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The Rescue at Dunkirk

Today marks the 74th anniversary of the great rescue at Dunkirk. On May 27, 1940, the British army had fallen back to the beaches of Dunkirk in the north of France. In front of them was the German army, and behind them was the sea. These British soldiers and their French allies were the last line of defense between England and Hitler, and they were about to be crushed. There were over 300,000 of them trapped on the beach.

What happened next is the stuff of legend. Some say it was nothing short of a miracle. In his biography of Winston Churchill, William Manchester narrates it best:

‘The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought free and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a fishing town whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

‘Behind them lay the sea.

‘It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges massed at Boulogne. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost…

‘Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around in angular, existential attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI has been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.” Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure crafts, smacks and coasters; the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw—all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted, bleeding sons.’

William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory (Little, Brown and Company, 1983), 3.

When it was all said and done, this rag-tag armada of leisure crafts and fishing boats evacuated 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French). It was one of the most impressive escapes in history, and it enabled the Allies to fight another day. And fight they did. When the Allies returned to the northern beaches of France on June 6, 1944, the tide was about to turn.

In the years after the war, many Englishmen looked back to the year 1940 as the darkest year of their lives. Winston Churchill would say that it was his best—which says something about the kind of man that he was.

Recently, I’ve been enjoying William Manchester’s magisterial three-volume biography of Churchill. If you have not read it, I cannot recommend it highly enough. Manchester’s prose are every bit as spectacular as his subject matter. You can find all three volumes here: Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3.


  • Don Johnson

    I am a history buff and there are some interesting facts about this time.

    1) The Allies had more men and more and better tanks than the Germans. The reason the Germans won was because they concentrated their tanks into 10 Panzer divisions and used radios more effectively to make quicker battle decisions than the Allies.

    2) The original German plan was essentially the same as WWI but with tanks, a giant right hook through Belgium and Holland in order to bypass the Maginot Fort line. But a German plane went down in Allied territory with these plans, so they decided to change them. Hitler decided to use Manstein’s plan for a tank drive through the Ardennes forest, which was thought to not be feasible by the Allies.

    3) The reason the Germans did not take Dunkirk and other ports earlier was because the Germans were concerned about tank losses in city fighting and Goring telling Hitler that the Luftwaffe (Air Force) could handle the Allied forces. He was wrong.

    4) The French asked for their men that evacuated Dunkirk back to help defend the rest of France; most returned to France and then surrendered, a few stayed in England and formed the Free French.

    5) Churchill was very concerned about English prospects if France fell, so he asked the French if they wanted to unify their countries and thereby fight on as one. They said no.

    6) After the French surrender, the English were very concerned about the Germans using the French fleet to invade England, so they attacked it.

  • bobbistowellbrown

    One of my favorite WW II movies is “Since You Went Away” with Claudette Colbert. In it they showed how the rescue at Dunkirk affected those on the home front when all the men who owned a boat volunteered to take part in the rescue.

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