The Miracle of Dunkirk

Commanders!

In our History Spotlights, we explore real-life historical events that formed the basis of World of Warships.

This time, the spotlight is on the evacuation of Dunkirk: the withdrawal of Allied troops from France to Britain after the German Blitzkrieg surrounded them, cutting them off from the rest of the Allied forces.

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Dunkirk Evacuation

The German invasion of France was swift and aggressive. Rapid manoeuvres with highly mobile armoured formations caught the Allied defenders off-guard, and had a devastating effect on morale. The British Expeditionary Force (consisting British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops) was not ready for a new type of war, so, despite substantial military strength and being decently well-equipped, they were repeatedly defeated in combat. News of these disastrous results spread panic throughout the Expeditionary Force as the Germans made their way to the English Channel.

By the end of May 1940, the dam burst. The British wanted to go home. The retreat was erratic: roads were flooded with refugees and fleeing troops, and abandoned vehicles were scattered along roadsides. Despite orders to fight to the last man, even officers fled the battlefield. The only way to contain the panic was to control the retreat. Thus, an order was issued to organise the evacuation of the Expeditionary Force from the war zone. At first, it was only a matter of extracting military personnel, but it quickly evolved into a massive evacuation involving civilians.

Retreat to the northern coast of France. May 1940

On 20 May, preparations for evacuation began under the command of Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay. It was codenamed “Operation Dynamo” after the dynamo room that provided electricity for the naval headquarters below Dover Castle. It was where Ramsay planned the operation, discussed it with Churchill, and overlooked the evacuation process.

Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay at his command post in Dover

One of the mysteries of the Battle of Dunkirk is the Halt Order issued by Hitler (the order to stop the offensive), which gave the British time to complete Operation Dynamo. With just a few kilometers left to the coastline, German troops stopped advancing and took up defensive positions, thus boxing in the Expeditionary Force at to the shore near Dunkirk. Massive numbers of soldiers were trapped in the city and on the adjacent sandy beaches.

Some researchers even hypothesise that Hitler specifically suspended the attack to prevent the British from feeling too much disaffection, which is unlikely: British forces were certainly not pitied; they were continuously bombed while they waited for evacuation. On the first day, a massive raid demolished the port of Dunkirk. Many of the bombs fell on the city, causing massive civilian casualties (according to some sources, thousands of people died — about a third of the population remaining at that time in the city). The municipal water system was damaged, which made it impossible to extinguish fires, and Dunkirk was almost razed to the ground.

As for the soldiers stuck on the beaches, they were incessantly bombed and came under fire from aircraft machine guns. British aviation provided as much cover as possible. 38 German planes were shot down on the first day alone. In total, over the course of Operation Dynamo, the British managed to destroy 145 German aircraft (at the cost of lost 156 of their own planes); 35 more German planes were destroyed by anti-aircraft artillery from ships.

British sailors watch fires on the French coast

The most probable reason for stopping German troops is now considered to be the desire to avoid unnecessary losses. Backed into a corner with no escape, the Allied forces were likely to fight harder to survive. With this in mind, Hermann Goering (at this point the most senior officer in all of the German military arms) proposed to finish off the trapped army using only the Luftwaffe, and Hitler found this prospect quite alluring. The order was given. The Halt Order was later criticised by famed German generals such as Heinz Guderian and Erich von Manstein, who considered it to be one a crucial mistake. General Gerd von Rundstedt called it “one of the great turning points of the war”.

Allied soldiers waiting for evacuation.

This seeming indecisiveness on the part of German commanders played to the Allies’ advantage. On 27 May, the British light cruiser Calcutta, accompanied by eight destroyers and 26 other craft, sailed to Dunkirk’s coast to conduct the evacuation. However, Dunkirk’s terrain made it impossible for large ships to approach the surf line. The sandy shore sloped gently and had shoals extending for long distances underwater. Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards for small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches to ships waiting in the harbour. It was an incredibly motley and diverse fleet, including recreational craft, harbor tugs, fishing boats, and even personal sailing yachts—yet even these small vessels couldn’t approach the shore because of shoals.

Civilian boats and yachts heading out to help the evacuation

To reach the craft, soldiers had to wade through several hundred metres of water, sometimes all the way up to their necks. To overcome this, officers employed various improvised solutions. For example, at low tide they drove cars down to the exposed sea floor and aligned them towards sea, then arranged for footways to be set up on the roofs of the cars.

Meanwhile, German bombers ravaged the port of Dunkirk. Only two concrete piers survived, each projected more than a kilometer into the sea.

Loading on the boat

From day to day, the number of ships and vessels involved in the operation increased—in total, 693 British ships were engaged. This included the above mentioned cruiser Calcutta, 39 destroyers, 36 minesweepers, 13 torpedo boats and hunters, and 9 gunboats. Small ships (excluding boats assigned to large ships and vessels) amounted to 311. In addition, Allied ships (mostly French) also contributed to the evacuation by providing 168 vessels (of them, 49 were combat craft).

 Upon reaching a ship, soldiers often abandoned the boats they had used to approach it. Nobody wanted to go back under any circumstance, so those who stayed on the beach had to wait for the wind to wash an empty boat ashore. So firm was their resolution to leave that almost all heavy equipment was left on shore. In fact, soldiers left everything except for clothes. Some even left behind weapons and bags containing personal belongings. In total, the British left 455 tanks, more than 80,000 cars, motorcycles and other equipment, 2,500 guns, 68,000 tons of ammunition, 147,000 tons of fuel and 377,000 tons of other supplies.

British soldiers firing on German airplanes bombing the beach

Loaded ships headed to the British Isles using three routes code-named “X”, “Y” and “Z”. “Z” was the shortest one (only 72 km), and it took ships two hours on average to cross it. It ran along the French coast, so ships that took the route were often bombarded by German artillery for the majority of their journey. Route “X” was the safest yet much longer (105 km). Also, due to its vicinity to numerous shoals and minefields, it could not be used at night. Route “Y” was the longest (161 km, four hours away) and avoided mines and cannons, but ships employing this route were routinely attacked by the Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe. In total, more than a quarter of the ships involved in the evacuation sank (243 out of 861).

French destroyer Bourrasque sinks after striking a mine. Soldiers being evacuated can be seen on deck

Initially, it was assumed that the halt of the German offensive would last no more than forty-eight hours. The initial plan was to save 45,000 people, and in that respect, the operation failed in the early stages. On the first day, only just over 7,500 people were evacuated. On the second day, less than 18,000 were rescued. In total, based on the intial objective and assumptions, only 25,000 were saved instead of the planned 45,000. However, the Germans continued to stand fast, attacking the Allies only from the air. Thus, the evacuation gradually gained momentum. On 29 May, more than 47,000 people were evacuated in one day. Over the next two days, the number of people saved grew to over 120,000.

British soldiers being loaded on a ship

Evacuation

On 31 May, the Germans encroached, and the “Dunkirk pocket” contracted significantly. On 1 June, 64,000 people were evacuated. On 2 June, the British troops defending Dunkirk sailed off. Only French troops stayed on the continent; they were at the bottom of the list of people to be evacuated. On 3 June, air raids grew in intensity, preventing daytime evacuation. On the night of 3 June, about 53,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated, but on 4 June, the Germans finally launched an offensive, and the rescue operation had to be downscaled. The last ship, British destroyer Shikari, left the French coast at 03:40 on 4 June with about 900 soldiers on board. Two French divisions who had been left to cover the perimeter were left behind and had to surrender.

Rifles abandoned by British soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk

French helmets left on the beach

Abandoned vehicles on the beaches of Dunkirk

A German soldier examines assorted trophies

About 400,000 soldiers were saved during Operation Dynamo (out of approximately 1,000,000 soldiers and officers that made up the British Expeditionary Force in France). Of course, the loss of virtually all their equipment and weapons impaired the fighting capacity of the British Army. However, this loss was almost fully compensated for by the retention of a large number of combat personnel, who were trained, well-orchestrated and, most importantly, now had real combat experience.

In addition, the operation’s success had a profound effect on the morale of the British. Many sons, husbands, and fathers returned home unharmed. In this context, the losses of tanks and guns seemed minor. After all, equipment could be built again. Also, because the British media did not focus on the crushing defeat and subsequent hasty retreat of British troops, the operation was seen as a miraculous success in the eyes of civilians. Their troops had suffered but did not surrender, and they had lived to fight another day. Since that incident, the phrase “Dunkirk spirit” came into use, meaning the unanimous consolidation of a population to overcome times of adversity.

Evacuated soldiers being greeted at home

The British remember the evacuation as the “The Miracle of Dunkirk.” To commemorate the event, a special “Dunkirk Jack” was commissioned, which can be flown only by civilian vessels that took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation. Of these, only a few dozen have survived until today and regularly take part in celebrations dedicated to the anniversary of Operation Dynamo.

Dunkirk Jack