Dunkirk evacuation

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Operation Dynamo
Part of the Battle of France in the Second World War
British troops evacuating Dunkirk's beaches
Date26 May to 4 June 1940
France, Dunkirk, and the English Channel

51°02′N2°22′E / 51.033°N 2.367°E / 51.033; 2.367

Allied success

  • Evacuation of 338,226 soldiers
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Germany
Commanders and leaders
Flag of Germany (1935-1945).svg Gerd von Rundstedt

The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers during World War II from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940. The operation commenced after large numbers of Belgian, British, and French troops were cut off and surrounded by German troops during the six-week long Battle of France. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this "a colossal military disaster", saying "the whole root and core and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. [7] In his "we shall fight on the beaches" speech on 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a "miracle of deliverance". [8]

Allies of World War II Grouping of the victorious countries of World War II

The Allies of World War II, called the "United Nations" from the 1 January 1942 declaration, were the countries that together opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War (1939–1945). The Allies promoted the alliance as a means to control German, Japanese and Italian aggression.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Dunkirk Subprefecture and commune in Hauts-de-France, France

Dunkirk is a commune in Nord, a French department in northern France. It is the northernmost city in France, lying 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) from the Belgian border. It has the third-largest French harbour. The population of the commune at the 2016 census was 91,412.


After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, France and the British Empire declared war on Germany and imposed an economic blockade. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to help defend France. After the Phoney War of October 1939 to April 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France on 10 May 1940. Three of their panzer corps attacked through the Ardennes and drove northwest to the English Channel. By 21 May German forces had trapped the BEF, the remains of the Belgian forces, and three French field armies along the northern coast of France. The commander of the BEF, General Viscount Gort, immediately saw evacuation across the Channel as the best course of action, and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest good port.

Nazi Germany The German state from 1933 to 1945, under the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler

Nazi Germany is the common English name for Germany between 1933 and 1945, when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party (NSDAP) controlled the country through a dictatorship. Under Hitler's rule, Germany was transformed into a totalitarian state where nearly all aspects of life were controlled by the government. The official name of the state was Deutsches Reich until 1943 and Großdeutsches Reich from 1943 to 1945. Nazi Germany is also known as the Third Reich, meaning "Third Realm" or "Third Empire", the first two being the Holy Roman Empire (800–1806) and the German Empire (1871–1918). The Nazi regime ended after the Allies defeated Germany in May 1945, ending World War II in Europe.

Invasion of Poland invasion of Poland by Germany, the Soviet Union, and a small Slovak contingent

The Invasion of Poland, known in Poland as the September Campaign or the 1939 Defensive War, and in Germany as the Poland Campaign (Polenfeldzug), was an invasion of Poland by Germany that marked the beginning of World War II. The German invasion began on 1 September 1939, one week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets invaded Poland on 17 September following the Molotov–Tōgō agreement that terminated the Soviet and Japanese Battles of Khalkhin Gol in the east on 16 September. The campaign ended on 6 October with Germany and the Soviet Union dividing and annexing the whole of Poland under the terms of the German–Soviet Frontier Treaty.

British Empire States and dominions ruled by the United Kingdom

The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom and its predecessor states. It originated with the overseas possessions and trading posts established by England between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. At its height, it was the largest empire in history and, for over a century, was the foremost global power. By 1913, the British Empire held sway over 412 million people, 23% of the world population at the time, and by 1920, it covered 35,500,000 km2 (13,700,000 sq mi), 24% of the Earth's total land area. As a result, its political, legal, linguistic and cultural legacy is widespread. At the peak of its power, the phrase "the empire on which the sun never sets" was often used to describe the British Empire, because its expanse around the globe meant that the sun was always shining on at least one of its territories.

Late on 23 May, a halt order was issued by Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A. Adolf Hitler approved the order the next day and had the German High Command send confirmation to the front. Destroying the trapped BEF, French, and Belgian armies was left to the Luftwaffe until the order was rescinded on 26 May. This gave trapped Allied forces time to construct defensive works and pull back large numbers of troops to fight the Battle of Dunkirk. From 28 to 31 May, in the Siege of Lille, the remaining 40,000 men of the once-formidable French First Army fought a delaying action against seven German divisions, including three armoured divisions.

<i>Generaloberst</i> General officer rank

Generaloberst, in English colonel general, was, in Germany and Austria-Hungary—the German Reichswehr and Wehrmacht, the Austro-Hungarian Common Army, and the East German National People's Army, as well as the respective police services—the second highest general officer rank, ranking above full general but below general field marshal. It was equivalent to Generaladmiral in the Kriegsmarine until 1945, or to Flottenadmiral in the Volksmarine until 1990. The rank was the highest ordinary military rank and the highest military rank awarded in peacetime; the higher rank of general field marshal was only awarded in wartime by the head of state. In general, a Generaloberst had the same privileges as a general field marshal.

Gerd von Rundstedt German Field Marshal during World War II

Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt was a German field marshal in the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany during World War II.

Army Group A was the name of several German Army Groups during World War II. During the Battle of France, the army group named Army Group A was composed of 45½ divisions, including 7 armored panzer divisions. It was responsible for breaking through the heavily-forested Ardennes region. The operation, which was part of Fall Gelb, was resoundingly successful for the Germans, as the army group outflanked the best troops of France and its allies, eventually leading to France's surrender.

On the first day only 7,669 Allied soldiers were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, 338,226 of them had been rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats. Many troops were able to embark from the harbour's protective mole onto 39 British Royal Navy destroyers, four Royal Canadian Navy destroyers, [4] at least three French destroyers, and a variety of civilian merchant ships, while others had to wade out from the beaches, waiting for hours in shoulder-deep water. Some were ferried to the larger ships by what came to be known as the Little Ships of Dunkirk, a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, and lifeboats called into service from Britain. The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and had to abandon nearly all of its tanks, vehicles, and equipment. In his speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, Churchill reminded the country that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." [9]

Mole (architecture) massive structure used as pier, breakwater, or causeway between places separated by water

A mole is a massive structure, usually of stone, used as a pier, breakwater, or a causeway between places separated by water. The word comes from Middle French mole, ultimately from Latin mōlēs, meaning a large mass, especially of rock; it has the same root as molecule and mole, the chemical unit of measurement. A mole may have a wooden structure built on top of it that resembles a wooden pier. The defining feature of a mole, however, is that water cannot freely flow underneath it, unlike a true pier. The oldest known mole is at Wadi al-Jarf, an ancient Egyptian harbor complex on the Red Sea.

Royal Navy Maritime warfare branch of the United Kingdoms military

The Royal Navy (RN) is the United Kingdom's naval warfare force. Although warships were used by the English kings from the early medieval period, the first major maritime engagements were fought in the Hundred Years' War against the Kingdom of France. The modern Royal Navy traces its origins to the early 16th century; the oldest of the UK's armed services, it is known as the Senior Service.

Destroyer Type of warship

In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast, maneuverable, long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller powerful short-range attackers. They were originally developed in the late 19th century by Fernando Villaamil for the Spanish Navy as a defense against torpedo boats, and by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, these "torpedo boat destroyers" (TBDs) were "large, swift, and powerfully armed torpedo boats designed to destroy other torpedo boats". Although the term "destroyer" had been used interchangeably with "TBD" and "torpedo boat destroyer" by navies since 1892, the term "torpedo boat destroyer" had been generally shortened to simply "destroyer" by nearly all navies by the First World War.


In September 1939, after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, the United Kingdom sent the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to aid in the defence of France, landing at Cherbourg, Nantes, and Saint-Nazaire. By May 1940 the force consisted of ten divisions in three corps under the command of General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort. [10] [11] Working with the BEF were the Belgian Army and the French First, Seventh, and Ninth Armies. [12]

British Expeditionary Force (World War II) British Army in Western Europe from 1939 to 1940

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the name of the British Army in Western Europe during the Second World War from 2 September 1939 when the BEF GHQ was formed until 31 May 1940, when GHQ closed down. Military forces in Britain were under Home Forces command. During the 1930s, the British government planned to deter war by rearming from the very low level of readiness of the early 30s and abolished the Ten Year Rule. The bulk of the extra money went to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force but plans were made to re-equip a small number of Army and Territorial Army divisions for service overseas.

Nantes Prefecture and commune in Pays de la Loire, France

Nantes is a city in Loire-Atlantique on the Loire, 50 km (31 mi) from the Atlantic coast. The city is the sixth-largest in France, with a population of 303,382 in Nantes and a metropolitan area of nearly 950,000 inhabitants. With Saint-Nazaire, a seaport on the Loire estuary, Nantes forms the main north-western French metropolis.

Saint-Nazaire Subprefecture and commune in Pays de la Loire, France

Saint-Nazaire is a commune in the Loire-Atlantique department in western France, in traditional Brittany.

During the 1930s, the French had constructed the Maginot Line, a series of fortifications along their border with Germany. This line had been designed to deter a German invasion across the Franco-German border and funnel an attack into Belgium, which could then be met by the best divisions of the French Army. Thus, any future war would take place outside of French territory, avoiding a repeat of the First World War. [13] [14] The area immediately to the north of the Maginot Line was covered by the heavily wooded Ardennes region, [15] which French General Philippe Pétain declared to be "impenetrable" as long as "special provisions" were taken. He believed that any enemy force emerging from the forest would be vulnerable to a pincer attack and destroyed. The French commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin, also believed the area to be of a limited threat, noting that it "never favoured large operations". [16] With this in mind, the area was left lightly defended. [13]

Maginot Line Line of fortifications along the French/German border

The Maginot Line, named after the French Minister of War André Maginot, was a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles, and weapon installations built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by Germany and force them to move around the fortifications. Constructed on the French side of its borders with Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg, the line did not extend to the English Channel due to French strategy that envisioned a move into Belgium to counter a German assault.

French Army Land warfare branch of Frances military

The French Army, officially the Ground Army to distinguish it from the French Air Force, Armée de l'Air or Air Army, is the land-based and largest component of the French Armed Forces. It is responsible to the Government of France, along with the other four components of the Armed Forces. The current Chief of Staff of the French Army (CEMAT) is General Jean-Pierre Bosser, a direct subordinate of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CEMA). General Bosser is also responsible, in part, to the Ministry of the Armed Forces for organization, preparation, use of forces, as well as planning and programming, equipment and Army future acquisitions. For active service, Army units are placed under the authority of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CEMA), who is responsible to the President of France for planning for, and use, of forces.

Ardennes low mountain range in Belgium

The Ardennes is a region of extensive forests, rough terrain, rolling hills and ridges formed by the geological features of the Ardennes mountain range and the Moselle and Meuse River basins. Geologically, the range is a western extension of the Eifel, and both were raised during the Givetian age of the Devonian as were several other named ranges of the same greater range.

The initial plan for the German invasion of France called for an encirclement attack through the Netherlands and Belgium, avoiding the Maginot Line. [17] Erich von Manstein, then Chief of Staff of the German Army Group A, prepared the outline of a different plan and submitted it to the OKH (German High Command) via his superior, Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt. [18] [19] Manstein's plan suggested that panzer divisions should attack through the Ardennes, then establish bridgeheads on the Meuse River and rapidly drive to the English Channel. The Germans would thus cut off the Allied armies in Belgium. This part of the plan later became known as the Sichelschnitt ("sickle cut"). [19] [20] Adolf Hitler approved a modified version of Manstein's ideas, today known as the Manstein Plan, after meeting with him on 17 February. [21]

Situation on 21 May 1940; German forces occupy the area shaded in pink 16May-21May Battle of Belgium.PNG
Situation on 21 May 1940; German forces occupy the area shaded in pink

On 10 May, Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands. [22] Army Group B, under Generaloberst Fedor von Bock, attacked into Belgium, while the three panzer corps of Army Group A under Rundstedt swung around to the south and drove for the Channel. [23] The BEF advanced from the Belgian border to positions along the River Dyle within Belgium, where they fought elements of Army Group B starting on 10 May. [24] [25] They were ordered to begin a fighting withdrawal to the Scheldt River on 14 May when the Belgian and French positions on their flanks failed to hold. [26] During a visit to Paris on 17 May, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was astonished to learn from Gamelin that the French had committed all their troops to the ongoing engagements and had no strategic reserves. [27] On 19 May, Gort met with French General Gaston Billotte, commander of the French First Army and overall coordinator of the Allied forces. Billotte revealed that the French had no troops between the Germans and the sea. Gort immediately saw that evacuation across the Channel was the best course of action, and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest location with good port facilities. [28] Surrounded by marshes, Dunkirk boasted old fortifications and the longest sand beach in Europe, where large groups could assemble. [29] On 20 May, on Churchill's suggestion, the Admiralty began arranging for all available small vessels to be made ready to proceed to France. [30] After continued engagements and a failed Allied attempt on 21 May at Arras to cut through the German spearhead, [31] the BEF was trapped, along with the remains of the Belgian forces and the three French armies, in an area along the coast of northern France and Belgium. [32] [33]


Lord Gort (gesturing, at centre) was commander of the British Expeditionary Force. Gort and Blount at Arras WWII IWM O 177.jpg
Lord Gort (gesturing, at centre) was commander of the British Expeditionary Force.

Without informing the French, the British began planning on 20 May for Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF. [29] [30] This planning was headed by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay at the naval headquarters below Dover Castle, from which he briefed Churchill as it was under way. [34] Ships began gathering at Dover for the evacuation. [35] On 20 May, the BEF sent Brigadier Gerald Whitfield to Dunkirk to start evacuating unnecessary personnel. Overwhelmed by what he later described as "a somewhat alarming movement towards Dunkirk by both officers and men", due to a shortage of food and water, he had to send many along without thoroughly checking their credentials. Even officers ordered to stay behind to aid the evacuation disappeared onto the boats. [36]

On 22 May, Churchill ordered the BEF to attack southward in coordination with the French First Army under General Georges Blanchard to reconnect with the remainder of the French forces. [37] This proposed action was dubbed the Weygand Plan after General Maxime Weygand, appointed Supreme Commander after Gamelin's dismissal on 18 May. [38] On 25 May, Gort had to abandon any hope of achieving this objective and withdrew on his own initiative, along with Blanchard's forces, behind the Lys Canal, part of a canal system that reached the sea at Gravelines. [39] Sluice gates had already been opened all along the canal to flood the system and create a barrier (the Canal Line) against the German advance. [40]

Battle of Dunkirk

Soldiers were strafed and bombed by German aircraft while awaiting transport. Dunkirksoldier1.JPG
Soldiers were strafed and bombed by German aircraft while awaiting transport.

By 24 May, the Germans had captured the port of Boulogne and surrounded Calais. [32] The engineers of the 2nd Panzer Division under Generalmajor Rudolf Veiel built five bridges over the Canal Line and only one British battalion barred the way to Dunkirk. [42] On 23 May, at the suggestion of Fourth Army commander Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, Rundstedt had ordered the panzer units to halt, concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks and the question of supply to his forward troops. [43] [44] [45] [46] He was also concerned that the marshy ground around Dunkirk would prove unsuitable for tanks and he wished to conserve them for later operations (in some units, tank losses were 30–50 per cent). [47] [48] Hitler was also apprehensive, and on a visit to Army Group A headquarters on 24 May, he endorsed the order. [47] [46]

Air Marshal Hermann Göring urged Hitler to let the Luftwaffe (aided by Army Group B [49] ) finish off the British, to the consternation of General Franz Halder, who noted in his diary that the Luftwaffe was dependent upon the weather and aircrews were worn out after two weeks of battle. [50] Rundstedt issued another order, which was sent uncoded. It was picked up by the Royal Air Force (RAF) Y service intelligence network at 12:42: "By order of the Fuhrer ... attack north-west of Arras is to be limited to the general line Lens–Bethune–Aire–St Omer–Gravelines. The Canal will not be crossed." [51] [52] Later that day, Hitler issued Directive 13, which called for the Luftwaffe to defeat the trapped Allied forces and stop their escape. [53] At 15:30 on 26 May, Hitler ordered the panzer groups to continue their advance, but most units took another 16 hours to attack. [54] The delay gave the Allies time to prepare defences vital for the evacuation and prevented the Germans from stopping the Allied retreat from Lille. [55]

The halt order has been the subject of much discussion by historians. [56] [57] Guderian considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major German mistakes on the Western Front. [58] Rundstedt called it "one of the great turning points of the war", [59] and Manstein described it as "one of Hitler's most critical mistakes". [60] B. H. Liddell Hart interviewed many of the generals after the war and put together a picture of Hitler's strategic thinking on the matter. Hitler believed that once Britain's troops left continental Europe, they would never return. [61] [ page needed ]


26–27 May

The retreat was undertaken amid chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles blocking the roads and a flood of refugees heading in the opposite direction. [62] [63] Due to wartime censorship and the desire to keep up British morale, the full extent of the unfolding disaster at Dunkirk was not initially publicised. A special service attended by King George VI was held in Westminster Abbey on 26 May, which was declared a national day of prayer. [64] [65] 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 to the public their suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops. [66] Just before 19:00 on 26 May, Churchill ordered Dynamo to begin, by which time 28,000 men had already departed. [29] Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation. Only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day. [67] [68]

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive at Dover, 31 May 1940 Wounded British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk make their way up the gangplank from a destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940. H1623.jpg
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk arrive at Dover, 31 May 1940

On 27 May, the first full day of the evacuation, one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft were active. [69] Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards for small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbour, as well as larger vessels that could load from the docks. An emergency call was put out for additional help, and by 31 May nearly four hundred small craft were voluntarily and enthusiastically taking part in the effort. [70]

The same day, the Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, both the town and the dock installations. As the water supply was knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished. [71] An estimated thousand civilians were killed, one-third of the remaining population of the town. [72] The Luftwaffe was met by 16 squadrons of the Royal Air Force, who claimed 38 kills on 27 May while losing 14 aircraft. [71] [73] Many more RAF fighters sustained damage and were subsequently written off. On the German side, Kampfgeschwader 2 (KG 2) and KG 3 suffered the heaviest casualties. German losses amounted to 23 Dornier Do 17s. KG 1 and KG 4 bombed the beach and harbour and KG 54 sank the 8,000-ton steamer Aden. Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers sank the troopship Cote d' Azur. The Luftwaffe engaged with 300 bombers which were protected by 550 fighter sorties, and attacked Dunkirk in twelve raids. They dropped 15,000 high explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs, destroying the oil tanks and wrecking the harbour. [74] No. 11 Group RAF flew 22 patrols with 287 aircraft this day, in formations of up to 20 aircraft. [75]

Altogether, over 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo. [73] The RAF continued to take a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help. [41]

On 25 and 26 May, the Luftwaffe focused their attention on Allied pockets holding out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens, and did not attack Dunkirk. [72] Calais, held by the BEF, surrendered on 26 May. [76] Remnants of the French First Army, surrounded at Lille, fought off seven German divisions (several of them armoured) until 31 May, when the remaining 35,000 soldiers were forced to surrender after running out of food and ammunition. [77] [78] The Germans accorded the honours of war to the defenders of Lille in recognition of their bravery. [79]

28 May – 4 June

Situation on 4 June 1940; the remaining French rearguard held a sliver of land around Dunkirk 21May-4June1940-Fall Gelb.jpg
Situation on 4 June 1940; the remaining French rearguard held a sliver of land around Dunkirk

The Belgian Army surrendered on 28 May, [80] leaving a large gap to the east of Dunkirk. Several British divisions were rushed in to cover that side. [81] The Luftwaffe flew fewer sorties over Dunkirk on 28 May, switching their attention to the Belgian ports, Ostend and Nieuport. The weather over Dunkirk was not conducive to dive or low-level bombing. The RAF flew 11 patrols and 321 sorties, claiming 23 destroyed for the loss of 13 aircraft. [75] On 28 May, 17,804 soldiers arrived at British ports. [68]

On 29 May, 47,310 British troops were rescued [68] as the Luftwaffe's Ju 87s exacted a heavy toll on shipping. The British destroyer HMS Grenade was sunk and the French destroyer Mistral was crippled while her sister ships, each laden with 500 men, were damaged by near misses. British destroyers Jaguar and Verity were badly damaged but escaped the harbour. Two trawlers disintegrated in the attack. Later, the passenger steamer SS Fenella sank with 600 men aboard at the pier but the men were able to get off. The paddle steamer HMS Crested Eagle suffered a direct hit, caught fire, and sank with severe casualties. The raiders also destroyed the two rail-owned ships, the SS Lorina and the SS Normannia. [82] Of the five major German attacks, just two were contested by RAF fighters; the British lost 16 fighters in nine patrols. German losses amounted to 11 Ju 87s destroyed or damaged. [83]

On 30 May, Churchill received word that all British divisions were now behind the defensive lines, along with more than half of the French First Army. [77] By this time, the perimeter ran along a series of canals about 7 miles (11 km) from the coast, in marshy country not suitable for tanks. [84] With the docks in the harbour rendered unusable by German air attacks, senior naval officer Captain (later Admiral) William Tennant initially ordered men to be evacuated from the beaches. When this proved too slow, he re-routed the evacuees to two long stone and concrete breakwaters, called the east and west moles, as well as the beaches. Almost 200,000 troops embarked on ships from the east mole (which stretched nearly a mile out to sea) over the next week. [85] Once more, low clouds kept Luftwaffe activity to a minimum. Nine RAF patrols were mounted, with no German formation encountered. [86] The following day, the Luftwaffe sank one transport and damaged 12 others for 17 losses; the British claimed 38 kills, which may have been an exaggeration. The RAF and Fleet Air Arm lost 28 aircraft. [86]

Of the total 338,226 soldiers, several hundred were unarmed Indian mule handlers on detachment from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, forming four of the six units of Force K-6 transport. Cypriot muleteers were also present. Three units were successfully evacuated and one captured. [87] [88] [89] Also present at Dunkirk were a small number of French Senegalese soldiers and Moroccans. [2] [90]

The next day, an additional 53,823 men were embarked, [9] including the first French soldiers. [91] Lord Gort and 68,014 men were evacuated on 31 May, [92] leaving Major-General Harold Alexander in command of the rearguard. [93] A further 64,429 Allied soldiers departed on 1 June, [68] before the increasing air attacks prevented further daylight evacuation. [94] The British rearguard of 4,000 men left on the night of 2–3 June. [95] An additional 75,000 French troops were retrieved over the nights of 2–4 June, [68] [96] before the operation finally ended. The remainder of the rearguard, 40,000 French troops, surrendered on 4 June. [95] Churchill made a point of stating in his "We shall fight on the beaches" address in the House on 4 June that the evacuation had been made possible through the efforts of the RAF. [41]

Evacuation routes

Map of the three evacuation routes Dunkirk Evacuation shipping routes.png
Map of the three evacuation routes
Evacuated troops arrive in Dover The Evacuation From Dunkirk, May - June 1940 H1647.jpg
Evacuated troops arrive in Dover

Three routes were allocated to the evacuating vessels. The shortest was Route Z, a distance of 39 nautical miles (72 km), but it entailed hugging the French coast and thus ships using it were subject to bombardment from on-shore batteries, particularly in daylight hours. [97] [98] Route X, although the safest from shore batteries, travelled through a particularly heavily mined portion of the Channel. Ships on this route travelled 55 nautical miles (102 km) north out of Dunkirk, proceeded through the Ruytingen Pass, [99] and headed towards the North Goodwin Lightship before heading south around the Goodwin Sands to Dover. [97] [98] The route was safest from surface attacks, but the nearby minefields and sandbanks meant it could not be used at night. [100] The longest of the three was Route Y, a distance of 87 nautical miles (161 km); using this route increased the sailing time to four hours, double the time required for Route Z. This route followed the French coast as far as Bray-Dunes, then turned north-east until reaching the Kwinte Buoy. [101] Here, after making an approximately 135-degree turn, the ships sailed west to the North Goodwin Lightship and headed south around the Goodwin Sands to Dover. [97] [98] Ships on Route Y were the most likely to be attacked by German surface vessels, submarines, and the Luftwaffe. [102]

You knew this was the chance to get home and you kept praying, please God, let us go, get us out, get us out of this mess back to England. To see that ship that came in to pick me and my brother up, it was a most fantastic sight. We saw dog fights up in the air, hoping nothing would happen to us and we saw one or two terrible sights. Then somebody said, there's Dover, that was when we saw the White Cliffs, the atmosphere was terrific. From hell to heaven was how the feeling was, you felt like a miracle had happened.

Harry Garrett, British Army, speaking to Kent Online [103]


Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940 Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940. H1637.jpg
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940

The Royal Navy provided the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Calcutta, 39 destroyers, and many other craft. The Merchant Navy supplied passenger ferries, hospital ships, and other vessels. Britain's Belgian, Dutch, Canadian, [4] and French allies provided vessels as well. Admiral Ramsay arranged for around a thousand copies to be made of the required charts, had buoys laid around the Goodwin Sands and down to Dunkirk, and organised the flow of shipping. [100] Larger ships such as destroyers were able to carry about 900 men per trip. The soldiers mostly travelled on the upper decks for fear of being trapped below if the ship sank. [104] After the loss on 29 May of 19 British and French navy ships plus three of the larger requisitioned vessels, the Admiralty withdrew their eight best destroyers for the future defence of the country. [105]

British ships [106]
Type of vesselTotal engagedSunkDamaged
Cruisers 101
Destroyers 39619
Sloops, corvettes and gunboats 911
Minesweepers 3657
Trawlers and drifters 113172
Special service vessels310
Ocean boarding vessels 311
Torpedo boats and anti-submarine boats1300
Former Dutch schuyts with naval crews404Unknown
Yachts with naval crews263Unknown
Personnel ships4588
Hospital carriers815
Naval motor boats126Unknown
Tugboats 343Unknown
Other small craft [note 1] 311170Unknown
Total British ships693226
  1. Does not include ships' lifeboats and some unrecorded small privately owned craft. [106]
Allied ships [106]
Type of vesselTotal engagedSunkDamaged
Warships (all types)498Unknown
Other vessels1199Unknown
Total Allied ships16817
Grand total861243

Little ships

A wide variety of small vessels from all over the south of England were pressed into service to aid in the Dunkirk evacuation. They included speedboats, Thames vessels, car ferries, pleasure craft, and many other types of small craft. [107] The most useful proved to be the motor lifeboats, which had a reasonably good capacity and speed. [107] Some boats were requisitioned without the owner's knowledge or consent. Agents of the Ministry of Shipping, accompanied by a naval officer, scoured the Thames for likely vessels, had them checked for seaworthiness, and took them downriver to Sheerness, where naval crews were to be placed aboard. Due to shortages of personnel, many small craft crossed the Channel with civilian crews. [108]

The first of the "little ships" arrived at Dunkirk on 28 May. [104] The wide sand beaches meant that large vessels could not get anywhere near the shore, and even small craft had to stop about 100 yards (91 m) from the waterline and wait for the soldiers to wade out. [109] In many cases, personnel would abandon their boat upon reaching a larger ship, and subsequent evacuees had to wait for boats to drift ashore with the tide before they could make use of them. [110] In most areas on the beaches, soldiers queued up with their units and patiently awaited their turn to leave. But at times, panicky soldiers had to be warned off at gunpoint when they attempted to rush to the boats out of turn. [111] In addition to ferrying out on boats, soldiers at De Panne and Bray-Dunes constructed improvised jetties by driving rows of abandoned vehicles onto the beach at low tide, anchoring them with sandbags, and connecting them with wooden walkways. [112]



Troops landed from Dunkirk
27 May – 4 June [68]
27 May7,6697,669
28 May5,93011,87417,804
29 May13,75233,55847,310
30 May29,51224,31153,823
31 May22,94245,07268,014
1 June17,34847,08164,429
2 June6,69519,56126,256
3 June1,87024,87626,746
4 June62225,55326,175

Before the operation was completed, the prognosis had been gloomy, with Churchill warning the House of Commons on 28 May to expect "hard and heavy tidings". [113] 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." [9] Andrew Roberts comments that the confusion over the Dunkirk evacuation is illustrated by two of the best books on it being called "Strange Defeat" and "Strange Victory". [114]

Three British divisions and a host of logistic and labour troops were cut off to the south of the Somme 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. The majority of the 51st (Highland) Division was forced to surrender on 12 June, but 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. [115] The Germans marched into Paris on 14 June and France surrendered eight days later. [116]

The more than 100,000 French troops evacuated from Dunkirk were quickly and efficiently shuttled to camps in various parts of south-western England, where they were temporarily lodged before being repatriated. [117] British ships ferried French troops to Brest, Cherbourg, and other ports in Normandy and Brittany, although only about half of the repatriated troops were redeployed against the Germans before the surrender of France. For many French soldiers, the Dunkirk evacuation represented only a few weeks' delay before being killed or captured by the German army after their return to France. [118] Of the French soldiers evacuated from France in June 1940, about 3,000 joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French army in Britain. [119]

In France, the unilateral British decision to evacuate through Dunkirk rather than counter-attack 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, 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. [120] In fact, the 35,000 men who finally surrendered after covering the final evacuations were mostly French soldiers of 2nd Light Mechanized Division and the 68th Infantry Division. [121] [122] Their resistance allowed the evacuation effort to be extended to 4 June, on which date another 26,175 Frenchmen were transported to England. [68]

The evacuation was presented to the German public as an overwhelming and decisive German victory. On 5 June 1940, Hitler stated "Dunkirk has fallen! 40,000 French and English troops are all that remains of the formerly great armies. Immeasurable quantities of materiel have been captured. The greatest battle in the history of the world has come to an end." [lower-alpha 1] [123] Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, the German armed forces high command) announced the event as "the greatest annihilation battle of all time". [124]


A wounded French soldier being taken ashore on a stretcher at Dover after evacuation from Dunkirk Wounded French soldier after evacuation from Dunkirk.jpg
A wounded French soldier being taken ashore on a stretcher at Dover after evacuation from Dunkirk

The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) from 10 May until the armistice with France on 22 June. [125] 3,500 British were killed [126] and 13,053 wounded. [127] All the heavy equipment had to be abandoned. [128] Left behind in France were 2,472 guns, 20,000 motorcycles, and almost 65,000 other vehicles; also abandoned were 416,000 short ton s (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. [128] Almost all of the 445 British tanks that had been sent to France with the BEF were abandoned. [129]

Isle of Man Steam Packet Company vessel Mona's Queen shortly after striking a mine on the approach to Dunkirk, 29 May 1940 Dunkirk 1940 HU1145.jpg
Isle of Man Steam Packet Company vessel Mona's Queen shortly after striking a mine on the approach to Dunkirk, 29 May 1940

Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with nine other major vessels. In addition, 19 destroyers were damaged. [130] Over 200 British and Allied sea craft were sunk, with a similar number damaged. [131] The Royal Navy's most significant losses in the operation were six destroyers:

The French Navy lost three destroyers:

The RAF lost 145 aircraft, of which at least 42 were Spitfires, while the Luftwaffe lost 156 aircraft in operations in the nine days of Operation Dynamo, [136] including 35 destroyed by Royal Navy ships (plus 21 damaged) during the six days from 27 May to 1 June. [137]

For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man was left behind as a prisoner of war. The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany. Prisoners reported brutal treatment by their guards, including beatings, starvation, and murder. Another complaint was that German guards kicked over buckets of water that had been left at the roadside by French civilians for the marching prisoners to drink. [138]

Many of the prisoners were marched to the city 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 prisoner of war camps in Germany. [139] The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for the remainder of the war. [140]

Those of the BEF who died or were captured and have no known grave are commemorated on the Dunkirk Memorial. [141]

Dunkirk jack

Dunkirk Jack Dunkirk Jack.svg
Dunkirk Jack

The St George's Cross defaced with the arms of Dunkirk flown from the jack staff is the warranted house flag of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. It is known as the Dunkirk jack. The flag is flown only by civilian vessels that took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation. [142]

See also


  1. Original German: "Dünkirchen ist gefallen! 40 000 Franzosen und Engländer sind als letzter Rest einstiger großer Armeen gefangen. Unübersehbares Material wurde erbeutet. Damit ist die größte Schlacht der Weltgeschichte beendet."

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Further reading