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), or FFL, 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).

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