Dunkirk evacuation of allied troops. (Credit: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
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Introduction

Dunkirk is a small town on the coast of France that was the scene of a massive military campaign during World War II. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, some 338,000 British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk to England as German forces closed in on them. The massive operation, involving hundreds of naval and civilian vessels, became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk” and served as a turning point for the Allied war effort.

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 site of centuries of commerce and travel, as well as numerous bloody battles.

On May 10, 1940, the so-called “phony war” ended decisively when Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium in a blitzkrieg (German for “lightning war”) attack.

In the face of such a coordinated strategy, superior air power and highly mobile ground forces supported by panzer tanks, all three countries would succumb quickly: The Germans occupied Luxembourg on May 10, the Netherlands on May 14 and Belgium by the end of the month.

Soon after the blitzkrieg began, German forces invaded France—not along the Maginot Line, which the Allies had expected, but through the Ardennes Forest, moving steadily along the Somme Valley toward the English Channel.

As they advanced, German forces cut off all communication and transport between the northern and southern branches of Allied forces, pushing several hundred thousand Allied troops in the north into an increasingly small sliver of the French coast.

By May 19, General John Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had begun to weigh the possibility of evacuating his entire force by sea in order to save them from certain annihilation by the approaching Nazi troops.

Meanwhile, in London, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had resigned under pressure on May 13, making way for a new wartime coalition government headed by Winston Churchill. At first, British command opposed evacuation, and French forces wanted to hold out as well.

But with the BEF and its allies forced back on the French port of Dunkirk, located on the shores of the North Sea just 10 km (6.2 miles) from the Belgian border, Churchill soon became convinced evacuation was the only option.

In planning this risky operation, the Allies got a helping hand from a surprising source: Adolf Hitler, who on May 24 gave the order to halt the advance of German panzer divisions bearing down on Dunkirk.

Hitler’s decision has been attributed to his generals’ worries over a possible Allied counterattack (like the failed one on May 21 south of Arras) as well as Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering’s insistence that his air forces could prevent any evacuation attempt at Dunkirk.

Hitler gave the tanks the go-ahead again on May 26, but by that time the Allies had gained crucial time to put their preparations in place.

On the evening of May 26, the British began the evacuation from Dunkirk, using the codename Operation Dynamo.

Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay directed the efforts, leading a team working out of a room deep inside the Dover cliffs that had once contained a generator known as a dynamo (giving the operation its name).

The Luftwaffe’s relentless bombing attacks on the harbor slowed the evacuation process, even as Royal Air Force (RAF) planes tried to delay or stop the German planes from reaching the beaches, losing many aircraft in the process.

On the first day, Operation Dynamo was only able to evacuate about 7,500 men from Dunkirk; 15,000 more got out the following day (May 27).

As Dunkirk had such a shallow beach, Royal Navy vessels couldn’t reach it, and the Allies put out a call for smaller ships to carry troops from the shore to the larger ships further out in the North Sea. Some 800 to 1,200 boats, many of them leisure or fishing crafts, eventually aided in the evacuation from Dunkirk.

Some were requisitioned by the Navy and crewed by naval personnel, while others were manned by their civilian owners and crew. The first members of this small armada—which would become known as the “Little Ships”—began arriving on the beaches of Dunkirk on the morning of May 28, helping to speed up the evacuation.

At the outset, Churchill and the rest of British command expected that the evacuation from Dunkirk could rescue only around 45,000 men at most. But the success of Operation Dynamo exceeded all expectations. On May 29, more than 47,000 British troops were rescued; more than 53,000, including the first French troops, made it out on May 30.

By the time the evacuations ended, some 198,000 British and 140,000 French troops would manage to get off the beaches at Dunkirk—a total of some 338,000 men. An additional 90,000 Allied forces were left behind, along with the bulk of the BEF’s heavy guns and tanks, when the resistance ended on the morning of June 4 and German troops occupied Dunkirk.

On May 27, 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, about 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.

A German officer, Captain Fritz Knochlein, gave the order: “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.

After the war, a British military tribunal in Hamburg found Captain Knochlein, who gave the fateful order to fire, guilty of a war crime. He was hanged for his offense.

While the German blitzkrieg was undoubtedly successful (France would call for an armistice by mid-June 1940), the largely successful evacuation of the bulk of Britain’s trained troops from near-annihilation proved to be a key moment in the Allied war effort.

Germany had hoped defeat at Dunkirk would lead Britain to negotiate a speedy exit from the conflict. Instead, the “Miracle at Dunkirk” became a rallying cry for the duration of the war, and an iconic symbol of the British spirit, leaving a cultural legacy of pride and perseverance that endures nearly eight decades later.

“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory,” Churchill warned in a speech delivered on June 4, 1940. “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

In the same speech, however, he delivered a stirring statement of the British resolve that would serve the nation well over the next five grueling years of warfare:

“[We] shall not flag or fail. 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.”

Despite the successful evacuation at Dunkirk, thousands of French troops 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.

Walter Lord, The Miracle of Dunkirk (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2012; Originally published 1982).
WWII: Dunkirk Evacuation, BBC Archive.