The Dunkirk evacuation, commonly known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo by the British, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 27 May and the early hours of 4 June 1940, because the British, French, and Belgian troops were cut off by the German army during the Battle of Dunkirk in the Second World War. The evacuation was ordered on 26 May. In a speech to the House of Commons, Winston Churchill called the events in France "a colossal military disaster", saying that "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his We shall fight on the beaches speech on 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a "miracle of deliverance".
From 28–31 May 1940, an event known as the Siege of Lille involved the remaining 40,000 men of the once-formidable French First Army in a delaying action against seven German divisions, including three armoured divisions, which were attempting to cut off and destroy the Allied armies at Dunkirk. According to Churchill, "These Frenchmen, under the gallant leadership of General Molinié, had for four critical days contained no less than seven German divisions which otherwise could have joined in the assaults on the Dunkirk perimeter. This was a splendid contribution to the escape of their more fortunate comrades of the BEF".
On the first day, only 7,011 men were evacuated, but, by the ninth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French) had been rescued by the hastily assembled fleet of 933 boats. Many of the troops were able to embark from the harbour's protective mole onto 42 British destroyers and other large ships, while others had to wade from the beaches toward the ships, waiting for hours to board, shoulder-deep in water. Some were ferried from the beaches to the larger ships, and thousands were carried back to the United Kingdom by the famous "little ships of Dunkirk", a flotilla of around seven hundred merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft and Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboats—the smallest of which was the 14 ft 7 in (4.45 m) fishing boat Tamzine, now in the Imperial War Museum—whose civilian crews were called into service for the emergency. The "miracle of the little ships" remains a prominent folk memory in the UK.
Operation Dynamo took its name from the dynamo room in the naval headquarters below Dover Castle, which contained the dynamo that provided the building with electricity during the war. It was in this room that British Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay planned the operation and briefed Winston Churchill as it was under way.
Due to war-time censorship, and the desire to keep up the morale of the nation, the full extent of the unfolding "disaster" around Dunkirk was not publicised. However, the grave plight of the troops led King George VI to call for an unprecedented week of prayer. Throughout the country, people prayed on 26 May for a miraculous delivery. The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers "for our soldiers in dire peril in France". Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout the UK that day, confirming the public suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.
Initial plans called for the recovery of 30,000 men from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) within two days, at which time it was expected that German troops would be able to block further evacuation. Only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,000 on the first day. Ten additional destroyers joined the rescue effort on 26 May and attempted rescue operations in the early morning, but were unable to closely approach the beaches, although several thousand were rescued. However, the pace of evacuation from the shrinking Dunkirk pocket steadily increased.
On 29 May, 47,000 British troops were rescued in spite of the first heavy aerial attack by the Luftwaffe in the evening. The next day, an additional 54,000 men were embarked, including the first French soldiers. 68,000 men and the commander of the BEF—Lord Gort—evacuated on 31 May. A further 64,000 Allied soldiers departed on 1 June, before the increasing air attacks prevented further daylight evacuation. The British rearguard left on the night of 2 June, along with 60,000 French soldiers. An additional 26,000 French troops were retrieved the following night, before the operation finally ended.
Two French divisions remained behind to protect the evacuation. Though they halted the German advance, they were soon destroyed. The remainder of the rearguard, largely French, surrendered on 3 June 1940. The next day, the BBC reported, "Major-General Harold Alexander [the commander of the rearguard] inspected the shores of Dunkirk from a motorboat this morning to make sure no-one was left behind before boarding the last ship back to Britain."
from Dunkirk Harbour
Evacuation Shipping Routes
Three routes were allocated to the evacuating vessels. The shortest was Route Z, a distance of 39 nautical miles, which, after leaving Dunkirk followed the French coast as far as No.6 Buoy, then turning Nor'west on a direct course to Dover. The longest of the three was Route Y, a distance of 87 nautical miles, which followed the French coast as far as Bray-Dunes then turned Nor'east until reaching the Kwinte Buoy. Here, after making an almost 270 degree turn, the ships then sailed in an easterly direction as far as the North Goodwin Lightship, then headed due south round the Goodwin Sands to Dover. The third, and although the safest from the German shore batteries, was through a particularly heavily mined portion of the English Channel. This was Route X, a distance of 55 nautical miles, and ships headed due north out of Dunkirk, proceeding through the Ruytingen Pass and onto the North Goodwin Lightship, before heading due south round the Goodwin Sands to Dover.
Most of the "little ships" were private fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, but commercial vessels also contributed, including a number from as far away as the Isle of Man and Glasgow. Departing from the Thames Estuary and Dover, they were guided by naval craft across the English Channel. These smaller vessels were able to move in much closer to the beaches and acted as shuttles between the shore and the destroyers, lifting troops who were queuing in the water, some of whom stood shoulder-deep for many hours to board the larger vessels. Thousands of soldiers were also taken in the little ships back to the UK. The first ship to be dispatched from Dover at the commencement of the Dunkirk Evacuation, was the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company vessel, Mona's Isle, which departed Dover at 21:00hrs, May 27, 1940, and reached Dunkirk at approximately midnight. She then returned with 1,420 troops embarked, and made passage via Route Z back to Dover, thus completing the first round-trip.
Thirty-nine Dutch coasters—which had escaped the occupation of the Netherlands by the Germans on 10 May—were asked by the Dutch shipping bureau in London to assist. The Dutch coasters—able to approach the beaches very closely due to their flat bottoms—saved 22,698 men for the loss of seven boats.
The record is held by the MV Rian, a 35-metre (115 ft) ship measuring 300 ton dwt and built in 1934 in the province of Groningen, under captain D. Buining. The vessel had already saved the crew of the British coaster SS Highwave on 30 January 1940. Between 28 and 31 May 1940, the Rian saved 2,542 persons. Other Dutch coasters that saved more than 1,000 men were:
- MV Hondsrug saved 1,455 men
- MV Patria saved 1,400 men
- MV Hilda saved 1,200 men
- MV Doggersbank saved 1,200 men
- MV Horst saved 1,150 men
- MV Twente saved 1,139 men
- MV Friso saved 1,002 men.
Nineteen lifeboats of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) sailed to Dunkirk. Those from the lifeboat stations at Ramsgate and Margate were taken directly to France with their usual volunteer crews; others sailed to Dover, where they were requisitioned by the Royal Navy, which provided the crews. Some of the RNLI crews remained behind in Dover and set up a workshop to repair and fuel the little ships. One lifeboat—The Viscountess Wakefield—was lost after it was run onto the beach at Dunkirk. The Jane Holland was holed when a Motor Torpedo Boat rammed her and her engine failed after being machine gunned by an aircraft. She was abandoned, but later found adrift, towed back to Dover and repaired. She returned to service on April 5, 1941.
The lifeboats included:
- The Cyril and Lilian Bishop (RNLI official number 740); a 35 ft 6 in (10.82 m) self-righter from Hastings.
- Jane Holland; a 40 ft (12 m) self-righter from Eastbourne.
- The Michael Stevens (ON 838); a 46 ft (14 m) Watson class from Lowestoft.
- The Viscountess Wakefield (ON 783); a 41 ft (12 m) Watson class from Hythe, Kent.
- Thomas Kirk Wright (ON 811); a 32 ft (9.8 m) Surf class from Poole.
- Unnamed ON 826; a 35 ft 6 in (10.8 m) newly-built self-righter. She was repaired then entered service in 1941 at Cadgwith with the name Guide of Dunkirk.
- Mary Scott; then at Southwold, the Mary Scott was towed to Dunkirk by the paddle steamer Emporer of India together with two other small boats. Between them they took 160 men to their mother ship, they made a journey with fifty men to another transport vessel. She was abandoned on the beach, recovered and returned to service with the RNLI at Southwold.
- Dowager; launched 1933, as the Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn. Based at Shoreham, she made 3 trips between Dover and Dunkirk.
- Stenoa; launched 1929, as Cecil and Lilian Philpott. Then at Newhaven, she saved 51 persons from the beach at Dunkirk. Then returned to RNLI service at Newhaven.
Men and material
Despite the success of the operation, all the heavy equipment and vehicles had to be abandoned. Left behind in France were 2,472 guns, 20,000 motorcycles and almost 65,000 other vehicles; also abandoned were 416,000 short tons (377,000 t) of stores, more than 75,000 short tons (68,000 t) of ammunition and 162,000 short tons (147,000 t) of fuel. 30,000–40,000 French troops were captured in the Dunkirk pocket.
Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with nine large boats. In addition, 19 destroyers were damaged. Over 200 of the Allied sea craft were sunk, with an equal number damaged.
The Royal Navy's most significant losses in the operation were six destroyers:
- Grafton, sunk by U-62 on 29 May;
- Grenade, sunk by air attack off the east pier at Dunkirk on 29 May;
- Wakeful, sunk by a torpedo from the E-boat S-30 on 29 May;
- Basilisk, Havant and Keith, sunk by air attack off the beaches on 1 June.
The French Navy lost three destroyers:
- Bourrasque, mined off Nieuport on 30 May;
- Sirocco, sunk by the E-boats S-23 and S-26 on 31 May;
- Le Foudroyant, sunk by air attack off the beaches on 1 June.
The merchant navy also paid a heavy price during the evacuation. Numerous ships were sunk ranging from small pleasure craft to cross-channel ferries. The Isle of Man Steam Packet Company despatched eight of its vessels, rescuing a total of 24,699 British and French troops – one in fourteen of those evacuated from Dunkirk. However, three of its ships were lost in one day, 29 May 1940:
- Mona's Queen, mined off Dunkirk on 29 May;
- Fenella, sunk by air attack whilst berthed alongside the East Pier on 29 May;
- King Orry, sustained heavy damage following several air attacks on 29 May, and consequently sank off the beaches in the early hours of 30 May.
Winston Churchill revealed in his volumes on World War II that the Royal Air Force (RAF) played a most important role protecting the retreating troops from the Luftwaffe. Churchill also said that the sand on the beach softened the explosions from the German bombs.
Between 26 May and 4 June, the RAF flew 4,822 sorties over Dunkirk, losing just over 100 aircraft in the fighting. Fortunately for the BEF, bad weather kept the Luftwaffe grounded for much of operation, thus helping to reduce the losses. This meant that the first heavy air raid didn't occur until 29 May.
The RAF claimed 262 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed over Dunkirk. The RAF lost 177 aircraft between 26 May and 3 June, while the Luftwaffe lost 240 aircraft from all causes during the same time in operations over France and Belgium. Fighter losses from units based in France and the UK from 10 May to 4 June were 432, while total RAF losses from all causes during all of May and June were 959, of which 477 were fighters. However, most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches and the retreating troops were only aware of being bombed and strafed by German planes that managed to elude or get through the protective cordon. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.
Before the operation was completed, the prognosis had been gloomy, with Winston Churchill warning the House of Commons to expect "hard and heavy tidings". Subsequently, Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle", and the British press presented the evacuation as a "disaster turned to triumph" so successfully that Churchill had to remind the country, in a speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." Nevertheless, exhortations to the "Dunkirk spirit", a phrase used to describe the tendency of the British public to pull together and overcome times of adversity, are still heard in the United Kingdom today.
The rescue of the British troops at Dunkirk provided a psychological boost to British morale; to the country at large it was spun as a major victory. While the British Army had lost a great deal of its equipment and vehicles in France, it still had most of its soldiers and was able to assign them to the defence of the UK. Once the threat of invasion receded, they were transferred overseas to the Middle East and other theatres and also provided the nucleus of the army that returned to France in 1944.
Three British divisions and a host of logistic and labour troops, had been cut off to the south of the main body of the BEF by the German "race to the sea". At the end of May, a further two divisions began moving to France with the hope of establishing a Second BEF. Apart from the 51st (Highland) Division, the majority of which had been forced to surrender on 12 June, almost 192,000 Allied personnel, 144,000 of them British, were evacuated through various French ports from 15–25 June under the codename Operation Ariel. The only major setback was the sinking of the troopship HMT Lancastria at St Nazaire, with the loss of perhaps 4,000 lives; the exact number has never been determined.
German land forces might have pressed their attack on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Allies, especially having secured the ports of Calais and Boulogne. For years, it was assumed that Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to stop the attack, favouring bombardment by the Luftwaffe. However, according to the Official War Diary of Army Group A, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt – the Chief of the General Staff, disconcerted by the vulnerability of his flanks and supply to his forward troops, ordered the halt. Hitler merely validated the order several hours after the fact. Hitler had been urged by Göring to let the Luftwaffe finish the British off, much to the consternation of OKH Chief of Staff, General Halder, who noted in his diary that the airforce was dependent upon the weather. This lull in the action provided the Allies a few days to evacuate by sea. Von Rundstedt had ordered the halt on 23 May, confirmed by Hitler on 24 May at 11:30 am. On 26 May, at 1:30 pm Hitler ordered the German armour to continue the advance, but the delay had allowed the construction of defences vital for the following week's evacuation.
Several high-ranking German commanders—for example, Generals Erich von Manstein and Heinz Guderian, as well as Admiral Karl Dönitz—considered the failure of the OKW (German High Command) to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to eliminate the BEF to be one of the major mistakes the Germans had made on the Western Front in World War II.
Fate of the French soldiers
More than 100,000 evacuated French troops were quickly and efficiently shuttled to camps in various parts of southwestern England, where they were temporarily lodged before quickly being repatriated. British ships ferried French troops to Brest, Cherbourg and other ports in Normandy and Brittany, although only about half of the repatriated troops were deployed against the Germans before the armistice. For many French soldiers, the Dunkirk evacuation was not a salvation, but represented only a few weeks' delay before being killed or made POWs by the German army after their return to France.
Of the French soldiers evacuated from France in July 1940, only about 3,000 chose to continue the struggle, joining Charles de Gaulle's Free French army in London. By the end of the year, De Gaulle commanded just 7,000 Free French soldiers, despite the large number ferried to England during Operation Dynamo.
In France, the unilateral British decision to evacuate through Dunkirk (rather than counterattack to the south), and the perceived preference of the Royal Navy for evacuating British forces at the expense of the French, led to some bitter resentment. According to Churchill, the French Admiral François Darlan originally ordered that the British forces should receive preference but on 31 May he intervened at a meeting in Paris to order that the evacuation should proceed on equal terms and that the British would form the rearguard. In fact, the 35,000 soldiers who finally surrendered after protecting the BEF retreat were essentially French. Their desperate resistance allowed the evacuation effort to be extended to 4 June, allowing another 26,175 Frenchmen to be brought into the United Kingdom.
For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war (POW). The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany. Prisoners reported brutal treatment by their guards, including beatings, starvation, and murder (see also War crimes of the Wehrmacht). In particular, the British prisoners complained that French prisoners were given preferential treatment. Another major complaint was that German guards kicked over buckets of water that had been left at the roadside by French civilians. Many of the prisoners were marched to the town of Trier, with the march taking as long as 20 days. Others were marched to the river Scheldt and were sent by barge to the Ruhr. The prisoners were then sent by rail to POW camps in Germany. The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for five years.
The St George's Cross defaced with the arms of Dunkirk flown from the jack staff is known as the Dunkirk jack and is only flown by civilian ships and boats, whatever their size, that took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation in 1940. The only other ships permitted to fly the George's Cross flag at the bow are those with a Royal Navy Admiral on board.
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