To solidify the so-called “Miracle of Dunkirk”, ie the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers closed in the German encirclement on the English Channel, a story should begin at the beginning of the Second World War.
Great Britain at the beginning of World War II
When on September 1, 1939 Germans attacked Poland, despite the Poles hoping for a quick end to the conflict, Britain and France did not launch a massive offensive in the west, but passively awaited Adolf Hitler’s moves. This period is now called the “Phoney War”, as the war against the Third Reich was carried out only on paper.
Nevertheless, the British knew that sooner or later they would fight against the Germans and were hopeful of their own armed forces – in the end their navy was considered the strongest in the world, and land forces were not weak. Before the conflict started, there was enthusiasm in the Isles.
German offensive in the west
Opposing the Third Reich’s aggression to Norway, the United Kingdom sent its troops there in the spring of 1940. Unfortunately, Germans literally ran after them – aggressors were better commanded, better equipped and more willing to fight. The British lacked equipment (there were cases of lack of weapons, which were sent too late) and their command was extremely chaotic. Ultimately, the Germans occupied Norway with minimal losses of their own, which for the proud islanders was a cold shower from which the Allies – in order to win the war – had to draw conclusions.
Taking on the responsibility for the failure of this operation and the early concessions to Hitler, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain honorably resigned on 10 May 1940. His immediate replacement was Winston Churchill, whose first day of office coincided with the day of the German offensive in the west. As we know from history, this was an extremely brilliant and successful campaign – German armored divisions with the support of the Luftwaffe captured Belgium and the Netherlands without much resistance, thereby opening the way for the invasion of France.
The British and the French sent 40 of their best divisions to Belgium, including the entire British Expeditionary Corps. These forces, however, had a big problem – the French lacked weapons, food, training, and morale above all, so they did not exhibit outstanding combat value. The Allies were hoping to stop the aggressor in Belgium before it could get to France. The Germans, however, went through the Ardennes, which totally surprised Western strategists. After breaking up a few French troops, General Guderian’s German armored columns began an unstoppable march westward, then north to the Channel. Only two days after crossing the border, 7 German armored divisions were under the Sedan, brutally strangling the few defenders of resistance and taking over thousands of French soldiers.
Heroic defense of the beach and evacuation of allied forces by the English Channel
As you may have guessed, the Third Reich was intended to close and destroy the Allied forces which were defending Belgium. The British and the French were in dire danger – the Germans attacked both from the east and the south, from France. Despite the murderous pace of retreat to the west (50 km from 25 to 28 May), the ticks of the German war machine quickly and mercilessly closed around them. Eventually, the Allies took refuge on the beaches of Dunkirk: a small port in northern France, behind which they had the English Channel, and before them – prevailing, victorious forces of the Third Reich. Western soldiers knew well that unless a miracle happened, Dunkirk would become their last battlefield.
The dramatic defense of the beach and harbor against German infantry attacks began. At the same time, on 26 May, the Dynamo Operation, the evacuation of allied troops by the English Channel, was launched. The operation involved 851 units – warships under the flag of Great Britain, France, Poland and also Dutch and Belgian ships. Interestingly, a countless number of fishing boats, motorboats and other private boats joined the campaign. Their owners, in spite of the great danger of the German navy and aviation, voluntarily took to the Islands trapped under Dunkirk soldiers.
But in order to evacuate, the Allies had to withstand the overwhelming assaults of the German infantry. A particularly bloody harvest among the defenders was the Luftwaffe attacking ruthlessly from the air. The total massacre of the Allies was prevented by RAF fighters, which heroically restrained German Stukas bombers. The British Air Force paid a high price for its heroism – over 100 planes and 60 pilots were lost over Dunkirk. Generally speaking, in the battles over France the RAF lost half of its machines.
Disaster, yet a miracle
The evacuation ended on June 4. In total, more than 340,000 people were rescued from the port and beaches, including 200,000 Britons and 140,000 Frenchmen, Belgians and other Allied troops. Before the start of Operation Dynamo, the British headquarters estimated that the Navy will be able to save 10 times less people from Dunkirk.
The losses of the British Expeditionary Corps amounted to about 30,000 killed and wounded, and 40,000 captured. Huge amounts of equipment were destroyed, because the retreating Allies did not want to leave anything to Germany: 76,000 tons of ammunition and 600,000 tons of fuel, 1,200 guns and 60,000 vehicles were lost. In addition, Germany has managed to destroy 6 destroyers and more than 200 other vessels. Such huge losses happened at the least opportune moment and had to be quickly worked out.
Hitler’s mysterious decision
So far, the fact remains that when the German tanks were tramping on their heels and gathering bloody harvest among defenders, something extraordinary happened, and one of the greatest secrets of World War II – Adolf Hitler’s personal order had cancelled the armored division’s attack. Their lack of participation in later battles for Dunkirk probably presumed that the Allies were not massacred there. There are several hypotheses trying to explain why this happened:
- Apparently, Hermann Göring assured Hitler that his dive bombers would be enough to destroy the encircled allied forces,
- Hitler wanted to save his armored divisions from further campaigns in France
- Saving the Allies could have been seen as the last chance for negotiations – but this possibility is often dismissed by historians.
The evacuation of Dunkirk ended with a failed western campaign for the Allies. Despite huge losses in equipment, the Dynamo operation was considered a miracle, because miraculously the catastrophe was avoided – the soldiers who survived could return to the British Isles and in the future continue to fight. After the fall of France, Britain was on the battlefield itself, and as history showed, it was the beginning of a long and hard war.