Dunkirk: the Battle & Evacuation

(1/4) > >>


A famous image of Dunkirk: "A British soldier fires at German aircraft strafing him on Dunkirk's beaches

The Battle of Dunkirk was the defense and evacuation of the British and Allied forces that had been separated from the main body of the French defenses by the German advance.

After the seven months of the Phoney War, the Battle of France began in earnest on May 10, 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.

On May 24, Hitler 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 armour 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 armour, so the destruction of the Allied forces was initially assigned to the Luftwaffe and the German infantry organised in Army Group B. The true reason for Hitler's decision to halt the German armour is a matter of debate. The most popular theory is that Von Rundstedt and Hitler agreed to conserve the armour for future operations further South - namely for Operation Fall Rot.

On May 25, 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 May 27, 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, Netherlands and Poland.

The defense 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 120,000 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 Belgian soldiers lost
42,000 wounded
8,467 missing
1,212,000 Dutch, Belgian, French and British prisoners taken
30,000 British died
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


British fisher rescuing allied troops escaping from Dunkirk in a trawler (France, 1940). Screenhot taken from the 1943 United States Army propaganda film Divide and Conquer (Why We Fight #3) directed by Frank Capra and partially based on news archives, animations, restaged scenes and captured propaganda material from both sides.

The successful evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk ended the first phase in the Battle of France. It provided a great boost to British morale, but 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 June 14 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 1930s workhorses (some with only rear-wheel braking, which made them illegal for use on British roads) were still in use as late as the North African campaign some two years later.


[0] Message Index

[#] Next page