Dunkirk: what happened?

On 10 May 1940, Adolf Hitler began his long-awaited offensive in the west by invading neutral Holland and Belgium and attacking northern France. Holland capitulated after only five days of fighting, and the Belgians surrendered on 28 May. With the success of the German ‘Blitzkrieg’, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French troops were in danger of being cut off and destroyed.


To save the BEF, an evacuation by sea was organised under the direction of Admiral Bertram Ramsay. Over nine days, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, warships of the Royal and French navies together with civilian craft successfully evacuated more than 338,000 British and Allied troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, in the remarkable Operation Dynamo.

The success of the evacuation strengthened not only Britain’s defences in the face of a German invasion threat, but also Churchill’s position against those like the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, who favoured discussing peace terms. Seventy years later, Dunkirk is still synonymous with refusing to give up in times of crisis.

But did you know...

Britain had the only 100 per cent mechanised army in 1940

Britain in the early years of the war has often been perceived to have been full of Blimpish commanders, out-of-date equipment and antiquated, stuck-in-the-mud tactics.

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In fact, the British Army’s equipment in 1940 was certainly a match for that of the Germans. The Bren light machine-gun did not have the rate of fire of the German MG34, but was solid, accurate, and more dependable than its far friskier German rival. Meanwhile, the new British uniforms were the most modern in the world at the time, and unlike anything any soldier had worn before.

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was also entirely mechanised, which was certainly not the case for the German Army. In fact, of the 135 German divisions used in the attack in the West, only 16 were mechanised; the other 119 used horses and their soldiers' own two feet. British tanks were mostly superior to those of the German Army too, and while they had not invested as heavily in radio as the Germans, the BEF still had proportionally considerably more radio sets than the French.

British Expeditionary Force leave Dunkirk
Members of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) withdraw to England from Dunkirk. (Photo by Getty Images)

The reason for defeat in France in 1940 was not a failure in equipment, tactics or training, but the BEF's small size: just 10 divisions. This meant they could only ever play a supporting role in the action. When Belgian and French forces on their flanks collapsed, the BEF had no choice but to fall back in line with their allies. For Britain, an island nation with a large seaborne empire, the Royal Navy was the senior service. Pre-war rearmament had sensibly focussed on naval and air power. After all, France was an ally with a vast army. The idea was that Britain would take the lead at sea, France on land, and both would contribute to air power.

There were no telephones at French Army headquarters

Until he was fired on 19 May (following the catastrophic collapse of the Meuse Front), General Maurice Gamelin was commander-in-chief of all French and British forces in France. He was also the overall architect of plans to defeat any German attack. Gamelin firmly believed any future war would be much like the previous one of 1914-18: long, drawn-out and largely static war of attrition.

He was half-right, or half-wrong, depending on which way one looks at it. The Second World War lasted longer than the First World War. While it was a war of attrition in many ways, it was not static. The German approach was always to try and win battles and wars swiftly and with considerable skill of manoeuvre. This was a strategy forced upon them by their fundamental lack of resources. In this regard, little had changed since the days of Frederick the Great. By the Second World War, however, Germany had harnessed radio technology to these age-old principles to very great effect.

French General Maurice Gamelin
French General Maurice Gamelin studying a map of Europe in around 1939. Gamelin was "repeatedly and fatally out of touch with his commanders," says James Holland. (Photo by Getty Images)

In contrast, the French had largely eschewed radio technology in favour of landline telephones and traditional dispatch riders. At his headquarters on the edge of Paris, Gamelin insisted there should be no telephones at all, such was his paranoia of a security break. This meant he was repeatedly and fatally out of touch with his commanders at a time when swift and rapid decision-making was essential.

With German artillery and the Luftwaffe also repeatedly cutting phone lines, the French were ever more dependent on dispatch riders, who were forced to battle through roads clogged with refugees. Often they became lost, took too long, or failed to return altogether. Inevitably, the French Army ground to a halt, unable to move or respond to the rapidly unfolding situation.

The Luftwaffe suffered its worst day

It is widely accepted that the Germans had it pretty much their own way from the moment they launched Case Yellow (the invasion of France and the Low Countries) on 10 May 1940. Spearheading the attack and apparently ruling the skies was the Luftwaffe, with its mix of screaming Stuka dive-bombers, Messerschmitt fighters and Heinkel and Dornier medium bombers.

However, that first day of the campaign was the worst the Luftwaffe suffered for some three years. A staggering 353 German planes crashed or were shot down. (To put that in perspective, the worst day for the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain saw them lose 67 aircraft). Most were transports bringing in airborne troops, but these Junkers 52s had only been brought to bear by scouring training schools and their losses severely set back aircrew training. In fact, the Luftwaffe had still not made good on its losses by the time they invaded the Soviet Union the following June.

The game-changing ‘eastern mole’ was discovered purely by chance

The Senior Naval Officer tasked with overseeing the shore end of the Dunkirk evacuation was Captain Bill Tennant. Tennant arrived on the afternoon 27 May, and had been told they might be able to evacuate 45,000 troops if he were lucky. The harbour facilities had been smashed and the port's quays were unusable, so Tennant signalled back to Dover asking for every available craft, no matter how small, to sail to Dunkirk to help lift men from the beaches.

Getting men onto boats and ships direct from the beaches was an incredibly slow and laborious process. The situation looked bleak. Later that same evening, though, Tennant noticed the Luftwaffe had not hit the two long moles [wooden breakwaters] that extended some 1,600 yards out into the sea. There was no obvious way of reaching the western mole across the harbour's mouth, but the eastern mole began from the harbour wall and was easily accessible.

Made of latticed concrete piles and topped by a narrow wooden walkway, it was a breakwater rather than a jetty. While at first glance it looked as though it was not strong enough to take a moored ship alongside, Tennant felt there was nothing to lose from trying. The cross-Channel steamer, Queen of the Channel, was called to test it and after gently nudging her stern against the concrete piles, managed to drift alongside. The mole withstood this strain without any obvious difficulty.

British and French troops waiting on the dunes at Dunkirk
British and French troops waiting on the dunes at Dunkirk to be picked up and taken back to England. (Photo by Getty Images)

A lifeline had been discovered and over the next five days and nights, the eastern mole not only remained intact but also undamaged by either the sheer weight of ships mooring alongside or by enemy bombs. Of the 338,226 men lifted from Dunkirk, 239,555 – the vast majority – were taken from the eastern mole.

The Battle of Britain began over Dunkirk

Officially, the Battle of Britain began on 10 July 1940. (This was the date given by Hugh, the commander-in-chief of RAF Fighter Command. Yet as Dowding admitted, as far as he was concerned, it began the day Britain entered the war.)

However, RAF Fighter Command was created to defend Britain and first entered the fray over Dunkirk and the Pas de Calais on 20 May 1940. The Luftwaffe had been given a lead role in preventing the evacuation and Fighter Command more than played their part in ensuring German air forces failed in their task. Few on the ground saw them as the sky was filled with low cloud. Thick, black smoke from burning oil storage tanks rose to some 15,000 feet and spread across the entire area. They were there, nonetheless, and managed to shoot 326 enemy aircraft during the operation, while losing of 121 of their own.

Dunkirk rescue
A British ship rescues soldiers from a sunken landing craft. (Photo by Getty Images)

Logical military thinking played no part in Hitler’s decision to issue a halt order

On 24 May, Hitler issued his infamous order for his panzer divisions [armoured tank divisions] to halt, denying them the chance to completely encircle the retreating British Expeditionary Force. Ever since the order, there has been speculation as to Hitler’s motives. It has even been suggested that he wanted to give the British a chance to escape.

The truth is more straightforward, and underlines Hitler’s utter ineptitude as a military leader. After all, he never went to staff college [to train as a military officer] and was ill-qualified to be making high-level military decisions in almost every regard.

The initial halt order was issued by General von Kleist on 23 May. He did not understand new mobile panzer tactics and feared his armoured tank divisions were getting too far ahead of the foot-slogging infantry. This order – which was to be in place for 24 hours – was reinforced by Field Marshal von Rundstedt. When General Halder, army chief of staff, heard about the order, he immediately rescinded it and furthermore transferred all panzer divisions to rapidly close in on Dunkirk from the north. Von Rundstedt, piqued to have been humiliated by Halder, complained to Hitler.

Hitler, who had been told nothing of all this beforehand, exploded with anger. He hated the Prussian military elites, and was deeply suspicious of the army leadership. Clearly, they needed to be taught a lesson. He immediately countermanded all Halder’s decisions and gave the authority to lift the halt order back to von Rundstedt. Logical military thinking played no part in Hitler’s decision, rather, it was motivated by a determination to show who was boss and stamp his authority on his subordinates. But in so doing, Hitler very possibly lost the war.

Britain’s army may have been small in 1940, but on 27 May, the country came its closest to defeat. Foreign secretary Lord Halifax and new prime minister Winston Churchill argued over whether Britain should put out peace feelers. Halifax briefly threatened to resign, which almost certainly would have brought down the government. Churchill insisted that even putting out feelers would be crossing a Rubicon from which there could be no return. He won the day, but had the BEF been lost, the outcome may well have been very different. The halt order was not lifted until late on 26 May, and no panzers began moving again until the following morning – by which time the perimeter at Dunkirk had been secured and the evacuation had begun.

An England cricket captain was among those rescued at Dunkirk

Among those rescued at Dunkirk was former England cricketer, Douglas Jardine, who had captained the national side back in 1932–33. Jardine had retired from cricket in 1934, and although he was a qualified lawyer, made his living from journalism and writing. In August 1939 he joined the Territorial Army and then was commissioned into the Royal Berkshire Regiment on the outbreak of war a few weeks later. He was then sent to France with the BEF.

Jardine served well, but was wounded in fighting near Dunkirk. He became separated from most of his men, making him among the last in his battalion to be lifted. Ironically, the ship that took him home was a destroyer called the HMS Verity. Jardine’s greatest friend during his England cricketing days had been the Yorkshire bowler, Hedley Verity, who had even named his son Douglas after his friend. Verity was less lucky – he was mortally wounded in Sicily in July 1943 leading his company in an assault on German positions.

Douglas Jardine
Douglas Jardine, a former England cricket captain who was rescued from Dunkirk. (Photo by Getty Images)

The last British soldier to leave Dunkirk was a Major-General

The last British soldier to leave Dunkirk was not a member of the rank and file but rather Major-General Harold Alexander. Alexander had taken over as acting commander of the BEF on 31 May. His imperturbability was legendary, and he was given the task of overseeing the last stages of the evacuation.

The last British troops began boarding at around 9pm on Sunday 2 June. By this time, the perimeter had collapsed. Although French troops were still heroically defending the town, German artillery was raining down on the harbour. At 11.30pm, Alexander, along with Captain Bill Tennant, boarded a motor launch and began a last tour of the harbour and then the length of the beaches as far as Bray Dunes, calling out to any last remaining troops. They heard no replies; all that remained were the silhouettes of abandoned vehicles. Satisfied they had fulfilled their task, they signalled, “BEF evacuated. Returning now”. Then they, too, set sail for England.

Many British vehicles abandoned at Dunkirk ended up in Russia

Although not a single British soldier was left on the Dunkirk beaches, some 70,000 troops were left behind in France, either dead, wounded, prisoner or still stuck further south. The British also left behind 76,000 tons of ammunition, 400,000 tons of supplies and 2,500 guns. On top of that, a staggering 64,000 vehicles were abandoned. This was a salivatingly large number for the vehicle-short Germans. Although many of those left at Dunkirk had sand poured into the radiators and fuel tanks, a large proportion were salvageable and were used again.

Abandoned Equipment at Dunkirk
Abandoned equipment at Dunkirk. Around 64,000 vehicles were left behind. (Photo by Getty Images)

In fact, many of them went on to provide sterling service to the Wehrmacht and a large number ended up crossing into the Soviet Union a year later as part of the German invasion, Operation Barbarossa. By then, the German Army was using some 2,000 different vehicles, all of which required different parts, from gaskets and distributors to fuel pumps. Needless to say, of those British vehicles that did make their way to the USSR, very few ever headed west again.

James Holland is a historian, writer and broadcaster who has presented and written programmes for the BBC, Channel 4, National Geographic, History and Discovery, and is co-founder of Chalke Valley History Festival


This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2017


James Holland is a historian, writer and broadcaster. His latest book is 'Brothers in Arms: One Legendary Tank Regiment’s Bloody War from D-Day to VE-Day' (September 2021)