Dunkirk was the northern French port from which British and Allied troops were evacuated during the fighting that led to the fall of France in 1940. On 10 May, German forces invaded France and the Low Countries and within ten days had reached the Channel coast near Abbeville. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had advanced into Belgium to meet the German attack, was in danger of being surrounded and cut off. General John Vereker, Viscount Gort, the commander in chief of the BEF, was authorized to withdraw his beleaguered force to the coast in order to be transported back to Britain. On 26 May, Operation Dynamo—the Dunkirk evacuation—began.
The Royal Navy hastily assembled a vast armada of some nine hundred ships to bring the troops home across the Channel. Dunkirk harbor became the main point of embarkation, but the nearby beaches were also used for this purpose, and a host of little ships, such as fishing boats and pleasure cruisers manned by civilian volunteers, ferried the troops out to the bigger ships that could not get in close to the shore. The discipline of the rear echelon troops as they waited for evacuation was not always good. Officers organizing the long queues were on occasion forced to maintain order at the point of a gun. However, as the fighting troops arrived in the area, discipline improved and the rate of embarkation speeded up. In the meantime, the Wehrmacht attacked the perimeter around the town and the Luftwaffe pounded the harbor and the beaches. By 4 June more than three hundred thousand British and Allied troops had escaped from Dunkirk under the noses of the Germans. It was a staggering feat.
A number of factors combined to make possible this seemingly miraculous achievement. Dunkirk was a fortuitous bridgehead for such an evacuation. It had an extensive harbor and beaches, it was ringed by canals that acted as defense lines, and the sea dikes could be opened to flood the lowlying land and hamper the German tanks. The BEF played an important role in its own salvation. The skillful fighting retreat that it conducted back to the coast, as well as the valiant defense of the Dunkirk perimeter, were essential in ensuring that so many troops got away. Nor should the part played by the French army be forgotten. Not only did it help to defend the port during the evacuation, but it also formed the final rearguard that allowed the last of the British troops to escape. Much credit should of course go to the Royal Navy for the success of the operation. Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey, flag officer for Dover, deftly coordinated the evacuation, and the navy gallantly brought out the troops despite heavy losses during the embarkation. The naval effort was greatly assisted by good weather and calm seas: this was perhaps the real miracle of Dunkirk. The troops criticized the Royal Air Force (RAF) for abandoning them to their fate on the beaches, but this view was too harsh. Although it was not possible to maintain continuous air patrols over Dunkirk, and essential that precious aircraft were not frittered away when they would be needed for the forthcoming defense of Britain, much damage was done to the Luftwaffe during the evacuation period.
The Germans themselves contributed to the escape of the BEF. On 24 May, Adolf Hitler issued the notorious halt order that prevented German tanks, which were close to Dunkirk, from advancing for three days. Various explanations have been put forward for this order, including a need to preserve the armored forces for the impending push south, a misplaced faith in the Luftwaffe to finish off the BEF, a desire on the part of the Fuhrer to reassert his authority over his commanders, and a reluctance to believe that a large-scale sea evacuation was possible. Whatever the reason, by the time the tanks began to roll again the BEF had strengthened its defense line, the troops were streaming into Dunkirk, and the chance to cut them off had disappeared. This proved to be a crucial mistake.
On 4 June, Churchill told the House of Commons that "wars are not won by evacuations," and there was no doubt that the withdrawal from Dunkirk was a serious military reversal. But the success of Operation Dynamo was vital to the British war effort. If the BEF had not got away, most of Britain's trained troops would have been lost, with serious consequences for the country's military position. The shock might have been so great that the British government would be forced to contemplate a negotiated peace. As it was, the returning troops greatly enhanced the country's home defense capability and formed the nucleus of a new citizen army that was built up after the debacle in France. Churchill was boosted in his conviction that the country must fight on alone in 1940, and he set about galvanizing the nation for the struggle ahead. For the British people the evacuation was an important psychological victory. The rescue of the troops against the odds electrified the public and gave them a new sense of purpose and national unity. Propagandists were quick to turn the event into a patriotic myth in which the little ships became a symbol of resistance to the might of the Nazis. The "Dunkirk spirit" entered the British lexicon: a mixture of improvisation and a stubborn refusal to give up when defeat seems inevitable.
Divine, David. The Nine Days of Dunkirk. London, 1959.
Gardner, W. J. R., ed. The Evacuation from Dunkirk: Operation Dynamo, 26 May–4 June 1940. London, 2000.
Harman, Nicholas. Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth. London, 1980.
Lord, Walter. The Miracle of Dunkirk. London, 1982.
Jeremy A. Crang
Professor Ged Martin
Dunkirk spirit used (sometimes ironically) for the refusal to surrender or despair in a time of crisis.