Dunkirk evacuation

British troops evacuating to ship via lifeboat bridge

British troops evacuating to ship via lifeboat bridge

Operation Dynamo (in English Operation Dynamo), also known as the “miracle of Dunkirk” or “evacuation of Dunkirk”, was a naval operation of large-scale evacuation of the Allied forces that took place from May 27 to June 4, 1940, after which the British troops of the BEF together with the Franco-Belgian forces had been cut off and surrounded by German tank units arrived on the shores of the English Channel as a result of the successful breakthrough of the front on the Meuse. It was the climax and ending of the so-called battle of Dunkirk, at the border between France and Belgium. Given the complete isolation of these troops by land (over 1 million soldiers from the British, French and Belgian), the only way to salvation was to escape to England through the transport by sea on vessels of any kind.


At the end of May 1940, the Wehrmacht’s advance towards the English Channel had pushed in a bag ever closer the British Expeditionary Force and ten divisions of the 1st French Army. The British there was no other choice but to re-embark towards’ England, but of the three ports available (Boulogne, Calais, Dunkirk), only the latter had resisted the Germans, as bombarded day and night by artillery and aviation. It was therefore clear Dunkerque choose to put in unless the allied troops, according to a plan that led to the involvement of some 850 boats of all types, from large military units to fishing vessels and small pleasure craft.

The operation was planned by Vice Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay and discussed with Winston Churchill in the Dynamo Room (a room in the headquarters of the Navy under the Castle of Dover in which was placed a dynamo that provided electricity), for which he was given operation this name.

In a speech to the House of Commons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that the events in France had been “a colossal military disaster”, the base and the brain of all the British Armed Forces in danger of being eliminated and captured on the beaches of Dunkirk. In his speech, known to history as “We shall fight on the beaches” (We shall fight on the beaches), Churchill greeted the entire rescue operation as a “miracle of deliverance” in which the allied forces were in danger of being almost totally eliminated by the Nazi armies.

The evacuation

On the first day, only 7,010 men were evacuated, but the ninth day the total of rescued men came to 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French), rescued by hastily created a fleet of boats of various kinds: from 42 destroyers made ​​available by the Royal Navy, other boats were made ​​available to the merchant navy but also by ordinary citizens, among the second-hand boats, hundreds were fishing vessels, pleasure craft and even lifeboats. The smaller boat to be used was a goiter of 15 feet (4.6 m), the Tamzine, now housed at ‘Imperial War Museum. This was defined as the “miracle of the little ships” (miracle of the small boats), which today remains firmly ingrained in the historical memory of Great Britain.

Because of censorship in time of war, in an attempt to keep up the morale of the nation, “the disaster of Dunkirk” was not advertised or discussed by the press Anglo-French, although in the nations involved there was a large popular participation in the events that saw the three armies engaged allies.

Initial plans envisaged the rescue of 45,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force within two days, when it was expected that German troops would have been able to block the British plans. In these two days, however, the British succeeded in putting in saving only 25,001 men.

On May 29, boarding operations were paralyzed for several hours by a violent bombardment, in which the soldiers panicked, threw themselves by swimming to reach the boats and many of them were drowned. Admiral Ramsey was forced to prohibit the boarding during the day and the UK’s Department of War, for fear of not being able to maintain their vital communication routes, ordered to subtract operation Dynamo modern cruisers. The dramatic plea for help in Ramsey, however, was crucial, and in the afternoon of May 30 arrived six modern destroyers to lend your help.

In the initial rescue operations were employed a total of ten destroyers and a massive intervention by the RAF that allowed the rescue to 29 of 47,310 British soldiers, despite a first heavy air attack by the Luftwaffe on the evening of the 29th, among other well contained by the RAF. The next day were rescued other 54 000 men including the first French soldiers.

On May 30, continued unabated evacuation of Allied troops, while the British artillery with the latest ammo trying to hold off the German troops advanced. During this day of operations, the Luftwaffe sank three destroyers and it damaged you are, not counting the numerous fishing boats and merchant cast at the peak.

By May 30, 126,000 people had been evacuated, and with the exception of small contingents remained isolated during the retreat of the rest of the BEF had already reached the beachhead at Dunkirk. The defense of this bridgehead against the ‘advanced pincer the enemy from the ground, then became more vigorous and resolute. The Germans had missed a great opportunity to be able to immobilize with a swift and decisive action allied forces on the coast.

On May 31, managed to embark 68,104 men while the commands British decided not to use warships to operations in Dunkirk, since they could no longer afford the luxury of losing other warships. On the same day the commander of the BEF, Lord Gort, left the command of the troops still on French soil to Major-General Harold Alexander and Sir Alan Francis Brooke embarks towards Dover.


From 1 to 4 June

The German artillery subjected the coast of Dunkirk to an intense bombardment, while the Luftwaffe launched the most violent attack since the operation. In a few hours a French destroyer were sunk three British fighters, along with two ferries, a minesweeper and a gunboat.

The line of English defense was breached in Bergues, a few kilometers from Dunkerque, which necessitated a further folding rear guard towards the coast. Towards evening, the admiral ordered an end to the day of embarkation, but despite everything well 64,229 men were rescued before the suspension of operations.

On the night of June 2, the commander Tennant transmitted from Dunkerque the message: “The expeditionary force was evacuated,” he then end the operation Dynamo 4000 while the last British men leave the soil of France.

The following day the German troops They carried the last decisive effort against the perimeter of Dunkirk, where the French rearguard was forced to fall back on a line which lay just over three kilometers from the base of the east pier. The last boat, the destroyer Sikkari, set sail at 3:40 in the morning of June 3, with a thousand French soldiers on board, one hour before sunrise, while the Germans were now to break on the beach at Dunkirk.

In conclusion, from May 27th to the early hours of June 4, leaving France for 338,226 men, of whom about 120,000 French. In operations led by Admiral Ramsey, were mobilized all the boats available, including private yachts large and small: as well as against only 7669 men embarked on the first day of the operation, 28 people were rescued 17,804 soldiers of the BEF, 29 well 47,310, while between 30 and 31 May even 120,927, well 64,229 in one day on 1 June, and other 54 000 until the night between 3 and 4 June.

Date, Troops evacuated from the beach, Troops evacuated from the port and Total are as follows:

May 27  -  7,669  7,669

May 28  5,930  11,874  17,804

May 29  13,752  33.558  47.310

May 30  29.512  24,311  53.823

May 31  22.942  45.072  68.014

June 1  17,348  47.081  64.429

June 2  6,695  19.561  26.256

June 3  1,870  24.876  26.746

June 4  622  25,553  26,175

Total   98.780  239.446  338.226




There was an enemy of the spoils of unbelievable proportions, the British had abandoned on French soil about 2,000 guns, 60,000 vehicles, 76,000 tons of ammunition, 600,000 tons of fuel and supplies of all kinds. England remained virtually unarmed on the ground metropolitan English: at the end of the operations were available only about 500 pieces of ‘artillery, including those taken from museums.

Overall, in a desperate attempt to rescue were lost about 200 boats of all sizes. The RAF between 26 May and 4 June played a total of over 4,822 missions of Dunkirk losing 177 aircraft, including 100 combat and others for various reasons, 40% of which were bombers. The Luftwaffe on the other hand lost about 140 aircraft.

The significant loss of material abandoned in Dunkirk reinforced the financial dependence of the British government towards the United States.

Naval ships sunk

The Royal Navy in the evacuation operations lost a significant number of ships, including:

HMS Grafton H89, sunk by U-62 May 29

•H86 HMS Grenade, sunk as a result of an air attack on May 29;

•H88 HMS Wakeful, sunk by a torpedo launched by Schnellboote S-30 May 29;

•H11 HMS Basilisk, HMS Havant H32 and D06 HMS Keith, sunk by air attack on 1 June.

The French National Navy Lost:

•Bourrasque, undermines a Nieuport 30 May;

•Sirocco, sunk by Schnellboote S-23 and S-26 on 31 May;

•The Foudroyant, sunk by air attack on the beach on 1 June.

A missed opportunity

These are the words of Basil Liddell Hart summarizing the great chance that the German forces were to capture or kill more than 300,000 soldiers of the Anglo-French at Dunkirk.

To May 24, there was only one British battalion to cover the 20 km stretch of the river Aa between Gravelines and Saint Omer, and another 100 km inland to the line of the canal was not much better manned. A few bridges had been demolished, and in many cases were not even implemented the preparations for the demolition of others. In fact, on May 23 the German armored troops had found no difficulty in throwing bridgeheads across the channel, which as said Lord Gort, “was the only anti-tank obstacle on this side”.

Hart goes on forever, “Once you have crossed the channel, nothing could prevent the avant-garde German battleships to continue their advance and to cut the lines of retreat of the BEF at Dunkirk, nothing except an order of Hitler”. It was precisely what happened on May 17 when General Heinz Guderian and was now launched towards the sea was suddenly stopped. Hitler was concerned about the tightness of the southern flank, and only when he was assured that infantry units were providing cover for the side in question arranged for armored forces resume their age. On May 20, the units of Guderian reached the coast blocking communication lines allied with Belgium.

May 24 as the Führer came to the headquarters of Gerd von Rundstedt at a crucial moment. Hitler, worried by British forces deployed in the area of Arras and from a possible French attack to the south, spoke of this to von Rundstedt already a strategist prudent, that in the days following esplicò the possibility of having to face attacks from the north and especially from the south.

Von Rundstedt already had in mind to appoint Fedor von Bock with the completion of the encirclement north, already thinking about future developments in the south, then in his plans there was no intention to stop the armored divisions. But Hitler found himself in conversation with von Rundstedt a final justification of his willingness to stop the tanks, according to him too valuable to be used in a campaign in Flanders dangerous as that in view of the imminent attack in the second phase of the offensive in France.

Another justification for the decision to Hitler is then due to the Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who suggested that the Führer “Dunkirk should be left to the Luftwaffe”, the air force was then ordered to continue the attack on Dunkirk, in the belief that it would be enough l intervention in the mass of the German airplanes to prevent the evacuation of Allied troops by sea.

In general, the controversial decision to Hitler may have been influenced by several factors both military and political, of which three are fairly obvious: the desire to keep in good condition its armored forces, the fear aroused by the idea of ​​venturing into marshy region Flanders and requests that Göring wanted a major role for the Luftwaffe, who apparently was not able to bear.

The decision of the Führer was probably also influenced by its willingness to seek after the French campaign a peace with the British Empire, that the same dictator long admired, as set out in Mein Kampf: Leave a sort of “green light” to the rescue English army would help a future reconciliation, which would have been barred except in Dunkirk, the German forces had destroyed the British army.


What could have been a disaster, became a successful operation for the Anglo-French forces, Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons urged the people in the spirit of Dunkirk (“Dunkirk spirit”), but also stating not to triumph, because “Wars are not won by evacuations” (“Wars are not won by evacuations”). However, the exhortations to the “Dunkirk spirit” deeply influenced the English people, and even today the term is still used to describe the attitudes useful to overcome moments of adversity.

The rescue of the British troops at Dunkirk provided a major psychological boost to the morale of the British army, at a time when the British War Cabinet had discussed in secret surrender to Hitler’s armies, the country was celebrating the operation almost as a great victory.

Despite the army of His Majesty lost in those days of the end of May, almost all of his equipment, the soldiers could be deployed in view of a possible German offensive in the English territory.

But the operation Dynamo did not represent more than 100,000 French soldiers salvation, most of them were delivered to ports in southern England to be immediately repatriated in French ports of Brest, Cherbourg and other ports of Normandy and Brittany.

Even if only half of the repatriated troops were deployed against the Germans during the campaign of France, many of them became prisoners in a war that the French forces were unable to counter. The forced march to prison camps in Germany were the real torture for the Anglo-French troops remained on the ground or repatriated then. Many of the prisoners reported brutal treatment by the German guards. Many of the prisoners were conducted in the city of Trier, after a march of nearly 20 days, others marched to the river Scheldt and then be used in the Ruhr, and then sent by train to the death camps in Germany.

Most of the prisoners, all those below the rank of corporal, worked for nearly five years for the industry and the German agriculture.

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