Dunkirk is a small town on the coast of France and the scene of a massive military campaign during World War II. As the German army advanced through northern France, it cut off British troops from their French allies, forcing an enormous evacuation of soldiers across the North Sea to England. In the days following the successful evacuation, the campaign became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”
Where Is Dunkirk?
Dunkirk is located in the north of France, on the shores of the North Sea near the Belgian-French border. The Strait of Dover, where the distance between England and France is just 21 miles across the English Channel, is located to the southwest.
Because of its seaside location near the borders of three European powers, Dunkirk (known as Dunkerque in French) and the surrounding area have been the scene of centuries of commerce and travel, as well as numerous bloody battles.
Battle of Dunkirk
On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched their attack against the West, storming into Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg with lightning speed. Faced with vastly superior airpower, a more unified command and highly mobile armored forces, the Allied defenders were a poor match for the German Wehrmacht.
By May 12, the Germans had entered France, out-flanking the northwest corners of the Maginot Line, alleged by French military commanders to be an impregnable defense of their border. On May 15, the Dutch surrendered—Belgium would surrender unconditionally two weeks later.
The Germans continued their advance in an arc westward from the Ardennes in Belgium, along France’s Somme River, and toward the English Channel, cutting off all communication and transport between the Allies’ northern and southern forces.
The Allied armies in the north, trapped by the sea near Dunkirk, were quickly being encircled on all sides. By May 19, Lord John Gort, the British commander, was already considering the withdrawal of the entire British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sea.
Reluctant to retreat so soon, the Allies fought on and launched a desperate counterattack on May 21. But 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 BEF from Europe.
Fortunately for the Allies, Nazi leaders halted 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 the forces besieging Dunkirk pulled back.
Operation Dynamo Begins
On May 26, the British began to implement 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 would soon resume their attack on Dunkirk.
By then, the British had fortified their defenses, but they knew the Germans would not be held off for long, and the evacuation at Dunkirk was escalated. As there were not enough ships to transport the huge masses of men stranded near the beaches, the British Admiralty called on all British citizens in possession of any sea-worthy vessels to lend their ships to the effort.
Hundreds of fishing boats, pleasure yachts, lifeboats, ferries and other civilian ships of every size and type raced to Dunkirk, braving mines, bombs, torpedoes and the ruthless airborne attacks of the German Luftwaffe.
Le Paradis Massacre
After holding off a German company until their ammunition was spent, 99 soldiers from the Royal Norfolk Regiment retreated to a farmhouse in the village of Paradis, just 50 miles from Dunkirk.
Agreeing to surrender, the trapped regiment started to file out of the farmhouse, waving a white flag tied to a bayonet. They were met by German machine-gun fire.
They tried again and the British regiment was ordered by an English-speaking German officer to an open field where they were searched and divested of everything from gas masks to cigarettes. They were then marched into a pit where machine guns had been placed in fixed positions.
The German order came: “Fire!” Those Brits who survived the machine-gun fire were either stabbed to death with bayonets or shot dead with pistols.
Of the 99 members of the regiment, only two survived, both privates: Albert Pooley and William O’Callaghan. They lay among the dead until dark, then, in the middle of a rainstorm, they crawled to a farmhouse, where their wounds were tended.
With nowhere else to go, they surrendered again to the Germans, who made them POWs. Pooley’s leg was so badly wounded he was repatriated to England in April 1943 in exchange for some wounded German soldiers.
Upon his return to Britain, Pooley’s gruesome story was not believed. Only when O’Callaghan returned home and verified the story was a formal investigation made.
Finally, after the war, a British military tribunal in Hamburg found the German officer who gave the “Fire” order, Captain Fritz Knochlein, guilty of a war crime. He was hanged for his offense.
Civilians of Dunkirk
As horrific as the Battle of Dunkirk was for soldiers, it was perhaps worse for unarmed civilians, as thousands of refugees fled for their lives to escape the fallout of the battle.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in a radio broadcast, made known the dire situation of Belgian and French civilians suffering the fallout of the Battle of Dunkirk:
“Tonight, over the once peaceful roads of Belgium and France, millions are now moving, running from their homes to escape bombs and shells and machine gunning, without shelter, and almost wholly without food,” said Roosevelt.
During the Dunkirk 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 ships within a few miles of the English coast.
The harbor at Dunkirk was bombed out of use, and smaller 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 and the rank-and-file soldiers who had expected utter disaster.
By June 4, when the Germans closed in and the operation came to an end, more than 338,000 soldiers were saved. These experienced troops would play a crucial role in future resistance against Nazi Germany.
Aftermath of Dunkirk
Thousands of French troops, however, were left behind and taken prisoner by the advancing Germans. Also abandoned on the shores of Dunkirk were massive supplies of ammunition, machine guns, tanks, motorcycles, jeeps and anti-aircraft artillery.
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 of France, leaving the other half in the hands of their puppet French rulers. It wasn’t until June 6, 1944, that the liberation of Western Europe finally began with the successful Allied landing at Normandy.