By Michelle Kostuk
May 27, 1940, was the first of a nine-day evacuation of Allied troops from the Dunkirk beaches in Western France. 338,226 soldiers were ferried in small, civilian owned ships through the English Channel’s tumultuous waters to the safety of larger Allied military vessels. The term “Dunkirk Spirit” captures the essence of this campaign and echoes the solidarity of British and Allied peoples banning together in the wake of adversity.
Earlier in May, Germany surprised the world with their agile domination of Northern France and Belgium. The French and British forces anticipated the Nazi infantry and tanks to make the trek through the rugged terrain of the Ardennes Forests in five days rather than the two and a half day sprint. The Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, was the result of the German forces unleashing their advanced weapon and tactical engineering on the Allied nations, eventually leading to the early surrender of France. The Blitzkrieg through Belgium and Northern France resulted in many stranded soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF.) These soldiers were inevitably pushed all the way to the beaches of Dunkirk.
Operation Dynamo and the Evacuation
With the BEF in peril, the newly elected prime minister Winston Churchill gave the command to evacuate as many troops as possible. Operation Dynamo was conceived on May 20th and garnered its name from the operation headquarters dynamo room. Originally anticipated to save just 45,000 men in 48 hours, Operation Dynamo grew to become the largest evacuation in modern military history.
This evacuation would not have been possible without the aid of civilians volunteering their personal ships. The Royal Navy sent out a call for all possible naval vessels, especially small ships that could navigate the shallow waters and reach trapped soldiers. British civilians owning all manner of water vessels responded: private yachts, motor launches, paddle steamers, and lifeboats were among the civilian fleet. The final number of vessels involved in the rescue, including both Royal Navy and civilian ships, was 933, (700 were civilian ships.)
Operation Dynamo had a slow start on May 27th with only 8,000 soldiers being rescued. The next eight days proved more fruitful and a total of 338,226 Allied soldiers were ferried across the English Channel to safety. Operation Dynamo did not only save British troops, some 140,000 French, Polish and Belgian soldiers were also among the 338,226 soldiers rescued.
German Assault and the Aftermath
Trapped soldiers had to wait to be recovered while the German Luftwaffe (air force) attacked the Allies with the notorious Stuka dive bombers. The majority of the men, around 200,000, were picked up at Dunkirk Mole, a long stone and wooden jetty. The rest of the soldiers were recovered from the actual beaches of Dunkirk. Many of the men had to wade in shoulder deep water for hours before being picked up by the small vessels. Once the soldiers boarded the civilian ships, they were either taken to larger British Navy vessels or sailed all the way back to Great Britain.
Hitler halting a full-scale Panzer tank assault on the trapped Allied troops provided time for the evacuation of Dunkirk. Hitler believed that his Luftwaffe would force the British to surrender before a rescue could be attempted. However, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) countered the Luftwaffe’s onslaught and provided support for the troops on the ground. The RAF was a much more formidable foe than the Luftwaffe had encountered earlier in the conflict. At the end of the Dunkirk air fight, the RAF lost 145 aircraft and the Luftwaffe lost 156 planes and was foretelling of the Battle of Britain that was soon to follow.
Although the casualties were mitigated by the success of the evacuation, there was still a considerable loss. An estimated 200 ships or more did not make it across the English Channel. Around 3,500 British were lost at sea or on the beaches and the air raids also killed over 1,000 Dunkirk locals. In order to ensure evacuation of the majority of troops, a few units were sacrificed and left behind to “fight to the last man.”
Many men and military equipment were left behind in France. Around 40,000 British troops were taken as prisoners of war (POW.) Around 2,400 artillery guns, 6,500 vehicles, 68,000 tonnes of ammunition, and 445 British tanks were left on the Dunkirk beaches.