Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:33 am
Say “Dunkirk”* to anyone with a modest knowledge of Britain’s recent history and probably the least they will do is to nod sagely; Dunkirk, ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’ or the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, is part of modern British mythology. If you know of anyone who served at Dunkirk, you are likely to regard them, understandably, with considerable respect. The extraordinary evacuation of some 338,000 British troops and their allies from the beaches of Dunkirk during late May and early June in 1940, and the contribution made to the rescue by hundreds of unarmed small ships, has a deserved place in British folklore. There were more than a few heroes and their stories are the stuff of legend. Yet, not only was Dunkirk a defeat – and it is impossible to characterise the retreat in any other way – it was an unmitigated military disaster and the culmination of successive British failures.
Britain and France declared war on Germany on 3 September 1939, to meet their obligations to Poland, which had been invaded by Germany two days before. The Poles were delighted to have the two great western democracies on their side; hadn’t the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, promised that His Majesty’s Government would lend the Polish Government all support in its power? But this was an empty guarantee: Britain and France may have hoped that the gesture of declaring war would be enough to force Hitler to make a negotiated peace, or, even better, encourage his overthrow by domestic opponents; but there was never any real prospect of military aid for Poland. It didn’t take long for the Poles to realise they had been let down (just as the Czechs had been shamefully betrayed in 1938) and it didn’t take long for the brave, but outclassed, Polish forces to succumb to the overwhelming material, technical and tactical superiority of the German war machine. To cap it all, on 17 September, in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet pact signed less than a month before, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. By early October, independent Poland had ceased to exist.
Meanwhile in the west, the French hunkered down inside the extensive defensive fortifications of the Maginot Line, on the border with Germany, and prepared to sweep north-west to counter an anticipated German attack through neutral Belgium (just like last time). They did invade German Saarland on 7 September, an action which might have precipitated real pressure on Germany and brought some relief to Poland, but withdrew in October and otherwise declined to undertake further attacks on German soil. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), tiny in comparison with the massive armies of their French allies, began arriving in France on 9 September and deployed, as they had done in 1914, on the Belgian border. No one could deploy inside Belgium itself, because it was neutral. The RAF dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany, but demands to bomb German munitions facilities were allegedly turned down by the Secretary of State for Air on the basis that the targets were private property. The story may be apocryphal, but neatly illustrates the mindset of the British cabinet at that stage in the war. Both British and French were content to sit and wait for the Germans to attack them which, on land at least, did not happen for another eight long months.
This period of so-called Phony War did not apply at sea where, according to historian Gavin Mortimer writing in ‘History Extra’, German U-boats sank 110 merchant ships between September and December 1939, with the loss of many lives as well the food and raw materials that Britain relied upon. Nor was the Phony War recognised in other parts of that uncertain world at that time. Finland, for example, bravely and effectively withstood Russian invasion in November 1939, until being materially overcome the following March. Fortunately, Britain and France resisted the emotional temptation to additionally declare war on the USSR, whose odious dictator, Stalin, took the opportunity to snatch the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania while he was about it. As an apprehensive UK population awaited imminent death and destruction by German aerial attack, and came to terms with increasing restrictions placed upon them, such as rationing and travel, it was a generally depressing time. There were two high points. The first came in December with the news that, having sought sanctuary in Montevideo harbour following an engagement with an Allied naval force, the commander of the German pocket battleship Graf Spee felt compelled to scuttle his vessel rather than risk its destruction by the Royal Navy warships that lay in wait for it outside neutral waters. The second came in February, when the Graf Spee’s supply ship, the Altmark, was boarded by the Royal Navy in Norwegian waters and some 300 allied prisoners, captured by the Graf Spee, set free.
And it is in Norway that the next waymark on the road to Dunkirk can be found. The strategic importance of Norway lay in its value as a base for naval operations by either side, and as an ice-free outlet for Swedish iron ore. Despite discussing invasion plans themselves, Hitler’s invasion of Norway on 9 April 1940 (overrunning Denmark along the way), seems to have taken the British government by surprise. German success was by no means guaranteed – and was ultimately achieved at high cost – but the response of Britain and France was, politically and militarily, woefully incompetent. Intelligence was poor, plans were made and unmade, objectives changed and coordination, including at operational level between the respective fighting services of each ally, was lamentable. Landings were made on the Norwegian coast, but, by and large, troops were out of their depth, ill-supported and often poorly led. British and French forces could not even agree which side of the road to drive on. At Namsos, French troops came ashore without skis, snowshoes, artillery, or tanks (the ship carrying the latter was too large to enter port). One Norwegian officer reported that some British troops seemed mostly interested in ogling the local girls and looting homes and warehouses. There were reports of drunkenness, and British arrogance toward the Norwegians – who fought bravely against the inevitable conquest of their country. In contrast with their bungling opponents, German performance was imaginative and skilful, with good inter-service coordination. Eventually, British troops were ordered to evacuate without telling their Norwegian allies and hosts. You may find it surprising that so many Czechs, Poles and Norwegians decided to continue the fight against the Nazis alongside Britain; but, then, their options were limited.
The Norwegian campaign petered out in late May and, on 10 June, Norway capitulated. By then, the war had changed in a way that few would have predicted. The occupation of Norway provided bases for German ships and aircraft, which became particularly useful during Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, and thereafter against Allied Arctic convoys running supplies to Murmansk and Archangel. The good news was that the occupation also forced Hitler to tie up some 350,000 troops that could have been deployed elsewhere.
Failure in Norway did little to increase the fragile trust between the Allies, but the most important consequence was that it provided the catalyst for the fall of Prime Minister Chamberlain in Britain, and his replacement with Churchill. Had Chamberlain remained in office, his government may well have sought a negotiated peace with Hitler, which would have had global ramifications.
At dawn on 10 May 1940, the same day that Churchill became Prime Minister, Hitler launched simultaneous attacks against neutral Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg – and against France. British and French forces deployed into Belgium, in accordance with long-established plans. Meanwhile, the decisive German thrust was being launched to the south, through the beautiful, but allegedly impassable, hills and woods of the Ardennes. By 13 May, a 50-mile gap had been opened up in the French armies. The Wehrmacht, supported by the Luftwaffe, swept all before it – including millions of frightened refugees, which added to the chaos of destruction. On 15 May, Holland surrendered; on 21 May, German armour reached the Channel coast at Le Crotoy, a small resort at the mouth of the Somme near Abbeville, cutting the Allied forces in two. To the north, the Allied armies (including the BEF) had fallen back – often in disarray – toward the Channel coast and were surrounded; to the south remained large, fresh, French armies. What happened next is one of life’s great mysteries (like why sheep don’t shrink in the rain): the German Panzers were ordered to stay where they were. Instead of pushing on north to close in on the Allies, and destroy the BEF, they remained stationary for three days. This delay was why so many men were able to be rescued from Dunkirk. Still, the ring around the Allies closed inexorably. On 25 May, Boulogne fell, followed by Calais on 26 May. On 27 May, evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk began. On 28 May, Belgium surrendered.
How did the Germans come to do so well, and so quickly? Much is made of the lack of coordination and trust between French and British commanders. This certainly existed. However, despite the BEF having grown to over 390,000 men, it should be remembered that this was but a tiny fraction of the overall Allied forces and occupied a correspondingly minor, albeit significant, part of the front. Britain’s strength in the relationship was its naval power. Reading round the topic, the primary reason for the emphatic German success seems to have just been that it out-thought and out-fought its opponents. It’s not as if the German forces in France enjoyed material superiority; they did not (except, arguably, in the air, where many of the aircraft opposing them were obsolete). It’s not that Allied soldiers did not fight well (though some did not). But despite a few isolated occasions, including some notable counter-attacks, the Allies were outclassed most of the time – just as the Poles had been. Maybe they were simply insufficiently warlike – which we might consider a virtue, of course. I am no military historian, but in almost every account I have read, the Wehrmacht, the German army of WW2, generally out-performed every other army sent against it. It was superbly led and only ultimately overcome when its opponents enjoyed enormous advantages in material and manpower, and control of the skies.
Churchill had foreseen the possible necessity to withdraw British forces from France, and on 19 May ordered the Admiralty to draw up evacuation plans. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, responsibility for planning and coordinating the rescue was given to Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay. Ramsay and his team worked in a network of tunnels deep in the cliffs beneath the old fortress of Dover Castle, which are still there and can be visited. The order to commence Operation Dynamo was given at 1900 hours on 26 May. In homes across the country, people anxiously waited the outcome.
The Dunkirk evacuation took place against a backdrop of savage fighting. The shrinking perimeter of the town was protected by both French and British troops fighting a rearguard action. The town itself, heavily bombed, was messy with the detritus of war – abandoned vehicles and equipment, rubble-strewn streets, shattered buildings and unburied corpses. Hundreds of Dunkirk’s citizens died. Port facilities had largely been wrecked by bombing and German aircraft continued to harry the waiting men crowding onto the beaches – when not thwarted by RAF Spitfire and Hurricane fighters flying sortie after sortie high above. Evacuation took place from a breakwater, ‘the Mole’, as well as from the beaches, from which civilian vessels able to get close to the shore ferried troops to larger ships offshore – or even all the way home to England. The owners of these ‘little ships’ – ordinary fishing boats, pleasure boats and so on – had volunteered to help in response to a request from the Admiralty and are, rightly, a big part of the Dunkirk legend. In fact, about two-thirds of those rescued were taken off the Mole by navy destroyers and other larger ships. By 4 June, the last troops had been evacuated. Dunkirk was the biggest evacuation in military history and a logistical triumph for Ramsay and the Royal Navy. There was a great deal of improvisation and the rescuers also got lucky with the weather. The sea remained unusually calm, and cloud cover between 28 and 30 May frustrated the Luftwaffe. At the outset, it was thought that perhaps 30,000 men could be rescued. In the end, 338,226 men – British, Canadian, French, Belgian and Dutch – were evacuated. The operation involved more than 200 naval vessels, hundreds of civilian craft (estimates range from 600–900) and was a multi-national effort, involving French and Dutch ships, as well as British. 236 ships were lost, including six British and three French destroyers, along with 106 RAF fighter aircraft.
We don’t hear much about the organisation of ships and troops arriving back in England, but that too was a huge and complex exercise. Many of the men were in a sorry state by the time they got there, but they were greeted as heroes, given tea and sent on to their next destinations by train. The relief to be there, to be safe, must have been amazing. John Horsfall, an officer in the Irish Fusiliers, wrote, “Here was Britannia to greet us with the wand of a fairy and her mantle of magic.”
The Dunkirk evacuation was, indeed, a miracle. But the often sanitised legend does not reflect the desperation, fear and chaos of the reality. Those of us who weren’t there can’t imagine what it must have been like. Accounts rarely mention that the behaviour of some British troops was far from exemplary and that some officers only restored discipline by drawing revolvers on their own men. Nor do we often hear that, initially, French troops were prevented from boarding rescue vessels by their British allies and, in at least one instance, were fired on. In the end, many of the evacuated French soldiers asked to be repatriated.
In Britain, it is often arrogantly assumed that Dunkirk marked the end of the Battle of France. By far the greater part of the country was still in French hands and their armies fought on, bravely. But Paris fell on 14 June and on 22 June an armistice divided the country into an occupied northern zone, and a nominally sovereign French state, Vichy France, to the south. Almost unnoticed, even at the time, is the fact that Operation Dynamo wasn’t the only significant evacuation of Allied troops from France. Some 100,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel still remained at large in France after Dunkirk. Furthermore, in a misguided attempt to bolster the French, Churchill dispatched an additional 60,000 troops back into the country between 7 and 13 June. Men of the 51st Highland Div, fighting alongside the French, fell back on Le Havre, from which around 11,000 were successfully evacuated in British and Canadian ships between 10 and 13 June (Operation Cycle). Other men had made their way to the small port of St Valery-en-Caux and were less lucky; up to 8,000 were taken prisoner, although more than 3,300, including over 1,000 French soldiers, were picked up. Under Operation Ariel, almost 192,000 further troops – British, Polish and Czech – were evacuated from various ports in north-west France between 15 and 25 June. Altogether, more than half a million allied troops were evacuated from France, including those rescued at Dunkirk.
The British Army left behind 64,000 vehicles, 76,000 tons of ammunition, 2,500 guns and more than 400,000 tons of stores in France. With the loss of most of its equipment, it was an emasculated army, hardly capable of throwing back the anticipated Nazi invasion. It also left behind in France some 11,000 dead and 40,000 troops who became prisoners. Many of them were appallingly mistreated in captivity. There were also instances of German SS troops murdering prisoners in cold blood.
“We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Winston Churchill, 4 June 1940
There is no question that Dunkirk was a military disaster, despite being a logistical triumph. Yet the evacuations retained most of Britain’s trained troops, as well as thousands of additional allied soldiers, who would otherwise have been taken into captivity and who could, once re-equipped, be returned to the fight. Despite the feelings of many French that the British had betrayed them and were running for home, the battle was clearly not going to be won and it would have been senseless for them to remain. Indeed, without them, the war might have taken a different turn. What is interesting is how ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’ caught the public imagination (unlike the subsequent evacuations) and, even now, is viewed by some with such reverence. This is ‘the Dunkirk Spirit’, defined by Sir Tim Laurence writing in the Daily Telegraph as “the spirit of the British public pulling together to overcome times of adversity”.
I suspect we need to find a new label now. But, with nothing much to celebrate before it, Dunkirk caught the public imagination at the time. It was bringing the boys home, it was heroic – and it was one heck of an achievement, even allowing for German help. The propaganda value was immense: it helped stiffen resolve, raise morale and galvanise purpose behind a new leader, Winston Churchill, at a time when there were still those who toyed with the idea of negotiating with Hitler. If anyone in Britain hadn’t realised before that the war was serious, the fall of France certainly woke them up. This was no longer “a quarrel in a far away country, between people of whom we know nothing”. It was on the doorstep. The British like it when they have their backs to the wall and, past humiliations and embarrassments behind them, but not forgotten, they set about preparing as best they could for what would come next.
Never underestimate the power of legends.
“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.” – Churchill, 4 June 1940.
The Dunkirk Memorial in the town commemorates more than 4,500 casualties of the British Expeditionary Force who died or were captured there and have no known grave.
* In the unlikely event that anyone is confused, ‘Dunkirk’ in this context refers to the port of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) on the northern coast of France, about about 8 miles (13 km) from Belgium and about 30 miles (50 km) across the English Channel from Dover. There are Dunkirks in the UK – in Kent, Cheshire, Cambridgeshire, Nottingham, Gloucestershire, Staffordshire, Norfolk and Wiltshire.
Further reading. I relied extensively on Max Hastings’ excellent ‘All Hell Let Loose’ and, one of the best single volumes ever written on World War Two, ‘Total War’ by Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint, to write this article. I also used Martin Gilbert’s ‘Second World War’. All are available from Amazon, as per the links provided. For details of Operation Cycle and Operation Ariel, see the fascinating Dunkirk 1940 website.
All pictures in the public domain via the WW2 Database