Evacuation of Dunkirk

The British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium was cornered by the German Blitzkrieg invasion of those countries. In a massive evacuation, the force was transported across the English Channel to the relative safety of England. Although it lost a great many supplies, the preservation of its troops enabled the British army to continue in the war, and the evacuation of French troops to England formed the foundation for a Free French armed force.

Summary of Event

When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the British sent an expeditionary force to France. By May of 1940, it had risen to a strength of ten infantry divisions. In the meantime, Adolf Hitler, the chancellor of Germany, had issued orders for a general offensive, planned by General Erich von Manstein, against France, Belgium, and Holland. At dawn on May 10, the German army and air force struck. In accordance with Allied plans, two French armies and nine divisions of the British Expeditionary Force advanced into Belgium, to confront the German attack there. On May 13, six German divisions broke through the French defenses farther south along the Meuse River and struck northwestward toward the English Channel. On May 20, German forces reached the English Channel coast at the mouth of the Somme near Abbeyville, trapping the Allied forces in Belgium and northern France. [kw]Evacuation of Dunkirk (May 26-June 4, 1940)
[kw]Dunkirk, Evacuation of (May 26-June 4, 1940)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Dunkirk evacuation
Dunkirk evacuation
[g]France;May 26-June 4, 1940: Evacuation of Dunkirk[10210]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 26-June 4, 1940: Evacuation of Dunkirk[10210]
[c]World War II;May 26-June 4, 1940: Evacuation of Dunkirk[10210]
[c]Military history;May 26-June 4, 1940: Evacuation of Dunkirk[10210]
Gort, Lord (John Standish Surtees Prendergast Vereker)
Abrial, Jean-Marie Charles
Ramsay, Bertram H.
Rundstedt, Gerd von
Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;Dunkirk evacuation
Hitler, Adolf
Eden, Anthony
Göring, Hermann

The progress of the Germans toward the coast had seriously alarmed General Lord Gort, the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, and as early as May 19, he informed the British government that he was considering withdrawing his nine divisions to the English Channel for possible evacuation. The British Admiralty, the War Office, and Admiral Sir Bertram H. Ramsay, the flag officer commanding Dover, began to improvise plans for such an evacuation under the code name Dynamo.

The prospects for a successful evacuation did not appear promising, as German forces moved northeastward along the coast. Boulogne and Calais were quickly surrounded, and a German force moved toward Dunkirk, the last port through which an Allied evacuation could take place. On May 24, however, Gerd von Rundstedt ordered the German armor to halt, less than fifteen miles from Dunkirk. This decision became one of the most controversial of the entire war. After the war, German generals singled out Hitler as responsible for the failure to finish off the Allied forces. In fact, a number of senior generals shared the blame.

British soldiers taken prisoner at Dunkirk, June, 1940.


The halt, however, allowed the British and French to establish a defense line around Dunkirk and provided them time to put Operation Dynamo into motion. Hermann Göring, the German Luftwaffe commander, told Hitler that if the Allies left Dunkirk by sea, the German air force could stop them by bombing alone. Evacuation of the British began during the night of May 26. The French continued to consider defending Dunkirk as a fortress; it was not until May 28 that they decided to withdraw their troops and issued orders to Admiral Jean-Marie Charles Abrial, in command of their forces at Dunkirk, to cooperate with the British. The Royal Navy recruited hundreds of small civilian pleasure craft to ferry troops from the beaches to the larger naval ships waiting offshore. The Luftwaffe’s attempt to stop the evacuation proved much more difficult than Göring had imagined. German fighters, still operating from bases in western Germany, were farther from Dunkirk than British fighters operating from England. Although the British could not gain control of the air over Dunkirk, the British did hamper the German air attacks, destroying 240 German aircraft while losing 177 planes.

On May 26, Hitler rescinded the halt order, but problems in the German command structure slowed the German advance, and it was not until May 30 that they even realized that the British were evacuating their troops. In the early morning hours of June 4, the last British ship left Dunkirk. The evacuation was over, a feat of heroism and great organizational skill on the part of the Royal Navy and Ramsay. Altogether, the British, with some French assistance, rescued 338,000 men, 224,000 of them British—many more than anticipated. The cost was heavy, however. The British used 760 ships, of which 228, mostly small craft, were sunk by air attack, and the French had about 300, of which 60 were lost.


The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk ensured that the British army could continue in the war. Although the British had been forced to leave behind all their heavy equipment, tanks, artillery, and transport, their trained men were rescued, and they formed the nucleus of the British army of the future. The loss of their equipment, however, meant that Britain had no effective land-based defense against a German invasion. It thus set the terms for the Battle of Britain, in which the Royal Air Force became the primary defenders of the island. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Dunkirk evacuation
Dunkirk evacuation

Further Reading

  • Atkin, Ronald. Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk, 1940. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2000. First-person narrative of the Dunkirk invasion by a British soldier. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • Carse, Robert. Dunkirk, 1940: A History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970. Captures the horror, shock, and excitement that surrounded the withdrawal at Dunkirk, but does not present a detailed analysis of the event.
  • Collier, Richard. The Sands of Dunkirk. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1961. An attempt to reconstruct the fighting at Dunkirk, this book’s greatest strengths are its full tables of units and ships.
  • Divine, A. D. Dunkirk. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1948. Informative, although dated, account of the evacuation based on the logs of small boat masters and Admiralty reports.
  • Gelb, Norman. Dunkirk: The Complete Story of the First Step in the Defeat of Hitler. New York: William Morrow, 1989. An anecdotal reprise of the Dunkirk story based mostly on the standard secondary sources.
  • Harman, Nicholas. Dunkirk, the Necessary Myth. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989. Revisionist account of the evacuation emphasizes British manipulation of the press at home.
  • Lord, Walter. The Miracle of Dunkirk. New York: Viking, 1982. One of the best accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation available. Presents interpretations of major issues that are soundly based on scholarship.

Maginot Line Is Built

German Troops March into the Rhineland

Munich Conference

Germany Invades Poland

Canada Enters World War II

Germany Invades Norway

Collapse of France

Battle of Britain