The Dunkirk Evacuation

On May 26, 1940, the British government issued a directive to evacuate all troops from the French port of Dunkirk.

The operation was codenamed “Dynamo” and it resulted in the evacuation of 338,226 British, French, and Belgian soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

The operation - conducted by the Royal Navy, the British Army, and the Royal Air Force - was a success, but it came at a great cost.

Over 11,000 men were killed or wounded, and over 200 ships were sunk.

The Germans close the net

Situation on 21 May 1940; German forces occupy the area shaded in pink. The German had made rapid advances to the English Channel between 16 May and 21 May of 1940, trapping the British and part of the French forces in the Dunkirk perimeter.

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General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A during the Battle of France.

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The German land forces that attacked the Dunkirk perimeter in 1940 were a powerful and well-equipped force, led by General Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief of the formidable Army Group A.

The attack was spearheaded by the 1st Panzer Division, led by General Erwin Rommel, which consisted of over 300 tanks.

They were supported by the 2nd Panzer Division, also a mechanized division with approximately 300 tanks, led by General Rudolf Veiel.

The 19th and 20th Infantry Divisions were also involved, composed of infantry troops, artillery, and support units.

The 10th Panzer Division, led by General Ferdinand Schaal, was initially held in reserve but was later deployed to support the 1st and 2nd Panzer Divisions in their encirclement of the Allied forces.

The German Blitzkrieg of May 1940. While Leeb’s Army Group C fixed the French garrison of the Maginot Line on the Franco-German frontier, and Bock’s Army Group B advanced into Belgium and fixed the main Allied masse de manoeuvre coming to meet them, the decisive breakthrough was made by nine armoured divisions lunging through the Ardennes towards the Meuse crossings near Sedan. Ten days after the start of the offensive, seven days after their first elements crossed the Meuse, the Panzers reached the sea, cutting the Allied armies in half. A triumph of organisation and doctrine, it was one of the greatest victories in military history.

A PzKpfw II Ausf. C and a PzKpfw I Ausf. B from the 2nd Panzer Division advance along a dirt road in the Ardennes sector, France, May 1940. Although difficult to discern, the Panzer II has painted on its turret an eagle carrying an umbrella and a hat (a reference to then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain).

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Planning the evacuation

General John Vereker, also known as Lord Gort, was the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). He realized that the situation was critical and that his forces were in danger of being annihilated. Gort saw that crossing the Channel was the best option and began organizing a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest site with strong port facilities. 

Dunkirk, surrounded by marshland, featured old defenses and Europe's longest sand beach, where large groups could congregate.  On the 20th of May, at Churchill's request, the Admiralty began preparing all available small vessels to sail to France. 

Following more engagements and a failed Allied attempt to cut through the German spearhead on the 21st May at Arras, the BEF was trapped, along with the remaining Belgian forces and the three French armies, along the coast of northern France and Belgium.

Lord Gort, Commander of the BEF, initiated Operation Dynamo when it became clear the BEF was trapped.

John Vereker (Lord Gort) 1886-1946 - Isle of Wight Hidden Heroes (

Hotel du Sauvage – Where Lord Gort’s plans for Operation Dynamo were revealed to the French High Command on 27th May 1940.

Cassel 26th-27th May 1940 – 140th (5th London) Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (

...the Allied forces were in danger of being completely surrounded...

The French commanders, including General Maurice Gamelin and General Gaston Billotte, initially opposed the idea of evacuation, believing that they could hold out until reinforcements arrived.

However, as the situation worsened and it became clear that the Allied forces were in danger of being completely surrounded and destroyed, they eventually agreed to the evacuation plan.

The launch of Dynamo

Even before the Belgian capitulation, the British government had decided to launch Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF by sea from Dunkirk.

The admiralty had been collecting every kind of small craft 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.

On the 26th of May, things took a turn for the worst for the BEF. Belgium's army, which had fought gallantly alongside General Brooke's II Corps, had been beaten.

As a result, a dangerous gap in Allied defences was opened, with only the 143rd Brigade of the 48th Division standing between the Germans and passage into France along the coast, where the BEF was waiting. The German troops who had already invaded the nation circled south of the BEF, 25 miles north of Paris, trapping the hapless Allied army in the middle of a pincer manoeuvre.

As troops were dispatched to fight off the German assault down the coast at any costs, the Ypres-Comines canal became the Front Line.

If the Germans pressed ahead and reached the beaches before the BEF, the claw would smash shut, crushing the Allies. It was time to evacuate while they could; 'Operation Dynamo' was authorized to begin.

General Sir Robert Forbes Adam

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While everyone else rushed for the coast, General Sir Robert Forbes Adam was tasked with organizing the British line's defence, and General Franklyn was given the unenviable task of moving to intercept, and effectively 'hold off,' the Germans looking to advance from Ypres, while the French IV and V Corps fought alongside them at Lille.

...the men fought valiantly...

The men fought valiantly for two days, giving their companions enough time to strike out for the escape location, but were soon obliged to make a 'fighting withdrawal,' destroying bridges as they left.

Many troops would die in this valiant effort, and the French battalions were basically decimated before surrendering on the 31st. Eventually, the British and French armies retreated all the way back to encircle Dunkirk, which was now deemed the last viable route of escape, and remained to defend the perimeter.

Every hour would now make a significant difference in determining how many men would eventually return home.

The reconstructed coastal artillery operations room within the Dover Castle tunnels. It was from here that Admiral Ramsay coordinated Operation Dynamo.

Operation Dynamo: Things you need to know | English Heritage (

...The fleeing troops were unhappy since they had expected to stand and fight rather than retreat...

Meanwhile, orders were issued for the 1st, 2nd, 42nd, 44th, 46th, 48th, and 1st Armoured Divisions to proceed to the Dunkirk beaches and depart for England. The fleeing troops were unhappy since they had expected to stand and fight rather than retreat, but they were also pleased to be ordered out of harm's way.

Some divisions found it simpler to follow the order than others; General Alexander's 1st Division, for example, experienced a gruelling 55-mile march to Dunkirk, with the Luftwaffe pummelling them as they went. They pushed forward, acutely aware that they were the last in line for evacuation, and that they might have a lengthy wait if they made it off the beach at all.

The retreat took place in often chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles obstructing highways and a stream of refugees fleeing in the opposite direction.

Winston Churchill visits 'Hell-Fire Corner' - Dover - on the 28th August 1940, shortly after the end of Operation Dynamo. The evacuation was coordinated from the cave complex situated underneath Dover Castle, which sat overlooking the cliffs of Dover on the coast.

...the growing calamity at Dunkirk....

The entire scale of the growing calamity at Dunkirk was not first publicised due to wartime censorship and the desire to maintain British morale. The 26th of May was declared a “national day of prayer” and King George VI attended a special ceremony in Westminster Abbey. "For our soldiers in dire peril in France," the Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers.

Similar prayers were delivered in synagogues and churches across the Nation that day, reinforcing the public's suspicion of the troops' grave predicament.

Churchill officially ordered Dynamo to commence just before 19:00 on the 26th May 1940, by which time 28,000 men had already left. 

The Dunkirk pocket. The defence of the shrinking perimeter and the management of the retreat to the sea and the maritime evacuation were carried out in an organised and coherent manner, especially given the surrender of the Belgian Army and the moral collapse of much of the French Army in the closing stages of the campaign.

Original plans aimed for retrieving 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, after which German troops were expected to obstruct further evacuation. Throughout this time, just 25,000 men fled, including 7,669 on the first day.

...Luftwaffe raids had knocked out the port facilities....

Admiral Bertram Ramsay had overall command of the operation, and he tasked Captain William Tennant with tactical oversight of the evacuation.

Tennant, who was designated “beachmaster,” arrived at Dunkirk on the 27th of May 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 harbour entrance.

Admiral Bertram Ramsay

Beachmaster Captain Nill Tennant (pictured her as a Vice-Admiral in 1945)

Imperial War Museum

Admiral Ramsay speaking to Captain Tennant at the start of Operation Dynamo.

Ramsay had quickly grasped the seriousness of the situation and had started evacuating non-essential personnel before his superiors had issued any orders.

He also took matters into his own hands in another way. The port facilities in Dunkirk were soon out of commission, and the Admiral realised he would have to take men directly off the beaches.

So, on his own authority, he began requisitioning small boats and looking for men who could sail them.

The three beaches used during the Dunkirk evacuation – Malo-les-Bains is shown by the pointer in the left blue circle. & Google

However, he quickly determined that lifting troops directly from the beaches themselves would be too time-consuming, he turned his attention to the breakwaters at the harbour entrance.

Escape to Dunkirk

Facing defeat, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) steadily withdrew towards the coast and prepared for evacuation

The troops, many of whom were inexperienced and ill-equipped, had been pushed back by the German army and were now surrounded and trapped in a small area around Dunkirk.

As they made their way towards Dunkirk and the coast, the British troops were constantly under attack from the German forces, which had air superiority and whose armoured divisions were bristling with confidence and determined to prevent their escape.

The roads were choked with abandoned vehicles, broken-down tanks, and the debris of battle.

...roads were pockmarked with craters.... 

The fields on either side of the roads were pockmarked with craters from artillery and bombing raids. The air was filled with the sound of gunfire and the screams of the wounded.

The black arrows show the German attempts to cut off the retreating British troops as they retreated towards the perimeter. 

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The sight of the civilian population, caught up in the chaos of the retreat, added to the sense of tragedy and desperation. Families were huddled together on the roadside, clutching their belongings and waiting for any means of escape. The elderly and infirm struggled to keep up with the fleeing troops, their faces etched with fear and exhaustion.

As the retreat progressed, the soldiers encountered scenes of unimaginable horror. They saw the bodies of their fallen comrades lying in the fields, often stripped of their equipment and left to rot in the sun. They saw wounded soldiers begging for help, their injuries too severe to allow them to keep up with the retreat.

The enemy presence was a constant reminder of the danger that lurked around every corner. German planes and artillery were a constant threat, and soldiers had to be constantly on guard against ambushes and surprise attacks.

...this atmosphere of chaos and destruction...

Despite this atmosphere of chaos and destruction, the soldiers also bore witness to moments of incredible heroism and resilience.

They saw their comrades fighting back against overwhelming odds, holding off the enemy and allowing others to escape. They saw civilians offering whatever help they could, despite the danger to themselves.

Despite the odds against them, the British soldiers were determined to survive and make it back to England.

They dug in and fought back against the Germans, holding their ground and inflicting heavy losses on the enemy, in a series of tactical rear-guard actions, the heroic actions here buying time for the bulk of the British Army to reach the Dunkirk perimeter.

The situation was dire, however, and morale among the troops was low. Many soldiers were exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, having been forced to abandon their supplies and equipment as they retreated.

They also had to contend with the constant threat of bombing and strafing from the German Luftwaffe, which caused many casualties. Scores of terrified refugees clogged the roads, further hampering the troop’s movement.

As the BEF withdrew to the Dunkirk perimeter, the roads were littered with destroyed and discarded vehicles.

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Rearguard actions

Trapped and surrounded near Dunkirk, the BEF was forced to fight a desperate rear-guard action in order to delay the advance of the German army and allow time for the evacuation of the troops. Hitler's mysterious 'halt order', which halted the panzers' advance for 2-3 critical days while German tank forces were restocked, saved valuable time.

...Fight to the last man and the last round...

This allowed the Allies to establish strongholds in strategic towns and villages like as Lille, La Bassée, St Venant, Festubert, La Paradis, Steenbecque, Hazebrouck, Cassel, Wormhout, Bergues, Ypres, Noordschote, Dixmuide, Veurne, and Nieuwpoort.

These strongholds were manned by experienced British 2nd division troops as well as a variety of scratch battalions. Their orders were often straightforward: "Fight to the last man and the last round."

The gallantry of these rearguard battalions, as well as the French 1st Army at Lille, enabled the majority of the BEF and two French divisions to flee up the increasingly decreasing corridor to Dunkirk.

Many of the men fleeing up the corridor were given the straightforward instruction:

“Every man for himself, make for Dunkirk”

German armed forces pressed the Allied armies trapped in the north, from south and east, into the English Channel. Meanwhile, German infantry divisions reinforced the southern flank of the the German penetration.

Map of the Retreat to Dunkirk, Battle of France, May 25-31, 1940 (

...British troops fought bravely and stubbornly....

The British soldiers, many of whom were inexperienced and ill-equipped, faced a formidable enemy. The Germans had air and naval superiority, and were determined to prevent the BEF from escaping. Despite this, the British troops fought bravely and stubbornly, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy and buying time for their comrades to escape.

The rearguard actions were characterized by a series of fierce and bloody battles, fought with a combination of skill, courage, and desperation. The British soldiers dug in and held their ground, using whatever weapons and equipment they had at their disposal to inflict maximum damage on the enemy.

Not all the British troops escaped from Dunkirk. These men, together with French troops, fought a rearguard action near La Bassee before being captured.

Norwich Cathedral memorial to the 97 soldiers massacred by Nazis | Norwich Evening News (

One of the most notable rearguard actions took place at the village of Wormhout, where a small detachment of British soldiers under the command of Captain James Lynn held off a much larger German force for several hours. Despite being vastly outnumbered, the British soldiers fought fiercely, inflicting heavy losses on the enemy before being overrun and captured.

Tragically, the survivors were massacred by the Germans in one of the most notorious acts of the campaign.

...small groups of soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice...

The rear-guard actions were not without their share of tragedy and heroism. Many soldiers were killed or captured, and many more suffered from exhaustion, hunger, and thirst.

Despite this, the British soldiers maintained their resolve and fought on, determined to delay the German advance for as long as possible.

Other small groups of soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice by remaining where they could have retreated to potential safety: the 2nd Glosters and 4th Ox and Bucks at Cassel, the 5th Glosters at Ledringhem, the 2nd Royal Warwicks at Esquelbecq/Wormhout, and the 1st Royal Scots at Le Cornet Malo /Le Paradis.

German Infantry approaching Cassel , the scene of fierce resistance from the BEF rear-guard.

Cassel 26th-27th May 1940 – 140th (5th London) Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery ( of the most tragic episodes.....

One of the most tragic episodes of the rearguard actions took place at Le Paradis, where a group of British soldiers were massacred by the soon-to-be notorious SS Division Totenkopf, under the command of Hauptsturmführer Fritz Knöchlein, after surrendering.

The soldiers had run out of ammunition and were forced to surrender but were then gunned down in cold blood by the Germans. Only two men survived and were later captured by German Wehrmacht soldiers. Fortunately, they remained out of the clutches of the SS and taken to hospital.

Units from tne SS Division Totenkopf in action in France, 1940. Members of this unit massacred British POW's in Le Paradis.

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Despite the tragic events at Le Paradis, the rearguard actions were characterized by acts of heroism and selflessness. Many soldiers sacrificed their lives in order to delay the enemy and allow their comrades to escape.

These selfless deeds kept the corridors to Dunkirk open for another three days, allowing an astonishing 338,000 allied personnel to be evacuated - far more than Winston Churchill's original estimate of 45,000 - an estimation based on the realistic belief that it would be impossible to hold off the Germans for long.

...The soldiers were well-trained and disciplined....

The rear-guard actions also demonstrated the effectiveness of British military tactics and leadership. The soldiers were well-trained and disciplined, and were able to hold off much larger German forces through a combination of skill and determination. The image of the 'plucky' Tommy, ill-equipped, under-trained but still willing to give Jerry 'what for' is only partially true. 

The leadership of officers like Lynn was also instrumental in the success of the rear-guard actions, as they were able to inspire their troops and lead by example. Outdated, Colonel Blimp-like characters, still haplessly wedded to the idea of fighting the previous war, did exist but so to did a large amount of intelligent, capable and determined officers.

The original graves of the 97 Royal Norfolks murdered in cold blood by SS troops  - the La Paradis Massacre on 27 May 1940 - after fighting a delaying action to enable their comrades to escape from Dunkirk.

Norwich Cathedral memorial to the 97 soldiers massacred by Nazis | Norwich Evening News (

In the end, the rearguard’s actions were successful in achieving their objective. The British soldiers were able to delay the German advance and allow time for the evacuation of the troops at Dunkirk. The soldiers who fought in the rearguard actions may not have received the same recognition as those who were evacuated from Dunkirk, but their bravery and sacrifice were no less important.

The Dunkirk perimeter

The Dunkirk perimeter stretched for around 20 miles, encompassing a number of key towns and strongholds.

One of the most important locations within the perimeter was the town of Dunkirk itself, which was situated on the coast and was the focal point of the evacuation effort.

Leaflets dropped by German planes over the Dunkirk perimeter, urging the British soldiers to surrender.

The town was heavily defended, with a number of strongpoints and fortified positions that were used to repel German attacks.

Another key location within the perimeter was the town of Bergues, which was situated to the southwest of Dunkirk. Bergues was a vital strategic point, as it provided a link between the Dunkirk perimeter and the French army to the south.

The town was heavily fortified, with a number of machine-gun positions and anti-tank defences.

The Dunkirk Perimeter on the 28th May 1940. Note, the area just to the south of the perimeter allocated for the destruction of vehicles - there would be no space to evacuate these vehicles but leaving them for the Germans to capture would be unacceptable.

Northumbrian Gunner: Dunkirk - Dunkirk Perimeter

To the east of Dunkirk lay the town of Gravelines, which was another key defensive point within the perimeter. Gravelines was situated on the banks of the River Aa and was an important crossing point for both the British and German armies.

The town was heavily defended, with a number of bunkers and gun emplacements that were used to repel German attacks.

Other important locations within the Dunkirk perimeter included the town of Wormhout, which was situated to the south of Dunkirk and was the site of a notable rear-guard action by British troops, and the town of Bray-Dunes, which was situated to the north-east of Dunkirk and was used as a key defensive position by the British army.

Throughout the perimeter, a number of strongholds and fortified positions were established in order to repel German attacks. These strongholds were typically constructed around existing buildings or natural features and were designed to provide cover for the defending troops.

One of the most notable strongholds within the Dunkirk perimeter was the Chateau de la Motte, which was situated to the southwest of Dunkirk. The Chateau was a large, fortified building that was used as a key defensive position by the British army. The Chateau was heavily fortified, with a number of machine-gun positions and anti-tank defences.

A British anti-tank gun crew manning the defences during Operation Dynamo. The longer the perimeter could hold, the more troops could be evacuated.

Royston Leonard / Mediadrumworld

...The perimeter was strategically located and was heavily fortified...

Another important defensive position was the La Bassée Canal, which was situated to the south of Dunkirk. The canal was a vital defensive line and was heavily fortified with bunkers and gun emplacements.

Overall, the Dunkirk perimeter was a crucial defensive line that played a key role in the successful evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk.

The perimeter was strategically located and was heavily fortified with a number of strongholds and fortified positions that were used to repel German attacks. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the British army was able to hold the perimeter and delay the German advance, allowing the majority of the troops to be evacuated safely.

Tired, British troops who made it through the perimeter then had to face the might of the German Luftwaffe as they waited for evacuation.

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27th - 28th May

On the first full day of the evacuation, 27th May, one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 additional boats were on the scene. Admiralty officers scoured neighbouring boatyards for small ships capable of ferrying personnel from the beaches to larger vessels in the harbour, as well as larger vessels capable of loading from the docks.

An emergency cry for assistance was issued, and by the 31st of May, approximately 400 small craft were voluntarily and enthusiastically participating in the endeavour.

However, at Dunkirk, Captain William Tennant and his team were confronted with a tremendous administrative challenge.

The sheer number of troops arriving at the beach all at once meant that the men were forced to spread out further and further away from those in command, making it difficult to transmit orders, and the Germans had completely destroyed the nearby port.

British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo. Despite the risks from marauding  German aircraft, thousands of troops were evacuated this way.

Imperial War Museum

There were twice as many men to be evacuated as had been anticipated, and the waiting crowd became larger. In desperation, the organizers eventually built a third jetty out of trucks parked deeper and deeper into the waves to speed up loading onto small ships.

The captains of those ships put their lives in danger time and again, running the gauntlet of bombs and obstacles to reach the beach, only to be capsized or sunk by desperate troops and heavy equipment.

British and French troops await evacuation on the beach at Dunkirk.

The Miracle of Dunkirk in rare pictures, 1940 - Rare Historical Photos

...The Luftwaffe extensively bombed Dunkirk....

As a result, there were only two loading locations for troops to board the boats: a pier to the west of the beach and a mole to the east. Many troops became split from their groups, making it difficult to know who to listen to and where they should be, and the sick and stragglers had to be processed and cleared before the organized units could get a look in.

The Luftwaffe extensively bombed Dunkirk on the same day, both the town and the dock infrastructure. Because the water supply had been cut off, the following fires could not be put out. One thousand citizens were killed in the bombing, accounting for one-third of the town's remaining population.

During the evacuation, RAF squadrons were tasked to give air superiority to the Royal Navy. Their focus turned to protecting the evacuation ships in Dunkirk and the English Channel. The Luftwaffe was engaged by 16 RAF squadrons, who claimed 38 kills while losing 14 aircraft on 27th May.

A RAF airman smiles for the camera, a baby magpie perched on his cap, as he stands, loaded with kit, on the deck of a troopship which is transporting him back to England from France during Operation Dynamo, late May- early June 1940. The magpie is the troopship's mascot.

Imperial War Museum

Numerous more RAF planes were damaged and were later written off. On the German side, the most casualties were suffered by Kampfgeschwader 2 (KG 2) and KG 3. German losses totalled 23 Dorniers. Do 17s. The beach and harbour were blasted by KG 1 and KG 4, and the 8,000-ton steamship Aden was sunk by KG 54.

The troopship Cote d' Azur was sunk by Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers. The Luftwaffe assaulted Dunkirk in twelve missions with 300 bombers defended by 550 fighter sorties. They detonated 15,000 high-explosive and 30,000 incendiary bombs, demolishing the oil tankers and wreaking havoc on the harbour. This day, the No. 11 Group RAF flew 22 patrols with 287 aircraft in formations of up to 20 aircraft.

German Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers in flight, 29 May 1940. The famous German dive bomber found the ships taking part in the evacuation tempting targets.

[Photo] German Ju 87 Stuka dive bombers in flight, 29 May 1940 | World War II Database (

Around 3,500 sorties were flown in support of Operation Dynamo in all. Throughout the week, the RAF continued to take a devastating toll on German bombers.

Troops being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were mostly ignorant of the RAF's efforts to defend them, as most dogfights occurred far from the beaches.

As a result, many British soldiers accused the airmen of doing little to aid them, leading to reports of army troops accosting and insulting RAF personnel once they returned to England.

...the French First Army held off seven German divisions....

The Luftwaffe did not strike Dunkirk on the 25th and 26th of May, instead focusing on Allied pockets of resistance in Calais, Lille, and Amiens. On the 26th May, the BEF surrendered control of Calais.

The remnants of the French First Army held off seven German divisions, several of which were armoured, until the 31st May, when the remaining 35,000 soldiers were forced to surrender due to a lack of food and ammunition. In recognition of their valour, the Germans bestowed war awards on the defenders of Lille.

Shattered troops litter the deck of the ship, as they made their way across the sea, knowing they are the lucky ones and that some of their comrades were not going to make it home.

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Incredible pictures of British army's escape from Dunkirk | Daily Mail Online

Surviving on the beach

The British troops on the Dunkirk beaches during Operation Dynamo in 1940 were facing a desperate situation. They had been pushed back to the coastline by the relentless German advance and were now trapped with their backs to the sea. The only hope for these soldiers was the massive evacuation effort known as Operation Dynamo.

...they were constantly under attack...

As the British troops huddled on the beaches, they were constantly under attack from German artillery and air power.

The evacuation effort was underway, but it was a chaotic and dangerous process.

The soldiers had to wait their turn to be evacuated, all the while under constant threat of enemy fire.

As the evacuation continued, the soldiers on the beaches became increasingly exhausted and disorientated.


They had been under constant attack for days, and many had not slept or eaten in days. Many found themselves standing for hours chest-deep in water as they patiently waited for their turn to be evacuated.

British troops in the sand dunes at Dunkirk, 1940. The expression of the face of the soldier on the right aptly sums up their predicament.

Imperial War Museum

...stench of death and decay hung heavy in the air...

The beaches were littered with abandoned equipment, destroyed vehicles, and the bodies of fallen soldiers. The stench of death and decay hung heavy in the air.

The soldiers stranded on the beaches faced not only the constant threat of enemy fire but also long stretches of boredom and monotony, particularly when the weather prevented the Luftwaffe from making an ominous appearance in the skies overhead.

With no clear idea of when they would be evacuated, many soldiers were left to pass the time with little to do.

For those lucky enough to find some cover, the days could be spent sleeping, eating whatever rations they could scrabble together, or simply husbanding their strength s they waited it out.

British officers in a trench dug into the beach at Dunkirk, 1940. In the wide, open spaces of the beaches, trenches were the only way to shelter from the German bombs.

Imperial War Museum

However, for the many troops who were exposed to the elements and constantly on the move, boredom was a real challenge. As the days wore on, the soldiers became increasingly restless and anxious.

They longed for news of when they would be evacuated and worried about the fate of their comrades who had already been captured or killed.

The constant, menacing sound of German artillery and bombing raids only added to their anxiety.

Allied troops huddle on the beach waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk. 

Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Life on the beaches took a toll on many soldiers. Some became despondent, losing hope of ever being rescued. Others became angry and frustrated, feeling that they had been abandoned by their commanders or – in some cases – the RAF.

Elsewhere, morale sometimes completely broke down as scared or disillusioned soldiers lost their discipline and cohesion, with violent or drunken behaviour sometimes breaking out, although examples of this are generally considered exceptions to the rule.

The East Mole

The western breakwater proved to be unsuitable for his purposes, but the eastern breakwater – known as the 'East Mole’ - was some 1,400 yards (1.3 km) long, topped with a wooden boardwalk, and wide enough for a column of troops to traverse it four abreast.

Tennant directed the bulk of the evacuation efforts to the eastern breakwater, and some 200,000 troops were able to use it as an ersatz dock to board rescue ships.

Diagram of the East Mole.

Now, while the smaller boats raced in and out of the beaches, passing between the lines of soldiers waiting in waist-deep lines to be carried to the larger ships stationed at sea that would carry the soldiers home, the Royal Navy destroyers went one after the other to the East Mole to load up with men.

The East Mole at Dunkirk, during the evacuation.

...Body parts and ship fragments floated in the oily, blood-red, and reddish surf...

Attacks by the Luftwaffe on the ships, beaches, the Mole, and the crowds of soldiers gathered around the port were persistent and damaging, with strafing and bombing missions presenting a constant threat and adding to the general chaos.

The worst part was when they scored a hit on a ship that was carrying soldiers who were crammed close together on the decks. Body parts and ship fragments floated in the oily, blood-red, and reddish surf. To clear a path for the living, the tiny boats cut past bodies and wrecks.

British soldiers on the Dunkirk beach taking pot shots at German planes overhead.

It persisted for days. The professionalism of the Royal Navy crews, the soldiers' patience, and the bravery of the people manning the tiny boats were all noticed by observers as they bravely continued to lift troops off the Mole.

Above, 177 British aircraft would be lost in the battle to defend the evacuation; therefore, it was not fair to criticise the outnumbered Royal Air Force for its performance against the Luftwaffe. Without them, it is likely the Luftwaffe would have more time to focus their efforts on targeting the East Mole.

Even from thousands of feet in the air, it must have obvious to the German pilots that it was playing a key role in the evacuation. Certainly it would have been hard for them to not observe the Royal Navy destroyers docking alongside it.

Dunkirk 26-29 May 1940 British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation.

Imperial War Museum

The Royal Navy

The evacuation as a whole had been carefully planned and supervised by the Royal Navy. They were tasked with planning the evacuation routes and offering non-combat ships security at sea.

Once the operation was underway, the navy assigned routes to vessels depending on what was most secure at the time. Route Z, the quickest route across the English Channel, was swiftly abandoned because it hugged the French coast and was therefore exposed to artillery fire from the land.

A map showing the three escape routes from Dunkirk to Dover – X, Y and Z.

image from ‘Dunkirk 1940’ by Doug Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing contained a significant number of mines and so could not be used at night...

As a result, Route Y, a new route that bypassed the coastal artillery but was 87 miles long, was opened instead.

This meant the ships made fewer journeys due to the increased distance travelled. Route X, a connecting route, was also established.

Even though it was shorter and farther from the coast, it contained a significant number of mines and so could not be used at night.

The Royal Navy committed a range of vessels to the evacuation: The HMS Calcutta anti-aircraft cruiser, 39 destroyers, and numerous additional vessels were sent.

Destroyers and other larger ships could transport around 900 soldiers on a single voyage.

A Royal Navy destroyer, crowded with evacuated British troops, mooring at Dover, 31 May 1940.

Imperial War Museum

For fear of being stranded below decks if the ship sank, the soldiers primarily travelled on the upper decks.

However, the Admiralty withdrew their eight best destroyers for the country's future defence following the loss on the 29th of May of 19 British and French navy ships along with three of the larger requisitioned warships.

Additionally, hospital ships, passenger ferries, and other ships were provided by the merchant navy. Vessels were also provided by Britain's allies in Canada, France, Poland, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Type of vessel Total engaged Sunk Damaged
Cruisers 1 0 1
Destroyers 39 6 19
Sloops, corvettes and gunboats 9 1 1
Minesweepers 36 5 7
Trawlers and drifters 113 17 2
Special service vessels 3 1 0
Ocean boarding vessels 3 1 1
Torpedo boats and anti-submarine boats 13 0 0
Former Dutch schuyts with naval crews 40 4 Unknown
Yachts with naval crews 26 3 Unknown
Personnel ships 45 8 8
Hospital carriers 8 1 5
Naval motor boats 12 6 Unknown
Tugboats 34 3 Unknown
Other small craft 311 170 Unknown
Total 693 226

Table showing a list of the British ships deployed during Operation Dynamo. (List does not include ships' lifeboats and some unrecorded small privately owned craft.)


An injured soldier is helped ashore after being evacuated from Dunkirk. Behind him can be seen two French soldiers who were evacuated along with the British.

The battle above

One of the unfortunate aspects of Operation Dynamo was the myth that sprung up around the idea that the RAF didn’t ‘do their bit’. Utter nonsense of course but it is important to examine why this occurred.

What the soldiers on the ground didn't realise was that the reason the RAF couldn't be seen by them was because they were elsewhere, assisting in repelling the Luftwaffe. Even though conditions at Dunkirk were poor, they could have been far worse if additional German aircraft had managed to get in.

The RAF's Fighter Command had already lost many aircraft in the prior French Campaign and attempting to stop the Germans cost them even more - half of all of its aircraft in total.

German soldiers inspect and pose with Spitfire Mk. 1a N3200 of 19 Squadron, which crash-landed on a beach near Calais while covering the evacuations from Dunkirk on 26th May 1940.

© Peter Arnold Collection

On 31st May for example, German Messerschmitt’s maintained their aerial combat with RAF fighters while attempting to defend their bombers, which launched three waves of attacks that day.

They shot down six of them along with four fighters, but as a result, they lost the most aircraft of the campaign: six Spitfires, eight Hurricanes, and five Defiants.

...repeatedly diving down towards the helpless ships and soldiers below...

The following day – 1st June - was even more brutal: indeed, it was the worst day thus far. Five significant German attacks were conducted, with the RAF's reaction showing large gaps due to the normal logistical challenges.

Dozens of Stukas dove out of the sky in numerous instances, repeatedly diving down towards the helpless ships and soldiers below as they dropped their payloads on them.

The RAF, on the other hand, suffered 16 fighter losses to 14 enemy aircraft when they were able to intercept and engage the enemy.

A crashed Ju-87 Stuka on the beach at Dunkirk.

Although the RAF fighter squadrons are the most well-known of the British air units involved in Operation Dynamo, they were not alone.

RAF Coastal Command flew patrols across English Channel shipping lanes, patrolled the Belgian and Dutch beaches for enemy naval activity, and conducted bombing raids.

Patrols were also flown in an attempt to keep German submarines and Schnellbooten at bay (designated as U- and E-Boats respectively by the British).

A view from the air of the oil tanks at Dunkirk ablaze after being struck by Luftwaffe bombs.

...Coastal Command's action against E-Boats was critical...

The threat of U-boats with unlimited access to the evacuation fleet was evident, but Coastal Command's action against E-Boats was critical. They were fast, manoeuvrable motorboats armed with torpedoes and light anti-aircraft weapons that fired quickly.

Additionally, Fleet Air Arm units were sent to RAF Coastal Command to offer support during Operation Dynamo. FAA planes played a critical role in sheltering retreating troops by halting the Nazi onslaught.

The majority of the fighting occurred away from the beaches, and the retreating troops were mostly unaware of this important aid.

A Lockheed Hudson of No. 220 Squadron RAF approaches Dunkirk on a reconnaissance patrol during the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the French port in May-June 1940.

Benjamin Thomas

28 May – 4 June

If the situation wasn't as bad as enough as it was, on 28th May, the Belgian Army surrendered, leaving a vast gap in the Allied defences to the east of Dunkirk. To protect that side, several British divisions were dispatched to plug the gap.

That day the Luftwaffe conducted fewer raids over Dunkirk, instead focusing on the Belgian ports of Ostend and Nieuwpoort.

Fortunately for the BEF, the weather over Dunkirk proved unsuitable for diving or low-level bombardment which spared them from the worst of the Luftwaffe’s attention.

The RAF conducted 11 patrols and 321 sorties, claiming 23 destroyed and 13 aircraft lost. That day saw 17,804 tired British troops arrive safely in British ports. A decent number but not enough if disaster was to be averted.

HMS Grenade was sunk during Operation Dynamo, one of several British destroyers to be lost during the evacuation.

Imperial War Museum

...the Luftwaffe's Ju 87s wreaked havoc on shipping...

The following day saw mixed fortunes for the BEF: 47,310 British troops were safely evacuated but the Luftwaffe's Ju 87s wreaked havoc on shipping.

  • The British destroyer HMS Grenade was sunk, and the French destroyer Mistral was disabled, while her sister ships, each carrying 500 troops, suffered minor damage.
  • The British destroyers Jaguar and Verity were severely damaged but managed to flee the harbour. 
  • During the raid, two trawlers were also destroyed. Later, the passenger liner SS Fenella sank at the pier with 600 men onboard who were fortunately able to scramble to safety.
  • On a sadder note, the paddle steamer HMS Crested Eagle took a direct hit, caught fire, and sunk, killing many on board.
  • The raiders also sank two rail-owned ships, the SS Lorina and SS Normannia.

Crew members of the French destroyer Bourrasque, sunk by a mine at Dunkirk, are hauled aboard a British vessel from their sinking life raft.. Vessels of all shapes and sizes - both military and civilian - faced threats from both the air and the sea.

Dunkirk: 6 big questions on a remarkable rescue mission | HistoryExtra

The town of Dunkirk while under bombardment.

The Miracle of Dunkirk in rare pictures, 1940 - Rare Historical Photos

Only two of the five major German attacks were countered by RAF fighters, and the British lost 16 fighters in nine patrols. German losses totalled 11 Ju 87s that were destroyed or damaged.

The ferocity of the strikes on the ships off the coast of Dunkirk explains why some navy officers' nerves were frayed.

The 29th of May was a nightmare for the Royal and merchant navies, as ship after ship was sunk or rendered inoperable.


A lifeboat with survivors from the Isle of Man steam ferry SS Mona's Queen, mined off Dunkirk, comes alongside the destroyer HMS Vanquisher, 29 May 1940. Along with attacks from the air, those carrying out the evacuation had to also contend with sea mines which when detonated, could cause catastrophic damage to a vessel.

Imperial War Museum.

The first of numerous sinkings that day occurred in the early morning near Kwinte Whistle Buoy, north-east of La Panne, which marked the easternmost point on Route Y, the longest route connecting Dover and Dunkirk.

A calamity had occurred as a result of an almost inconceivable chain of events.

On 30th May Churchill received word that all British divisions, as well as more than half of the French First Army, had moved behind defensive lines.

By this time, the Dunkirk perimeter had been extended along a system of canals about 7 miles (11 km) from the coast, in swampy terrain unsuitable for tanks. 

Situation on 4 June 1940; the remaining French rearguard held a sliver of land around Dunkirk.

Public domain

...the harbour docks rendered inoperable due to German air strikes...

With the harbour docks rendered inoperable due to German air strikes, senior naval officer Captain (later Admiral) William Tennant initially ordered personnel to be evacuated from the beaches.

When this proved too slow, he rerouted the evacuees to the beaches and two large stone and concrete breakwaters known as the east and west moles. This would prove to be a vital decision by Tennant, arguably the most significant of the entire operation.

Notwithstanding the fact that the moles were not built to dock ships, the majority of men rescued from Dunkirk were evacuated this way.

Over the next week, approximately 200,000 troops boarded ships from the east mole (which extended about a mile out to sea).

Telegram to Lord Gort from King George VI dated 29/5/40.   

Andrew Newson, British Army War Diary Copying Service

Cassel 29th May 1940 – 140th (5th London) Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (

The French destroyer Bourrasque, loaded with 800 soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk, lists heavily after striking a mine on the 30th May 1940; 600 survivors were rescued by another French destroyer, the Branlebas, but 200 died.

Public domain

The east mole's pier master, James Campbell Clouston, organised and managed the flow of men onto the waiting ships.

Once again, low clouds limited Luftwaffe activity. There were nine RAF patrols, and no German formations were encountered.

The Luftwaffe sunk one transport and injured 12 others the next day, resulting in 17 losses; the British claimed 38 kills, which is contested. The Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm lost 28 aircraft.

The next day, a further 53,823 men, including the first French soldiers, boarded the ship. On 31st May, Lord Gort and his 68,014 soldiers were evacuated, leaving Major-General Harold Alexander in command of the rearguard. 
On 1 June, another 64,429 Allied soldiers left before the escalating air strikes prohibited any daytime departure. The British rearguard of 4,000 men departed on the night of the 2nd and 3rd of June. 
Before the operation was called off, an additional 75,000 French troops were rescued over the nights of the 2nd - 4th of June. 
On the 4th of June, the remnants of the rearguard, 40,000 French troops, surrendered.

The East Mole's pier master, James Campbell Clouston. A Canadian, Clouston acted as pier master during the Allied evacuation at Dunkirk, overseeing the evacuation of nearly 200,000 servicemen between 27 May and 2 June 1940. He died at sea after his boat was sunk by German aircraft. In September 2017, a commemorative plaque was dedicated to him in Montréal, Canada.

A wounded soldier on a stretcher is given a drink on the quayside at Dover, 31 May 1940.

Imperial War Museum

"BEF evacuated"

At 10:50 PM on June 2, Tennant radioed Ramsay at Operation Dynamo’s Dover command post with the triumphant message “BEF evacuated.” Tennant and British I Corps commander Gen. Harold Alexander then toured the beach and harbour area in a motor launch, calling out with a megaphone to ensure that no BEF evacuees had been missed.

In the end about 198,000 British troops were taken away, as well as 140,000 Allied troops, mainly French, though most of the equipment had to be left behind.

A group of soldiers look out at a burning ship during the evacuation of Dunkirk. 

Royston Leonard/mediadrumworld

A few hundred of the 338,226 soldiers were unarmed Indian mule handlers on detachment from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps, forming four of the six Force K-6 transport battalions. 

There were also a number of Cypriot muleteers present. Three units were evacuated successfully, while one was captured.

A limited number of French Senegalese soldiers and Moroccans were also stationed at Dunkirk.

Trucks lined up to create a makeshift pier at Dunkirk. 

Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Troops evacuated from Dunkirk
27 May – 4 June 1940

Dunkirk (

Men of the British Expeditionary Force arriving at a British port on June 6, 1940 after their escape from the German sweep through Flanders. One soldier assists a wounded comrade who walks with the aid of a stick.

Royston Leonard / Mediadrumworld


10th May 1940 - Germany launches an invasion of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg.

24th May 1940 - Hitler issues the 'Halt Order'

26th May 1940 - British and French forces retreat to the northern French port of Dunkirk.

27th May 1940 - Operation Dynamo is ordered by the British government to evacuate British and French troops from Dunkirk.

28th May 1940 - The first day of the evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo, begins. The Royal Navy begins to evacuate troops from Dunkirk, using both military and civilian vessels.

29th May 1940 - The evacuation continues, with the RAF providing air cover to protect the ships from German air attacks.

Troops of the British Expeditionary Force marching through the ruined port of Dunkirk in May 1940.

Operation Dynamo: Things you need to know | English Heritage (

Popperfoto/Getty Images

30th May 1940 - German forces reach the outskirts of Dunkirk, and the evacuation is temporarily halted due to heavy German artillery fire.

31st May 1940 - The evacuation resumes after a brief pause, and over 68,000 soldiers are evacuated on this day alone.

1st June 1940 - The evacuation continues, with the RAF conducting massive air raids against German positions to protect the evacuation fleet.

2nd June 1940 - The final day of the evacuation. Despite heavy German attacks, the evacuation is largely successful, with over 338,000 British and French troops safely evacuated from Dunkirk.

4th June 1940 - Winston Churchill delivers a famous speech in the House of Commons, praising the bravery of the British troops and the success of Operation Dynamo.

The aftermath of the evacuation. Dead British soldiers and abandoned equipment.

Imperial War Museum

The French sacrifice

The French army played a vital role in the evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, though their contribution is often overshadowed by the heroics of the British soldiers.

...Many of their troops were exhausted...


By the time the evacuation began, the French army had already suffered heavy losses in their efforts to defend Dunkirk. Many of their troops were exhausted, wounded, or demoralized by the relentless German attacks.

Despite these challenges, the French soldiers worked alongside their British allies to hold back the enemy and protect the evacuation routes. They manned the defensive positions around the perimeter and fought bravely in the face of overwhelming odds.

French troops and sailors on the deck of a destroyer during the evacuation from France, June 1940.

Imperial War Museum

The body of a French soldier photographed by a German officer on the beach at Dunkirk, June 1940.

Imperial War Museum

The French navy also played a critical role in the evacuation, providing a number of vessels that were used to ferry troops from the beaches to larger ships waiting offshore. These vessels were often under heavy fire from German artillery and air attacks, but the French sailors showed incredible bravery in carrying out their mission.

However, the French army's efforts during Operation Dynamo were hampered by a number of factors. The most significant of these was the breakdown in communication between the British and French commanders.

There were significant disagreements over tactics and strategy, and the lack of coordination between the two armies made it difficult to mount an effective defence.

...the French army's contribution to Operation Dynamo cannot be overstated...

Message from Vice-Admiral Dover to Flag Officer Dover Straits and S.N.O. Dunkirk, regarding the evacuation of French troops on an equal basis with the British, 31 May 1940.

Miracles and Myths: The Dunkirk Evacuation – Part 3: Were the French abandoned at Dunkirk? - The National Archives blog

There were also tensions between the British and French troops on the ground, fueled in part by cultural differences and language barriers. Some French soldiers felt that they were being treated as second-class citizens by their British counterparts, and this resentment sometimes led to friction and misunderstandings.

Despite these challenges, the French army's contribution to Operation Dynamo cannot be overstated. They fought bravely alongside their British allies, sacrificing their lives to protect the evacuation and ensure the safety of their comrades.

Many of these soldiers, who had already suffered so much in the defence of Dunkirk, were captured by the Germans after the evacuation and spent the remainder of the war in captivity.

French prisoners of war captured after Operation Dynamo. 

The Battle of France » Dunkirk 1940 - The Before, The Reality, The Aftermath

The Halt order

The evacuation could not have been achieved but for the air cover provided by fighter aircraft from the English coast, the indomitable efforts of the seacraft, and the good discipline of the troops.

It was Adolf Hitler, however, who did most to make their escape possible. German panzer groups had reached and crossed the canal defence line close to Dunkirk as early as the 22rd of May, when the bulk of the BEF was still far distant from the port, but they were stopped by The Halt Order on the 24th May and actually pulled back to the canal line just as German Panzer commander Heinz Guderian was expecting to drive his forces into Dunkirk.

With the hindsight of history, it appears to be a strange and bewildering decision, given the successes the Germans had  achieved up to that point; their enemies vanquished and retreating before them, with no real sense that they were capable of halting the German war machine. And the BEF had never looked so vulnerable as they now found themselves being edged back to the coast with no obvious escape route to hand.

Certainly many German commanders felt it a mistake, particularly when discussing it after the event (although how vocal they were in their protests at the time is sometimes unclear. Hitler was not known for being particularly tolerant of dissent.)

Troops being evacuated on a boat, The expression on the cental soldier aptly reflecting the experience of many of the evacuated soldiers. The 'Halt Order' contributed to many more of the BEF being evacuated then previously expected.

Royston Leonard/mediadrumworld

That “miraculous” intervention, which brought salvation to the British, was prompted by several factors.

German Generals Kleist and Günther von Kluge contributed to it by expressing anxiety about the British tank counterattack at Arras and by overestimating its scale.

Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt contributed by impressing on Hitler the need to conserve the armoured divisions for the next stage of the offensive.

Adolf Hitler: His decision to issue the 'Halt Order' would have a massive impact on the outcome of Operation Dynamo.

Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images

Why did Hitler wear that strange moustache? | Life and style | The Guardian

Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring contributed by insisting that his air forces could deliver the coup de grace at Dunkirk and prevent any escape by sea. Hitler himself was greatly influenced by his memories of marshy Flanders in the First World War and thus became needlessly fearful of his tanks becoming bogged if they drove any farther north.

Some of his generals who talked with him, however, felt that his halt order was also the result of a belief that Great Britain would be more willing to make peace if its pride was not wounded by seeing its army surrender.

A German panzer in action - had Hitler unleashed the full strength of his Panzer forces on the BEF at Dunkirk, it is likely the evacuation would have either failed, or at least only been able to evacuate a much smaller amount of troops.

Dunkirk 1940: Hitler’s Halt Order – James Holland's Griffon Merlin

Three days passed before Walther von Brauchitsch, the German army’s commander in chief, persuaded Hitler to withdraw his veto and to allow the armoured forces to advance.

They now met stronger opposition, however, and almost immediately Hitler stopped them again, ordering them to move south in advance of attack on the Somme-Aisne line.

Reichenau’s army followed, leaving Gen. Georg von Küchler’s Eighteenth Army to pacify the north, where more than 1,000,000 prisoners had been taken in the three weeks’ campaign, at a cost of 60,000 German casualties.


With Dunkirk, the disastrous defence 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.

Indian soldiers enlisted as part of Royal Expeditionary Forces were among the men rescued from Dunkirk. Several Indians—the exact number is not known—fought alongside British, French and Belgian forces in the Second World War. & Fox Photos/Getty Images

There was a significant loss of equipment on the beaches. Eight to ten divisions' worth of materiel from the British Army was left behind: 

  • Huge quantities of ammunition,
  • 880 field guns,
  • 310 heavy calibre weapons,
  • 500 anti-aircraft guns,
  • 850 anti-tank guns,
  • 11,000 machine guns,
  • approximately 700 tanks,
  • 20,000 motorcycles, 
  • 45,000 automobiles and lorries  

British prisoners captured at Dunkirk and their German captors, 1940.

Getty Images

A flotilla of boats return from Dunkirk.

Royston Leonard/mediadrumworld

...11,000 were killed...

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 (a handful were able to evade capture and eventually made their way back to Allied or neutral territory).

Especially notable among the losses was the 51st Highland Division, which had been placed under French command in an effort to prop up France’s flagging defences.

Some 10,000 troops of the division were captured when German troops overran Saint-Valéry-en-Caux on June 12.

Britain was helpless in the face of a seemingly all-conquering foe that stood just a few miles away, across the open water of the English Channel.

British newspapers understandably tried to emphasis the success of the evacuation.

John Frost Newspaper Archive & British Library Newspaper Archive

Coming home

Returning home after a traumatic event is never easy, and for many of the troops who had been evacuated, the transition from the beaches of Dunkirk to their homes in the UK was a challenging experience.

The successful evacuation of over 330,000 soldiers was a significant achievement, but the experience for British troops on returning home after Operation Dynamo was a challenging one.

Evacuated soldiers enjoying a cigarette break on their way home by train. A large number of trains were made available to transport the thousands of troops back to their bases.


...I had seen so much horror...

Many soldiers returned home to a warm reception from the public, as they were hailed as heroes for their service in Dunkirk. However, despite the positive response from the public, many soldiers found it challenging to adjust to civilian life.

One soldier, Jack Birkett, recalled his return home, stating, "When we came back, we were given leave, but I found it difficult to adjust to being home. I had seen so much horror, and it was hard to forget it." 

Many soldiers had experienced traumatic events and faced constant danger during the evacuation. Therefore, returning home to normal life was challenging for them.

Children rush up to a train carrying British soldiers back from Dunkirk.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Moreover, the soldiers returning home often found it difficult to communicate the horrors they had witnessed to their loved ones, who had not experienced the same trauma.

This lack of understanding led to many soldiers feeling isolated and struggling to come to terms with their experiences.

Birkett explained, "It was tough to explain what we had gone through to our families. They couldn't understand how close we were to losing our lives."

This lack of understanding extended to the authorities too, with little recognition or support for the soldiers' mental and physical wellbeing.

The lucky ones: Enjoying a well earned pint after being evacuated back to Britain.

Laird Matt Designs

A member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) serves tea and sandwiches to evacuated troops aboard a train at Addison Road station, London, 31 May 1940. One of the soldiers is wearing a captured German helmet.

Imperial War Museum

Many soldiers also faced confusion and uncertainty about their future upon returning home. Some had been separated from their units during the evacuation, and there was a lack of communication regarding their future assignments.

This uncertainty was difficult for soldiers who had already faced immense danger and trauma. As one soldier recalled, "When we got back, there was a lot of confusion. Nobody knew what was going on or what we would be doing next."

In addition to the challenges, there were also moments of joy and relief for the soldiers returning home. Many were reunited with their families and loved ones after weeks of separation, and for some, the experience of surviving Dunkirk had given them a renewed sense of purpose and determination.

One soldier, Ken Sturdy, spoke of his sense of pride and duty, stating, "I felt like I had a job to do, and I was proud to have been part of it. We were just ordinary men who had done something extraordinary."

Ecstatic troops after being safely evacuated back to the UK.

In conclusion, the experience for British troops on returning home after Operation Dynamo was a mixed one. While the successful evacuation of over 330,000 soldiers was a significant achievement, the transition back to civilian life was far from straightforward.

Many soldiers struggled with the lack of understanding and support from those on the home front, while others faced confusion and uncertainty about their future. However, there were also moments of joy and relief, with soldiers being reunited with their families and loved ones.

The legacy of Operation Dynamo would continue to be felt by those who had been involved for years to come.

Smiling soldiers smoke while others fill up their canteens on board a train in England after being successfully evacuated from Dunkirk.

Royston Leonard / Mediadrumworld

Fight them on the beaches.....

Churchill's "fight them on the beaches" speech is one of the most famous speeches of World War II, delivered by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on June 4, 1940. The speech was made in response to the evacuation of British and Allied forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, during the early stages of the war.

Churchill's speech was made on June 4, shortly after the evacuation had ended. The speech was delivered to the House of Commons, and it was broadcast on the radio to the British public. The speech was a rallying cry for the country, urging them to continue fighting against the German forces.

Churchills oratory skills were significant and virtually a weapon in their own right. His ability to capture the mood of the public and inspire hope, determination and confidence in the masses was second to none. This is reflected in his 'fight them on the beaches' speech - one of the most famous in history.

Churchill : First Speech as Prime Minister -

...we shall never surrender...

In the speech, Churchill acknowledged the defeat at Dunkirk but emphasized that the war was far from over. He spoke of the need for perseverance, stating, "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."

The speech was well-received by the British public, who saw it as a sign of hope and determination in the face of adversity. It has since become one of Churchill's most famous speeches and is often cited as an example of his powerful oratory skills..

The speech was a call to arms, urging the British people to continue fighting against the German forces and to never give up in the face of adversity. It remains a powerful reminder of the resilience and determination of the British people during a time of great hardship and uncertainty.

How important was the success of Operation Dynamo?

While the outcome of Operation Dynamo was both a relief to the government and a boost to popular morale, what was the true significance of the operation? Some historians argue that its impact was exaggerated and that Britain would have continued fighting regardless. This is plausible; the RAF would have been equally prepared to fight the Battle of Britain, and the Royal Navy would have been equally well placed to repel any German invasion attempt.

But, in the summer of 1940, to many both at home and watching from overseas, Britain's situation was dire - it looked to be facing utter defeat.

Following the the completion of Operation Dynamo, France, Britain's main ally, continued to fight on when Hitler launched Case Red but soon collapsed. Hitler now controlled most of Europe.

Germany was also effectively allied with the powerful Soviet Union, Italy had now joined their side in the war, and US involvement was still a long way off. Worse, Germany controlled the coastlines of France and Norway, putting it in a much better position to wage naval warfare. Britain's survival was truly in jeopardy.

A member of the German Wehrmacht looks through a pair of binoculars on French and British prisoners of war in the harbour of Dunkirk on the Western Front in France in June 1940.

Sanna Dullaway/TIME

If Britain had lost a much higher amount of its troops, losing the bulk of its trained army and the foundation for future expansion. Certainly, this could certainly have occurred had Hitler not issued his order to halt his ground forces. 

This would have dealt another severe blow to Great Britain's ability - and, more importantly, willingness - to face the difficult years ahead. At best, successful campaigns in North Africa and the Mediterranean would have been far more difficult to fight, allowing Germany to launch Operation Barbarossa and invade the Soviet Union earlier and with greater success.

Material assistance from the United States would have been delayed, if delivered at all.

German forces arrive in Dunkirk. The sea front at Dunkirk photographed immediately after the completion of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force earlier in the day. The crew of a light anti-tank gun of the German mobile assault unit Motorensturm 13 stand guard on the seafront. The gun is covered with a camouflaged cloth. Debris left by the British evacuation debris is visible in the background.

Imperial War Museum

We must also remember that, while Churchill was adamant about fighting on, his position was far from secure.

It's possible that if the evacuation at Dunkirk had gone wrong, his administration would have been deposed and replaced by a government eager to strike the best possible deal.

As a result, the success of Operation Dynamo must be regarded as one of the war's pivotal moments.

Further reading

Further viewing

Christopher Nolan's 2017 film looks and sounds beautiful - just ignore the inaccuracies and lack of actual soldiers., planes and ships. For once, a film that was crying out for some CGI.

The O.G. Dunkirk film from 1958 looks a little dated now bit tells the story well and features a fine selection of stiff-upper lipped thespians doing justice to their roles.

The 2004 BBC mini series does an excellent job of telling the story of the lead up to Operation Dynamo and the evacuation itself. Features a young Benedict Cumberbatch sporting a natty tache.




Royston Leonard/mediadrumworld

Sanna Dullaway/TIME

Tim Benbow

Forgotten Voices: Dunkirk 
by Joshua Levine (Ebury, 2011);

Full Cycle by WS Chalmers (Hodder & Stoughton, 1959);

Pillar of Fire by Ronald Atkin (Birlinn, 1990);

Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore (Penguin 2007)

Imperial War Museum

The History Department of the United States Military Academy

John Frost Newspaper Archive

British Library Newspaper Archive

Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

History Hit Podcast with James Holland

Doug Dildy © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing

Imperial War Museum

© Peter Arnold Collection,crew%20asks%20its%20skipper%2C%20played%20by%20Mark%20Rylance.

Imperial War Museum


Benjamin Thomas,Wormhout%2C%20Bergues%2C%20Ypres%2C%20Noordschote%2C%20Dixmuide%2C%20Veurne%20and%20Nieuwpoort.

Getty Images

Roger Viollet Collection/Getty Images,-%20a%20prayer%20repeated%20in%20thousands%20of%20churches.


Bundesarchiv (Bild 1011-382-0248-33A)

The History Press/ Mediadrumworld

Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

Julian Thompson, “Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory” (2017)

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, “Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man”. (2015)

Sean Longden, “Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind.” (2009)

James Holland, “The War in the West: A New History, Volume 1: Germany Ascendant 1939-1941” (2016)

Max Hastings, “All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-45.” (2012)

Anthony Beevor, “The Second World War.” (2012)

Andrew Roberts, "The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War" (2010)

Richard Holmes, "The World at War: The Land War" (2011)

Alan Brooke, "War Diaries 1939-1945: Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke" (2002)