Dunkirk: What Actually Happened

It was the largest evacuation of allied forces during WWII and salvation came from the unlikeliest of rescuers. But what actually happened in May and June 1940?

Dunkirk

ALLIED DEFEAT IN THE BATTLE OF FRANCE

When the Battle of France began on May 11, 1940, German armour burst through the Ardennes region and advanced rapidly driving north, while Germans also invaded to the east, subduing the Netherlands. From there this seemingly unstoppable army advanced quickly through Belgium.

As a result the combined British, French, and Belgian forces were rapidly divided around Armentières. The situation worsened when the German juggernaught then rumbled north to capture Calais, with terrifyingly powerful panzer divisions holding a large number of Allied soldiers trapped against the coast on the Franco-Belgian border.

It became gravely clear to the British that the battle was lost and so the Allied military leaders began working on how many of their troops could they get the hell out of there and back to the safety of England before they were crushed!

British troops preparing to retreat at Dunkirk, France.

British troops preparing to retreat at Dunkirk, France.

OPERATION DYNAMO

On May 22nd preparations for what was named Operation Dynamo began. commanded from Dover by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, who called for as many naval vessels as possible, as well as every ship capable of carrying 1,000 men.

On May 27th a request was placed to civilians to provide all shallow draught vessels be included for the operation, and answering the call to aid were fishing boats, fire ships, paddle steamers, private yachts, and Belgian barges.

Now the hopes of all the trapped Allied soldiers rested on this ragtag fleet, some of which had come from as far as the Isle of Man and the West Country. They embarked that night but sadly only 8,000 soldiers were recovered due to heavy German fire.

SECOND WAVE

A major attempt was made on May 28, and a further 16,000 men recovered but many vessels were sunk or badly damaged, including nine destroyers. During Operation Dynamo, the sky was lit up with fighter planes engaging in fearsome dogfights. On that day the RAF lost 177 planes and the Luffwaffe 132 over Dunkirk.

TURN OF THE TIDE

On May 29 there was an unexpected change of fate; the German army stopped its advance on Dunkirk and the panzer divisions were called back. Convinced that the area could be captured by the German air force alone, Hitler reduced his arsenal in Northern France to slower infantry, with the help of the Luffwaffe in the skies above.

British soldiers boarding ships during the evacuation from Dunkirk, France.

British soldiers boarding ships during the evacuation from Dunkirk, France.

This weakened German side made it possible for the Allies to rescue 30,000 men, while on the next day over 68,000 troops were evacuated with another 10,000 or so overnight. On June 1 another 65,000 were rescued.

The operations continued until June 4, with a total of five nations taking part in the evacuation from Dunkirk - Britain, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Poland.

"A MIRACLE"

In total 338,226 troops were evacuated from the clutches of the German army, all taken back to Dover by around 900 vessels. Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle" and the "Dunkirk spirit" - the triumph in the face of adversity - is still celebrated today.

This great victory boosted national pride and led to a great boost to British morale, but Churchill as usual kept his composure. In a speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, he reminded Britain:

We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.

WHAT IF?

The battle of Dunkirk has become one of the great 'what-ifs' of our history. Had the German army not been halted in their advancement on Dunkirk it is possible that all those Allied troops would have been obliterated.

The implications of this could have been disastrous for England. It's possible that our morale would have been so weakened that our government would have been toppled, and replaced with one who may have been more prepared to cooperate with Nazi Germany, as had occurred in France.

Needless to say, this didn't happen. And we like to think that it would have been unlikely. After all, Churchill had become Prime Minister in 1940 precisely because his refusal to deal with Hitler reflected the 'bulldog' mood of the nation and the triumphant evacuation of Dunkirk captured the hearts and minds of the British people in their darkest hour!