Agents of the Ministry of Shipping, accompanied by a naval officer, scoured the Thames for likely-looking vessels, had them checked for sea-worthiness, and took them downriver to Sheerness, where naval crews were to be placed aboard. Due to shortages of personnel, many small craft crossed the Channel with civilian crews.
The first of the "little ships" arrived at Dunkirk on 28 May. The wide sand beaches at Dunkirk meant that large vessels could not get anywhere near the shore, and even small craft had to stop about 100 yards (91 m) from the waterline and wait for the soldiers to wade out. In many cases, personnel would abandon their boat upon reaching a larger ship, and subsequent evacuees had to wait for boats to drift ashore with the tide before they could make use of them. In most areas on the beaches, soldiers queued up with their units and patiently awaited their turn to leave. But at times, panicky soldiers had to be warned off at gunpoint when they attempted to rush to the boats out of turn. In addition to ferrying out on boats, soldiers at La Panne and Bray-Dunes constructed improvised jetties by driving rows of abandoned vehicles onto the beach at low tide, anchoring them with sandbags, and connecting them with wooden walkways.
Losses[edit | edit source]
Men and materiel[edit | edit source]
The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) from 10 May until the surrender of France on 22 June. All the heavy equipment had to be abandoned. Left behind in France were 2,472 guns, 20,000 motorcycles, and almost 65,000 other vehicles; also abandoned were 416,000 short tons (377,000 t) of stores, more than 75,000 short tons (68,000 t) of ammunition and 162,000 short tons (147,000 t) of fuel. Almost all of the 445 British tanks that had been sent to France with the BEF were abandoned. The army lost so many rifles that an American journalist saw battalions marching through London with only a half dozen rifles each.
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Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with nine other major vessels. In addition, 19 destroyers were damaged. Over 200 British and Allied sea craft were sunk, with a similar number damaged.
The Royal Navy's most significant losses in the operation were six destroyers:
The French Navy lost three destroyers:
Air losses[edit | edit source]
The RAF lost 145 aircraft, of which at least 42 were Spitfires, while the Luftwaffe lost 156 aircraft in operations in the nine days of Operation Dynamo. The Royal Navy claimed the destruction of 35 Luftwaffe aircraft from ships' gunfire during the period from 27 May to 1 June, and damage to another 21 aircraft. Aircraft losses from 10 May until the fall of France were 959 for the British and 1,279 for the Germans.
Aftermath[edit | edit source]
Before the operation was completed, the prognosis had been gloomy, with Winston Churchill warning the House of Commons on 28 May to expect "hard and heavy tidings". Subsequently, Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle", and the British press presented the evacuation as a "disaster turned to triumph" so successfully that Churchill had to remind the country, in a speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." Nevertheless, exhortations to the "Dunkirk spirit", a phrase used to describe the tendency of the British public to pull together and overcome times of adversity, are still heard in the United Kingdom today.
Three British divisions and a host of logistic and labour troops were cut off to the south of the Somme by the German "race to the sea". At the end of May, a further two divisions began moving to France with the hope of establishing a Second BEF. The majority of the 51st (Highland) Division was forced to surrender on 12 June, but almost 192,000 Allied personnel, 144,000 of them British, were evacuated through various French ports from 15–25 June under the codename Operation Ariel. A major setback was the sinking of the troopship HMT Lancastria at St Nazaire, with the loss of around 4,000 lives. The Germans marched into Paris on 14 June and France surrendered eight days later.
Fate of the French soldiers[edit | edit source]
More than 100,000 evacuated French troops were quickly and efficiently shuttled to camps in various parts of southwestern England, where they were temporarily lodged before being repatriated. British ships ferried French troops to Brest, Cherbourg, and other ports in Normandy and Brittany, although only about half of the repatriated troops were deployed against the Germans before the surrender of France. For many French soldiers, the Dunkirk evacuation represented only a few weeks' delay before being killed or captured by the German army after their return to France.
Of the French soldiers evacuated from France in July 1940, only about 3,000 joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French army in London. By the end of the year, De Gaulle commanded just 7,000 Free French soldiers, despite the large number ferried to England during Operation Dynamo.
In France, the unilateral British decision to evacuate through Dunkirk rather than counter-attack to the south, and the perceived preference of the Royal Navy for evacuating British forces at the expense of the French, led to some bitter resentment. According to Churchill, French Admiral François Darlan originally ordered that the British forces should receive preference but on 31 May he intervened at a meeting in Paris to order that the evacuation should proceed on equal terms and that the British would form the rearguard. In fact, the 35,000 soldiers who finally surrendered after protecting the BEF retreat were mostly French. Their resistance allowed the evacuation effort to be extended to 4 June, on which date another 26,175 Frenchmen were brought to the United Kingdom.
British POWs[edit | edit source]
For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war. The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany. Prisoners reported brutal treatment by their guards, including beatings, starvation, and murder. In particular, the British prisoners complained that French prisoners were given preferential treatment. Another major complaint was that German guards kicked over buckets of water that had been left at the roadside by French civilians for the marching prisoners to drink. Many of the prisoners were marched to the town of Trier, with the march taking as long as 20 days. Others were marched to the river Scheldt and were sent by barge to the Ruhr. The prisoners were then sent by rail to prisoner of war camps in Germany. The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for the remainder of the war.
Dunkirk jack[edit | edit source]
The St George's Cross defaced with the arms of Dunkirk flown from the jack staff is the warranted house flag of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. It is known as the Dunkirk jack. The flag is flown only by civilian vessels that took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation.
See also[edit | edit source]
References[edit | edit source]
Notes[edit | edit source]
Bibliography[edit | edit source]
Jodl, Alfred. "OKW Diary". pp. Volume 40, section 25.
Further reading[edit | edit source]
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