What you Need to Know about the Dunkirk Evacuations (2024)

The British evacuation from Dunkirk is often described as a miracle. Over 300,000 Allied soldiers pulled from the sea in the face of overwhelming odds and the so-called 'Dunkirk spirit' that made it happen helping Britain through its darkest hour. But what made the evacuations from Dunkirk so successful? and are the myths surrounding the operation to be believed?

Well before we answer those questions and more a reminder to subscribe to the Imperial War Museums YouTube channel for more videos just like this every two weeks.

The Dunkirk evacuation is looked upon as a miracle, a miracle of deliverance I think Churchill himself called it in the House of Commons. But it's not so much a miracle as a coming together of series of circ*mstances which played into the hands of Britain.

And to be fair to the Allies they hadn't had much luck so far. Two weeks previously Germany began its invasion of the Low Countries with French and British forces then moving into Belgium to meet them, however this attack was just a diversion. Using cutting-edge blitzkrieg tactics German tanks smashed through the Allied weak point in the Ardennes and dashed to the coast surrounding the allies. If you want to find out what made this blitzkrieg attack so powerful we've got a video all about that linked in the description below.

In Belgium and part of Northern France, we have virtually the whole of the British expeditionary force and a French army surrounded with their backs to the coast. So the British army started thinking about evacuation before anybody else did because they thought they might be able to save some of their army from what looked like a terrible disaster.

But time was against them, the German spearhead that had cut the Allies off then began taking channel ports despite desperate Allied attempts to hold on to them. By May 26th Dunkirk was the final port remaining. Worse still the port itself had been badly damaged, leading to dire predictions of what would actually be possible during the evacuation.

Well, the initial thoughts of the British government and high command was that they were going to try to save what they could. There was no expectation of getting the whole British Expeditionary Force out they thought they might get act between 30 and 45,000 men.

Despite those predictions though the evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo, eventually managed to save over 338,000 Allied soldiers. So how did they do it? Well according to Paul there are three things that made these evacuations so successful. First was the weather.

Yeah, the weather could hardly have been more favourable. There were very unusually for that time of year very light winds for most days there was not a lot of surf on the beach.

That allowed men to load into smaller boats right on the beaches before boarding for larger ships, an impossible task on windier days, and when there was wind, that played into the Allies hands as well.

The wind was from the east which blew smoke from the burning port of Dunkirk across the beach offering a bit of cover from air attack and also there's some low cloud for most of the period of the evacuation. Low cloud over the beach also protected the troops from air attack so they won in every sense weather-wise.

Next up was a bit of ingenuity from the naval officer in charge of the evacuation, Captain William Tennant, which goes against one of those classic Dunkirk narratives.

One of the things we remember or think we remember about Dunkirk is the little boats who took men off the beaches. Certainly they were there, over 300 of them, but that was a minority of the men who escaped. Most of the evacuation took place across one of the harbour breakwaters at Dunkirk. This was a very narrow thing with a walkway on top of it. Most of the men, I think around 200,000 of the 338,000 men, came off through that route as opposed to the beaches.

The harbour mole was so effective because it allowed troops to step right from the harbour onto destroyers or other large ships rather than going through the time-consuming process of taking smaller boats from the beach. The mole was never designed to be used this way, but it was a major factor in making the Dunkirk evacuations such a success.

Finally, let's look at the infamous German halt order which gave the Allies valuable time to create a defensive perimeter around the port of Dunkirk.

People in the higher German command basically could not believe their luck. They always were assuming that the French would manage to launch a counter-attack and cut off those tanks that were advancing with such speed. They kept trying to get tanks to slow down so the infantry could catch up and so this halt order on the 24th of May is sort of another iteration of that caution.

Another key issue were further Allied garrisons at other important towns. British defenders at Calais held on against all the odds until May 26th while French forces in Lille managed to occupy 10 German divisions alone.

The Germans realised that, even though they won this battle effectively, they had not defeated France. France still had a huge army and they were going to need all their tanks in order to achieve this after they dealt with whatever happened at Dunkirk. They also thought that the German air force could destroy the troops in the bridgehead or any ships trying to save them, this was why that order was issued.

Bring all of this together and you can see why so many more troops were saved than expected. The weather providing valuable cover from air attack, the harbour mole allowing extra men to embark, and the German halt order giving the Allies valuable time to set up defences.

But what was it actually like to be in the town of Dunkirk?

The soldiers there had a variety of experience and the British Army behaved in a variety of different ways. There was some heroism, on the other hand, there were instances of disorder and instances of panic.

Scenes on the beaches varied from boredom as soldiers waited for pickup, to bedlam as the Luftwaffe swirled overhead. According to one soldier writing in his diary on May 30th, the situation was desperate "every man for himself getting loaded".

We have in our collection a small French railway map which was pinched from the wall of a cafe by a soldier Bill Osborne. He expected that he might get separated from his unit and have to find his own way to the coast things were that chaotic. He also wrote a letter on a scrap of paper to his wife anticipating that he would be killed and telling her to make a new life with somebody else if she could.

And for the soldiers who did escape the stress was not over. They were expecting a frosty reception on their return to Britain.

They thought that they would be vilified by the public. They thought that they'd arrived home with their tail between their legs and yet they found themselves treated largely as heroes uh because people were so relieved at having saved so many men and this, for obvious reasons of national morale, was the line pushed by the press and the BBC. It was extraordinary that they'd saved as many men as they had, well what it didn't point out was that we'd had to leave all our equipment behind and Britain was effectively open to invasion at that point had the germans had either the plans or the will or the ability to do it.

And that's the reason that so many of these myths surrounding Dunkirk exist. British morale was at a low point and so the British press emphasized stories of heroism like those so-called little ships. Most of those craft were piloted by Royal Navy crews rather than civilians and yet these stories of plucky Brits winning against the odds are the stories which have stuck around, part of what's become known as the 'Dunkirk spirit'.

The myth certainly was necessary at the time you know keep people's morale up. Although Churchill in the House of Commons was was fairly straight with the House of Commons and said you know this is a deliverance but "wars are not won by evacuations". Victory for Britain was a long way off, but the evacuation at Dunkirk was one of the few rays of light in the Allied cause. It was a great success coming at the end of a dismal failure, a success which kept the British army intact and British morale afloat, for now. The following month France surrendered to Germany. The battle of Britain was about to begin.

What you Need to Know about the Dunkirk Evacuations (2024)


What you Need to Know about the Dunkirk Evacuations? ›

Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk, involved the rescue of more than 338,000 British and French soldiers from the French port of Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940. The evacuation, sometimes referred to as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was a big boost for British morale.

What are three important facts about the Dunkirk evacuation? ›

From May 26 to June 4, over 338,000 British and French troops were safely evacuated from Dunkirk. Critical to this process was the British Royal Air Force, which intercepted German bombers above the beach. Together with the civilians who aided the Royal Navy, they saved countless lives.

Why was evacuation from Dunkirk so difficult? ›

Why was evacuation from Dunkirk so difficult? The Allies had to defend a small pocket around Dunkirk that was under constant attack. Many thousands of men were crammed into streets and buildings, and along the beaches – so they were very vulnerable to intense German air attacks and shelling.

What would have happened if the Dunkirk evacuation failed? ›

The army was lost, the air force still weak. No help could be expected from the United States. Continuing hostilities would probably result in pointless destruction, quite possibly in a German invasion of Britain. A negotiated end could prevent the relentless bombing of British cities and a potential German occupation.

How was the evacuation of Dunkirk a miracle? ›

Despite many ships being sunk and many lives lost, by the end of the operation on 4 June, Ramsay, his ships and staff had rescued 338,226 British and Allied troops and landed them in England. The rescue came to be regarded as a 'miracle', and remains the largest amphibious evacuation undertaken in wartime.

Why was it so important for soldiers to be evacuated from Dunkirk? ›

The Dunkirk evacuation was an important event for the Allies. If the BEF had been captured, it would have meant the loss of Britain's only trained troops and the collapse of the Allied cause.

What happened to soldiers left behind at Dunkirk? ›

For every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one man became a prisoner of war. The majority of these prisoners were sent on forced marches into Germany. Prisoners reported brutal treatment by their guards, including beatings, starvation, and murder.

Did any soldiers swim from Dunkirk? ›

At least some swam yes, but not in an attempt to cross the Channel, but in an attempt to: not to be captured. reach one of the surviving British ships in the Channel, quite a few of them private ships, like yachts, lifeboats, paddle steamers and barges.

How many days did the Dunkirk evacuation take? ›

The actual operation lasted nine days and rescued 338,226 troops. Evacuations by day during the Dunkirk evacuation: On May 27, 1940, 0 troops were rescued from the beaches and 7,699 from the harbour. On May 28, 1940, 5,930 troops were rescued from the beaches and 11,874 from the harbour.

What was the biggest evacuation in history? ›

Indian Airlift Evacuation

With the help of Mathunny Mathews, the airlift of Indians was carried out from 13 August to 11 October 1990 after the Invasion of Kuwait. Air India holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people evacuated by a civil airliner as a result of this effort.

Why is Dunkirk considered a failure? ›

Failure: Make a second point showing a different view. Many people, however, view Dunkirk as a failure because, although many thousands of soldiers were saved to fight again, an incredible amount of supplies were left behind and could be used by the Germans.

What was the halt order at Dunkirk? ›

It is on May 24 that the mysterious “Halt Order” is issued by the Germans. Instead of destroying the forces trapped at Dunkirk, the Germans halt the advance of tank divisions for three days, during which time the Luftwaffe continues to attack, battling against the RAF. The German infantry has not yet reached the coast.

What were the casualties of the Dunkirk evacuation? ›

For the 366,131 men saved, 226 British and a further 168 Allied ships out of 683 were sunk, 177 aeroplanes were destroyed or damaged, including 106 fighters, and 68,111 men of the B.E.F. were killed or captured, with a further 40,000 French troops being taken prisoner.

What was the German mistake at Dunkirk? ›

Undoubtedly Dunkirk was the first time the Luftwaffe had been seriously opposed in the air. The element of surprise was lost. The Luftwaffe could no longer concentrate overwhelming numbers against defenders spread thin over hundreds of miles.

Whose idea was Dunkirk Rescue? ›

Ramsay directed the operation from Dover. He and his team devised the three rescue routes (captains chose depending on darkness vs. daylight, speed of their vessels, danger from U-boats, etc.). They also buoyed approaches to Dunkirk, directed Captain Tennant the on-scene commander, and produced a thousand charts.

Why is Dunkirk called Dunkirk? ›

The name of Dunkirk derives from West Flemish dun(e) 'dune' or 'dun' and kerke 'church', thus 'church in the dunes'. A smaller town 25 km (15 miles) farther up the Flemish coast originally shared the same name, but was later renamed Oostduinkerke(n) in order to avoid confusion.

What are the three parts of Dunkirk? ›

Dunkirk has three narrative lines, one set on land focusing mainly on the efforts of a British soldier (Fionn Whitehead) to get himself out of Dunkirk; a second set at sea following a civilian volunteer (Mark Rylance) piloting his small boat across the channel to participate in the evacuation; and the third about a ...

What were the key events of Dunkirk? ›

On Sunday, May 26, 1940, German forces resumed offensive toward Dunkirk, and Operation Dynamo was ordered to commence. On Monday, May 27, Operation Dynamo's first full day occurred. German Luftwaffe destroyed Dunkirk harbour, and 7,669 troops were rescued. On Tuesday, May 28, the Belgian army surrendered.

What were the primary facts about evacuation in ww2? ›

In the first four days of September 1939 nearly 3,000,000 people were evacuated from Britain's towns and cities and moved to safer places in the countryside. The vast majority of these were schoolchildren, but they were accompanied by 100,000 teachers and sometimes a parent.


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