Today is the anniversary of the final day of the evacuation of Dunkirk in northern France in World War II. Code-named Operation Dynamo, the massive retreat across the English Channel ran from May 26 through June 4 in 1940. Thanks to the efforts of multiple countries, strategic planning and action, and some well-timed good fortune, over 330,000 soldiers were rescued from the encroaching German forces.
As I suspect is the case with many Americans, I did not know much about the Battle of Dunkirk or the scope and importance of its incredible evacuation until seeing Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk last year. I attribute this to the tendency we have to pay attention primarily only to what is relevant to our chosen history; in this case, as a citizen of the United States of America, I don’t generally consider what happened in World War II until December 7, 1941. Nolan’s excellent movie helped to show me the amazing story of Dunkirk, yet as harrowing and exciting as it is, I still did not grasp just how big on a global scale those 10 days were and the effect the aftermath had on England, France, and the World.
From May 10, 1940, the British, French, and other Allies, including Belgium and the Netherlands, were fighting a losing battle against the Nazis. The Battle of France was a six-week series of mostly defeats for the Allies that led to the Nazis taking France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. In the midst of this fighting, the British realized their forces – called the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – and those of their allies needed to be rescued before the Nazis overtook them and all but won the war. They ordered Operation Dynamo, which sought to bring the English and Allied troops back to England where they would be able to regroup safely to return to fight the Nazis another day.
The first step of Dynamo was to secure an evacuation route from a good port. The biggest and best in northern France was Dunkirk, so the Allies converged most of their men in northwester France around Dunkirk. Certain smaller bands were designated to stave off the German advance in key areas with the intent to buy more time for the tremendous evacuation. Furthermore, canals were dug and flooded, and the BEF and French and their Allies utilized the natural marshes around Dunkirk to their advantage to set up countermeasures to slow the pace of Nazi troops and especially tanks. The British commanders knew that the German panzer tanks would not be able to slog through the waterways and wetlands. On May 24, the Nazi leaders and high command determined that an infantry and panzer advance was to be halted and the fleeing Allies be left to the Luftwaffe. Just two days later, Hitler rescinded his own stop order and urged the tanks and men to get back to the pursuit, but it was too late. The delayed march of the panzers – which also were unable to get underway for about half a day after they would ordered back into the fray – allowed the Allies to fortify their defenses and helped secure their escape. Had the panzers continued, then it is likely that many more Allied forces would have perished and the Nazis would have dealt a major blow to their greatest adversaries, perhaps even putting themselves in position to win the war. However, quite luckily, things did not go that way, and the British were allowed more time to send ships to retrieve and rescue. According to historians, Hitler assumed that once they fled to England, the British and French would simply give up on the rest of Western Europe.
Of course he was wrong, as he was about a great many things. The British people, soldiers and civilians, were resilient, a fact that was proven when the Little Ships of Dunkirk came to aid the evacuation. These were over 800 privately owned boats of all sizes brought into service of the Royal Navy to assist their own larger seacraft in getting men from the beaches to the ships and on to England. However, as the Naval forces were understandably thin, many civilians actively volunteered and sailed alongside the Navy men to pick up the Allied soldiers.
These events were shown in the Nolan movie (which it should be clear by now I recommend), as were the aerial role on a smaller scale. The Luftwaffe was frequently vexed by weather during the evacuation, but the Royal Air Force (RAF) also did their part in protecting the waiting men from threats from the sky. Most of these dog fights took place over the English Channel, and some fleeing vessels saw them, but the general sentiment at the time was that the RAF was not a help at all simply because the soldiers and naval men did not witness their protector pilots in action!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the evacuation that was not detailed in the movie is the three different routes that the ships ferrying men to England took across the Channel. The featured title picture depicts these, showing that while it was a relatively short journey of just a couple of hours to steam north to England, this was not a realistic option for all the ships. They had to disperse to account for avoiding sea mines, aircraft, enemy ships and submarines, and fire from the French shore that was already occupied by the Nazis. Not to mention, nighttime travels were also bound by limitations. The shortest route was about 70 kilometers and was in line with shore-based guns; the mid-distance route was roughly 100 km, but was the most densely mined; and the longest route was near 160 km and took four hours to complete.
All in all, the incredible coordination between nations helped save hundreds of thousands and helped ignite the fire anew in the British and Allies. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave his impassioned “We shall fight on the beaches” speech (the one at the end of the movie) to the House of Commons where he reminded the people that wars are not won with retreats, but added that England would never surrender, and that even if they were somehow overwhelmed, that the rest of their Empire and other allies in the world would come to their rescue in due time because they could survive until then. Fortunately, the British, French, Belgian, Dutch, and others were able to endure and retaliate in time, and were aided by their allies across the world. This is the part typically where my history lesson would begin, but it should be noted and remembered that so much was at stake on beach in northern France before 1944.
Thanks for reading. Feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or suggestions. I hope you’ll come on back here again next week for a dive into the life of one of the most remarkable men to advance our knowledge of nature.