The Allies cornered

After the "Phoney war" (1939-1940), on May 10th 1940, 75 German divisions attacked the Low Countries in their "Case Yellow" of which the main purpose was to invade western Europe. However, the building of the Maginot Line forced German troops to invade France through Belgium. The town of Dunkerque is near the Belgian border where the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) and the French were fighting the German Army Group B. They were, however, unaware of the German Army Group A (including Gudarian’s panzer (German tank) division) which was rounding behind them in order to take the towns of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkerque. By May 25th, Gudarian’s panzers had taken Calais and Boulogne and were advancing toward the Allies. Allied preparations had started May 19th, as the Admiralty had expected an emergency evacuation eversince Field Marshall John Gort (commanding the BEF) reported Allied position. This report urged them to organize an evacuation, and Gort’s Division began falling back to Dunkerque. Vice-Admiral Ramsay was put in charge of rounding up ships including civilian vessels. The evacuation mission was called "Operation Dynamo". Meanwhile, Rundstedt (leading German Army Groups A and B) called the order for the panzer division to stop advancing fifteen miles short of Dunkerque (probably because the terrain was marshy and unfit for tanks which Hitler hoped to use for the "Great push toward Paris"). If this order had not been given, the BEF would not have been given a chance to escape.

Operation Dynamo

The evacuation order was issued at 7:57 pm on May 26th . On the same day, the panzer division was ordered to keep moving but by the time the panzers left, their opportunity was missed as a defense perimeter had been set by the English and French armies retreating from Arras and Lille. On the beaches of Dunkerque, hundreds of thousands of men were lined up on the quays and the beach. The luftwaffe (German air force) had arrived to attempt to stop the evacuation and were confronted by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Operation Dynamo was carried out by 222 naval units and 665 civilian crafts. During the evacuation, the town of Dunkerque was bombed by German artillery and the luftwaffe. An oil tank was hit and burst into flames creating gigantic black clouds. This presented difficulties for the luftwaffe who were flying blindly and unable to aim for proper targets. Despite the smoke, the luftwaffe still managed to destroy the quays. By May 31st, 132 000 soldiers were evacuated. By the end of Operation Dynamo (June 4th, 1940), 75% of the BEF were saved from captivity or death.

The outcome

Over 340 000 troops remained after Dunkerque and the British people saw Dunkerque as a victory. Germany was in possession of all three ports of Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkerque which was a significant step toward the fall of France. Furthermore, the BEF suffered 68 000 casualties, surrendered most of its equipement including 475 tanks, 90 000 rifles and 2500 pieces of artillery. Furthermore, 250 of the approximate 1000 vessels employed were sunk. The British and French troops disembarked in the south east ports of England near Dover and were restationed later.Many French soldiers were evacuated to Britain, they returned to France afterwards to the ports of Normandy and Brittany. The BEF was not the only division to suffer losses, however; the RAF and the British Navy lost many crafts and men. Moreover, the English Channel was the only barrier remaining between Britain and a German invasion.

It is evident that many factors came into play to ensure the successful evacuation of the BEF from the shores of Dunkerque. We could argue that the evacuation was saved by the readiness and quick thinking of Field Marshall John Gort, or by Hitler’s mistake of stopping the panzer division. However, it was a combination of military and political decision, as well as geographical advantage and, frankly, luck. The evacuation could not have been successful if all of these factors had not been present. In terms of military decisions, Gort’s initiative at declaring their position and retreating to the shore saved the evacuation as it gave the Allied forces the advantage of time allowing them to built a defense perimeter. It also permitted the Admiralty to start planning an evacuation immediately and to give Admiral Ramsay the task of setting operation Dynamo into play. However, had Hitler not given the order to stop Guderian’s panzer division due to marshy ground unfit for tanks (geographical advantage to the Allies), even with Gort’s resourcefulness, the Allies would barely have reached the beaches. They would not have had time to set up defenses and be loaded onto ships. Additionally, even if the evacuation had been planned out for several days before it was carried out, it is highly unlikely that it would have been quite as successful had the Admiralty not set forth Operation Dynamo which called civilian vessels to Dunkerque to evacuate as many soldiers as possible. The Operation, in turn, would not have been successful had it not been for the "Spirit of Dunkerque" which inspired British men and women to do as much as possible to help their soldiers and which ultimately led to the involvement of 665 civilian vessels over approximately 250 naval vessels. Also, Hitler’s decision to send in the luftwaffe, ironically, increased the possibility of a successful evacuation through the bombing of the town of Dunkerque. It created the heavy smoke from the explosion of the oil tank and made it difficult for the luftwaffe to see proper targets. The RAF (Royal Air Force) who was not aiming for targets on the ground then had the advantage as they could aim for their targets in the sky without being blinded by the smoke. The fact that all of these factors came into play at the right time suggests a great deal of luck. Therefore, the miracle at Dunkerque was saved by the combination of all these factors. Had one been missing, the evacuation is likely to have failed.
When the information aquired in this research is considered together, it gives us the opportunity to look at an event such as the miracle at Dunkerque in different perspectives. Unlike most world war events, this event involved not only military heroism but also the dedication of the citizens of England for their country and their people. In this peculiar situation we are reminded of the effort on the home front, without which the Allies would not have had the success they are entitled to today.

Although 340 000 troops remained and the British people saw Dunkerque as a victory, it was far from that. Germany was in possession of primary ports including Dunkerque which eventually led to the fall of France. Furthermore, the BEF suffered 68 000 casualties, surrendered most of its equipement including 475 tanks, 90 000 rifles, 2500 pieces of artillery and 250 of the vessels employed were sunk. However, historians agree that the Miracle at Dunkerque saved the war for the Allies as, if the evacuation had failed, Britain and France would have lost too great a number of soldiers. The "miracle" gave the people strength and lifted their spirits. Seeing that they had beat the odds and been victorious in the evacuation which they had been an essential part of, the civilians of Britain saw a new hope for their own military. Furthermore, the rise of nationalism was inevitable for the Axis and the Allies. Therefore, although Dunkerque was not as much a military victory, it certainly had its advantages. Churchill’s words on the subject were: "Wars are not won by evacuations," but this one just might have been.