Dunkirk 1940: disaster, myth and miracle

British troops evacuated from Dunkirk on May 31st, 1940

Dunkirk, the northernmost city and third-largest harbor in France, located 10 kilometers south of the border with Belgium, in 2020 has a population of 90,000. From May 26th to June 4th, 1940, one of the most significant battles of World War II took place in its surroundings. It resulted in the evacuation across the English Channel of British and other Allied forces, mostly French, but also Belgians, Dutch, Polish, Canadians and also some colonial troops to Great Britain. All of them were fleeing from rapidly advancing German troops in what became known as the Blitzkrieg or Lightning War.

On the other hand, the Phoney War had been a period of seven months during which the failed French Saar Offensive in early September 1939 remained the only military land operation on the Western Front. It ended on April 9th 1940 with the German invasion of Denmark and Norway. On May 10th, Germany also attacked neutral Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Due to their surprise tactics by going through the Ardennes Forest, the Germans were able to cut off the 400,000 strong British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and a significant number of French soldiers from the bulk of the French Army in the south. The BEF, which had started to arrive in France on September 9th, 1939 was handicapped by insufficient supplies and obsolete communications technology.

From May 24th to May 26th, the Germans suddenly halted their rapid advance by land. On May 25th, BEF Commander-in-Chief John Verecker decided against orders from London to retreat to the Atlantic coast. He chose Dunkirk not only for its modern harbor installations with two moles, but also because it was protected by long “tank-safe” sand dunes. The next day, the ambitious Operation Dynamo would start. In total, almost 700 vessels were used, many of them small private boats which had been commandeered by the British Navy. More than 200 were sunk.

On June 2nd the last of the British units embarked onto the ships and the night of June 3rd the last evacuations took place. At 10:20 AM on June 4th, 1940 the swastika flag was hoisted over the docks and Dunkirk left 90% destroyed.

In just eleven days, the British shipped out about 340,000 soldiers, including 123,000 French. They lost about 70,000 man killed, wounded or captured, compared to 20,000 German losses. 18, 000 French died in battle and 35, 000 surrounded.

Much less known is Operation Ariel, which ran from June 15th to June 25th, when another 190,000 Allied troops left France relatively peacefully from several French ports, including about 5,000 Czechoslovakians.

The reasons why the Germans decided to halt their advance on May 24th are still debated: to give their exhausted troops a rest and conserve their tanks for further operations against the rest of the French forces? Or did they rely too heavily on Herman Göring, Supreme Commander of the Air Force, who eventually couldn’t make use of enough planes due to only two-and-a-half good flying days during the encirclement? Was Adolf Hitler still trying to establish diplomatic peace with Britain as he had strong, though totally unrealistic sympathies for the British? Was there an internal struggle between the Führer and his generals about the right strategy which cost precious time?

For the Empire, although around 85% of its troops managed to leave continental Europe in the very last moment, it was a traumatic military defeat. The retreat meant the loss of its foothold in France and it would take the British four years to return-during the Battle of Normandy!

Recently elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill honestly stated in parliament on May 28th, 1940 that “evacuations could not win wars”. He also admitted in a less public manner that the British would have to fight the Germans “with the butt ends of broken beer bottles, because that’s bloody well all we’ve got!” Nevertheless, the invention of the Spirit of Dunkirk magically turned the disaster into a late victory, symbolizing patriotism and perseverance.

Anyway, Germany’s failure to completely destroy the BEF when it had the chance allowed the nucleus of an army to be saved and became one of the great turning points of the war in the West.


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