Dunkirk, and the evacuation associated with the troops trapped on Dunkirk, was called a "miracle" by Winston Churchill. As the Wehrmacht swept through western Europe in the spring of 1940, using Blitzkrieg, both the French and British armies could not stop the onslaught. For the people in western Europe, World War Two was about to start for real. The "Phoney War" was now over.
A German light tank breaks down in Belgium. Preparations are being made for it to be towed away by another tank
The advancing German Army trapped the British and French armies on the beaches around Dunkirk. 330,000 men were trapped here and they were a sitting target for the Germans. Admiral Ramsey, based in Dover, formulated Operation Dynamo to get off of the beaches as many men as was possible. The British troops, led by Lord John Gort, were professional soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force; trained men that we could not afford to lose. From May 26th 1940, small ships transferred soldiers to larger ones which then brought them back to a port in southern Britain.
The beach at Dunkirk was on a shallow slope so no large boat could get near to the actual beaches where the men were. Therefore, smaller boats were needed to take on board men who would then be transferred to a larger boat based further off shore. 800 of these legendary "little ships" were used.
Vehicles left behind by the British after the evacuation from Dunkirk
Despite attacks from German fighter and bomber planes, the Wehrmacht never launched a full-scale attack on the beaches of Dunkirk. Panzer tank crews awaited the order from Hitler but it never came.
In his memoirs, Field Marshall Rundstadt, the German commander-in-chief in France during the 1940 campaign, called Hitler's failure to order a full-scale attack on the troops on Dunkirk his first fatal mistake of the war. That 338,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk would seem to uphold this view.
DUNKIRK (Source: BBC)
On 24 May, just as Guderian was expecting to drive into Dunkirk, Hitler gave the surprise order to withdraw back to the canal line. Why the order was given has never been explained fully.
One possible explanation is that Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, assured Hitler that his aircraft alone could destroy the Allied troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk. Others believe Hitler felt that Britain might accept peace terms more readily without a humiliating surrender. Whatever the reason, the German halt gave the Allies an unexpected opportunity to evacuate their troops.
Evacuation began on 26 May and gained urgency the next day, when Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, the German Commander-in-Chief, persuaded Hitler to rescind his orders and German tanks again advanced on Dunkirk.
By this time the Allies had strengthened their defences and the tanks met heavy resistance. Almost immediately, Hitler ordered them instead to move south for the imminent attack on the Somme-Aisne line, another lucky break for the Allies.
Heavy German bombing had destroyed Dunkirk's harbour, and there were hundreds of thousands of men on the beach, hoping to be rescued. The Luftwaffe attacked whenever the weather allowed, reducing the town of Dunkirk to rubble.
On 29 May, the evacuation was announced to the British public, and many privately owned boats started arriving at Dunkirk to ferry the troops to safety. This flotilla of small vessels famously became known as the 'Little Ships'. The contribution these civilian vessels made to the Dunkirk evacuation gave rise to the term 'Dunkirk spirit', an expression still used to describe the British ability to rally together in the face of adversity.
By 4 June, when the operation ended, 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops had been saved, but virtually all of their heavy equipment had been abandoned. Six destroyers had been sunk, along with eight personnel ships and around 200 small craft, from a total of around 860 vessels of all sizes.
A further 220,000 Allied troops were rescued by British ships from other French ports (Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest, and Saint-Nazaire), bringing the total of Allied troops evacuated to 558,000.
Although the Germans had taken over a million Allied prisoners in three weeks at a cost of 60,000 casualties, the evacuation was a major boost to British morale and enabled the Allies to fight another day - even if that fight was to be on home turf, resisting the expected German invasion of Britain.