“While Herman enjoyed the intoxicating scene at the Zebra Room, the news from Europe continued to spiral downward. . . . Headlines blared the harsh news of the  massacre at Dunkirk . . .”


Dunkirk marked the dismal failure of the Battle of France in May 1940. In the United States, the word Dunkirk represents the bravery and spirit of British forces up against horrible odds. In Britain, it represents much more, including the loss of many fathers, sons, and brothers.

In spring 1940, the armed forces of Britain and France stood together in a futile effort to stem the Blitzkrieg of Nazi forces as they overran Holland, Belgium, Luxemburg, and, finally, France.

After nearly eight months of what came to be called the “Phoney War” (no battles were fought), German forces burst into the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg on May 11. They seemed unstoppable. The next day, they entered France by going around the Maginot Line, which the French considered impregnable. Three days later, the Dutch surrendered.

By May 22, just 10 days after the Nazis entered Holland, powerful panzer divisions held thousands of Allied soldiers trapped on the northern coastline of Belgium and France. Surrounded by marshes that could slow down the progress of German armored divisions, the Dunkirk’s port had good facilities and nearby, the longest sand beach in Europe, where groups could assemble. It offered possible success for an evacuation attempt.

With their backs to the sea and the Luftwaffe and German artillery raining heavy fire on them, almost 500,000 British, French, and Belgium troops held the beaches. Then, miraculously, the German forces besieging Dunkirk eased off on the bombardment and halted their forward progress. It is said this halt was ordered directly by Hitler, but the reasons and thought process involved remain unclear. What is clear is that the slowdown of the German advance allowed the Allied forces time to build defensive earthworks and gave the British High Command a few days to organize the withdrawal.

The evacuation was given the code name Operation Dynamo. Getting as many soldiers as possible off the beaches and safely returned to England was essential to the defense of Britain, which expected to be the next recipient of a frontal Blitzkrieg-style assault by the Nazi war machine. 28,000 men had already been picked up from Dunkirk when Operation Dynamo began in earnest on May 27. On this first full day of evacuation, one navy cruiser, 8 destroyers, and 26 other navy craft were used to pick up 7,669 men from the embattled beaches. The following day and for the next 8 days, the operation continued with the number of boats and ships involved constantly growing, until a total of more than 338,000 men, both British and French, where saved.

Because the relatively shallow harbor prevented larger naval and merchant vessels from coming close enough to pick up survivors, small boats were urgently needed to transport the men out to the ships. The British Admiralty put out a call for help. An amazing variety of small but seaworthy craft—everything from fishing boats to paddle steamers, from yachts to lifeboats—was either donated or confiscated and participated in the rescue. On the second day of the evacuation, 19 British and French Navy ships were sunk by the Luftwaffe, and the British Admiralty was forced to withdraw their best destroyers from the effort in order to protect them for the future defense of the island nation. Between May 27 and June 4, over 900 vessels participated in Operation Dynamo, and of those, close to 250 were sunk.

For the 9 days of the evacuation, men waited in long lines to be picked up and carried to safety. When the weather was good, the Luftwaffe continued to bomb and strafe the beach and almost completely obliterated the port and town of Dunkirk. With the docks destroyed, soldiers waiting to be evacuated lined up on two stone and concrete breakwaters, as well as on the sandy beach. From the breakwaters, the soldiers could usually climb directly into smaller boats that came to rescue them and ferry them to the large ships anchored farther out in the harbor. On the beaches, the men wound out into the sea in long lines where they stood shoulder deep ready to clamber into craft that could carry them to safety. Some creative soldiers improvised jetties by driving abandoned trucks onto the beach at low tide and weighing them down with sandbags so they would not shift when the water came up. Overhead, the Luftwaffe planes roared while RAF fighters wove in and out, trying to shoot them down and lessen the danger on the beach.

Though most of the evacuation efforts concentrated on Dunkirk, approximately 220,000 Allied troops were also picked up safely from other French port cities such as Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, and Brest. 2,500 guns, almost 64,000 vehicles and 20,500 motorcycles, as well as tons of ammunition and supplies, were abandoned on the beaches and later repurposed by the Germans. Though 198,000 British and 140,000 French troops were saved, a French rearguard of 40,000 troops was captured by the Germans as the operation came to a close on June 4. For every seven soldiers rescued from Dunkirk, one man was left behind to be a prisoner of war and wait in a German camp for the eventual victory that would not come for another five years.

The survivors of Dunkirk who streamed into England became heroes to the British. They were “The Spirit of Dunkirk” — the embodiment of Britain’s endurance and triumph in the face of adversity. According to a young eyewitness, Dobbie Dobinson, who visited southern England just after Dunkirk, “the trains were packed with the wounded servicemen returning after their horrendous experiences during the retreat . . . young men with vacant stares, shell-shocked, and suffering loss of memory.”*1  In 1940, what we know today as post-traumatic stress-syndrome was called shell-shock. It is nothing new, and it continues to devastate the young men who we put in harm’s way.

*1excerpt from Article ID: A1127549, WW2 Peoples War, An Archive of World War Two memories written by the public, gathered by the BBC.

For personal stories of Dunkirk go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/categories/c54696/

WW2 People’s War – an archive of World War Two memories written by the public, gathered by the BBC http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/ 


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