1. IT SAVED OUR NATION
If the evacuation of Dunkirk hadn't happened, we may well have lost the war against Nazi Germany. That's how crucial it was. Thousands upon thousands of Allied troops had been caught in a pincer movement of German fighters, and literally cornered in a patch of France. They were sitting ducks, waiting to be killed or captured by the advancing Germans. Prime Minister Winston Churchill himself didn't mince words, describing it as a "colossal military disaster" - one of the worst ever to befall our nation. As he put it, the "whole root and core and brain of the British Army" was on the brink of being eliminated.
If that had happened, Britain would probably have become the next domino to fall in Europe, and Hitler might have ultimately triumphed. Yet somehow the country managed to mount the most audacious rescue operation of all time, resulting in what Churchill memorably described as a "miracle of deliverance".
2. IT HAD AN AMATEUR ARMADA
Dunkirk has become iconic because of its fleet of ships, sent across the bombed and battered waters to save the stranded Allies. What made this armada so incredible was the fact it was made up of so many tiny civilian boats. They were needed to get through the shallow waters to where the soldiers were, and that meant the military had to gather together pretty much any kind of vessel they could get their hands on, from private yachts to fishing boats to paddle steamers. Some fishermen even manned their own boats, bravely plunging into the thick of battle.
One of the legendary "little ships of Dunkirk" was the Medway Queen, a paddle steamer which made no fewer than seven trips during the evacuation and saved a staggering 7,000 men. The plucky ship, dubbed the "Heroine of Dunkirk", was a fighter as well as a rescue vessel, even managing to shoot down German planes. Years later, it would be transformed into a nightclub. Another famous Dunkirk boat was the pleasure steamer Marchioness. It made it through WW2, only to hit the headlines in 1989 when it tragically sunk in the Thames while hosting a party, with the loss of 51 lives.
3. THEY WERE UNDER CONSTANT ATTACK
As if the sheer logistics of the Dunkirk evacuation weren't difficult enough, we have to remember that this immense operation took place under constant German bombardment. Thousands of Allies and civilians perished over the days of the mission, as Hitler's forces mounted a merciless assault. One victim was the HMS Wakeful.
While transporting hundreds of troops back to Dover, the Wakeful came under aerial attack, but escaped with only minor damage. Showing characteristic bravery, the crew went right back into the mayhem of Dunkirk to rescue yet more men, but this time she was hit by German torpedoes, erupting in a fireball. Only one of the 640 evacuated troops survived, along with some of the ship's crew. Some of them were then rescued from the freezing waters by another ship, the Grafton, which was in turn hit by a torpedo as well, with the loss of her captain. Miraculously, the survivors were rescued yet again by other ships. The story perfectly reveals just how determined and well-orchestrated Dunkirk was.
4. THE RESULTS WERE IMMENSE
On the first day of the Dunkirk evacuation, only 7,669 men were plucked to safety. A good number, but who could have predicted that just days later, the total would have climbed to just over 338,000? It's all the more amazing when you consider how so many men had to literally wait patiently, shoulder-deep in lapping waves as bombs scattered around them.
As one veteran recalled, "You had the impression of people standing waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving." They even had to tie together lorries to create makeshift jetties in order to clamber on board the boats. That was the kind of calm resilience they showed in the face of annihilation, and it's why Dunkirk should be remembered as a monumental military achievement.