In late May 1940, German panzers unexpectedly broke through, and even though the British and French armies gave a good account of themselves when they had the opportunity to fight, they were cut off in Belgium and northern France. When the Germans reached the channel coast, Allied command and control had completely broken down and widespread panic infected every command echelon above division. Reacting to French chaotic political leadership, the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered the British Expeditionary Force to fall back to the port of Dunkirk, even though only about 40% had actually come into contact with the Germans. The British withdrawal completely unhinged what was left of the Allied line and would force the surrender of the Belgian Army to the north (something the Belgians still haven’t forgiven them for). The troops were needed to defend against any German invasion of the British Isles.
After their lightning quick advance across France, the German panzers needed time to resupply and reorganize, so Hitler stopped them and turned the destruction of the BEF at Dunkirk over to the Luftwaffe. This fateful decision gave the British and French much needed time to organize a defense of the port by sixteen British infantry battalions, which they defended with a tenacity and aggressiveness they had not exhibited so far in the campaign. Furthermore, this time allowed them to coordinate doomed last stands by outliers, such as the defenders at Calais and the French First Army at Lille, that could buy the Royal Navy time to evacuate the 400,000 troops that packed the area around Dunkirk. The British, French, and Belgian soldiers maintained their discipline for the most part. They calmly, if resignedly, sat in formation on the beach waiting for The Word on whether they would be rescued or ordered to surrender. Though there was a cloud of about 35,000 stragglers, mostly in the town where fires raged out of control. Nonetheless, that many troops in so small an area with little food, water, or medical care made the sandy Dunkirk beaches on the 25 and 26th of May crowded and chaotic. Additionally, a choking pall of smoke blanketed the area from a nearby burning oil refinery. This made life uncomfortable, but helped with the daylight air attacks on the exposed men on the beaches. However, it did not prevent them. Most disconcertingly though, the port was wrecked from Luftwaffe bombing and its docks and quays in shambles. Churchill ordered the men evacuated, but the Royal Navy estimated they would only be able to get 40,000 off the beaches, just 10% of the troops waiting at Dunkirk.
On 26 May, 1940, the Royal Navy and Air Force launched Operation DYNAMO to evacuate as many troops as possible from the port and off the beaches around Dunkirk. That afternoon, Capt. Bill Tennant landed with 16 officers and 160 sailors to organize the evacuation on the beach. To do this they had to coordinate the troops on the shore with over 150 ships packed into the harbor. However, the drafts of most of the ships were too deep to get close to the beach. To mitigate this, the Royal Navy confiscated or requisitioned every small boat on the Thames and on the southeast coast of England. The 700 “Little Ships of Dunkirk” were yachts, fishing boats, lifeboats (British for coast guard cutters), trawlers, tugboats, ferries, paddle steamers, and shipping steamers, and mostly crewed by naval personnel but many by civilian owners and their crews. The smallest was the Tamzine, a 15 ft fishing boat that brought off over 100 soldiers (it’s in the Imperial War Museum in London). Over nine days the Little Ships brought the soldiers off the beach and ferried them to the larger ships off shore, while the bigger ships rotated past the East Mole.
To Tennant’s surprise, he discovered the East Mole still intact later that night. The East Mole was a breakwater for the harbor, and extended nearly a mile into the Channel. It should say something about the state of confusion on the beach that it took him nearly seven hours to discover a mile long breakwater that could be used as dock. Nevertheless, with the East Mole available, ships could be loaded directly. There was a glimmer of hope for remainder that the Royal Navy didn’t plan to evacuate.
Under constant air attack, about 250 of the 900 ships that took part in “The Miracle at Dunkirk” were sunk. Furthermore, German shore batteries up the coast forced the remaining ships and boats to take a much longer bypass that circumvented the fire. Despite these obstacles, between 27 May and 3 June 1940, the Royal Navy rescued 330,000 much needed troops so they could fight again another day.
After the horrible news of the last three weeks, the British population was jubilant at the unexpected success of the evacuation. “The Spirit of Dunkirk” still refers to the idea of British courage, solidarity, and triumph in the face of overwhelming odds and adversity.
But amidst all of the celebration, Winston Churchill, ever the pragmatist, would remind the country, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”