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World War II: Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk

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World War II: Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk

British troops evacuating Dunkirk, May 1940

Photograph Courtesy of the US Department of Defense

Battle of Dunkirk - Conflict:

The Battle and evacuation of Dunkirk occurred during World War II.

Battle of Dunkirk - Dates:

Lord Gort made the decision to evacuate on May 25, 1940, and the last troops departed France on June 4.

Armies & Commanders:

Allies

  • General Lord Gort
  • General Maxime Weygand
  • approx. 400,000 men

Nazi Germany

Battle of Dunkirk - Background:

On the night of May 9/10, 1940, German forces attacked the Low Countries. Moving to their aid, French troops and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were unable to prevent their fall. On May 14, German panzers tore through the Ardennes and began driving to the English Channel. Despite their best efforts, the BEF, Belgian, and French forces were unable to halt the German advance. Six days later, German forces reached the coast, effectively cutting off the BEF as well as a large number of Allied troops. Turning north, German forces sought to capture the Channel ports before the Allies could evacuate.

Traveling to Army Group A's headquarters at Charleville on May 24, Hitler urged its commander, General Gerd von Rundstedt, to press the attack. Assessing the situation, von Rundstedt advocated holding his armor west and south of Dunkirk, while utilizing the infantry of Army Group B to finish off the BEF. This approach was agreed upon and it was decided that Army Group B would attack with strong aerial support from the Luftwaffe. The following day, the commander of the BEF, General Lord Gort, with the situation continuing to deteriorate, made the decision to evacuate from northern France.

Battle of Dunkirk - Planning the Evacuation:

Withdrawaling, the BEF, with support from French and Belgian troops, established a perimeter around the port of Dunkirk. In England, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay met at Dover Castle to begin planning the evacuation. Designated Operation Dynamo, the evacuation was to be carried out by a fleet of destroyers and merchant ships. Supplementing these ships, were over 700 "little ships" which largely consisted of fishing boats, pleasure craft, and smaller commercial vessels.

In planning, it was hoped that 45,000 men could be rescued over two days, as it was expected that German interference would force the end of the operation after forty-eight hours. As the fleet began to arrive at Dunkirk, the soldiers began preparing for the voyage. Due to time and space concerns, almost all heavy equipment had to be abandoned. While many were able to board ships directly from the harbor's mole, others were forced to wade out to waiting boats. Commencing on May 27, Operation Dynamo rescued 7,669 men on the first day and 17,804 on the second.

Battle of Dunkirk - Escape Across the Channel:

The operation continued as the perimeter around the port began to shrink and the Royal Air Force battled to keep German aircraft away from the embarkation areas. Hitting its stride, the evacuation effort began to peak as 47,310 men were rescued on May 29, followed by 120,927 over the next two days. This occurred despite a heavy Luftwaffe attack on the evening of the 29th and the reduction of the Dunkirk pocket to a five kilometer strip on the 31st. On June 1, 64,229 were taken off, with the British rearguard departing the next day.

With German air attacks intensifying, daylight operations were ended and the evacuation ships were limited to running at night. Between June 3 and 4, an additional 52,921 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches. With the Germans only three miles from the harbor, the final Allied ship, the destroyer HMS Shikari, departed at 3:40 AM on June 4. The two French divisions left defending the perimeter were ultimately forced to surrender.

Battle of Dunkirk - Aftermath:

All told, 332,226 men were rescued from Dunkirk. Deemed a stunning success, Churchill cautiously advised “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." During the operation, the British losses included 68,111 killed, wounded, and captured, as well as 243 ships (including 6 destroyers), 106 aircraft, 2,472 field guns, 63,879 vehicles, and 500,000 tons of supplies. Despite the heavy losses, the evacuation preserved the core of the British Army and made it available for the immediate defense of Britain. In addition, significant numbers of French, Dutch, Belgian, and Polish troops were rescued.

Selected Sources

 

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