Evacuation of Dunkirk, 27 May-2 June 1940: Most of the time, the evacuation of Dunkirk is referred to as the Miracle at Dunkirk—and it was a miracle. The outcome of the war stood on the edge of a knife, had the BEF been decimated in the French harbor, the war in Western Europe would have been more than over.
As a result of Belgium’s surrender only days earlier, the Dunkirk evacuations began on 27 May after remaining French, British, and Belgium troops found themselves cut off and surrounded by German forces. Instead of attacking, as the German military leadership desired to do, Hitler halted his generals with his 22 May 1940 order. Historians agree that this (foolish) action was done with full expectation that Prime Minister Winston Chuchill and His Majesty’s Government would work for an armistice to save the “whole…core and brain of the British Army” that the Reich had backed onto the sea.
There was a major problem with Hitler’s theory, however, and that was if you surround an army against the sea with their nation across the Channel: they’ll come to evacuate their men. And evacuate them they did.
On the first day, just over 7500 men were evacuated, but by the ninth a total of 338,000 soldiers had been rescued by a mismatched fleet of just over 800 boats. Since they lacked docks, the military on shore used their remaining armor and tanks to create floating docks into the water to board. Many of the troops were lucky to leave the harbor on 39 Royal Navy destroyers and other large ships, while others waited for hours in shoulder-deep water on their makeshift docks. Some found themselves ferried from the beaches on the larger ships of the famous Little Ships of Dunkirk, the flotilla of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, private pleasure craft, and lifeboats called into emergency service by His Majesty’s Government.
Though it was a great success having rescued over 330,000 soldiers, the BEF lost 68,000 during the French campaign alone—and then France on 22 June 1940—and lost nearly everything that makes an Army beyond men; tanks, vehicles, rifles and other direly needed equipment. They saved their men, but lost almost everything else.
But despite what was lost, the majority of Britain’s most experienced troops had been saved, though Dunkirk was a retreat, and was hailed a victory albeit a cautious one. “Wars,” PM Winston Churchill would say to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940, “are not won by evacuations.”
One could argue, however, that evacuations do help win wars.