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Dunkirk Evacuation: History, Summary & Facts

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about an important historical event during World War II, known as the ''Miracle of Dunkirk'', or more commonly, the Dunkirk Evacuation. We will explore why the evacuation took place and how it was conducted.

''The Miracle of Dunkirk''

There are a number of excellent World War II movies out there, maybe some of which you've seen. In the summer of 2017, a major motion picture came out about an important World War II event. The film is centered around what has sometimes been called the ''Miracle of Dunkirk''. More commonly called the Dunkirk Evacuation, or just Dunkirk, it involved a last-minute rescue of over 300,000 Allied soldiers who were trapped by the Nazis near the beaches of Dunkirk, France in the summer of 1940.

The Allied soldiers trapped at Dunkirk consisted of mainly of British and French troops. Their rescue from what seemed to be almost-certain doom was due to a hastily-conceived evacuation plan. This plan was carried out by the British military and civilians alike. Many ordinary British civilians chose to risk their lives by sailing fishing boats, personal yachts, and other types of boats across the English Channel where they picked up trapped soldiers and returned them safely to Britain.

Dunkirk was a stunning surprise to the Nazis, who had lost the chance to more or less wipe out the British Army, and a moment of triumph for the British, who were struggling to resist Nazi occupation.

Allied troops being evacuated from Dunkirk.
dunkirk

Background and Context

Before we dig a little deeper and learn about this ''miracle'' of World War II, let's explore some context. World War II began in 1939 after Hitler's Nazi Germany invaded Poland. For years, Germany's aggression toward other European countries, like Czechoslovakia, had gone unchallenged. But now, with the unprovoked invasion (and subsequent occupation) of Poland, Britain and France had had enough. They came to Poland's defense by declaring war on Germany. Boom! The Second World War had begun.

As noble as their motivates were, the French proved no match for Hitler's Blitzkrieg style of warfare. The Battle for France in 1940 lasted only six weeks. France capitulated, leaving only the British to thwart Hitler's conquest of Europe. As the Nazis pushed through France from the East, French and Belgian troops, along with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), found themselves trapped on the Western coast of France. The safety of England was only approximately 20 miles away: it was almost swimmable. But for the Allied soldiers trapped at Dunkirk, rescue seemed so close and yet so far.

The Rescue

By May, it became apparent to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other high-ranking officials that the BEF had to be rescued, or Britain risked losing the war completely. The BEF was a massive army and to lose it completely would doom Great Britain. The evacuation plan was codenamed Operation Dynamo. Under the leadership of Lord John Gort, the Commander of the BEF, it was decided that British and French troops trapped in Western Europe would stage a fighting retreat toward the harbor and beaches of Dunkirk. This was intended to delay the German advance, buying time for evacuation.

Lord Gort, Commander of the BEF, shows another high-ranking officer a map.
gort

The Allies got a bit of help when Hitler ordered a halt to the German advance. Instead of using ground troops, Hitler had been persuaded by Hermann Goering, head of the Luftwaffe (the German air force), that the Allied troops could be defeated through extensive aerial bombing. This was a costly mistake on the part of Hitler because it allowed the Allied forces to secure defenses and prepare evacuation plans.

Recognizing the desperate situation they were in and the narrow window of escape, the British Admiralty called on British civilians to assist in the rescue. Hundreds of fishing boats, yachts, and other vessels braved underwater mines and strafing, attacks from low-flying Luftwaffe planes, to come to the rescue of their comrades. Although the British Royal Air Force (RAF) put up a valiant defense, the harbor at Dunkirk had been heavily bombed, making it insufficient for a large-scale evacuation. So, boats needed to pull up to the shore directly. Smaller, civilian vessels could do this and were employed to ferry soldiers out to sea, where they were transferred onto larger warships.

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