World War II: The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk

Updated on January 11, 2018

The Miracle Of Dunkirk

More than 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. Among them was my granddad, Sgt. William 'Jim' Marsh, Royal Artillery.
More than 300,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. Among them was my granddad, Sgt. William 'Jim' Marsh, Royal Artillery. | Source

Introduction

The rescue itself was deemed a ‘miracle’ as a hastily assembled flotilla of military and civilian vessels of every description ran a gauntlet of air attacks by the German Luftwaffe to ferry the troops to safety.

For eight months, the opposing armies had only watched one another warily. Then, on the 10th May 1940, the Sitzkreig or ‘Phoney War’ was shattered with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. In the north, 30 divisions of Army Group B advanced across the frontiers of The Netherlands and Belgium on a 200 mile front. Further south, 45 divisions of Army Group A slashed through the Ardennes Forest and skirted the defences of the Maginot Line. Led by one of the world’s foremost proponents of mobile warfare, General Heinz Guderian, German tanks and motorised infantry swept relentlessly northwest in a great arc, reaching the coast in only 10 days.

Aerial Terror

The Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber was used extensively as support for advancing troops in Blitzkrieg.
The Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber was used extensively as support for advancing troops in Blitzkrieg. | Source

Blitzkrieg Explained

Blitzkreig

The startling swiftness of the German offensive threatened to trap all Allied troops north of the thrust by Army Group A as Guderian sent three panzer divisions racing towards the Channel ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. Three key positions, the French at Lille, Belgian Army units along the Lys River and the British at Calais, offered resistance to the German onslaught. Within 72 hours of reaching Abbeville, the Germans captured both Boulogne and Calais, and elements of the 1st Panzer Division had advanced to within 12 miles of Dunkirk, the sole remaining avenue of escape for Allied forces in northern France and Belgium. Although he had been ordered to mount a counterattack in support of the French, Field Marshal John, Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, chose instead to concentrate his troops in the vicinity of Dunkirk in order to evacuate as many soldiers as possible to the relative safety of England. The heroic defence of Lille by the French, of Boulogne by the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards and a battalion of the Welsh Guards, and Calais by the British 30th Infantry Brigade, bought precious time for Gort to prepare a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk. But the effort appeared to be in vain as German tank commanders peered at the town’s church spires through binoculars.

Did This Man Save The BEF?

von Rundstedt's decision to comply with Hitler's halt order may have given the Allies the extra time needed to organise an evacuation from Dunkirk.
von Rundstedt's decision to comply with Hitler's halt order may have given the Allies the extra time needed to organise an evacuation from Dunkirk.

The Panzers Pause

Quite unexpectedly, the greater assistance to the Allied evacuation plan came from Hitler himself. On the 24th May the Fuhrer visited the headquarters of General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, at Charleville. Influenced by Reichsmarschall Herman Goring to allow his Luftwaffe to deliver the death blow to the enemy at Dunkirk, Hitler directed Rundstedt to halt the tanks of six panzer divisions along the Aa canal. Guderian was rendered ‘utterly speechless’ by the order. For nearly 48 hours the German ground assault abated and the Allied troops around Dunkirk were pummelled by screeching Stukas and strafed by Luftwaffe fighters. On the 26th May, the ground attack resumed but the reprieve allowed Gort to patch together the tenuous defence of a 30 mile stretch of beach from Gravelines in the south to Nieuport, Belgium, in the north. Two days later Belgian King Leopold III ordered his forces to surrender, and the Allied defensive perimeter continued to contract. Eventually the Allies were squeezed into a pocket only 7 miles wide.

Battle Map

A map showing the positions of both the Allies and the Germans just prior to the battle of Dunkirk.
A map showing the positions of both the Allies and the Germans just prior to the battle of Dunkirk. | Source

Operation Dynamo

As early as the 20th May, while the Allied debacle on the Continent was unfolding, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorised the preparation of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France.

The hard pressed Royal Navy could not possibly supply the number of vessels needed for the rescue, and Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey called for boats in excess of 30 feet in length to assemble at ports in England. Cabin cruisers, ferries, sailing schooners and their civilian crews joined Royal Navy destroyers in the treacherous 55 mile journey through a maze of German contact mines sown in the Channel, under continuous air attack and often within range of fire from German heavy artillery.

The Mad Scramble

British troops in lifeboats en route to a ship, while under fire from the Luftwaffe.
British troops in lifeboats en route to a ship, while under fire from the Luftwaffe. | Source

Air Raids

Luftwaffe bombing had set the town of Dunkirk ablaze and wrecked the port facilities. Rescue vessels were compelled to risk running aground in the shoals along the beaches or to tie up at one of two ‘moles’- rocky breakwaters covered with planking wide enough for men to stand three abreast- in order to take soldiers aboard. Countless acts of heroism occurred as vessels made numerous shuttle runs. One 60 foot yacht, the Sundowner, carried 130 soldiers to safety, while close to a hundred perished aboard the paddlewheel steamer Fenella when a German bomb ripped through its deck and detonated. Nearly one third of the 693 boats involved were destroyed, but from the 26th May until the final rescue run in the pre-dawn hours of the 4th June, a total of 338,226 Allied soldiers reached England.

When the battered and exhausted Allied troops arrived, they were welcomed as heroes. Townspeople poured out of their homes with food and drink for the famished soldiers. Virtually all of their heavy equipment had been abandoned on the Dunkirk beaches, thousands of their comrades were soon killed or captured, and the armed forces of Britain and France had suffered one of the greatest military defeats in their history.

Yet these men had survived. Amid the celebration Churchill groused, ‘Wars are not won by evacuation.’ He later wrote, ‘There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end…and the tale of the Dunkirk beaches will shine in whatever records are preserved of our affairs.’

Aftermath

Historians have debated Hitler’s reasons for halting the panzers. Some assert that the focus of the Germans was already on the complete defeat of France and the capture of Paris. Others say that Hitler was concerned about the marshy terrain in Flanders, which was less than ideal for the manoeuvring of tanks. The tanks themselves had been driven rapidly and engaged for some time. Many of them undoubtedly needed refitting and some of their precious number would have been lost in all-out attack on the Allied defences. Goring had argued that the Luftwaffe was certainly more loyal and fervently Nazi than the leadership of the German Army; therefore, his arm should be given the honour of annihilating the enemy.

Questions & Answers

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      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

        Do not enmesh yourself in war or violence at any level. Do not make heroes of people who fight. Instead, move away from violence and lead a constructive life.

      • Elsie Hagley profile image

        Elsie Hagley 

        3 years ago from New Zealand

        Very interesting article. It is nice to see a hub of the day like this.

        Anzac Day is on the 25 April, in New Zealand, 100 years since world war one started, where my father-in law fought he returned, but my uncle never did.

        I had many relations in world war two and can still recall many things about this war even though I was a child.

        Congratulations for HOTD.

      • divacratus profile image

        Kalpana Iyer 

        3 years ago from India

        Very interesting! Congratulations on Hub of the Day :)

      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        3 years ago from Houston, TX USA

        Those who live by the sword die by the sword. From the standpoint of the individual, do not enmesh yourself in war at any level; international, national, civil or personal. Raise your ideals.

      • DWDavisRSL profile image

        DW Davis 

        3 years ago from Eastern NC

        Thank you for a concise, well written Hub about the evacuation of Dunkirk. I was reminded of a story I read many years ago called, I think, The Rifles of the Regiment. The story was set amid the chaos and confusion of the retreat to and evacuation from Dunkirk.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 

        3 years ago from the short journey

        Congratulations on your Hub of the Day award for this post on the miracle of Dunkirk. Keeping the memories alive helps teach future generations to think and honers those who served and sacrifices. Thank you.

      • mySuccess8 profile image

        mySuccess8 

        3 years ago

        A well-researched historical account of the Battle of Dunkirk, made even more outstanding with facts that involved your own granddad who was one of the Allied soldiers then. A clearer understanding is now obtained regarding the miracle behind the large evacuation of troops during the German onslaught. Congrats on Hub of the Day!

      • Charito1962 profile image

        Charito Maranan-Montecillo 

        3 years ago from Manila, Philippines

        Thanks for this informative hub! I've always liked reading or watching films about Nazism or Hitler's rise to power. They make me remember the atrocities that we Filipinos suffered from the Japanese in World War II.

      • pstraubie48 profile image

        Patricia Scott 

        3 years ago from sunny Florida

        My Daddy told us of experiences in war and taught us that the knowledge of what happened is something we should always remember. You shared so vividly this time in our history...and although I have read of it before, I am still in awe of those who gave their lives during this war and thankful for those who did survive.

        Voting up +++ and shared

        Lest we not forget....

        Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much Graham.

      • old albion profile image

        Graham Lee 

        5 years ago from Lancashire. England.

        First class as usual James. Always a treat to read your work. Thank you.

        Graham.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much Gypsy.

      • Gypsy Rose Lee profile image

        Gypsy Rose Lee 

        5 years ago from Riga, Latvia

        Thank you for another fascinating look into history. This was interesting and great videos. Passing this on.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        I think you're right UH, imagine how the might of the German war machine may have fared if people like Rommel and von Rundstedt were in overall charge. No doubt that I'd probably be speaking German. Thanks for popping by.

      • UnnamedHarald profile image

        David Hunt 

        5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Another great hub, JK. You know, I sometimes wonder whether Goering was a secret agent for the Allies. First, he wanted his Luftwaffe to finish of the British, French and Belgians at Dunkirk, then he swore they'd defeat Britain single-handedly and later, he promised the Luftwaffe would supply the encircled 6th Army at Stalingrad. If Adolf Galland-- or any of several others-- had been in charge of the Luftwaffe, things might have turned out very differently. Voted up, etc.

      • JKenny profile imageAUTHOR

        James Kenny 

        5 years ago from Birmingham, England

        Thank you very much DDE!

      • DDE profile image

        Devika Primić 

        5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

        Wow! You have a well written Hub here and most insightful information

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