Dunkirk evacuation

Dunkirk evacuation
British troops evacuating Dunkirk's beaches. Many stood shoulder deep in water for hours, waiting to board the vessels.

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 26 May and the early hours of 3 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.[1][2] The evacuation was ordered on 26 May.[3] 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".[4]

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)[5] had been rescued by the hastily assembled fleet of 850 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. Others were ferried from the beaches to the larger ships, and thousands were carried back to Britain by the famous "little ships of Dunkirk", a flotilla of around 700 merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft and Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboats—the smallest of which was the 15 ft (4.6 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 Britain.[6][7]

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.[8]



British troops evacuating to ship via lifeboat bridge.

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.[9] The Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers "for our soldiers in dire peril in France". Similar prayers were offered in synagogues and churches throughout Britain that day, confirming the public suspicion of the desperate plight of the troops.[10]

Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 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.[11] 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[12] in spite of the first heavy aerial attack by the Luftwaffe in the evening. The next day, an additional 54,000 men[13] were embarked, including the first French soldiers.[14] 68,000 men and the commander of the BEF—Lord Gort—evacuated on 31 May.[15] A further 64,000 Allied soldiers departed on 1 June,[16] before the increasing air attacks prevented further daylight evacuation.[11] The British rearguard left the night of 2 June, along with 60,000 French soldiers.[16] An additional 26,000 French troops were retrieved the following night before the operation finally ended.[11]

Two French divisions remained behind to protect the evacuation. Though they halted the German advance, they were soon captured. 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."[2][17]

Date Troops evacuated from beaches Troops evacuated from Dunkirk Harbour Total
27 May - 7,669 7,669
28 May 5,930 11,874 17,804
29 May 13,752 33,558 47,310
30 May 29,512 24,311 53,823
31 May 22,942 45,072 68,014
1 June 17,348 47,081 64,429
2 June 6,695 19,561 26,256
3 June 1,870 24,876 26,746
4 June 622 25,553 26,175
Totals 98,780 239,446 338,226
Royal Navy gunner covering retreating troops at Dunkirk (1940).

Little ships

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. Guided by naval craft across the English Channel from the Thames Estuary and Dover, 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 Britain.

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.[18]

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, but the 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.[19] 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 5 April 1941.[20]

The lifeboats included:

  • The Cyril and Lilian Bishop (RNLI Official Number 740) a 35 ft 6 in (10.82 m) Self-righter from Hastings.[21]
  • Jane Holland 40 ft (12 m) Self-righter from Eastbourne.[20]
  • The Michael Stevens (ON 838) a 46 ft (14 m) Watson Class from Lowestoft.[22]
  • The Viscountess Wakefield (ON 783) a 41 ft (12 m) Watson Class from Hythe, Kent.[23]
  • Thomas Kirk Wright (ON 811) a 32 ft (9.8 m) Surf Class from Poole.[24]
  • Unnamed ON 826, a 35 ft (10.668000 m) newly built Self-righter. She was repaired then entered service in 1941 at Cadgwith with the name Guide of Dunkirk.[24]
  • Mary Scott Launched in 1925 , length 46ft 6ins, beam 12ft 9ins, draught 3ft 3ins. Then at Southwold, the Mary Scott was towed to Dunkirk by the paddle steamer Empress 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 R.N.L.I. at Southwold.
  • Dowager Launched 1933, as the Rosa Woodd and Phyllis Lunn. length 41ft, beam 11ft 8ins, draught 3ft 6ins. Based at Shoreham she made 3 trips between Dover and Dunkirk.
  • Stenoa Launched 1929, as Cecil and Lilian Philpott. length 45ft 6ins, beam 12ft 6ins, draught 4ft 6ins. Then at Newhaven, she saved 51 persons from the beach at Dunkirk. Then returned to R.N.L.I. 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, almost 65,000 vehicles and 20,000 motorcycles; 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.[25] Several thousand French troops were captured in the Dunkirk pocket.

Naval losses

Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with nine large boats. In addition, 19 destroyers were damaged.[16] Over 200 of the Allied sea craft were sunk, with an equal number damaged.[26]

The Royal Navy's most significant losses in the operation were six destroyers:

The French Navy lost three destroyers:

The Royal Navy claimed the destruction of 35 Luftwaffe aircraft from ships' gunfire during the period of 27 May-1 June, and damage to another 21 aircraft.[27]

Air losses

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 a total of 4,822 sorties over Dunkirk, losing just over 100 aircraft in the fighting.[28] Fortunately for the BEF, bad weather kept the Luftwaffe grounded for much of operation thus helping to reduce the losses. [29]

The RAF claimed 262 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed over Dunkirk.[30] The RAF lost 177 aircraft between 26 May and 3 June, while the Luftwaffe lost 240 aircraft during the same time frame.[31] Fighter losses from units based in France and Britain from 10 May-4 June were 432, while total RAF losses from all causes during all of May and June were 959, of which 477 were fighters.[32] However, most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches and the retreating troops were largely unaware of this vital assistance. As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.[33]


Rescued British troops gathered in a ship at Dunkirk.
Dunkirk-rescued French troops disembarking at a port on the south coast of England.

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 Britain today.[34]

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 Britain. 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.

German land forces might have pressed their attack on the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) & 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, Generalfeldmarshall 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.[citation needed] Hitler merely validated the order several hours after the fact. This lull in the action provided the Allies a few days to evacuate by sea.

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 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 WWII.

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.[35] British ships ferried French troops to Brest, Cherbourg and other ports in Normandy and Brittany, although only about ½ 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 made POWs by the German army after their return in France.[36]

In France, the perceived preference of the Royal Navy for evacuating British forces at the expense of the French led to some bitter resentment. The French Admiral François Darlan originally ordered that the British forces should receive preference, but Churchill intervened at a 31 May meeting in Paris to order that the evacuation should proceed on equal terms and the British would form the rearguard.[37] A few thousand French forces eventually surrendered, but only after the evacuation effort had been extended for a day to bring 26,175 Frenchmen to Britain on 4 June.

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. In particular, the British prisoners complained that French prisoners were given preferential treatment.[38] Another major complaint was that German guards kicked over buckets of water that had been left at the roadside by French civilians.[39] 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.[40] The majority (those below the rank of corporal) then worked in German industry and agriculture for five years.[41]

The very significant loss of military equipment abandoned in Dunkirk reinforced the financial dependence of the British government on the U.S.[citation needed]

The St George's Cross flown from the jack staff is known as the Dunkirk jack and is only flown by civilian ships and boats of all sizes that took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation in 1940. The only other ships permitted to fly this flag at the bow are those with a Royal Navy Admiral on board.

In popular culture

  • The Snow Goose, a 1941 novel by Paul Gallico, related the story of a lonely artist who participates in the evacuation at the cost of his life. It was made into an award-winning 1971 film starring Richard Harris and Jenny Agutter.
  • The Academy Award-winning 1942 movie Mrs. Miniver has Mrs Miniver's husband taking part in the evacuation. Robert Owen Wilcoxon, brother of actor Henry Wilcoxon who played the vicar in the film, was killed assisting the evacuation.
  • Katherine Kurtz's thriller Lammas Night features a character caught up in the evacuation.
  • The 1949 novel Week-end à Zuydcoote by French author Robert Merle tells the story of a French soldier during the evacuation. It won the Prix Goncourt that year. It was adapted to film in 1964 by Henri Verneuil.
  • The story was the subject of Dunkirk, a 1958 Ealing film (made in collaboration with British MGM).
  • In the 1981 BBC television miniseries Private Schulz, the title character (a reluctant German spy) escapes Britain by sailing one of the evacuation boats to the continent.
  • The evacuation was featured prominently in Ian McEwan's novel Atonement (2001) and the film adaptation of the same name (2007). The film version contains a 4.5-minute continuous shot of Allied troops stranded on the beach of Dunkirk waiting to be evacuated (filmed on Redcar beach, North Yorkshire).
  • The evacuation and the Battle of Dunkirk were re-enacted in the 2004 BBC television docudrama Dunkirk.
  • The novel Dunkirk Crescendo (2005) by Bodie Thoene features the miracle of Dunkirk starting in the beginning of May, before Churchill becomes Prime Minister, and ending on 4 June, when the evacuation ends.
  • The evacuation is featured in the Doctor Who novel The Nemonite Invasion (2009).
  • In Connie Willis's 2010 novel Blackout, Mike Davies, one of the story's time-traveling protagonists, intends to observe the evacuation as an historian, but is unwittingly drawn into participating, causing him to worry he may have done something to alter the course of history.
  • Television historian Dan Snow's efforts to rescue Britons stranded in France following the air travel disruptions due to the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption was described as re-creating the Spirit of Dunkirk. French police in Calais halted their effort.[42]
  • In Nancy L. Hull's 2008 young adult novel On Rough Seas, 14-year-old Alex Curtis takes part in the Dunkirk evacuation.
  • In Dorita Fairlie Bruce's Toby of Tibbs Cross, Miles Haydon takes his boat to Dunkirk to help with the evacuation. The book was published in 1942 and is interesting for a contemporary fictional account of the evacuation.
  • The video game Secret Weapons Over Normandy focuses on the Dunkirk evacuation during the mission Aldertag.
  • In the video game Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII, two missions focus on the evacuation.
  • The evacuation is a major plot point in Foyle's War episode The White Feather.

See also



  1. ^ "1940: Dunkirk rescue is over – Churchill defiant." BBC, 2008. Retrieved: 25 July 2010.
  2. ^ a b Longden 2009, p. 1.
  3. ^ Longden 2009, p. 48.
  4. ^ Safire 2004, p. 146.
  5. ^ Taylor 1965
  6. ^ Knowles, David J. "The 'miracle' of Dunkirk". BBC News, 30 May 2000. Retrieved: 18 July 2009.
  7. ^ "History". The Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. Retrieved: 11 April 2008.
  8. ^ Lord 1983, pp. 43–44.
  9. ^ Miller 1997, p. 83.
  10. ^ Gelb 1990, p. 82.
  11. ^ a b c Liddell Hart 1999
  12. ^ Keegan 1989
  13. ^ Liddell Hart 1999, p. 79.
  14. ^ Murray and Millett 2000, p. 80.
  15. ^ Keegan 1989, p. 81.
  16. ^ a b c Murray and Millett 2000
  17. ^ The inspection of the beaches had, however, taken place in the early hours of the previous morning.
  18. ^ "Operation Dynamo."(Dutch) wivonet.nl. Retrieved: 27 July 2010.
  19. ^ Beilby, Alec. "More lifeboats at Dunkirk." Lifeboat, (RNLI) Volume 53, Issue 530, 1994, p. 270.
  20. ^ a b Morris and Hendy 2006, pp. 13–14.
  21. ^ Morris 2000, p. 7.
  22. ^ Salsbury 2010, p. 79.
  23. ^ Denton 2009, pp. 16–17.
  24. ^ a b Denton 2009, pp. 18–19.
  25. ^ Longden 2009, p. 11.
  26. ^ Holmes 2001, p. 267.
  27. ^ Ramsey, B. H. The Evacuation of the Allied Armies from Dunkirk and Neighbouring Beaches. Despatch published in the London Gazette, 17 July 1947, Appendix III.
  28. ^ Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk of 27 May-4 June 1940
  29. ^ Lord, Walter (1982). The Miracle of Dunkirk. London. pp. 161, 211. ISBN 0 7139 1211 1. 
  30. ^ Ramsey, B. H.The Evacuation of the Allied Armies from Dunkirk and Neighbouring Beaches. Despatch published in the London Gazette, 17 July 1947, p. 3297.
  31. ^ Murray 1985, pp.42-43
  32. ^ Richards, Denis. "Royal Air Force 1939–1945, Volume I, The Fight at Odds", pp. 145, 150. funsite.unc.edu. Retrieved: 1 September 2010.
  33. ^ Shirer 1990, p. 736, footnote.
  34. ^ Rodgers. Lucy. "The men who defined the 'Dunkirk spirit'." BBC, 19 May 2010. Retrieved: 30 July 2010.
  35. ^ "Le Paradis apres l'Enfer: the French Soldiers Evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940." Franco-British Council, Publications. Retrieved: 26 Mar 2010.
  36. ^ Mordal 1968, p. 496.
  37. ^ Churchill 1959, p. 280.
  38. ^ Longden 2009, p. 367.
  39. ^ Longden (2009) p. 361
  40. ^ Longden 2009, pp. 383–404.
  41. ^ Longden 2007
  42. ^ Blitz, James. "UK - Seaborne recovery missions recall Dunkirk spirit." Financial Times (London), 20 April 2010. Retrieved: 4 June 2010.


  • Churchill, Winston. Memoirs of the Second World War. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. ISBN 0-395-59968-7.
  • Collier, Richard. The Sands of Dunkirk. New York: Dell Publishing Co. Inc. / E.P.Dutton & Co. Inc., 1961.
  • Denton, Tony. Handbook 2009. Shrewsbury, UK: Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society, 2009.
  • Franks, Norman. The Air Battle of Dunkirk. London: William Kimber, 1983. ISBN 0-7183-0349-0.
  • Gardner, W. J. R., ed. The Evacuation from Dunkirk: 'Operation Dynamo' 26 May – 4 June 1940. London: Frank Cass, 2000. ISBN 0-7146-5120-6 (hardcover), ISBN 0-7146-8150-4 (paperback). ISSN 1471-0757.
  • Gelb, Norman. Dunkirk: The Incredible Escape. London: Michael Joseph, 1990. ISBN 0-7181-32033.
  • Hastings, Max. "A fine account of a triumphant defeat." The Telegraph, Book Review, 28 May 2006. Retrieved: 3 June 2007.
  • Holmes, Richard, ed. "Dunkirk evacuation." The Oxford Companion to Military History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-866209-2.
  • Keegan, John. The Second World War, New York: Viking Penguin, 1989. ISBN 0-670-82359-7.
  • Longden, Sean. Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind. London: Constable and Robinson, 2009. ISBN 978-1845299774.
  • Longden, Sean. Hitler's British Slaves: Allied POWs in Germany 1939–1945. London: Constable and Robinson, 2007. ISBN 978-1845295196.
  • Lord, Walter. The Miracle of Dunkirk. London: Allen Lane, 1983. ISBN 1-85326-685-X.
  • Liddell Hart, B. H. History of the Second World War. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999. ISBN 0-30-680912-5.
  • Miller, Nathan. War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II. New York: Oxford University Press (US), 1997. ISBN 0-19511-038-2.
  • Mordal, Jacques. Dunkerque. Paris: Editions France Empire, 1968.
  • Morris, Jeff. The Story of the Hastings Lifeboats. Coventry, UK: Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society, 2000.
  • Morris, Jeff and Dave Hendy. The Story of the Eastbourne Lifeboats. Coventry, UK: Lifeboat Enthusiasts Society, Fifth Edition 2006
  • Murray, Williamson. Luftwaffe. Baltimore, Maryland: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, Inc., 1985.
  • Murray, Williamson and Allan R. Millett. A War to Be Won. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2000. ISBN 0-674-00163-X.
  • Overy, Richard. "A very British defeat." The Telegraph, Book Review, 28 May 2006. Retrieved: 3 June 2007.
  • Safire, William. Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2004. ISBN 03-9304-005-4.
  • Salsbury, Alan. A History of the Exmouth Lifeboats. Wellington, Somerset, UK: Halsgrove, 2010. ISBN 978-085704073-2.
  • Sebag-Montefiore, Hugh. Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man. New York: Viking, 2006. ISBN 0-670-91082-1.
  • Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1990, First edition 1960. ISBN ISBN 0-671-72868-7 .
  • Taylor, A.J.P. English History 1914–1945 (Oxford History of England). London: Oxford, 1965.
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-521-44317-2.
  • Wilmot, Chester. The Struggle for Europe. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1986. ISBN 0-88184-257-5.

External links

Coordinates: 51°02′N 2°22′E / 51.033°N 2.367°E / 51.033; 2.367

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