Dunkirk Evacuation (Codenamed Operation Dynamo) | World War II

Dunkirk Evacuation (Codenamed Operation Dynamo) | World War II


The Dunkirk evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo and often known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, or simply Dunkirk, was a World War II evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk northern France within May 26 and June 4, 1940. During the six-week Battle of France, considerable numbers of Belgian, British, and French forces were cut off and besieged by German troops, prompting the operation. Into the House of Commons, Winston Churchill described it as a "colossal military calamity," adding that "the whole core, root, and brain of the British Army" had been stranded at Dunkirk appeared to be going to perish or be taken. He praised their rescue as a "miracle of deliverance" in his June 4 address, "We Shall Fight on the Beaches." In September 1939, after Nazi Germany attacked Poland, France and the British Empire declared war on Germany and established an economic blockade. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was dispatched to France to assist in defence of the country. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, following the phoney war from October 1939 to April 1940. Three panzer corps launched an assault through the Ardennes, driving northwest to the English Channel. By May 21, German forces had trapped the BEF, the Belgian troops that remained, and three French field armies along France's northern coast. General Viscount Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, considered evacuation across the Channel as the best line of action and began organizing a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the nearest decent port. Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt, a commander of Army Group A, issued a halt order late on May 23. The following day, Adolf Hitler accepted the order and had the German High Command send confirmation to the front. The Luftwaffe attacked the stranded BEF, French, and Belgian soldiers until Adolf Hitler revoked the order on May 26. It allowed the Allies to build defensive works and pull back vast troops in preparation for the Battle of Dunkirk.

The French First Army's final 40,000 troops in the siege of Lille fought a delaying operation against seven German divisions, including three armoured divisions, from May 28 to May 31. Only 7,669 Allied soldiers were evacuated on the first day, but by the eighth day, a hastily organized fleet of nearly 800 vessels had saved 338,226. Many troops were able to board 39 British Royal Navy destroyers, four Royal Canadian Navy destroyers, at least three French Navy destroyers, and various civilian commerce ships from the harbour's protective mole. Others were forced to wade out from the beaches and wait in waist-deep water for hours. The Little Ships of Dunkirk, a flotilla of hundreds of commercial marine vessels, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts, and lifeboats summoned to service from Britain, carried some of the smaller ships to the larger vessels. During the French struggle, the BEF lost 68,000 soldiers and nearly all its tanks, vehicles, and equipment. "We must be cautious not to attach to this deliverance the qualities of victory," Churchill said in his speech on June 4. Evacuations do not win wars.


After Nazi Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was dispatched to France to assist in the country's defence, landing at Cherbourg, Nantes, and Saint-Nazaire. General John Vereker, 6th Viscount Gort, commanded a force of 10 divisions divided into three corps by May 1940. The BEF was assisted by the Belgian Army and the French First, Seventh, and Ninth Armies. In the 1930s, the Maginot Line was created, a series of fortifications along the French-German border. This line was intended to impede a German invasion over the Franco-German edge by funnelling an attack into Belgium, where the French Army's strongest divisions could meet it. As a result, any future conflict would occur outside of French territory, averting a recurrence of World War I. The thickly wooded Ardennes region, which French General Philippe Pétain declared "impenetrable" as long as "special preparations" were taken, covered the territory immediately to the north of the Maginot Line. He reasoned that any enemy force emerging from the woods would be subject to a pincer attack and decimated. Maurice Gamelin, the French commander-in-chief, considered the area posed a minor threat, observing that it "never favoured massive operations." As a result, it only weakly guarded the region. The German invasion of France was initially planned as an encirclement attack through the Netherlands and Belgium, circumventing the Maginot Line.

Erich von Manstein, Chief of Staff of German Army Group A, drew up a proposal and placed it to the OKH (German High Command) through his superior, Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt. According to Manstein's plan, panzer divisions would advance through the Ardennes, establish bridgeheads on the Meuse River, and quickly drive to the English Channel. As a result, the Germans would be able to cut the Allied armies in Belgium off. The Sichelschnitt was the name of this section of the plan later on ("sickle cut"). After meeting with Manstein on February 17, Adolf Hitler authorized a modified version of his projects, now known as the Manstein Plan.

Germany invaded Belgium and the Netherlands on May 10. Army Group B, led by Generaloberst Fedor von Bock, launched an advance into Belgium, while Army Group A's three panzer corps, led by Rundstedt, swung around to the south and headed for the Channel. Beginning on May 10, the BEF moved from the Belgian border to positions along the Dyle River within Belgium, where they faced portions of Army Group B. When the Belgian and French fortifications on their flanks failed to hold, they were instructed to commence a combat withdrawal to the Scheldt River on May 14. Prime Minister Winston Churchill was astounded to discover from Gamelin on a visit to Paris on May 17 that the French had committed all of their troops to the existing engagements and had no strategic reserves. On May 19, Gort met with French General Gaston Billotte, the French First Army commander and overall Allied force organizer. Between the Germans and the sea, the French had no troops, according to Billotte. Gort quickly realized that crossing the Channel was the best option, and he began preparing a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest port with adequate facilities. Dunkirk, surrounded by marshland, has old defences and Europe's longest sand beach, where enormous people could congregate. On May 20, at Churchill's request, the Admiralty began preparing all available small vessels to sail to France. After more engagements and a failed Allied attempt to cut through the German spearhead on May 21 at Arras, the BEF and the remaining Belgian forces and the three French armies were trapped in a region along with the northern French and Belgian coasts.


On May 20, the British began organizing Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF, without alerting the French. Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay oversaw the planning from the naval headquarters beneath Dover Castle, where he briefed Churchill on the progress. At Dover, ships began to amass in preparation for the evacuation. The BEF dispatched Brigadier Gerald Whitfield to Dunkirk on May 20 to start evacuating unneeded soldiers. Due to a scarcity of food and water, he had to send many people through without thoroughly checking their credentials, which he subsequently described as "a somewhat worrisome movement towards Dunkirk by both officers and troops." Even officers who had been told to stay behind to assist with the evacuation boarded the boats. On May 22, Churchill ordered the BEF to attack southward in concert with the French First Army, led by General Georges Blanchard, to re-establish contact with the rest of the French forces. The Weygand Plan was named after General Maxime Weygand, appointed Supreme Commander after Gamelin's dismissal on May 18. On May 25, Gort had to give up any prospect of reaching this goal and withdrew with Blanchard's soldiers behind the Lys Canal, part of a canal system leading to the sea at Gravelines. It had previously opened sluice gates all along the Canal to flood the system and establish a barrier against the German advance (the Canal Line).

Battle of Dunkirk

By May 24, the Germans had seized the port of Boulogne and encircled Calais. The 2nd Panzer Division's engineers, led by Generalmajor Rudolf Veiel, erected five bridges across the Canal Line, with only one British battalion blocking the road to Dunkirk. Rundstedt had ordered the panzer divisions to halt on May 23, at the recommendation of Fourth Army commander Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks and the issue of supply to his front troops. He was also concerned that the marshy land near Dunkirk would be unsuited for tanks, and he wanted to save them for later battles (tank losses in specific units were as high as 30–50%). Hitler was concerned as well, and on May 24, he endorsed the order during a visit to Army Group A headquarters.

To the chagrin of General Franz Halder, who noted in his diary that the Luftwaffe was weather-dependent and aircrews were worn out after two weeks of warfare, Air Marshal Hermann Göring persuaded Hitler to allow the Luftwaffe (supported by Army Group B) to finish out the British. Rundstedt issued a new directive, this time unencrypted. The Royal Air Force's (RAF) Y service intelligence network picked it up at 12:42: "The attack northwest of Arras is to be limited to the available line Lens–Bethune–Aire–St Omer–Gravelines, as ordered by the Fuhrer. There will be no crossing of the Canal." Hitler issued Directive 13 later that day, ordering the Luftwaffe to defeat the stranded Allied forces and prevent their escape.

Hitler ordered the panzer formations to resume their advance at 15:30 on May 26, but most units took more than 16 hours to attack. The delay allowed the Allies to deploy key evacuation defences and prevented the Germans from preventing the Allied withdrawal from Lille. Historians have spent much time debating the halt order. One of the biggest German blunders on the Western Front, according to Guderian, was failing to direct a timely assault on Dunkirk. It was dubbed "one of the great turning points of the war" by Rundstedt and "one of Hitler's most crucial mistakes" by Manstein. After the war, B. H. Liddell Hart interviewed several generals and pieced together a picture of Hitler's strategic thought on the subject. Hitler assumed that Britain's forces would never return to continental Europe after they had left.


26–27 May

The retreat took place on the 26th and 27th of May under chaotic conditions, with abandoned vehicles obstructing the highways and a stream of people fleeing in the opposite direction. It did not first publicize the full scale of the growing calamity at Dunkirk due to wartime censorship and the desire to maintain British morale. On May 26, King George VI attended a special ceremony in Westminster Abbey, marking a national day of prayer. "For our soldiers in grave jeopardy in France," the Archbishop of Canterbury led prayers. Similar prayers were said in synagogues and churches across the UK that day, confirming the public's suspicions about the troops' grave situation. On May 26, just before 19:00, Churchill gave the order to start Dynamo, by which time 28,000 troops had already left. Initial plans intended for the BEF to retrieve 45,000 personnel in two days, after which German troops would be expected to impede any further evacuation. During this time, just 25,000 men fled, including 7,669 on the first day. One cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 additional ships were active on May 27, the first full day of the evacuation. Admiralty officers scoured neighbouring boatyards for a small craft capable of ferrying personnel from the beaches to big ships in the harbour and larger vessels capable of loading from the docks. An emergency cry for assistance was issued, and by May 31, approximately 400 small craft had volunteered and joyfully joined the endeavour.

On the same day, the Luftwaffe bombarded Dunkirk hard, both the town and the docks. It could not put out the subsequent fires since it had cut off the water supply. One thousand citizens were slain, 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 protect the evacuation ships in Dunkirk and the English Channel. On May 27, the Luftwaffe was engaged by 16 RAF squadrons, which claimed 38 kills while losing 14 planes. Many more RAF planes were damaged and were written off as a result. On the German side, the most casualties were suffered by Kampfgeschwader 2 (KG 2) and KG 3. The Germans lost a total of 23 Dornier 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 and 550 fighter sorties protecting them. They destroyed the oil tankers and wrecked the harbour by dropping 15,000 high explosives and 30,000 firebombs. This day, the No. 11 Group of the Royal Air Force flew 22 patrols with 287 aircraft in formations of up to 20 aircraft. Over 3,500 sorties were flown in total to support Operation Dynamo. Throughout the week, the RAF continued to take a devastating toll on German bombers. Because most dogfights took place from the beaches, soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were primarily ignorant of the RAF's efforts to protect them. As a result, many British soldiers were furious with the airmen, accusing them of doing nothing to aid, leading to reports of army troops accosting and insulting RAF personnel once they returned to England.

The Luftwaffe did not assault Dunkirk on the 25th and 26th of May, instead focusing on Allied pockets occupying out at Calais, Lille, and Amiens. On May 26, the BEF surrendered Calais. The surviving 35,000 soldiers of the French First Army, encircled at Lille, battled off seven German divisions, several of them armoured, until May 31, when they were forced to surrender due to a lack of food and ammunition. In acknowledgement of their courage, the Germans bestowed war honours on the defenders of Lille.

May 28 – June 4

On May 28, the Belgian Army surrendered, leaving a considerable gap east of Dunkirk. Commander sent in several British troops to cover that flank. On May 28, the Luftwaffe flew fewer raids over Dunkirk, focusing instead on the Belgian ports of Ostend and Nieuwpoort. The weather conditions over Dunkirk were unsuitable for dive or low-level bombing. The RAF conducted 11 patrols and 321 sorties, claiming 23 aircraft were destroyed and 13 aircraft lost. On May 28, a total of 17,804 men arrived at British ports. The Luftwaffe's Ju 87s took a terrible toll on vessels on May 29, rescuing 47,310 British troops. The British destroyer HMS Grenade was sunk, the French destroyer Mistral was disabled, and her sister ships, each carrying 500 soldiers, were damaged by close calls. Although the British destroyers Jaguar and Verity were severely damaged, they managed to flee the harbour. During the attack, two trawlers were sunk. The passenger liner SS Fenella sank at the pier later with 600 men on board, but the men could escape. The paddle steamer HMS Crested Eagle was hit directly, caught fire, and sank with many people on board. The pirates also sank the two rail-owned ships, the SS Lorina and the SS Normannia. Only two of the five major German attacks were countered by RAF planes; the British lost 16 fighters in nine patrols. Eleven Ju 87s were destroyed or damaged by the Germans.

On May 30, Churchill got word that all British divisions and more than half of the French First Army were now behind the defensive lines. The perimeter by this time went along a series of canals about 7 miles (11 km) from the coast, across marshy terrain unsuitable for tanks. When German air raids rendered the harbour's docks useless, senior navy officer Captain (later Admiral) William Tennant ordered personnel to be evacuated from the beaches. He rerouted the evacuees to two lengthy stone and concrete breakwaters known as the east and west moles, as well as the beaches when this proved too sluggish. Even though the moles were not built to dock ships, they transported most troops rescued from Dunkirk this way. Over the next week, approximately 200,000 men embarked aboard vessels from the east mole (which stretched about a mile out to sea). The east mole's pier master, James Campbell Clouston, organized and managed the flow of men onto the waiting ships. Low clouds kept Luftwaffe action to a bare minimum once more.

It sent nine RAF patrols, but James Campbell Clouston encountered no German formations. The Luftwaffe sunk one carrier and injured 12 others the next day, resulting in 17 casualties; the British claimed 38 fatalities, which is contested. Similar to the Fleet Air Arm, the Royal Air Force lost 28 planes. Several hundred unarmed Indian mule handlers on detachment from the Royal Indian Army Service Corps formed four of Force K-6 transport's six units out of 338,226 soldiers. Muleteers from Cyprus were also there. Three troops were evacuated successfully, while one was captured. A limited number of French Senegalese soldiers and Moroccans were also stationed at Dunkirk.

The next day, another 53,823 men, including the first French soldiers, boarded the ship. On May 31, Lord Gort and his 68,014 soldiers were evacuated, leaving Major-General Harold Alexander in charge of the rearguard. On June 1, another 64,429 Allied men went before the intensifying airstrikes made daytime evacuation impossible. On the night of June 2–3, a 4,000-man British rearguard left. Before the operation was finally called off, they rescued an additional 75,000 French men over the nights of June 2–4. Finally, on June 4, the remainder of the rearguard, 40,000 French troops, surrendered. The evacuation was made possible because of the services of the RAF. Churchill stated in his House of Commons address on June 4, "We shall fight on the beaches."


Evacuation Routes

Three evacuation routes were assigned to the evacuating vessels. Route Z was the shortest, at 39 nautical miles (72 kilometres), but it hugged the French coast, exposing ships to bombardment from on-shore batteries, particularly during daylight hours. Despite being the safest route from shore batteries, Route X passed through a severely mined section of the Channel. This route sent ships 55 nautical miles (102 kilometres) north of Dunkirk, over the Ruytingen Pass, and to the North Goodwin Lightship before turning south across the Goodwin Sands to Dover. The route was the safest from surface attacks, but they couldn't use it at night due to neighbouring minefields and sandbanks. Route Y was the longest of the three, with a distance of 87 nautical miles (161 kilometres) and a sailing time of four hours, more than double that of Route Z. This path followed the French coast until it reached Bray-Dunes, where it then veered north-east to reach the Quinte Buoy. The ships moved west to the North Goodwin Lightship and then south along the Goodwin Sands to Dover after performing a 135-degree round. German surface ships, submarines, and the Luftwaffe were most likely to attack ships on Route Y.

The Royal Navy dispatched the anti-aircraft cruiser HMS Calcutta, 39 destroyers, and some other ships. The Merchant Navy supplied passenger ferries, hospital ships, and other vessels. Belgian, Dutch, Canadian, Polish, and French allies also sent ships. Admiral Ramsay arranged for a thousand copies of the requisite maps to be printed, buoys to be placed around the Goodwin Sands and down to Dunkirk, and the flow of shipping to be organized. Larger ships, like destroyers, could transport up to 900 personnel per voyage. The soldiers generally travelled on the upper decks because they were afraid of being stranded below if the boat sank. The Admiralty withdrew its eight most powerful destroyers for its future defence after the loss of 19 British and French navy ships, and three of the more giant requisitioned warships, on May 29.


Type of vessel


Total engaged











Sloops, corvettes and gunboats








Trawlers and drifters




Special service vessels




Ocean boarding vessels




Torpedo boats and anti-submarine boats




Former Dutch schuyts with naval crews




Yachts with naval crews




Personnel ships




Hospital carriers




Naval motorboats








Other small craft




Total British ships




Table: British Ships



Type of vessel


Total engaged



Warships (all types)




Other vessels




Total Allied ships








Table: Allied Ships

Little Ships

A large number of small boats from throughout the south of England were forced into duty to assist in the evacuation of Dunkirk. Speedboats, Thames watercraft, auto ferries, leisure craft, and various other small craft. The motor lifeboats, which had a reasonable capacity and speed, proved to be the most useful. Without the owner's knowledge or approval, some vessels were requisitioned. Agents from the Ministry of Shipping, accompanied by a navy officer, scouted the Thames for potential ships, had them inspected for seaworthiness and then transported them downriver to Sheerness, where naval crews would be deployed onboard. Many tiny crafts crossed the Channel with civilian units because of personnel shortages.

On May 28, the first of the "small ships" arrived in Dunkirk. Large warships were unable to approach the shore due to the broad sandy beaches, and even small craft was forced to stop around 100 yards (91 meters) from the waterline and wait for the soldiers to wade out. When employees arrived at a large ship, they abandoned their boats regularly, forcing evacuees to wait for boats to drift toward ashore with the tide before utilizing them. Soldiers queued up with their troops in most locations of the beaches and waited patiently for their time to leave. When panicked soldiers tried to rush to the boats out of turn, they had to be warned off with a rifle. In addition to ferrying out on ships, soldiers at De Panne and Bray-Dunes erected artificial jetties by dragging rows of abandoned vehicles onto the beach at low tide, anchoring them with sandbags, and connecting them with wooden paths.



The prognosis was bleak before the operation, with Churchill advising the House of Commons on May 28 to expect "sad and heavy tidings." Following that, Churchill called the event a miracle, and the British press portrayed the evacuation as a success. "We must be cautious not to attach to this deliverance the features of a victory," Churchill warned the public in a speech to the House of Commons on June 4. Evacuations do not win wars." The confusion surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation is exemplified by two of the best novels on the subject, Strange Defeat and Strange Victory, according to Andrew Roberts. The German "race to the sea" cut off the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division, as well as the remnants of the First Armoured Division and a slew of logistics and labour forces, south of the Somme. The makeshift Beauman Division had been constructed from some of the latter. More elements of two divisions began deploying to France at the end of May in the hopes of forming a Second BEF. On June 12, the majority of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division was forced to surrender. From the 15th to June 25, about 192,000 Allied personnel, including 144,000 British, were evacuated through several French ports under Operation Ariel's codename. As the Norman Force retreated towards Cherbourg, the remaining British forces were led by the Tenth Army. On June 14, the Germans marched into Paris, and France surrendered eight days later. More than 100,000 French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk in a timely and effective manner and were temporarily accommodated in camps throughout southwestern England before being repatriated. Although the British redeployed only approximately half of the returning troops against the Germans before France surrendered, British ships carried French troops to Brest, Cherbourg, and other ports in Normandy and Brittany. Many French soldiers only had a few weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation before being killed or captured by the German forces upon their return to France. Approximately 3,000 of the French soldiers evacuated from France in June 1940 joined Charles de Gaulle's Free French army in the United Kingdom. The unilateral British decision to vacate through Dunkirk rather than counter-attack to the south and the Royal Navy's perceived preference for evacuating British forces at the expense of the French sparked a storm of wrath in France. Churchill thought that French Admiral François Darlan initially ordered that the British troops be given priority. Still, on May 31, he intervened at a meeting in Paris and demanded that the evacuation be agreed out on an equal footing, with the British serving as the rearguard. After covering the final evacuations, the 35,000 troops who surrendered were predominantly French soldiers from the 2nd Light Mechanized and 68th Infantry Divisions. Because of their opposition delayed the evacuation attempt until June 4, when another 26,175 Frenchmen were carried to England. The evacuation was portrayed to the German people as a resounding and definitive victory for Germany. Hitler announced on June 5, 1940, "Dunkirk has surrendered! The erstwhile big armies have been reduced to 40,000 French and English men. Untold amounts of equipment have been captured. The "biggest annihilation fight of all time" has come to an end, according to Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (the German armed forces high command) ".







May 27



28 May




29 May




30 May




31 May




1 June




2 June




3 June




4 June








 Table: Troops landed from Dunkirk


From May 10 through the truce with France on June 22, the BEF lost 68,000 personnel (killed, wounded, missing, or captured). There were 3,500 British deaths and 13,053 injuries. All of the heavy machinery had to be discarded. Two thousand four hundred seventy-two guns, 20,000 motorcycles, and over 65,000 additional vehicles were left behind in France, along with 416,000 long tons (423,000 t) of supplies, over 162,000 long tons (165,000 t) of petrol and 75,000 long tons (76,000 t) of ammunition. Almost every single one of the 445 British tanks dispatched to France with the BEF was abandoned. Six British and three French destroyers, as well as nine other large vessels, were sunk. A total of 19 destroyers were also damaged. Over 200 British and Allied ships were sunk or damaged, with a similar number being damaged. The Royal Navy lost six warships during the operation, which was the most devastating loss for the Royal Navy.

  • Grafton, sunk by U-62 on May 29
  • Grenade, dropped by air attack at Dunkirk on May 29
  • Awakened, sunk by a torpedo from the E-boat S-30 on May 29
  • Basilisk, Havant, and Keith dropped by air attack off the beaches on June 1

The French Navy lost three destroyers:

  • Bourrasque, mined off Nieuport on 30 May
  • Siroco, dropped by the E-boats S-23 and S-26 on May 31
  • Le Foudroyant, dropped by air attack off the beaches on June 1

During the nine days of Operation Dynamo, the RAF lost 145 aircraft, including at least 42 Spitfires, while the Luftwaffe lost 156 aircraft, including 35 destroyed by Royal Navy ships (plus 21 damaged) during the six days from May 27 to June 1. One man was left as a prisoner of war for every seven soldiers that escaped through Dunkirk. The majority of these detainees were marched into Germany under duress. Due to their guards' severe treatment, beatings, starvation, and murder have all been recounted by inmates. Another grievance was that German troops kicked over buckets left by French civilians along the highway for the marching captives to drink. Many of the inmates were marched to Trier, a journey that may take up to 20 days. Others were marched to the Scheldt River and transported to the Ruhr by boat. It was then transported the detainees by rail to German POW camps. For the rest of the war, the bulk (those below the rank of corporal) worked in German industry and agriculture. The Dunkirk Memorial honours those members of the British Expeditionary Force who died or were captured and had no known grave.

Last updated: 2022-January-09
Tags: History World War II
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