Rows of soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk awaiting rescue. Credit: Shutterstocl.

Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) line up on the beach at Dunkirk awaiting evacuation. Credit: Shutterstock. 

WWII

Dunkirk 80th Anniversary: Ten-Minute History Lesson

The stakes could not have been higher. The remnants of the BEF stood exposed on the beach, hoping to be saved

Rows of soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk awaiting rescue. Credit: Shutterstocl.

Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) line up on the beach at Dunkirk awaiting evacuation. Credit: Shutterstock. 

“Wars are not won by evacuations.”

Those were the chilling words Winston Churchill used to remind the country in 1940 that the successful beach evacuation of over 300,000 Allied soldiers did not represent a victory.

He was right.

The Dunkirk Evacuation, although successful in the face of daunting odds, was the lowest moment for the British in both the world wars of the 20th century. A success, yes, but a victory, no.

But what exactly was the Dunkirk Evacuation, how did it come to be and what did it mean for Europe and the rest of World War Two?

Here, BFBS gives you the essential info on the Dunkirk Evacuation.

When Was The Dunkirk Evacuation?

The Dunkirk Evacuation occurred during the Battle of France, from May 26 to June 4, 1940.

The opening eight or so months of WWII were dismissively referred to by many as the ‘phoney war’. This was in reference to Britain being at war with Germany, but seemingly only on paper.

Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939 after it invaded Poland, but with such a period of no action following that declaration, many Britons wrongly assumed large scale fighting would not come to pass.

Ships to the rescue at Dunkirk. Credit: Shutterstock.

Ships sent to Dunkirk to evacuate the stranded soldiers were under an almost constant aerial and sea attack. Credit: Shutterstock.

Why Did It Happen?

On May 10, 1940, Hitler ordered the simultaneous invasion of Belgium, The Netherlands, Luxembourg and France.

The invasion of these countries is generally referred to as 'The Battle of France' because the low countries were technically neutral until Hitler's forces invaded them, whereas France had stood with Britain against Germany since September 1939.

Ahead of this, Britain had sent soldiers to France to sure up defences in the event of an invasion, but also to deter Hitler from invading in the first place.

In the weeks leading up to the German invasion of France and the low countries, there had been mounting pressure on the Prime Minster, Neville Chamberlain, to consider stepping aside. On May 10, this came to a head when the ailing leader resigned. He would be dead by the end of the year. 

Neville Chamberlain's resignation paved the way for a different style of war time leadership… and the man chosen to provide that was Winston Churchill.

The soldiers sent to France ahead of its invasion formed part of the British Expeditionary Force.

When the Panzer tanks of the German Army began their Blitzkrieg over the boarders into Belgium, The Netherlands and France, aided by air cover from the Luftwaffe, day by day the soldiers of the BEF found themselves pushed further and further back towards the English Channel.

The ferocity of this new style of warfare – Blitzkrieg – was not matched by the Allied forces of Belgium, France and Britain.

By May 21, the BEF found itself cut off, isolated and surrounded by German forces on the Northwest beaches of France.

The situation was dire enough for the British Commander on the ground, General Viscount Gort, to concede the battle lost, and so he signalled a request to have his forces evacuated out of France as earnestly as possible.

Gort identified a coastal town to the north of Calais as the nearest place with a big enough Harbour to handle such an evacuation … the town was called Dunkirk. 

Operation Dynamo

The Evacuation of the standard British, French and Belgian soldiers at Dunkirk was named Operation Dynamo.

The plan was to use naval assets and any and all civilian vessels situated in the south of England to get across the English Channel and pick up the stranded Allied soldiers.

Operation Dynamo began on May 26 and continued until the last men got off the beach at Dunkirk on June 4.

While the soldiers waited to be evacuated either from the Mole (a long man-made concrete arm that ran out to sea from the Harbour for about a mile) or from the beach itself, the Luftwaffe subjected the hundreds of thousands of waiting troops to aerial bombardment and in the waters around Dunkirk, German U-boats attacked the rescuing vessels as they arrived and departed. The waters were also littered with mines.

In the skies above Dunkirk, the Royal Air Force engaged in an almost constant air battle with the Luftwaffe to help protect the men waiting on the beaches below.

Civilian Boats and Vessels

To aid the evacuation, the Ministry of Shipping requisitioned approximately 800 “little boats” from areas across the south of England, including the River Thames. In many cases, the owners of the boats didn’t know their crafts had been commandeered for the operation. 

The Navy tried to place military personnel on each of the crafts, but when the call came to sail across the channel and begin the rescue, hundreds set off crewed solely by civilians.

The flotilla of civilian crafts included speedboats, car ferries, motor lifeboats and pleasure craft.

The little boats were ideal for picking up the standard soldiers on the beach, freeing up the larger ships to collect men off the Mole.

Thanks to the little boats, 98,671 men were rescued off the beach at Dunkirk.

Ships

While the little boats crewed largely by civilians picked up the beach-stranded men, larger ships picked up the bulk of the BEF via the Mole at Dunkirk harbour.

The Royal Navy provided over 40 ships including HMS Calcutta, an anti-aircraft cruiser. It arrived with 39 destroyers and other crafts including minesweepers, gunboats, torpedo boats and hospital carriers. The Merchant Navy also played a vital role in the operation.

As the evacuation unfolded over the first three days, so substantial were the losses of naval vessels from the bombing attacks by the Luftwaffe and Nazi U-Boats, the Admiralty withdrew several destroyers from the operation for the future defence of the Britain.

By the end of Operation Dynamo, the larger ships had rescued 239,555 men from Dunkirk Harbour, mostly by mooring alongside the Mole from which the troops boarded. Ships also collected men from other crafts damaged by explosions, or by the transferring of men from the little boats.

Losses

During the Dunkirk Evacuation, The Luftwaffe dropped 30,000 incendiary and 15,000 high-explosive bombs on the trapped men stood on the Mole and on the beaches below.

The BEF had to abandon almost all its heavy equipment as it retreated towards the coast in France.

Included in this hardware write-off were 85,000 vehicles, almost half a million tonnes of stores, 76,000 tonnes of ammo and almost all of Britain’s tanks.

Nine destroyers were lost, including six that were British. And of the other vessels ordered over to take part in the rescue, 200 now sit on the seabed of the English Channel.

The Royal Air Force had engaged in the fiercest air-to-air fighting that had, at that point, ever been seen.

Churchill would later single out the RAF when discussing why so many men were able to get off the beach alive, many more men than had in fact been hoped for.

But in doing so, the RAF sustained the loss of 145 aircraft, 42 of which were Spitfires. Unbeknown to them was the extent of which these aircraft would be missed as the Blitz got underway just three months later.

The preceding weeks of the Dunkirk Evacuation and Operation Dynamo itself saw the loss of 68,000 men. It was a terrible outcome for the British. 

A German Bunker from WWII remains at Dunkirk today. Credit JumpStory.

The evidence of war remains vivid at Dunkirk today. Credit JumpStory.

Aftermath

The Dunkirk Evacuation is also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. This is because of two key factors.

One, the weather conditions over the English Channel allowed the 800-strong civilian flotilla to cross the often-challenging waters of the Channel unimpeded. Had the weather turned bad, those crafts may not have reached the beaches of Dunkirk when they did. This would have resulted in the men on the beaches being exposed for longer, with German forces coming at them from all sides.

Secondly, and this proved crucial, by fluke Hitler ordered his ground forces to stop attacking Dunkirk for three days at the start of the evacuation operation, and instead instructed the Luftwaffe to finish off the job of destroying the BEF. In doing so, he failed to account for the skill and tenacity of the Royal Air Force, who put up a better fight than their German counterparts. But by halting the ground assault for three days, Hitler provided the BEF crucial time to sure up defences on the flanks of Dunkirk, which just about held out long enough for 338,226 men to be rescued.

This decision proved costly for Hitler and is often considered one his biggest mistakes of the war. 

The flanks of Dunkirk were protected, thinly, by mostly French soldiers. As the evacuation came to an end, many of those men surrendered to the Germans and became Prisoners of War. Without their holding of the flanks, which they did knowing to an extent they were either going to be killed or captured, the evacuation would not have been a success. 

The Battle of France continued for some weeks into June and ultimately ended in victory for Germany. It would be the high point of the war for Hitler, but for Britain it marked the start of what was referred to by Winston Churchill as “our darkest hour.”

On June 4, 1940, Prime Minster Winston Churchill made his most famous speech of the war.

His address at the House of Commons was in response to some of his colleagues in government and other influential voices calling on him to offer terms to Hitler under a negotiated peace.

Churchill said:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.

“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…”

The war time Prime Minster described the Dunkirk Evacuation as a “deliverance” from what looked at one point like the probable wipe-out of the British Expeditionary Force.

Instead, over three hundred thousand men were rescued and returned to England.

Britain would spend four long years preparing for the right moment to strike back and liberate not only France, but the whole of Europe. 

It had lost the battle, but the war still needed to be won.

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