On June 4, 1940, the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk on the Belgian coast ends as German forces capture the beach port. The nine-day evacuation, the largest of its kind in history and an unexpected success, saved 338,000 Allied troops from capture by the Nazis.
On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched their attack against the West, storming into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. Faced with far superior airpower, more unified command, and highly mobile armored forces, the Allied defenders were a poor match for the German Wehrmacht. In a lightning attack, the Germans raced across Western Europe. On May 12, they entered France, out-flanking the northwest corners of the Maginot Line, previously alleged by French military command to be an impregnable defense of their eastern border. On May 15, the Dutch surrendered.
The Germans advanced in an arc westward from the Ardennes in Belgium, along France’s Somme River, and to the English Channel, cutting off communication between the Allies’ northern and southern forces. The Allied armies in the north, which comprised the main body of Allied forces, were quickly being encircled. By May 19, Lord John Gort, the British commander, was already considering the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sea.
Reluctant to retreat so soon, the Allies fought on and launched an ineffective counterattack on May 21. By May 24, Walther von Brauchitsch, the German army commander in chief, was poised to take Dunkirk, the last port available for the withdrawal of the mass of the BEF from Europe. Fortunately for the Allies, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler suddenly intervened, halting the German advance. Hitler had been assured by Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe, that his aircraft could destroy the Allied forces trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk, so Hitler ordered the forces besieging Dunkirk to pull back.
On May 26, the British finally initiated Operation Dynamo–the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk. The next day, the Allies learned that King Leopold III of Belgium was surrendering, and the Germans resumed the land attack on Dunkirk. By then, the British had fortified their defenses, but the Germans would not be held for long, and the evacuation was escalated. As there were not enough ships to transport the huge masses of men stranded at Dunkirk, the British Admiralty called on all British citizens in possession of sea-worthy vessels to lend their ships to the effort. Fishing boats, pleasure yachts, lifeboats, and other civilian ships raced to Dunkirk, braving mines, bombs, and torpedoes.
During the 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 other ships within a few miles of the English coast. The harbor at Dunkirk was bombed out of use, and small 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 who had expected disaster. By June 4, when the Germans closed in and the operation came to an end, 198,000 British and 140,000 French troops were saved. These experienced soldiers would play a crucial role in future resistance against Nazi Germany.
With Western Europe abandoned by its main defenders, the German army swept through the rest of France, and Paris fell on June 14. Eight days later, Henri Petain signed an armistice with the Nazis at Compiegne. Germany annexed half the country, leaving the other half in the hands of their puppet French rulers. On June 6, 1944, liberation of Western Europe finally began with the successful Allied landing at Normandy.