May of 1940 found British Expeditionary Force commander General Gort conceding that their “counterstroke” against the advancing Nazi army was unsuccessful, and the collapse of the nearby Belgian Army was eminent. Reluctantly, he chose to withdraw his dwindling forces to the coast for evacuation to England. With them moved also more than half of the deteriorating First French Army. Their retreat concentrated hundreds of thousands of French and British soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk (or Dunkerque), a relatively small city at the northernmost tip of France – a mere 10 kilometers from Belgium.
As the waves troops poured into the town, and their desperate confusion mounted, even the interior of their own perimeter was a total disaster. Vehicles, bumper-to-bumper, clogged the main street so completely eventually a one-way track was created, “by bulldozers hurling them into the ditches on either side,” as Churchill put it. Soon after the British and French began staggering into this provisional position, word came that the Belgian Army had surrendered, exposing the Allies’ entire left flank thus permitting the Nazi army to focus their entire attention on thwarting this hasty retreat.
Oddly, though, and for reasons that are still debated, Hitler forbade the German Army sweep through Dunkirk. There are three main assumptions, however. First Hitler may have believed that such a bold (but certainly feasible) act would eliminate any hope of England retreating to her own shores and suing for peace. Second, he may have been hesitant to commit the terrifying Panzer units nearby in the hopes of saving them (and the remainder of his army) for future operations in Europe. Thirdly, and by far the most plausible, he was overconfident of the German Luftwaffe’s ability to totally destroy the stranded armies. This may also have been a personal gift to Herman Goering for his previous successes. Regardless of his reasons, they provided the British and French armies sufficient time to erect a vast, well-defended perimeter, and shuttle over a quarter million soldiers across the channel to England.
While the Germans did launch small ground attacks against the elements at Dunkirk, they met with bloody (perhaps desperate) resistance, and made little headway. The British artillery and medium guns had been ordered to fire off every round they possessed, which they did with great pleasure, and deadly result. All the while, extensive fortifications were thrown into place around the perimeter, and word was sent to England about the severity of the situation.
Winston Churchill recalled his appearance before the members of Parliament with the poor news:
The House should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.
His remarks are best summarized as, “expect the worst.” Nevertheless, a national call was issued that nearly any craft that floated in the water at all was to head for Dunkirk and begin troop evacuation under the guard of British, Dutch, French, and Belgian Naval vessels.
Despite relentless pounding by the Luftwaffe, and the constant, real threat of U-boat attack, the flotilla, which Churchill referred to as the “Mosquito Fleet,” began appearing on the coast of Dunkirk to ferry troops to larger troop transports, or back under their own steam. Boats that were not at all designed to cross the channel now found themselves under enemy bombardment on the coast of France, packed beyond capacity with wearied, distraught troops, and limping back to England. The smallest craft involved in this Operation Dynamo, the 15-foot fishing boat Tamzine, now sits in the Imperial War Museum as a testament to the solidarity and resolve of the British citizenry. Another vessel, the Sundowner, commanded by former Titanic second officer Charles Lightoller, shuttled more than 130 men across the channel, nearly capsizing from overload upon arrival in England.
In addition to vessels from the French, British, Dutch, and Belgian Navies, more than 700 civilian craft participated in the evacuation, mostly manned by fishermen and boating enthusiasts, but with magnificent results. They were not, however, without their losses. Over 200 Allied craft were sunk over the course of five days, and just as many were damaged. These numbers include several British and French Naval vessels, sunk by torpedoes, air attack, and U-boats. In truth, these losses alone were staggering.
What started as a total national disaster to both France and England, was rapidly transformed into a rallying event that led ultimately to the safe evacuation of 338,226 French and British soldiers, all while under relentless Luftwaffe attack. Where it not for the committal of every single available Royal Air Force plane to this mission, it would have been a rout. Small fighter units ferociously attacked any Luftwaffe craft that they spotted, shooting over 134 Luftwaffe aircraft from the sky. The cost: 145 of their own. An intense fog blanketing the region forbade any soldier on the ground from seeing this, and many of them blamed the RAF for abandoning them to repeated Luftwaffe bombings. Yet even the German bombings were largely ineffective. With what short time they had been given, these masses of troops have constructed elaborate, and highly effective fortifications that left few of them harmed from bombings. Additionally, the soft sand on the beaches were more forgiving to the bombs than anticipated, greatly reducing their destructive power. The soldiers, huddled in the water shivering, on some occasions for hours, come in time to view the bombings with little more than contempt. They were little more than annoyances. The sea craft, however, suffered tremendously.
When Churchill met with members of the House of commons through this ordeal, he was unprepared for the response.
We were perhaps twenty-five round the table. I described the course of events and I showed them plainly where we were, and that all was in the balance. Then I said quite casually, and not treating it as a point of special significance: “Of course, whatever happens in Dunkerque, we shall fight on.”
There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, quite right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation that I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me that in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end.
Dunkirk was “typical of a British strategy that specializes in losing battles and winning wars.” Yet without a doubt, it was a total military disaster. While well over a third of a million British and French soldiers were saved, elements from both armies remained behind as rearguard, and 68,111 British were killed, wounded, or captured, while at similarly large numbers of Frenchmen remained as well to suffer an uncertain fate. In fact, towards the end of the evacuation, ships were turned away empty. Many of the French refused to leave. They, in company with the remaining British, fought valiantly to cover the evacuation of to others, facing certain death or capture.
For the many thousands that eventually surrendered to the advancing Nazis, their struggle had only just begun. Following a grueling, 20-day forced march back to German POW camps, many died of exhaustion, starvation, execution, or succumbed to their wounds. The Germans, marching ahead of the prisoners, kicked over any bucket the French civilians had placed by the road for the prisoner train. Many of those that survived the march spent the remainder of the war working farms in Germany. Yet many, however, did not survive.
The consequences of the “Dunkirk Deliverance” were impressive. On one hand, the staggering loss of military supplies so damaged British supplies that it solidified their dependency on the American financial support to continue the war effort. The British press so underscored the incident as a “Disaster Turned to Triumph,” that Churchill felt it necessary to remind them that, “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” Despite that of the total numbers evacuated, 139,977 were Frenchmen, many in France felt that Great Britain had showed undue favoritism towards her own troops by evacuating them first, leaving behind thousands of French as rearguard – and to certain defeat. The retreat also firmly signaled the total, inevitable collapse of France. On June 22nd, 1940, the French formally surrendered in the same clearing of Compiegne Forest “where Marshal Ferdinand Foch had dictated terms to Germany in November, 1918. The war was far from over. In fact, it was only just beginning.
Eighteen months later, the United States, following an unanticipated attack on Pearl Harbor, would throw the entire weight of her armies into Europe and the Pacific theaters, adding exponentially to Nazi woes. Millions more would die still, on front lines, in gas chambers, and in cataclysmic bombings. Yet “Dunkirk Spirit” emboldened a small island nation. Tiny and isolated though she was, she would see the war to its end. Winston Churchill stated as much in his June 4th speech before Parliament:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight in 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 even it, which I do not for one 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.
We joined them eighteen months later, repulsed by the horror of our enemy, encouraged by the tenacity of our Island friends, and comforted to know that, should we, too, find ourselves outnumbered and surrounded on the beaches of France, a fleet of little boats would see us safely away.
Swung by tides, stranded in the shallows beside the burning beach, harried by airplanes that hunted them by night with parachute flares and riddled them by day with tracers, this extraordinary flotilla headed across the cluttered Channel waters for a shore that was black with men – and took them off.
-C. L. Sulzberger, “World War II”
Sulzsberger. C.L, "World War II." Houghton Mifflin. Boston. 1985.
Churchill, W.S. et al. "The Second World War." Golden Press. 1960.
Wheal. E., Pope. S., Taylor. "Encyclopedia of the Second World War." Penguin. 1992.
Wikipedia. "Dunkirk." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk.
Wikipedia. "Dunkirk Evacuation." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunkirk_evacuation.
*All photos contained herein are in the public domain through either the United States War Department, or the United States Archives.
Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw
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