- James Houser
May 30, 1940 - The Dunkirk Evacuation Begins
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
May 30, 1940. The British Expeditionary Force has withdrawn into its lines around Dunkirk. The German blitzkrieg is approaching from all sides, and its back is to the English Channel. With French and Belgian soldiers at their side, the BEF makes its stand as a jerry-rigged flotilla of small vessels makes its way to their rescue. It is either Britain’s greatest defeat…or its finest hour. You be the judge.
The 2017 movie “Dunkirk” was great, of course, but if you went into the theater without knowing what the whole situation was you may have been a little lost. Fear not: I’m here for you.
The German attack on France in 1940, just after World War II had begun, was originally intended to be a repeat of World War I: a giant sweep through Belgium that would aim at Paris. For this reason, the German generals – and Hitler – were pessimistic about the outcome of the war. They knew that the British and French would expect this, and react quickly by moving their troops to hold the line in Belgium. They figured it would take years to defeat the Western Allies, the same as in the Great War – and even that was uncertain.
The outlier was a staff officer named Erich von Manstein, who proposed an alternate plan. He thought that the German panzer forces should slip through the heavily wooded Ardennes forest – a region so thick and rugged that attacking through there was considered impossible – to catch the Allies by surprise. Since the Allies would send their armies north to Belgium, they wouldn’t be expecting an attack from the south. Once the Germans broke through the Ardennes, they could Blitzkrieg for the English Channel and cut off the Allied armies from France. If they did that – well, divide and conquer.
Hitler pushed for Manstein’s plan, even though it was a huge risk, because it offered a quick end to the war. On May 10, 1940, German troops stormed into Belgium and the Netherlands, and the Allied armies moved into Belgium to stop the German attack, just as predicted. Unfortunately, the Germans burst through the Ardennes rapidly with their panzer columns to cut the head off the snake. Heinz Guderian’s tank corps smashed through the forest and scattered the French forces in their path, and Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division – nicknamed the “Ghost Division” for its ability to appear out of nowhere – cut loose for the English Channel.
The German maneuver caught the Allies completely by surprise; the French had allocated limited forces to the Ardennes because they were supposed to be impassable. The new British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was shocked to learn that the French had no reserves left to stop Guderian and Rommel. Though British forces dealt Rommel a severe blow at Arras on May 21, by the next day the Ghost Division had reached the English Channel. The British Expeditionary Force, the Belgian Army, and three French armies were trapped in a bag – and as the Germans closed in, the drawstring was tightening.
This situation left the Allies falling back on the French coast. By May 20, the British had seen the writing on the wall and were preparing an evacuation of their forces from the European continent. It was codenamed “Operation Dynamo,” headed by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey at Dover with a direct line to Churchill. With virtually no time to plan, Ramsey began laying hands on every ship he could find to prepare to evacuate the nearly 400,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force.
What’s important to note is how critical this all was. Far more than the equipment and supplies the British had in France, the BEF *was* the British army at that point. If it was completely written off in May 1940, Britain would have no ground defenses against a German invasion and might have no choice but to surrender. The disaster in France was already unfolding. If the British Army could be saved, though, there might be a chance of fighting on – but could they be saved?
With the Germans surrounding the Allied forces at Dunkirk, men like Guderian and Rommel wanted to attack quickly and destroy the retreating enemy. Their forces were badly damaged, though, having lost many tanks and men; Rommel’s Ghost Division was down to about 30% of its original tank strength. The German commander, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, advocated a short halt to replenish their supplies and prepare for further operations. Hitler was skeptical – until Hermann Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe, convinced him that his air units could destroy the British forces on their own. Hitler agreed, and the German army held off for a few days while the Luftwaffe went to work.
A few days was all Bertram Ramsey needed. He had already begun evacuating non-essential personnel even before the German encirclement closed, and by May 26 had begun regular evacuation procedures. Both Royal Navy ships and merchant marine vessels – passenger ferries and other ships – were called up to go rescue the troops from Dunkirk.
The first few evacuations were dangerous, as the Navy hadn’t established the cordon and the Luftwaffe played hell with the evacuation. German planes strafed the incoming ships, and submarines were constantly hunting. Most importantly, there were just NOT ENOUGH SHIPS. The British had never dreamed they would need to evacuate their boys so quickly and on such short notice, so they had nothing in place for their darkest hour.
400,000 men had to be evacuated. There were not enough ships. The Germans had halted – for a little bit – but who knew when they might move forward again? Time was running out.
Three forces came to the rescue. The first was the RAF. British planes flew 3,500 sorties in support of Operation Dynamo, British airmen laying it all on the line to make sure the ground troops got home. The German Luftwaffe was a master of close support operations and had enormous strength. On May 27, their bombers pummeled Dunkirk, killing a third of the civilian population and many British, French and Belgian soldiers. The RAF was struggling, but managed with heroic effort to hold off the German fighters and bombers and keep them away from the ships.
The second set of rescuers was the British people. On May 27, Ramsey put out a call for volunteers – any ships on Britain’s south coast that could come save their army from the German blitzkrieg. Hundreds of people who owned private boats – yachts, fishing boats, car ferries, pleasure craft, even little motorboats – answered the call and began to make their way to Dover to start the rescue from Dunkirk. These little boats have been exaggerated in popular myth, true – but it’s hard to see how the British Army could have been saved without them.
Small craft – the “little boats of Dunkirk” - made up over half the ships in the rescue from Dunkirk, piloted by ordinary people – regular men, women, and some children taking part to save their boys. They pushed through German air strikes, artillery fire and submarines to cross the Channel and save their army from destruction. Even if they didn’t do it all on their own – the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force moved heaven and earth to make it happen – they volunteered in spite of everything to make it happen. And it happened.
There was a third rescuer. As the Luftwaffe pounded the British forces, the remnants of the French First Army offered to hold the rearguard. So often forgotten in accounts of Dunkirk, the French fought alongside the British throughout the battle, including black Senegalese and Arab Moroccans in French uniform. The Senegalese and Moroccans, unlike white soldiers, faced almost certain execution by the Nazis if captured, but they stayed on and held off the Germans while the British forces escaped. The French played their unremembered part at Dunkirk – holding off the blitzkrieg to save their ally.
May 29 saw 47,000 British troops escape as the German attacks increased. Now the German army had joined in, and the panzer forces were horning in on Dunkirk. Desperate fighting by British and French troops held them off as more and more soldiers were rescued. A British and a French destroyer were both sunk by German planes, carrying the soldiers they were trying to rescue down with them – just as the first of the little boats began to arrive.
Dunkirk’s port facilities were quickly destroyed by German air attack, but it had one of the longest sandy beaches in northern France. Here, troops lined up in thousands as orderly as you’d like, even under constant air and artillery attack and listening to the distant firing coming ever closer. They crowded around two long moles – the western and eastern mole – to climb aboard the British, French or Polish destroyer, or the British fishing boat, or the London car ferry, that would dodge air attack and submarine torpedoes to bring them to England. Though the moles were not designed to dock ships, most soldiers saved at Dunkirk came off the moles.
By May 30, the final stand began. The Allies had all drawn up around Dunkirk, and the Belgians holding the eastern flank had surrendered. It was now or never. On May 30, 53,000 men were evacuated by the Navy and the small ships. The Luftwaffe continued to ravage the ships, but the RAF provided the air cover to hold them off as the evacuation continued.
Day after day, the British and French forces on the frontline fought to stem the tide of Nazi tanks and soldiers as their men were rescued. By June 1, the ships were taking French soldiers too – anyone who could be rescued. The British commander left on May 31, and the last British troops stepped on the boats on June 2. The French rearguard of 40,000 men remained as they were slowly pushed out of the town of Dunkirk and onto the beaches. They would only surrender on June 4, by which time the British Expeditionary Force had escaped.
What was Dunkirk? Not to be sappy, but Dunkirk was hope. It was an Allied defeat, certainly – there’s no way to look at the evacuation of an army as anything other than a defeat. The British army lost almost all of its heavy equipment, including 450 tanks, in their retreat from France. The BEF lost 68,000 men in Belgium and France, with most of them captured as the noose closed around Dunkirk. The French were left to face the Germans alone, and would be forced to surrender on June 22. Dark days were ahead for all of Europe, and soon Britain alone would stand against most of Europe under the Nazi bootheel.
All that being said, the evacuation from Dunkirk saved Britain and maybe the world. (Okay, that’s a bit dramatic.) But seriously.
The British had no other army: the one at Dunkirk was IT. If it was lost, they would be basically defenseless and would have no means of carrying the war to other fronts. If the British had no Army left to defend the home islands, that would mean Egypt lost, and the Middle East. The Japanese could have conquered India. There would have been no D-Day, and no liberation of Paris.
The evacuation of Dunkirk was a retreat – but it was a magnificent retreat in Britain’s darkest hour. Churchill referred to it as a “miracle,” and given the circumstances it’s hard to disagree. It took the French and British armies fighting with their backs to the wall, the organizing ability of the Navy, the daring and sacrifice of the Royal Air Force, and the volunteers who took their fishing boats to war in the English Channel to make Dunkirk possible. What this indicated, more than anything, was that the British were not going to stop fighting. They would continue the war when it seemed the most hopeless – even though France was lost, Nazi Germany dominant, and no help in sight.
After the evacuation from Dunkirk, Churchill made his famous speech that symbolized British resolve to fight World War II to the end, even if they stood alone. “We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”