Of course, when it happened I wasn’t born yet, and the U.S. had not yet entered the war in Europe, but this is truly a story worth knowing.
It is a story of the pluck and determination of the British people. In this week late in May, 1940, The British grabbed an opportunity in defeat, surviving to continue the fight against Hitler. Were it not for the evacuation of more than 300,000 troops over a period of a week, the British would almost certainly have lost the war.
The British Expeditionary Forces were trapped at Dunkirk in France by the German army. Wikipedia’s summary of the circumstances:
The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, France, between 27 May and 4 June 1940, during World War II. The operation was decided upon when large numbers of Belgian, British, and French troops were cut off and surrounded by the German army during the Battle of France. In a speech to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called the events in France “a colossal military disaster”, saying “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech on 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.
Beginning in the third week of May, 1940, Lord Gort raised the possibility of an evacuation from Dunkirk, Calais and Boulogne. Admiral Bertram Ramsey was put in command of the possible evacuation operations, under the code name “Dynamo”.
A big problem was that, although there were destroyers and passenger ferries to move the troops, the shallow waters at Dunkirk meant that a number of small craft were needed to move the troops from the beaches to the larger craft. Because Dunkirk was under heavy bombardment by the German army, the harbor could not be used.
To solve the problem, 700 “little ships” were enlisted to help with the effort. A wide variety of small vessels from all over the south of England were pressed into service to aid in the Dunkirk evacuation. Here is a partial account by Wikipedia, Little Ships of Dunkirk:
On 27 May, the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping telephoned boat builders around the coast, asking them to collect all boats with “shallow draft” that could navigate the shallow waters. Attention was directed to the pleasure boats, private yachts and launches moored on the River Thames and along the south and east coasts. Some of them were taken with the owners’ permission – and with the owners insisting they would sail them – while others were requisitioned by the government with no time for the owners to be contacted. The boats were checked to make sure they were seaworthy, fueled, and taken to Ramsgate to set sail for Dunkirk. They were manned by Naval Officers, Ratings and experienced volunteers. Very few owners manned their own vessels, apart from fishermen and one or two others.
When they reached France, some of the boats acted as shuttles between the beaches and the destroyers, ferrying soldiers to the warships. Others carried hundreds of soldiers each back to Ramsgate, protected by the Royal Air Force from the attacks of the Luftwaffe.
The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers (dead, wounded, missing, or captured) from 10 May until the surrender of France on 22 June. 3,500 British were killed and 13,053 wounded. All the heavy equipment had to be abandoned. Left behind in France were 2,472 guns, 20,000 motorcycles, and almost 65,000 other vehicles; also abandoned were 416,000 short tons (377,000 t) of stores, more than 75,000 short tons (68,000 t) of ammunition and 162,000 short tons (147,000 t) of fuel. Almost all of the 445 British tanks that had been sent to France with the BEF were abandoned.
Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with nine other major vessels. In addition, 19 destroyers were damaged. Over 200 British and Allied sea craft were sunk, with a similar number damaged. The Royal Navy’s most significant losses in the operation were six destroyers.
On June 4, 1940, Winston Churchill gave one of his most famous speeches before Parliament:
It ends with this stirring passage:
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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the new world, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.