Today in History: the Miracle of Dunkirk

On June 4, 1940 Winston Churchill gave one of his most iconic speeches to the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. It was in this speech that Churchill famously stated that the British Empire would fight their Nazi German enemy anywhere, including “on the beaches” of the speech’s informal title. Since May 26, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had been doing just that across the English Channel in the little French coastal town of Dunkirk.

On May 10, 1940, following the end of the tactical staring contest know as the “Phony War”, the German Wehrmacht began its invasion of France. German military planning kicked into high-gear with the execution of Fall Gelb (Case Yellow) that called for a decisive punch through Belgium, bypassing France’s vaunted Maginot Line.

The German war machine took British and French military strategists by surprise as their armored units pushed deep into the Ardennes forest, thought to be impassable to those very units that were now steaming through it.  The speed with which Case Yellow was executed saw the British Expeditionary Force quickly cut off from the sizable portion of the French Army as German Panzer divisions took initiative and drove for the French coast.

As the BEF fell back into France from its ever worsening situation in Belgium, the Wehrmacht tightened the noose around the British and its stranded French, Belgian and smaller contingents of Polish and Dutch allies. Pockets of resistance were quickly strangled by closing German Panzers.

The remnants of the First French Army did achieve limited success however, holding several German divisions at Lille for a number of days, even counterattacking and capturing a German general. The defense at Lille provided the forces headed for Dunkirk much needed time and reprieve from the full weight of the German army grouped against them.

As the Wehrmacht closed, the British Expeditionary Forced staged a chaotic strategic retreat into the city of Dunkirk itself, their last line of defense. With the BEF’s back to the sea the German general in command, Georg von Küchler planned for a final punch through all-out offensive on Dunkirk, June 1st, a rare day of flyable weather.

However, unbeknownst to General von Küchler, due to the inclement weather that plagued the German operation, the British War Office had already begun to execute a daring operation to evacuate the entirety of the BEF from Dunkirk. The British government called on any ocean-going vessel, big or small to aid in evacuation. Over 900 vessels answered the call, ranging from French and Royal Navy warships to fishing vessels and private pleasure craft.

By June 3 the remaining members of the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated. The War Office declared the mission a success and called the Royal Navy back to Dover. However, Churchill demanded that they return to Dunkirk to rescue the remaining French holdouts who had volunteered to perform a rearguard action for the evacuating British soldiers.

So, on June 4, 1940, the Royal Navy returned, and over 26,000 more French soldiers were evacuated on the last day of the operation. The French brought the total number rescued to 338,226 men out of nearly 400,000 British, French, Belgian, Polish and Dutch soldiers that had thought the city of Dunkirk would be their last stand.

Later that same day, when the Germans finally entered the city of Dunkirk, they soon realized their embarrassing error. The evacuees were welcomed as heroes on their arrival in Great Britain and providing a much needed boost of moral amongst the allies in their darkest year of war. It had truly been a miracle.

France would fall by the end of the month.

Tags: