The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 27 May and 4 June 1940. The operation was decided upon when large numbers of British, French, and Belgian troops were cut off and surrounded by the German army during the Battle of France in the Second World War. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister 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”
It was a fateful decision that would ultimately transform a military defeat into a moral victory. As German forces continued their advance into France, General Viscount Gort, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France, could see that the German invaders were getting the upper hand. The French Army was in disarray while his own forces were fighting desperately. The French called upon Gort to move his troops south to join them in a defensive stand. The British commander realized the action was futile and could lead to the annihilation of his command. If any of his forces were to be saved for the future defense of Britain, they would have to evacuate France immediately. On the evening of May 23, 1940, Gort ordered his commanders to retreat to the near-by port of Dunkirk – an action that would save the British Army to fight another day.
Escape from France
At the time, however, the success of the mission seemed highly unlikely. The British Army, joined by some French and Belgian forces would have to fight their way to the small port of Dunkirk, defend the town from German attack and hope that they could hold on long enough for ships from England to come to pull them off the beach.
Another fateful decision, this time on the part of the Germans, now helped their rescue. On May 24, Hitler, for reasons that are still unclear, ordered his tanks to halt their pursuit of the retreating Allied forces. In England the call went out for ships – any ships – to help with the rescue. On May 26 an unbelievable armada set sail. Motorboats, sloops, fishing boats, yachts, ferries, barges and every other variety of boat imaginable poured out of the Thames River and the ports that lined the English Channel to make their way across the Channel to rescue the beleaguered troops.
Guided by the smoke and flame filling the sky above Dunkirk, the ragtag rescue fleet made its way through continuous German attack and treacherous waters to the stranded troops. The rescuers found the beaches clogged with men. Some clamoured along piers to reach the rescue ships, others wadded out from shore to waters nearly over their heads for rescue. All the time the beach was under attack from German artillery, bombers and fighter planes.
The operation, code-named Dynamo, continued until June 4. At its beginning, the British thought they would be lucky to rescue 50,000. In the end, approximately 340,000 British, French and Belgians were snatched from the shore. 40,000 were left behind and killed or captured.