Operation Dynamo began on May 26, 1940. To the British Expeditionary Force, otherwise trapped on the northern coast of France, it was a retreat. To the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, it was a rescue. To the French, it seemed like dereliction of duty on the part of a much-needed ally; but to the Germans, the failure to stop this operation is the primary blot on an impressive campaign and the source of future nightmares. The evacuation of Dunkirk was not a conventional battle with clear winners and losers; to the British especially, it was indeed a battle lost and won.
British military prepares to evacuate Dunkirk
After months of Phoney War, the Germans unleashed their attack on the West on May 10, 1940. Two weeks later, it was already clear that the Germans enjoyed the upper hand in the battle for France. Recognizing the reality of the situation, British commanders began to withdraw their troops to Dunkirk on May 23, in preparation for an evacuation. Their intention was to regroup in Britain and carry on the fight from a position of strength.
To the French, however, it still seemed like a betrayal. German forces were massing near Paris; the French needed a strong British presence on the German right flank to prevent encirclement. In 1914, the British had met German forces strongly at Mons, delaying the German timetable and enabling the French to bolster the defense of Paris. The result then was the Miracle of the Marne. In 1940, the British had already concluded that this cause was lost, and that it was necessary to provide for continued hostilities after the fall of France. The fact that an evacuation had become necessary demonstrated graphically that the Allied coalition had been defeated.
Had the Germans dealt systematically with the Allied forces that gathered around Dunkirk, this defeat might well have been deeper. The total loss of the British Expeditionary Force would have been a grievous blow to British morale. It would also have been a loss of manpower that the British Army could ill afford. As it happened, however, the Germans hesitated for a variety of reasons, and an evacuation became possible.
Germans hesitate in their advance
The first hesitation came on May 24, exactly two weeks into the invasion. German forces, among them the panzers of General Guderian, had just crossed the Aa Canal when they were ordered to return to their positions on the western side of the canal. These orders came from Hitler himself, but it seems that General von Rundstedt concurred; the British, French and Belgian forces in the north were effectively encircled, while Paris remained the primary objective. Goering had assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could eliminate the remnants of the Allied armies in the north, and Hitler gave Goering the opportunity. If Goering’s pledge had been valid, it would have made sense to allow the bombers to clear away these loose ends while the ground forces were held in reserve for the principal effort in the south. Instead, Dunkirk was an early lesson in the limitations of air power.
Meanwhile, Vice-Admiral Ramsay worked hard in his offices at Dover to arrange the evacuation. There were numerous challenges to overcome. The first was a matter of geography: the waters around Dunkirk were shallow, which precluded the deployment of large vessels to carry away the men, who numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Instead, small vessels were used to carry men from Dunkirk to larger vessels assembled in the deeper waters offshore. Other challenges were posed by the proximity of the enemy. The evacuation shared some characteristics with amphibious assaults like D-Day: large numbers of men needed to make the transition between combat readiness and sea transport while under active fire from the enemy. In this case, enemy action included air attack, artillery bombardment, submarine attack and surface attack by fast-moving torpedo boats. Ramsay had to provide sufficient transport, protection for the transport, and relatively safe avenues of escape as the transport vessels were filled. His operation was dubbed Dynamo, reflecting the previous purpose of the office where it was made – it had contained a dynamo for the generation of electricity.
The evacuation officially begins
The operation was formally launched on May 26, although nearly 30,000 men were withdrawn before that date. British and French soldiers had fortified their positions around the city to buy time in case the Germans made a concerted ground attack, but for several days, danger came only from the skies. When these attacks came, they could be devastating, and Dunkirk was largely leveled. Several factors reduced their effectiveness, however. The first was weather, which kept the Luftwaffe on the ground for much of the time. When German pilots were able to fly, their visibility was soon reduced by the quantity of smoke that hung over Dunkirk from previous missions. And of course, when the Luftwaffe could fly, so could the RAF, and the British sent virtually their entire air reserve to give the evacuation time to succeed. They lost 177 planes to accomplish this.
While weather hindered the air forces, it aided the sailors. The infamously choppy English Channel was uncharacteristically calm when the operation began. Even so, it began painfully slowly, with somewhat less than 18,000 soldiers being evacuated between May 26 and 28. Two important changes came on May 29: the French decision to evacuate their own troops, and the public announcement of the operation in Britain.
French soldiers and British civilians
The addition of French soldiers increased the burden on the ships carrying out the evacuation. Even so, the British announced that they would evacuate both forces on an equal footing. In practice, this equality did not always occur simultaneously, but this was largely redressed by the end of the operation, when one-third of the evacuees were French, and only 30,000 Frenchmen could not be rescued.
Britain’s appeal to its own civilians, however, sped up the process immeasurably. The Small Vessels Pool was activated to aid in the evacuation, and soon, numerous other small vessels arrived on a purely voluntary basis.
Results of the operation
The Luftwaffe turned its attention to the ships on June 1, causing substantial damage. The British had to curtail daytime operations, but activity resumed at night. By the morning of June 4, the operation concluded. Nearly 340,000 soldiers had been evacuated, with less than a tenth of that number left behind.
It was an impressive achievement amidst an otherwise gloomy series of events. Britain showed itself that it was able to accomplish its goals in spite of the worst that the Germans were able to send against them. The confidence that Dunkirk bred served Britain in good stead during the air raids that would go on in the near future. The rescue of so many men, trapped by the enemy, carried the aura of the miraculous, and this too buoyed British spirits for the difficult year ahead.
Dunkirk was a defeat in the sense that the battle for France was a defeat. Britain’s armies, like those of France and Belgium, had been outfought and outmaneuvered by the Germans, and the British leadership acknowledged that there was no sensible alternative to a total retreat from France. It was, however, a resounding victory in the sense that it was accomplished, with much effort and sacrifice, despite the stubborn opposition of a seemingly invincible foe. It was enough of a victory to keep Britain in the fight until it could start winning battles.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
Shepperd, Alan. France 1940: Blitzkrieg in the West. Osprey, 1990
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