Dunkirk Evacuation

The Evacuation That Saved the British Army During WWII

The evacuation of Dunkirk
The Evacuation of Dunkirk as painted by Charles Cundall, Dunkirk, France, June 1, 1940. (Photo by Charles Cundall/Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

From May 26 to June 4, 1940, the British sent 222 Royal Navy ships and about 800 civilian boats to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops from the seaport of Dunkirk in France during World War II. After eight months of inaction during the "Phoney War," British, French, and Belgian troops were quickly overwhelmed by Nazi Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics when the attack began on May 10, 1940.

Rather than be completely annihilated, the BEF decided to retreat to Dunkirk and hope for evacuation. Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of over a quarter million troops from Dunkirk, seemed a near impossible task, but the British people pulled together and ultimately rescued about 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops. Without the evacuation at Dunkirk, World War II would have been lost in 1940.

Preparing to Fight

After World War II started on September 3, 1939, there was a period of approximately eight months in which basically no fighting occurred; journalists called this the “Phoney War.” Although granted eight months to train and fortify for a German invasion, the British, French, and Belgian troops were quite unprepared when the attack actually began on May 10, 1940.

Part of the problem was that while the German Army had been given hope of a victorious and different outcome than that of World War I, the Allied troops were uninspired, sure that trench warfare once again awaited them.

The Allied leaders also relied heavily on the newly built, high-tech, defensive fortifications of the Maginot Line, which ran along the French border with Germany – dismissing the idea of an attack from the north.

So, instead of training, the Allied troops spent much of their time drinking, chasing girls, and just waiting for the attack to come.

For many BEF soldiers, their stay in France felt a bit like a mini vacation, with good food and little to do.

This all changed when the Germans attacked in the early hours of May 10, 1940. The French and British troops went north to meet the advancing Germany Army in Belgium, not realizing that a large portion of the German Army (seven Panzer divisions) were cutting through the Ardennes, a wooded area that the Allies had considered impenetrable.

Retreating to Dunkirk

With the German Army in front of them in Belgium and coming up behind them from the Ardennes, the Allied troops were quickly forced to retreat.

The French troops, at this point, were in great disorder. Some had become trapped within Belgium while others scattered. Lacking strong leadership and effective communication, the retreat left the French Army in serious disarray.

The BEF were also backpedalling into France, fighting skirmishes as they retreated. Digging in by day and retreating at night, the British soldiers got little to no sleep. Fleeing refugees clogged the streets, slowing the travel of military personnel and equipment. German Stuka dive bombers attacked both soldiers and refugees, while German soldiers and tanks popped up seemingly everywhere.

The BEF troops often became scattered, but their morale remained relatively high.

Orders and strategies among the Allies were changing quickly. The French were urging a regrouping and a counterattack. On May 20, Field Marshal John Gort (commander of the BEF) ordered a counterattack at Arras. Although initially successful, the attack was not strong enough to break through the German line and the BEF was again forced to retreat.

The French continued to push for a regrouping and a counteroffensive. The British, however, were starting to realize that the French and Belgian troops were too disorganized and demoralized to create a strong enough counteroffensive to halt the highly effective German advance. Much more likely, believed Gort, was that if the British joined the French and Belgian troops, they would all be annihilated.

On May 25, 1940, Gort made the difficult decision to not only abandon the idea of a joint counteroffensive, but to retreat to Dunkirk in the hopes of an evacuation. The French believed this decision to be desertion; the British hoped it would allow them to fight another day.

A Little Help From the Germans and the Defenders of Calais

Ironically, the evacuation at Dunkirk could not have happened without the help of the Germans. Just as the British were regrouping at Dunkirk, the Germans stopped their advance just 18 miles away. For three days (May 24 to 26), German Army Group B stayed put. Many people have suggested that Nazi Fuhrer Adolf Hitler purposely let the British Army go, believing that the British would then more readily negotiate a surrender.

The more likely reason for the halt was that General Gerd von Runstedt, the commander of German Army Group B, didn’t want to take his armored divisions into the swampy area around Dunkirk. Also, the German supply lines had become greatly overextended after such a quick and lengthy advance into France; the German Army needed to stop long enough for their supplies and infantry to catch up.

German Army Group A also held off attacking Dunkirk until May 26. Army Group A had become entangled in a siege at Calais, where a small pocket of BEF soldiers had holed up. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill believed the epic defense of Calais had a direct correlation to the outcome of the Dunkirk evacuation.

Calais was the crux. Many other causes might have prevented the deliverance of Dunkirk, but it is certain that the three days gained by the defence of Calais enabled Gravelines waterline to be held, and that without this, even in spite of Hitler’s vacillations and Rundstedt’s orders, all would have been cut off and lost.*

The three days that German Army Group B halted and Army Group A fought at the Siege of Calais were essential in allowing the BEF a chance to regroup at Dunkirk.

On May 27, with the Germans once again attacking, Gort ordered a 30-mile-long defensive perimeter to be established around Dunkirk. The British and French soldiers manning this perimeter were charged with holding the Germans back in order to give time for the evacuation.

The Evacuation From Dunkirk

While the retreat was underway, Admiral Bertram Ramsey in Dover, Great Britain began considering the possibility of an amphibious evacuation starting on May 20, 1940. Ultimately, the British had less than a week to plan Operation Dynamo, the large-scale evacuation of British and other Allied troops from Dunkirk.

The plan was to send ships from England across the Channel and have them pick up troops waiting on the beaches of Dunkirk. Although there were over a quarter of a million troops waiting to be picked up, the planners expected to only be able to save 45,000.

Part of the difficulty was the harbor at Dunkirk. The gentle shelving of the beach meant that much of the harbor was too shallow for ships to enter. To solve this, smaller craft had to travel from ship to beach and back again to gather passengers for loading. This took a lot of extra time and there were not enough small boats to fulfill this job quickly.

The waters were also so shallow that even these smaller craft had to stop 300 feet from the waterline and soldiers had to wade out to their shoulders before they could climb aboard.

With not enough supervision, many desperate soldiers ignorantly overloaded these small boats, causing them to capsize.

Another problem was that when the first ships set out from England, starting on May 26, they didn’t really know where to go. Troops were spread out over 21-miles of beaches near Dunkirk and the ships were not told where along these beaches they should load. This caused confusion and delay.

Fires, smoke, Stuka dive bombers, and German artillery were definitely another problem. Everything seemed to be on fire, including cars, buildings, and an oil terminal. Black smoke covered the beaches. Stuka dive bombers attacked the beaches, but focused their attention along the waterline, hoping and often succeeding in sinking some of the ships and other watercraft.

The beaches were large, with sand dunes in the back. Soldiers waited in long lines, covering the beaches. Although exhausted from long marches and little sleep, soldiers would dig in while waiting their turn in line – it was too loud to sleep. Thirst was a major problem on the beaches; all the clean water in the area had been contaminated.

Speeding Things Up

The loading of soldiers into small landing craft, ferrying them to the larger ships, and then coming back to reload was an excruciatingly slow process. By midnight on May 27, only 7,669 men had made it back to England.

To speed things up, Captain William Tennant ordered a destroyer to come directly alongside the East Mole at Dunkirk on May 27. (The East Mole was a 1600-yard-long causeway that was used as a breakwater.) Although not built for it, Tennant’s plan to have troops embark directly from the East Mole worked wonderfully and from then on it became the main location for soldiers to load.

On May 28, 17,804 soldiers were taken back to England.  This was an improvement, but hundreds of thousands more still needed saving. The rearguard was, for now, holding off the German assault, but it was a matter of days, if not hours, before the Germans would break through the defensive line. More help was needed.

In Britain, Ramsey worked tirelessly to get every single boat possible – both military and civilian -- across the Channel to pick up the stranded troops. This flotilla of ships eventually included destroyers, minesweepers, anti-submarine trawlers, motor boats, yachts, ferries, launches, barges, and any other kind of boat they could find.

The first of the “little ships” made it to Dunkirk on May 28, 1940. They loaded up men from the beaches east of Dunkirk and then headed back through the dangerous waters to England. Stuka dive bombers plagued the boats and they had to be constantly on the lookout for German U-boats. It was a dangerous venture, but it helped save the British Army.

On May 31, 53,823 soldiers were brought back to England, thanks in a large part to these little ships. Near midnight on June 2, the St. Helier left Dunkirk, carrying the very last of the BEF troops. However, there were still more French troops to rescue.

The crews of the destroyers and other craft were exhausted, having made numerous trips to Dunkirk without rest and yet they still went back to save more soldiers. The French also helped by sending ships and civilian craft.

At 3:40 a.m. on June 4, 1940, the very last ship, the Shikari, left Dunkirk. Although the British had expected to only save 45,000, they succeeded in rescuing a total of 338,000 Allied troops.

Aftermath

The evacuation of Dunkirk was a retreat, a loss, and yet the British troops were greeted as heroes when they got home. The whole operation, which some have termed “the Miracle of Dunkirk,” gave the British a battle cry and became a rallying point for the rest of the war.  

Most importantly, the evacuation of Dunkirk saved the British Army and did allow it to fight another day.

 

* Sir Winston Churchill as quoted in Major General Julian Thompson, Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2011) 172.