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Operation Dynamo

The “Miracle of Dunkirk”

British soldiers waiting for evacuation on the beach
(Photo: Wikipedia)

Dunkirk (Dunkerque in French and Dünkirchen in German, its original Flemish meaning being “church in the dunes”) is a fishing town in France dating back to the 10th century. Today, it has the third-largest harbor in France. 81 years ago, the Dunkirk evacuation, also known as Operation Dynamo, was in its first day. In 9 days, between May 26 and June 4, 1940, the British evacuated through the beaches and the moles of Dunkirk approximately 338,226 Allied soldiers encircled by the German forces.

The dunes on the Dunkirk beach today
(Photo: Author’s own)
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In line with Fall Gelb, the German plan of the invasion of the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and eventually France, the Wehrmacht and the SS stormed through the states of western Europe starting May 10, 1940. It was then when the Germans managed to cut off the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the French First Army, and the Belgian Army from the majority of French troops south of the German penetration. After reaching the English Channel, the German forces swung north along the coast, threatening to trap the above-mentioned Allied forces. It dawned on soldiers of the BEF that, compared to the German forces, they were insufficiently trained, poorly equipped and led by officers who followed outdated Word War I tactics.

Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)
(Photo: www.iwhiddenheroes.org.uk)

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The Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, General Lord Gort, consulted Prime Minister Churchill and decided that the evacuation was the best possible solution instead of a counterattack. Without informing the French, the British began planning the evacuation on May 20. The planning was led by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay at the naval headquarters in Dover Castle. The reason to execute the evacuation at Dunkirk was that it was surrounded by marshes, had old fortifications and a long sandy beach to assemble large groups of soldiers. In addition to Royal Navy vessels, the Admiralty began arranging for all available small vessels, the famous “Little Ships”, to be made ready to sail to France. The British estimated that only a total of 45,000 troops could be evacuated at best. The docks at Dunkirk were seriously damaged by the German bombing and could not be used, but the east and west moles (long, stone and concrete breakwaters) remained intact and were used along with the beaches to receive the ships. The east mole, stretching a mile into the sea, was especially suitable for boarding ships but the waters along the beach were too shallow for most ships to approach, necessitating the service of the “Little Ships”. Some of these approximately 850 ships were requisitioned without the owner's knowledge or consent by the Ministry of Shipping but many were offered voluntarily for the operation. The first ones arrived at Dunkirk on May 28. Many of them were fishing boats, lifeboats, pleasure cruisers, ferries, tugs and barges. The ships returning home had a tough choice to make. There were three planned routes home to Britain but each had its own perils. Route “X” led through a heavily mined stretch of the sea and went close to sand banks, so it couldn’t be used at night. Route “Y” made a detour to the east; it was the longest with a 4-hour duration and the most likely to be attacked by German ships, submarines and the Luftwaffe. Route “Z” was the shortest with a 2-hour duration but it hugged the French coast and was exposed to German artillery fire.

The map showing the situation on May 21 with the German forces shown in pink
(Photo: Wikipedia)

The retreat of the Allied forces to Dunkirk was undertaken in chaos, with abandoned vehicles along the roads and refugees fleeing in the opposite direction. Gort had ordered his subordinates to prepare a semicircular perimeter defense of Dunkirk, with French troops defending the western sector and British troops the eastern. On May 28, the Belgian army fighting on the eastern segment under the command of King Leopold III surrendered. This left a 20-mile / 32-km gap in Gort's eastern flank which had to be filled quickly with exhausted troops.
 
Vicious dogfights unfolded between the Luftwaffe and the Royal Air Force (RAF) with the latter trying to protect the soldiers on the ground. Many of the RAF pilots were accused of fleeing and not helping the evacuation. The truth was that the dogfights took place mostly far away from the beaches where the soldiers could not see them. Luckily, the effectiveness of the German planes was limited since their airfields were far away and there were only two days of good flying conditions. The Germans dropped leaflets in English and French on the Allied armies. The flyers showed a map of the situation and prompted the soldiers to surrender. Besides the Luftwaffe's bombs and strafing, German heavy artillery shelled Dunkirk also. As the water supply was knocked out, the resulting fires could not be extinguished. Eventually, most of Dunkirk was destroyed in the fighting. Over 1,000 civilians fell victim to the bombardment.

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A low-flying German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter strafing the Allied positions
(Photo: worldofwarplanes.com)

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Another factor that gave precious time to the Allied forces was that on May 23, the panzer units were ordered to halt. It was originally suggested by Field Marshals Günther von Kluge and Gerd von Rundstedt, who were concerned that tanks might get bogged down in the marshy terrain around Dunkirk and outflanked by the defenders. On top of that, their forces needed maintenance and resupply, too. On a visit to Army Group “A” headquarters on May 24, Hitler endorsed the order. He had personal experience with similar terrain in World War I. The real reason for his decision is widely debated, what’s sure is that the idea didn’t originate with him. The order was withdrawn on the evening of May 26. During this period, only the Luftwaffe attacked the trapped Allied forces. Some say also that Göring wanted to have the glory of finishing off the Allied for himself and the Luftwaffe. The idea that Hitler wanted to allow the British forces to escape as a gesture of goodwill is sometimes mentioned but largely dismissed.

A German flyer in French and English prompting the Allied to surrender
(Photo: Pinterest)

Popular lore about Dunkirk focuses on the helpless men on the beach, ignoring the British and French units that were fighting and slowing down the German advance for more than a week. Of the roughly 400,000 Allied troops, only 338,226 were evacuated – most of the others were busy fighting the German invasion force of about 800,000. One particular combatant was “Mad Jack” Churchill, who famously killed a German patrol leader with an arrow during an ambush. Despite the original plans calling for the British to cover a French evacuation, it was largely the French who stayed behind and fought to the end to save the British. Some of the last men to fight were the French 150th Infantry Regiment, who were captured on the beach on June 4, the last day of the evacuation. Prior to capture they burned their regimental flag to prevent it from falling into German hands. A few days before that, the French defenders of the city of Lille impressed German general Kurt Waeger so much with their tenacity, that he allowed them to march out and into captivity with full honors of war, with rifles shouldered and in parade formation while the German victors stood at attention. Waeger was later reprimanded for his gesture of chivalry.

German General Kurt Waeger grants the honors of war to French troops after the siege of Lille
(Photo: Reddit)

Churchill insisted on coming back for the French rear guard, thus the Royal Navy returned to rescue as many of the French units as possible. Tens of thousands of French soldiers were evacuated on the last days of the evacuation, but almost 40,000 more were left behind and captured by the Germans. On the morning of June 4, the Germans took the docks. The evacuated French troops only got a brief respite from the war. About 3,000 of them joined de Gaulle’s Free French Forces but most of the rest were sent back to continue fighting and many of them were killed or captured a few weeks later.
 
During the evacuation, all the heavy equipment had to be left behind. 20,000 motorcycles, 2,472 guns and around 65,000 other vehicles, including 445 British tanks, were abandoned. It took a lot of time for the British Army to regain full operational capability. Six British and three French destroyers plus nine other major vessels were sunk and more than 200 Allied sea craft were lost.

Allied helmets left behind on the beach after the evacuation
(Photo: Twitter)

The evacuation finished on June 4 but there were still over 100,000 British personnel in France. Operation Cycle followed on the heels of Dynamo, allowing more soldiers to escape from Le Havre on the shore of the Seine River. Operation Aerial (also called Ariel due to conflicting documents) evacuated even more from Atlantic ports along the west coast of France. These two operations were responsible for the evacuation of another 191,000 men. One particular ship that participated in Operation Aerial was the ocean liner HMT (Hired Military Transport) Lancastria, which was hit by German bombers in the vicinity of St. Nazaire. Somewhere between 3,800 and 5,000 men died when the ship sank, making it the worst British single-ship maritime disaster ever. In comparison, the sinking of the Titanic (1,517) and the Lusitania (1,198) claimed fewer lives combined. After the fall of Dunkirk, a so-called “2nd British Expeditionary Force” of about 60,000 men was set up and sent to the continent to continue the fight. More of a political gesture than a meaningful operation, the men assisted with the subsequent evacuations and were themselves eventually withdrawn.
 
The British press portrayed the operation as a "disaster turned to triumph", highlighting the role of the "Little Ships". As opposed to the initial estimate of 45,000 soldiers to be rescued, a total of 338,226 men were evacuated, including some 140,000 French. Still, Churchill in his famous speech delivered on June 4, stating that Britain shall never surrender, reminded the country that "…we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”

A destroyer packed with evacuated soldiers arriving from Flanders at a British port
(Photo: AP)

The same day, on June 5, 1940, Hitler delivered his own statement about the evacuation: "Dunkirk has fallen! 40,000 French and English troops are all that remains of the formerly great armies. Immeasurable quantities of materiel have been captured. The greatest battle in the history of the world has come to an end." A couple of weeks later, the Germans marched into Paris on June 14 and France surrendered eight days later.
 
Four years later, when the Germans were on the retreat after the Battle of Normandy, German forces refused to hand over the fortified city that was already heavily damaged by Allied bombing. Since the town was not important anymore, the Allies simply by-passed it. The fortress, under the command of German Admiral Friedrich Frisius, eventually unconditionally surrendered to the commander of the Czechoslovak forces, Brigadier General Alois Liška, on May 9, 1945.
 
The latest movie adaptation of the evacuation was the film called Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan and released in 2017. The beach scenes were shot at the actual beach in Dunkirk with thousands of extras involved. The production also included twenty original “Little Ships”.

The movie poster of the film Dunkirk
(Photo: Amazon)

A couple of weeks ago sad news was reported: one of the recently restored “Little Ships”, Lady Gay was destroyed in a huge fire in the River Thames on May 3, 2021.

Lady Gay, one of the original “Little Ships” recently lost in a fire accident
(Photo: Twitter)

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