The Evacuation of Dunkerque, May 29-June 4, 1940

The deteriorating situation in France left the British Expeditionary Force seriously compromised. French General Maxime Weygand”s plan to create a defensive line on the Somme was impossible; The Germans, using superior tactics and communications but not equipment, had high morale and were advancing faster than the French high Command could draw up defensive plans.

General Lord John Gort, Commander of the British Expeditionary Force, saw that he could not complete his orders to retreat to the Somme. On May 25, he indicated to the new Prime Minster Winston Churchill that he could not link up with Weygand”s forces and he was creating a perimeter around the town of Dunkerque on the Pas de Calais. From May 27-30, the BEF consolidated around Dunkerque, along with half of the French First Army. Five French Divisions set up a roadblock at Lille, where they held out for four days against seven German Panzer divisions. This allowed the British and the French in Dunkerque to set up a defensive perimeter and wait for evacuation.

The possibility of the total evacuation of the BEF was first raised on May 19, only nine days after the first German attack. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, Admiral Bertram Ramsay was delegated to secure small and large craft from civilians for the evacuation. Secrecy was maintained as Naval Officers scoured the docks of London and other cities for small boats to take troops from the shore to the waiting transports. By May 27 the craft were on the way to France.

The Allies gained a stroke of luck, either planned or unplanned, from the Germans. General Franz Halder, Chief of Staff, later claimed the orders were direct from Hitler, who wanted let the British escape and engender the possibility of English public support for a negotiated peace. Field commanders’ diaries and other sources indicate that the panzers, far ahead of the infantry, were stopped to wait for them and to straighten the German lines. In any case, the Germans paused for four critical days.

Under relentless air attack, which seemed to counter Halder’s claims of saving the army and the goodwill of the British people, the British began to evacuate on May 29. At first a trickle, then a torrent, began to come off the beach.

RAF Fighter Command was fighting a huge air battle, plunging badly needed resources into the battle over Dunkerque. Nevertheless, three destroyers were sunk on May 29, along with twenty-one smaller vessels. The plan had called for 48,000 men to be removed; by the evening of May 30, 120,000 were rescued. Among these only 6,000 were French; this worried Churchill greatly. He asked for more French soldiers to be evacuated and also for Lord Gort to leave. He did so the next day.

The Luftwaffe made their strongest attacks on June 1, and the Royal Navy lost 31 ships and smaller craft. 132,000 troops were brought out, and the perimeter shrank more and more as the men within left. After that withdrawals were made at night. On June 4, the last day of Operation Dynamo, over 26,000 French troops were returned to England.

Most of the French went back to fight in France, but the rescue of the BEF gave heart to the British public all out of proportion to the defeat it suffered. Churchill, addressing the House of Commons on June 4, said, “wars are not won by evacuations.”