Battle of Dunkirk

Battle of Dunkirk
Battle of Dunkirk
Part of The Second World War
A British soldier on Dunkirk's beaches fires at strafing German aircraft.[1]
Date 26 May–4 June 1940
Location Dunkirk, France
Result Allied evacuation successful
 United Kingdom
France France
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom Lord Gort
France Maxime Weygand
France Georges Blanchard
France René Prioux
Nazi Germany Gerd von Rundstedt
Nazi Germany Ewald von Kleist (Panzergruppe von Kleist)
approx. 400,000
338,226 evacuated[2]
approx. 800,000
Casualties and losses
11,000 dead
40,000 captured
50,000 vehicles (including tanks)
9 destroyers
200 marine vessels
177 aircraft
20,000-30,000 dead and wounded
100 tanks
156 aircraft

The Battle of Dunkirk was a battle in the Second World War between the Allies and Germany. A part of the Battle of France on the Western Front, the Battle of Dunkirk was the defence and evacuation of British and allied forces in Europe from 26 May–4 June 1940.

After the Phoney War, the Battle of France began in earnest on 10 May 1940. To the east, the German Army Group B invaded and subdued the Netherlands and advanced westward through Belgium. In response, the Supreme Allied Commander—French General Maurice Gamelin—initiated "Plan D" which relied heavily on the Maginot Line fortifications. Gamelin committed the forces under his command, three mechanised armies, the French First and Seventh and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to the River Dyle. On 14 May, German Army Group A burst through the Ardennes and advanced rapidly to the west toward Sedan, then turned northward to the English Channel, in what Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein called the "sickle cut" (known as "Plan Yellow" or the Manstein Plan), effectively flanking the Allied forces.[3]

A series of Allied counter-attacks—including the Battle of Arras—failed to sever the German spearhead, which reached the coast on 20 May, separating the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) near Armentières, the French 1st Army, and the Belgian Army further to the north from the majority of French troops south of the German penetration. After reaching the Channel, the Germans swung north along the coast, threatening to capture the ports and trap the British and French forces before they could evacuate to Britain.

In one of the most widely-debated decisions of the war, the Germans halted their advance on Dunkirk. Contrary to popular belief, what became known as "the Halt Order" did not originate with Adolf Hitler. Gerd von Rundstedt and Günther von Kluge suggested that the German forces around the Dunkirk pocket should cease their advance on the port and consolidate, to avoid an Allied break. Hitler sanctioned the order on 24 May with the support of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW).[4] The army were to halt for three days, giving the Allies time to organise an evacuation and build a defensive line. Despite the Allies' gloomy estimates of the situation, with Britain discussing a conditional surrender to Germany, in the end over 330,000 Allied troops were rescued.



On 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain.[5] By 26 May, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French First Army were bottled up in a corridor to the sea, about 60 mi (97 km) deep and 15–25 mi (24–40 km) wide. Most of the British were still around Lille, over 40 mi (64 km) from Dunkirk, and the French still further south. Two massive German armies flanked them: General Fedor von Bock's Army Group B was to the east, and General Gerd von Rundstedt's Army Group A to the west. (Both these officers were later promoted to Field Marshal.)

Halt order

Quotes on Hitler's halt order
During the following days... it became known that Hitler's decision was mainly influenced by Goering. To the dictator the rapid movement of the Army, whose risks and prospects of success he did not understand because of his lack of military schooling, became almost sinister. He was constantly oppressed by a feeling of anxiety that a reversal loomed...
—Halder, in a letter of July 1957.[6]

Major L.F. Ellis says:

The day's entry concludes with the remark: "The task of Army Group A can be considered to have been completed in the main" — a view which further explains Rundstedt's reluctance to employ his armoured divisions in the final clearing-up stage of this first phase of the campaign.[7]

Halder wrote in his diary on 30 May:

"Brauchitsch is angry ... The pocket would have been closed at the coast if only our armour had not been held back. The bad weather has grounded the Luftwaffe and we must now stand and watch countless thousands of the enemy get away to England right under our noses."[8]

On 24 May, Hitler had visited General von Rundstedt's headquarters at Charleville. Von Rundstedt advised him the infantry should attack the British forces at Arras, where they had proved capable of significant action, while Kleist's armour held the line west and south of Dunkirk in order to pounce on the Allied forces retreating before Army Group B.[1] This order allowed the Germans to consolidate their gains and prepare for a southward advance against the remaining French forces. The terrain around Dunkirk was considered unsuitable for armour,[9] so the Allied forces' destruction was initially assigned to the Luftwaffe and the German infantry organised in Army Group B. Von Rundstedt later called this "one of the great turning points of the war."[10]

The true reason for Hitler's decision to halt the German armour on 24 May is a matter of debate. One theory is that Von Rundstedt and Hitler agreed to conserve the armour for Fall Rot, an operation to the south.[11][12] Another theory—which has recently been disputed—was that Hitler was still trying to establish diplomatic peace with Britain before Operation Barbarossa. Brian Bond stated:

Few historians now accept the view that Hitler's behaviour was influenced by the desire to let the British off lightly in hope that they would then accept a compromise peace. True, in his political testament dated 26 February 1945 Hitler lamented that Churchill was "quite unable to appreciate the sporting spirit" in which he had refrained from annihilating the BEF at Dunkirk, but this hardly squares with the contemporary record. Directive No. 13, issued by the Supreme Headquarters on 24 May called specifically for the annihilation of the French, English and Belgian forces in the pocket, while the Luftwaffe was ordered to prevent the escape of the English forces across the channel.[13]

Whatever the reasons for Hitler's decision, he did not rescind it until the evening of 26 May. The three days thus gained gave a vital breathing space to the Royal Navy to arrange to evacuate the British and Allied troops. About 338,000 men were saved in about 11 days. About 215,000 were British, 123,000 were French — of whom 102,250 escaped in British ships.[14]


"Fight back to the west"

On 26 May, Anthony Eden—the Secretary of State for War—told General Gort that he might need to "fight back to the west", and ordered him to prepare plans for the evacuation. Gort had foreseen the order and preliminary plans were already in hand. The first such plan, for a defence along the Lys Canal, could not be carried out because of German advances on 26 May, with 2nd Division and 50th Division pinned down, and 1st, 5th and 48th Divisions under heavy attack. 2nd Division took heavy casualties trying to keep a corridor open, being reduced to a brigade strength,[15] and they succeeded; 1st, 3rd, 4th and 42nd Division escaped along the corridor that day, as did about one-third of the French 1st Army. As the Allies fell back, they disabled their artillery and vehicles and destroyed their stores.[16]

Map of the battle

On 27 May, the British fought back to the Dunkirk perimeter line. The Le Paradis massacre took place that day, when the 3. SS Division Totenkopf machine-gunned 97 British prisoners near the La Bassée Canal.[17] Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe dropped bombs and leaflets on the Allied armies. The leaflets showed a map of the situation. They read, in English and French: "British soldiers! Look at the map: it gives your true situation! Your troops are entirely surrounded — stop fighting! Put down your arms!"[18] The Allied soldiers mostly used these as toilet paper.[19] To the land- and air-minded Nazis, the sea seemed an impassable barrier,[20] so they really did think the Allies were surrounded; but the British saw the sea as a route to safety.

As well as the Luftwaffe's bombs, German heavy artillery (which had just come within range) also fired high-explosive shells into Dunkirk. By this time, the town contained the bodies of over 1,000 civilian casualties.[16] This bombardment continued until the evacuation was over.

The Battle of Wytschaete

Gort had sent General Adam ahead to build the defensive perimeter around Dunkirk, and General Brooke was to conduct a holding action with 3rd, 4th, 5th and 50th Divisions along the Ypres-Comines canal as far as Yser while the rest of the BEF fell back.[21] The Battle of Wytschaete is the name of the toughest action Brooke was to face in this role.[22]

On 26 May, the Germans made probing attacks and reconnaissance in force against the British position.[23] At dawn on 27 May, they launched a full-scale attack with three divisions south of Ypres.[23] A confused battle followed, where because of forested or urban terrain, visibility was low, and because the British at that time used no radios below battalion level[23] and the telephone wires were cut, communications were poor. The Germans used infiltration tactics to get among the British,[23] who were beaten back.

The heaviest fighting was in the 5th Division's sector. Still on 27 May, Brooke ordered Major-General Montgomery[Notes 1] to extend his 3rd Division's line to the left, thereby freeing 10th and 11th Brigades of 4th Division to join the 5th Division at Messines Ridge.[24] 10th Brigade arrived first, to find the enemy had advanced so far they were closing on the British field artillery.[25] Between them, 10th and 11th Brigades cleared the ridge of Germans, and by 28 May they were securely dug in east of Wytschaete.[25]

That day, Brooke ordered a counterattack to be spearheaded by two battalions, the 3rd Grenadier Guards and the 2nd North Staffordshires.[25] The North Staffords advanced as far as the Kortekeer River,[26] while the Grenadiers reached the canal itself,[26] but could not hold it. The counterattack did successfully disrupt the Germans,[26] holding them back a little longer while the BEF retreated.

Action at Poperinge

The route back from Brooke's position to Dunkirk passed through the town of Poperinge (known to most British sources as "Poperinghe"), where there was a bottleneck at a bridge over the Yser canal. Most of the main roads in the area converged on that bridge.[27] On 27 May, the Luftwaffe bombed the resulting traffic jam thoroughly for two hours, destroying or immobilising about 80% of the vehicles.[28] Another Luftwaffe raid—on the night of 28/29 May—was illuminated by flares as well as the light from burning vehicles.[29] The 44th Division in particular had to abandon many guns and lorries, losing almost all of them between Poperinge and the Mont.[30]

The German 6. Panzerdivision could probably have destroyed the 44th Division at Poperinge on 29 May, thereby cutting off 3rd Division and 50th Division as well. Thompson calls it "astonishing" that they did not,[31] but they were distracted by investing the nearby town of Cassel.

Belgian surrender

Gort had ordered Sir Ronald Adam, 3rd Corps Commander, and French General Falgade, to prepare a perimeter defence of Dunkirk. The perimeter was semicircular, with French troops manning the western sector and British troops the eastern. It ran from Nieuport in the east via Furnes, Bulskamp and Bergues to Gravelines in the west. The line was as strong as it could be made under the circumstances, but on 28 May the Belgian army surrendered, leaving a 20 mi (32 km) gap on Gort's eastern flank between the British and the sea. The British learned of the Belgian capitulation on 29 May.[32]

His Majesty King George VI sent Gort a telegram that read:

"All your countrymen have been following with pride and admiration the courageous resistance of the British Expeditionary Force during the continuing fighting of the last fortnight. Faced by circumstances outside their control in a position of extreme difficulty, they are displaying a gallantry which has never been surpassed in the annals of the British Army. The hearts of everyone of us at home are with you and your magnificent troops in this hour of peril."[32]

Gort realised he could not afford that gap. He threw the battle-worn 3rd, 4th and 50th Divisions into the line to fill it.[33]

Defence of the perimeter

Black and white photo of men in German Wehrmacht uniform
Erwin Rommel and officers, June 1940

While they were still moving into position, they ran headlong into the German 256th Division who were trying to flank Gort. Armoured cars of the 12th Lancers stopped the Germans at Nieuport itself. A confused battle raged all along the perimeter throughout 28 May. Command control on the British side disintegrated, and the perimeter was driven slowly inwards toward Dunkirk.[33]

Meanwhile, Erwin Rommel had surrounded five divisions of the French 1st Army near Lille. Though completely cut off, the French fought on for four days under General Molinié, thereby keeping seven German divisions from the assault on Dunkirk and saving a further 100,000 Allied troops.[33]

The defence of the perimeter held throughout 29-30 May, with the British falling back by degrees. On 31 May, the Germans nearly punched through at Nieuport, and the situation grew so desperate that two British battalion commanders had to personally man a Bren gun, with one Colonel firing and the other loading.[34] A few hours later, the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards rushed to reinforce the line near Furnes, where the British troops had been routed. The 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards restored order by shooting some of the fleeing troops, and turning others around at bayonet point.[34] The British troops returned to the line, and the German assault was beaten back.

In the afternoon of the same day, the Germans breached the perimeter near the canal at Bulskamp but the boggy ground on the far side of the canal, with sporadic fire from the Durham Light Infantry, halted them. As night fell, the Germans massed for another attack at Nieuport. Eighteen RAF bombers found the Germans while they were still assembling, and scattered them with an accurate bombing run.[35]

Retreat to Dunkirk

Also on 31 May, General Von Kuechler assumed command of all the German forces at Dunkirk. His plan was simple: he would launch an all-out attack across the whole front at 11:00 on 1 June. So focused was Von Kuechler on this plan that he paid no attention to a radio intercept telling him the British were abandoning the eastern end of the line to fall back to Dunkirk itself.[36]

1 June dawned fine and bright — good flying weather, in contrast to the bad weather that had hindered airborne operations on 30 and 31 May. (There were only two and a half good flying days in the whole operation.)[37] Although Churchill had promised the French that the British would cover their escape, on the ground it was the French who held the line while the last remaining British were evacuated. Despite concentrated artillery fire and Luftwaffe strafing and bombs, the French stood their ground. On 2 June (the day the last of the British units embarked onto the ships),[Notes 2] the French began to fall back slowly, and by 3 June the Germans were two miles from Dunkirk.[39] The night of 3 June was the last night of evacuations. At 10:20 on 4 June, the Germans hoisted the swastika over the docks from which so many British and French troops had escaped under their noses.[40]


British fisherman giving a hand to an Allied soldier while a Stuka's bomb explodes a few meters ahead.

The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces on 25 May. In the nine days from 27 May-4 June, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the operation).[41] Liddell Hart says British Fighter Command lost 106 aircraft dogfighting over Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe lost about 135 — some of which were shot down by the French Navy and the Royal Navy;[39] but MacDonald says the British lost 177 aircraft and the Germans lost 240.[37]

The docks at Dunkirk were too badly damaged to be used,[16] but the East and West Moles (sea walls protecting the harbour entrance) were intact. Captain William Tennant—in charge of the evacuation—decided to use the beaches and the East Mole to land the ships. This highly successful idea hugely increased the number of troops that could be embarked each day, and indeed at the rescue operation's peak, on 31 May, over 68,000 men were taken off.[37]

The last of the British Army left on 3 June, and at 10:50, Tennant signalled Ramsay to say "Operation completed. Returning to Dover."[42] However, Churchill insisted on coming back for the French, so the Royal Navy returned on 4 June in an attempt to rescue as many as possible of the French rearguard. Over 26,000 French troops were lifted off on that last day[43] — but between 30,000 and 40,000 French soldiers were left behind and forced to surrender to the Germans.[44]


Battle of Dunkirk memorial.

Although the events at Dunkirk gave a great boost to British morale, they also left the remaining French to stand alone against a renewed German assault southward. German troops entered Paris on 14 June and accepted the French surrender on 22 June.

The Dean of St Paul's was first to call the battle the "Miracle of Dunkirk" (on 2 June).[45]

A marble memorial to the battle stands at Dunkirk ((French) Dunkerque). It translates in English as: "To the glorious memory of the pilots, mariners, and soldiers of the French and Allied armies who sacrificed themselves in the Battle of Dunkirk, May–June 1940."

The loss of materiel on the beaches was huge. The British Army left enough equipment behind to equip about eight to ten divisions. Left behind in France were, among huge supplies of ammunition, 880 field guns, 310 guns of large calibre, some 500 anti-aircraft guns, about 850 anti-tanks guns, 11,000 machine guns, nearly 700 tanks, 20,000 motorcycles and 45,000 motor cars and lorries.[46] Army equipment available at home was only just sufficient to equip two divisions. The British Army needed months to re-supply properly and some planned introductions of new equipment were halted while industrial resources concentrated on making good the losses. Officers told troops falling back from Dunkirk to burn or otherwise disable their trucks (so as not to let them benefit the advancing German forces). The shortage of army vehicles after Dunkirk was so severe that the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) was reduced to retrieving and refurbishing numbers of obsolete bus and coach models from British scrapyards to press them into use as troop transports. Some of these antique workhorses were still in use as late as the North African campaign of 1942.

"Dunkirk Spirit"

British troops evacuating Dunkirk's beaches

British propaganda later exploited the successful evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, and particularly the role of the "Dunkirk little ships", very effectively. Many of the "little ships" were private vessels such as fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, but commercial vessels such as ferries also contributed to the force, including a number from as far away as the Isle of Man and Glasgow. These smaller vessels—guided by naval craft across the Channel from the Thames Estuary and from Dover—assisted in the official evacuation. Being able to reach much closer in the beachfront shallows than larger craft, the "little ships" acted as shuttles to and from the larger craft, lifting troops who were queuing in the water, many waiting shoulder-deep in water for hours. The term "Dunkirk Spirit" still refers to a popular belief in the solidarity of the British people in times of adversity.[47]

In popular culture

The battle and the evacuation were re-enacted in the films Dunkirk (1958) and Weekend at Dunkirk (1964), as well as in the BBC docudrama Dunkirk (2004).

The novel Dunkirk Crescendo (2005) by Bodie Thoene, as part of the Zion Covenant series, features the Dunkirk evacuation, starting in the beginning of May before Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister, and ending on 4 June when the evacuation ends.

In C. J. Sansom's novel, Winter in Madrid (2006), the protagonist recalls his involvement in the Dunkirk evacuation, setting the scene for the remaining narrative.

The evacuation from Dunkirk was featured in the novel Atonement and the 2007 film adaptation, which included a continuous five-minute scene of the protagonist walking down the chaotic beach.

In Elizabeth Bowen's novel The Heat of the Day, Robert Kelway (the protagonist's lover and the man whose potential espionage fuels the plot) is wounded at the Battle of Dunkirk, which causes him to limp when he feels like a wounded man.

See also


  1. ^ "Monty" was later to win the Second Battle of El Alamein, plan the Normandy Landings and Operation 'Market Garden' at Arnhem. He rose to the rank of Field Marshal and became the most celebrated British general of the Second World War, but in 1940 he was commander of the 3rd Division under Brooke.
  2. ^ General Alexander was one of the last to leave. Just before midnight on 2 June, Ramsay received the signal: "BEF evacuated".[38]



  1. ^ a b Taylor and Mayer 1381, p. 59.
  2. ^ Rickard, J. "Operation Dynamo, The Evacuation from Dunkirk, 27 May-4 June 1940." Retrieved: 14 May 2008.
  3. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 8.
  4. ^ Frieser 2005, pp. 291-292.
  5. ^ MacDonald 1986, p.8.
  6. ^ Shirer 1959, p. 879.
  7. ^ Butler 2009, p. 151.
  8. ^ Shirer 1959, p. 883.
  9. ^ Taylor and Mayer 1974, p. 60.
  10. ^ Shirer 1959, p. 877.
  11. ^ Taylor and Mayer p. 60
  12. ^ Kershaw 2008, p. 27.
  13. ^ Bond 1990, pp. 104–105.
  14. ^ Lord 1983, p. 148.
  15. ^ Liddell Hart 1970, p. 40.
  16. ^ a b c MacDonald 1986, p. 12.
  17. ^ Lord 1982, p. 74.
  18. ^ Quoted in Lord 1982, p. 75.
  19. ^ Lord 1982, p. 76.
  20. ^ Shirer 1959, p. 882.
  21. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 174.
  22. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 178.
  23. ^ a b c d Thompson 2009, p. 179.
  24. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 182.
  25. ^ a b c Thompson 2009, p. 183.
  26. ^ a b c Thompson 2009, p. 184.
  27. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 191.
  28. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 186.
  29. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 192.
  30. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 215.
  31. ^ Thompson 2009, p. 219.
  32. ^ a b Day of National Prayer, Professor Duncan Anderson writing for the BBC, retrieved on 30 July 2009
  33. ^ a b c Liddell Hart 1970, p. 41.
  34. ^ a b Lord 1982, p. 199.
  35. ^ Lord 1982, p. 200.
  36. ^ Lord 1982, p. 210.
  37. ^ a b c MacDonald 1986, p. 16.
  38. ^ MacDonald 1986, p. 18.
  39. ^ a b Liddell Hart 1970, p. 46.
  40. ^ Lord 1982, p. 246.
  41. ^ Shirer 1959, p. 884.
  42. ^ Lord 1982, p.267.
  43. ^ Lord 1982, p. 268.
  44. ^ Lord 1982, p.269.
  45. ^ 'Miracle' of Dunkirk, Professor Duncan Anderson writing for the BBC, retrieved on 30 July 2009
  46. ^ Postan 1952, Chapter IV.
  47. ^ Rodgers, Lucy (14 May 2010). "The men who defined the 'Dunkirk spirit'". BBC. Retrieved 2010-07-30. 


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Coordinates: 51°02′03″N 2°22′37″E / 51.0343°N 2.37682°E / 51.0343; 2.37682

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