Double Victory: Minorities and Women During World War II
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Dunkerque (Dunkirk), Evacuation of (Operation dynamo, 26 May–4 June 1940)

Title: British prisoners at Dunkerque
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Extraction of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and some French forces from the English Channel port of Dunkerque, France. After the German invasion of France and the Low Countries and the rapid collapse of Allied forces, contingency planning was begun in Britain on 19 May 1940 under the supervision of Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay, naval commander of Dover, for the possible evacuation of British forces from France. By 25 May, the Germans had already taken the French port of Boulogne, leaving only Dunkerque and Calais among the Channel ports from which an evacuation might be attempted. Calais fell the next day. Naval planners hoped they might be able to extract 40,000 members of the BEF, but in Operation dynamo they actually evacuated 364,628 troops, of whom 224,686 were British.

On 26 May, as the German armored thrust from the south was closing in on Dunkerque, commander of German army Group A General Karl Gerd von Rundstedt ordered it halted, believing the panzers were overextended. Hitler made this into a hard-and-fast order and kept the panzers in place until 29 May to allow the German infantry to join them. Hitler's stop order was critical, allowing the BEF to escape and Britain to continue in the war. Head of the Luftwaffe Marshal Hermann Göring, who believed the German air force had not received sufficient credit for its role in the war to date, then secured Hitler's permission to destroy the British forces on the ground with his dive-bombers. He even requested that the panzers be moved back several miles.

As it turned out, the dive-bombing was not effective; the German bombs burrowed deep into the soft sand before exploding. Meanwhile, Operation dynamo began. All manner of vessels, many of them manned by civilian volunteers, participated in the evacuation. Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilots flying from bases in southern England did what they could to protect the evacuation and disrupt the Luftwaffe, and they probably made the evacuation possible.

Among the evacuation ships, British and French destroyers rescued the most men, but they were also the chief targets for Luftwaffe attacks. By the fourth day of the evacuation, 10 destroyers had been sunk or put out of action. This led the Admiralty to take the difficult decision to remove all of its modern destroyers from the operation. The same reasoning limited the number of fighter aircraft that were available. In addition, head of Fighter Command Air Marshal Hugh Dowding refused to sacrifice valuable aircraft in a battle already lost, believing the planes would soon be required for the defense of Britain, which was certain to be the next target.

The Dunkerque evacuation was assisted by bad weather and fires from burning equipment on the beaches that inhibited Luftwaffe operations. The BEF lost more than 2,000 men during dynamo itself. RAF Fighter Command lost 106 aircraft and 80 pilots, and Bomber Command lost an additional 76 aircraft. Of 693 British vessels of all types that took part in the operation, one-third (226) were sunk, including 6 destroyers; 19 other destroyers were put out of action. Other nations also participated; France provided the most vessels (119), and Belgium, Norway, Poland, and the Netherlands also provided assistance. The other Allies lost 17 of their 168 vessels taking part. The BEF lost 30,000 men, including prisoners, to the Germans, and it was forced to abandon virtually all of its equipment in France. The 50,000-man French First Army had played a key role, holding the advancing Germans from the beaches and allowing the British to get away. The French contested every bit of ground, and ultimately between 30,000 and 40,000 men of their troops were forced to surrender.

The evacuation of Dunkerque was hardly a victory, but it did sweep away the half-heartedness that had marked the British war effort to that point. It also elevated the stature of Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill, who in a speech to Parliament on 4 June as the last British troops were being evacuated vowed that come what may, Britain would continue the fight.

David M. Grilli and Spencer C. Tucker

Further Reading
Divine, David. The Nine Days of Dunkirk. New York: Norton 1959.; Gelb, Norman. Dunkirk: The Complete Story of the First Step in the Defeat of Hitler. New York: William Morrow, 1989.; Harman, Nicholas. Dunkirk: The Patriotic Myth. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.; Lord, Walter. The Miracle of Dunkirk. New York: Viking, 1982.

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