London, England · May 19, 1940

Following Britain and France’s decla­ra­tion of war on Ger­many on Septem­ber 3, 1939, neither of the Allies com­mitted to launching a signi­fi­cant land offen­sive against Adolf Hitler’s Ger­many as punish­ment for the invasion of its eastern neighbor, Poland. The most the Brit­ish were pre­pared to do was deploy a 315,000‑man expedi­tion­ary force, with air­craft and artil­lery, to the Franco-Bel­gian border. Hitler, how­ever, was busy making pre­par­a­tions to end the so-called Phony War, as this early and quiet phase of World War II came to be called. His war in the West began on May 10, 1940, when Wehr­macht forces invaded the Nether­lands, Bel­gium, and France. A series of Allied counter­attacks failed to sever the Ger­man spear­head through Belgium’s Ardennes Forest, which quickly reached the Eng­lish Chan­nel, swung north along the French coast, and threat­ened to cap­ture the Chan­nel ports and trap the Allied troops and their heavy equip­ment before they could escape to Eng­land. On this date in 1940 British Prime Minis­ter Winston Chur­chill ordered the Brit­ish Admi­ralty to en­gage in a rescue mis­sion that became known as the “Miracle of Dun­kirk.” Using a “fleet” that grew to over one thou­sand ves­sels, ranging from Royal Navy de­stroyers and other war­ships, cross-Chan­nel ferries, plea­sure steamers, to craft as small as cabin crui­sers manned by civil­ian crews, Opera­tion Dyna­mo ini­tially tar­geted rescuing up­wards of 45,000 mem­bers of the Brit­ish Expedi­tionary Force. How­ever, Oper­a­tion Dyna­mo suc­ceeded in bringing some 198,229 men of the BEF along with 139,997 French and some Bel­gian troops to safety in Eng­land. Bad flying weather and Hitler’s dithering saved the nucleus of the Brit­ish army and the germ of the Free French forces (Forces Fran­çaises Libres) from cer­tain destruc­tion. The evac­u­ation ended on June 4. Seen by Hitler and his inner cir­cle as a Brit­ish defeat, Dun­kirk became a major vic­tory for Brit­ish war­time morale, the Dun­kirk Spirit. Four years later the Wes­tern Allies returned to the con­tin­ent—to Nor­mandy on the French coast, over 200 miles south of Dun­kirk. On June 6, 1944—D-Day—the Allies were out­fitted with the largest assem­blage of in­va­sion ships, air­craft, men, and equip­ment in his­tory. In less than 24 hours, 176,000 troops had dis­em­barked from 4,000 trans­port ships to begin the West’s suc­cessful assault on Hitler’s “Fes­tung Europa” (Fortress Europe).

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Operation Dynamo and the Rescue of the British and French Armies at Dunkirk, May 26 to June 4, 1940

Dunkirk pocket, France, June 4, 1940

Above: Dunkirk pocket, France, June 4, 1940, the last day of Operation Dynamo.

British soldier firing on incoming aircraft, Dunkirk, France, 1940Fishing boat picking up troops, Dunkirk, France, 1940

Left: A British soldier on a Dunkirk beach fires at strafing Ger­man air­craft. During the Battle of France (May 10 to June 22, 1940), the Brit­ish Exped­i­tionary Force suffered 11,000 killed, 14,070 evacu­ated wounded, and 41,030 taken prisoner.

Right: A British fishing boat picks up troops off the coast of Dun­kirk while a Stuka’s bomb ex­plodes a few yards away. In nine days, 331,226 Brit­ish and French sol­diers were rescued by around 220 war­ships and sun­dry 700 “little ships.” Not only did the res­cue oper­a­tion turn a mili­tary dis­as­ter into a story of sacri­fice and heroism that served to raise and sus­tain the morale of Brit­ain’s war­time pop­u­lace, it allowed the British army to recu­per­ate and rebuild itself for the task of liberating France four years later.

British troops evacuating Dunkirk's beaches, France, 1940Wounded French soldier, Dover, England, 1940

Left: British troops evacuating Dun­kirk’s beaches. Many of the approx­i­mately 198,229 men of the BEF who were res­cued stood for hours in shoulder-deep water, waiting to board ves­sels. Despite the suc­cess of the res­cue oper­a­tion, all heavy equip­ment and vehicles had to be left behind: 2,472 guns, almost 65,000 vehicles, and 20,000 motor­cycles. More than 75,000 tons of ammu­ni­tion and 162,000 tons of fuel were also abandoned.

Right: A wounded French soldier being brought ashore on a stretcher at Dover, Eng­land. Of the more than 100,000 French sol­diers evac­u­ated from Dun­kirk, only about 3,000 chose to join Charles de Gaulle’s Free French army in Lon­don. The rest were repa­tri­ated back to Brest, Cher­bourg, and other French ports in Nor­mandy and Brit­tany, where roughly half of them were rede­ployed against the Germans.

Rescued British troops, Dunkirk, France, 1940Rescued French troops, Dunkirk, France

Left: British troops evac­u­ating to ship via a life­boat bridge. The Brit­ish Minis­try of Shipping tele­phoned boat builders around the Eng­lish coast, asking them to collect all boats with shal­low draft that could navi­gate the waters off Dun­kirk’s beaches. Nine­teen life­boats of the Royal National Life­boat Insti­tution sailed to Dunkirk.

Right: French troops rescued by a Brit­ish ship at Dun­kirk. Between 30,000 and 40,000 French troops were cap­tured in the Dun­kirk pocket. For many French sol­diers who were repa­tri­ated to France, the Dun­kirk evac­u­a­tion was not a sal­va­tion, but repre­sented only a few weeks’ hiatus before being made POWs by the Ger­man army following the Franco-Ger­man armis­tice of June 22, 1940.

Contemporary Newsreel of Operation Dynamo, the Allied Evacuation of the Dunkirk Pocket, May 19 to June 4, 1940