Miracle at Dunkirk Imperils Britain

On this day in 1940, Operation Dynamo, universally known as the Miracle at Dunkirk, comes to an official close; nearly a quarter-million Allied troops were saved from the German Wehrmacht. Answering the call for King and country, English naval vessels and hundreds of civilian craft put out to sea for the evacuation, which began on May 26, successfully plucking 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops from a desperately surrounded, fiery beach.

After Nazi Germany’s stunning blitzkrieg victory in Poland the previous September, and declarations of war from Britain, France and other allies, the “lightning war” ceased as quickly as it had begun, so much so that folks began mocking the action as a “phony war” or “sitz-krieg.” However, allied troops were stunned out of their stupor with the rapid invasions of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg on May 10; by May 15, combined forces of tanks, motorized infantry and artillery penetrated over French defenses, breaking into open country and turning toward the English Channel.

Prior to the Belgian surrender on May 18, the British government had decided to launch Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sea from Dunkirk. The admiralty had been collecting every kind of small watercraft to help in bringing away the troops, and the retreat to the coast now became a race to re-embark before the German pincers closed.

Adm. Bertram Ramsay had overall command of the operation, and he tasked Capt. William Tennant with tactical oversight of the evacuation. Tennant, who was designated “beachmaster,” arrived at Dunkirk on May 27 to discover that Luftwaffe raids had knocked out the port facilities. Quickly determining that lifting troops directly from the beaches would be too time-consuming, he turned his attention to the breakwaters at the harbor entrance. 200,000 troops disembarked from the eastern breakwater, with the remainder taken directly off the beach or out of the surf. The evacuation in turn could not have been achieved but for the air cover provided by RAF fighters from the English coast, the indomitable efforts of the seacraft, and the good discipline of the troops.

With Dunkirk, the disastrous defense of the Low Countries ended in a brief flash of glory for the Allies. Yet the brilliance of the evacuation could not hide the fact that the British had suffered a terrible defeat and that Britain itself was in dire peril. The BEF had been saved, but almost all of its heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, and motorized transport had been left behind. In addition, more than 50,000 British troops were unable to escape the continent; of these, 11,000 were killed and the bulk of the remainder were made prisoners of war.

Striding into Parliament on this very day, newly-minted Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared “We shall not flag or fail. 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.”