5 – The Retreat from Dunkirk
Soon to receive the silver screen treatment at the hands of Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is widely regarded as one of the most pivotal moments of the Second World War. It also holds considerable cultural currency, with today’s Brits still idiomatically using “Dunkirk spirit” to describe stoic resolve in the face of adverse circumstances (and Brits choosing to remain on beaches even during heavy rainstorms). It’s for good reason the expression is often used: for the circumstances in which British and Allied forces found themselves towards the end of May 1940 were nothing if not adverse.
Blitzkrieg warfare was working wonders for the Nazis in France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Already by mid-May—before the Allies had had a chance to coordinate an effective resistance—they found themselves outflanked and separated from one another by spearheading German forces. The Allies tried to break German lines, most notably at the Battle of Aras on May 21, but their attempts proved ineffective. Sensing defeat, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) beat a retreat back to their perimeter line, and on May 27 they arrived. The British and French were now bottled up in a thin coastal corridor. And with the Germans advancing, all they could now do was wait for this bottle to be sealed up.
Realizing the severity of the situation, and foreseeing the imminent capitulation of the Belgians, the British launched Operation Dynamo: the naval evacuation of the BEF from the shores of Dunkirk. But what was so remarkable about this operation was not the temerity of the task they’d undertaken, but the makeup of the fleet undertaking it. Joining the British cruisers and destroyers were hundreds of fishing trawlers, drifters, yachts, tugboats, minesweepers and pleasure craft, just to name a few. Some had been requisitioned from the Thames by the Ministry of Shipping without the owner’s knowledge or consent. In most cases, however, civilians captained and crewed these ships, willingly putting their lives on the line for king, country and human decency.
Rescuing troops from the beach was a long and arduous process. The Luftwaffe had all but destroyed Dunkirk’s port, so Allied soldiers would have to be rescued from the beachfront. It was deemed too time-consuming to load troops onto boats directly from the shore, and only one of the two breakwaters flanking the beach (the eastern one) was considered fit for purpose. In a column stretching 1.3 kilometers with four men abreast, 200,000 troops were able to board British ships from this breakwater. The rest had to be lifted directly from the sandy shore.
The evacuation spanned 10 days between May 26 and June 4. It was a roaring success: around 198,000 British and 140,000 Allied (mainly French) soldiers were rescued from certain death. Almost all of their equipment was left behind, however, and what they hadn’t managed to destroy fell into German hands. But the preservation of lives and manpower far outweighed this in terms of importance. For it was only because of the lives saved at Dunkirk—and the Nazi’s remarkably misjudged decision not to press their advantage—that the allies were able to mount further campaigns against German-held Normandy in the years to come.