The Battle of Dunkirk during the Second World War was the defence and evacuation of British and Allied forces in Europe from May 26 to June 4, 1940. A large force of soldiers were cut off in northern France by a German armored advance to the English Channel coast at Calais. 338,226 Allied troops caught in the pocket were successfully evacuated by sea to England.
After the Phoney War, the Battle of France began in earnest on 10 May 1940. To the east, the German Army Group B invaded and subdued the Netherlands and advanced westwards through Belgium. On the 14 May, Army Group A burst through the Ardennes region and advanced rapidly to the west toward Sedan, then turned northwards to the English Channel, in what Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein called the "sickle cut" (known as the Manstein Plan).
A series of Allied counter-attacks, including the Battle of Arras, failed to sever the German spearhead, which reached the coast on 20 May, separating the British Expeditionary Force near Armentières, the French First Army, and the Belgian army further to the north from the majority of French troops south of the German penetration. After reaching the Channel, the Germans swung north along the coast, threatening to capture the ports and trap the British and French forces before they could evacuate to Britain.
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The Battle Edit
On 24 May, Hitler had visited General Gerd von Rundstedt's headquarters at Charleville. Von Rundstedt advised him that the infantry should attack the British forces at Arras, where they had shown themselves capable of significant action, while Kleist's armor held the line west and south of Dunkirk in order to pounce on the Allied Forces retreating before Army Group B. This order allowed the Germans to consolidate their gains and prepare for a southward advance against the remaining French forces. In addition, the terrain around Dunkirk was considered unsuitable for armor, so the destruction of the Allied forces was initially assigned to the Luftwaffe and the German infantry organized in 1 Army Group B. The true reason for Hitler's decision to halt the German armor is a matter of debate. The most popular theory is that Von Rundstedt and Hitler agreed to conserve the armor for Fall Rot, an operation to the south. Another theory was that Hitler was still trying to establish diplomatic peace with Britain before Operation Barbarossa so the Germans could have a potential allied force against the Russians.
On 25 May 1940, General Lord Gort, the commander of the BEF, decided to evacuate British forces. From 25 May to 28 May, British troops retreated about 30 miles northwest into a pocket along the France-Belgian border extending from Dunkirk on the coast to the Belgian town of Poperinge. The Belgians surrendered on 28 May, followed the next day by elements of the French 1st Army trapped outside the Dunkirk Pocket.
Starting on 27 May, the evacuation of Dunkirk began. The German Panzer Divisions were ordered to resume their advance on the same day, but improved defenses halted their initial offensive, although the remaining Allied forces were compressed into a five km wide coastal strip from De Panne through Bray-Dunes to Dunkirk by 31 May.
A total of five nations took part in the evacuation from Dunkirk — Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Poland.
The defence of the perimeter led to the loss or capture of a number of British Army units such as the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment who were involved in the Le Paradis massacre on 26 May. More than 35,000 French soldiers were made prisoners. Nevertheless, in the nine days from 27 May to 4 June, 338,226 men left France, including 139,997 French and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch troops.
Number of men rescued (in chronological order):
- 27 May (7669 men)
- 28 May (17,804 men)
- 29 May (47,310 men)
- 30–31 May (120,927 men)
- 1 June (64,229 men)
- 2–4 June (up to 54,000 men )
In accordance with military principle where priority is given to men over arms, the Allies left behind 2,000 guns, 60,000 trucks, 76,000 tons of ammunition and 600,000 tons of fuel supplies.
- 10,252 German soldiers lost
- 42,000 wounded
- 8,467 missing
- 1,212,000 Dutch, Belgian, French and British prisoners taken
- 30,000 British dead or wounded
- 34,000 British captured
- 338,226 men saved in the evacuation
The Germans gained:
- 1,200 field guns
- 1,250 anti-aircraft guns
- 11,000 machine guns
- 25,000 vehicles
The successful evacuation of 338,226 Allied troops from Dunkirk ended the first phase in the Battle of France. Many wondered why the Germans had let the trapped Allied troops escape. One point of view considers the "miracle at Dunkirk" as a peace overture to England. "The blood of every single Englishman is too valuable to shed," Hitler said: "Our two people belong together racially and traditionally. That is and always has been my aim, even if our generals can't grasp it."  Other explanations also exist.
Although the events at Dunkirk provided a great boost to British morale, they also left the remaining French to stand alone against a renewed German assault southwards. The British 51st (Highland) division was left behind by the British to cover the allied retreat. The division was made up of the Black Watch, Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Gordon Highlanders, Seaforth Highlanders and Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. Many were captured or killed. German troops entered Paris on 14 June and accepted the surrender of France on 22 June.
A marble memorial was established at Dunkirk (Dunkerque), it translates in English as: "To the glorious memory of the pilots, mariners, and soldiers of the French and Allied armies who sacrificed themselves in the Battle of Dunkirk May June 1940"
The loss of so much materiel on the beaches meant that the British Army needed months to re-supply properly and some planned introductions of new equipment were halted while industrial resources concentrated on making good the losses. Troops falling back from Dunkirk were told by their officers to burn or otherwise disable their trucks (so as not to let them benefit the advancing German forces). The shortage of army vehicles after Dunkirk was so severe that the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) was reduced to retrieving and refurbishing numbers of obsolete bus and coach models from UK scrapyards to press them into use as troop transports. Some of these antique workhorses were still in use as late as the North African campaign some two years later.
The Dunkirk Spirit Edit
- Main article: Dunkirk evacuation
The successful evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, and particularly the role of the "Dunkirk little ships" was subsequently exploited very effectively in British propaganda. Many of the "little ships" were private vessels such as fishing boats and pleasure cruisers, but commercial vessels such as ferries also contributed to the force, including a number from as far away as the Isle of Man and Glasgow. These smaller vessels, guided by Naval craft across the channel from the Thames Estuary and from Dover, assisted in the official evacuation. Being able to reach much closer in the beachfront shallows than larger craft, the "little ships" acted as shuttles to and from the larger craft, lifting troops who were queuing in the water, many standing shoulder-deep in water for hours in the wait for a craft. For many decades after the war, the term "Dunkirk Spirit" stood for a popular belief in the solidarity of the British people in times of adversity.
In popular culture Edit
In the novel Winter in Madrid, the protagonist remembers and talks about the evacuation.
The novel Dunkirk Crescendo by Bodie Thoene features the miracle of Dunkirk starting in the beginning of May before Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister, and ending on June 4 when the evacuation ends.
See also Edit
- Military history of the United Kingdom during World War II
- Battle of France
- Dunkirk evacuation
- Little ships of Dunkirk
- Harold Marcus Ervine-Andrews
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