What happened at Dunkirk?

 A soldier (Fionn Whitehead) awaits rescue in the film, Dunkirk.
A soldier (Fionn Whitehead) awaits rescue in the film, Dunkirk.
Image: Warner Brothers.
A film opening this week explores the daring evacuation of Allied soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, France, by a fleet of both military and civilian boats. 

    The movie, set in 1940, is based on a rescue operation often described as “The Miracle at Dunkirk.” Written and directed by Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight trilogy, the film stars Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy. Reviews so far are glowing, and the movie has a rating of nine out of 10 stars on the Internet Movie Database. (See the trailer below.)
      Beyond delivering heart-stopping dogfights and intense action sequences, Dunkirk offers an invitation to learn more about a pivotal chapter of World War II. Here is a compressed account of events, along with links and sources for further study.

Sept. 3, 1939: Following the invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war on Germany.

1939-1940: Germans attacked European countries using a swift and powerful military tactic called Blitzkrieg. The word means lightning war and is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “war conducted with great speed and force.”
      Using this tactic, the Germans defeated Poland in 1939, followed by Denmark and Norway in April 1940. In May of that year, the Germans thundered into Western Europe, attacking through Ardennes Forest in southeastern Belgium -- a move that took the Allies by surprise. Belgium and the Netherlands surrendered.  As events spiraled downward, England's prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, stepped aside. Winston Churchill, tapped to lead a coalition government, became prime minister.
     “German tanks crossed Luxembourg to the southeastern border of Belgium, and by the evening of May 12 the Germans were across the Franco-Belgian frontier and overlooking the Meuse River” in France, recounts Encyclopedia Britannica.
      The next day the Germans crossed the river and headed for the English Channel. Forced to retreat, French, Canadian and Belgian troops, along with the British Expeditionary Force, were cornered at Dunkirk (also, Dunkerque), a town in France overlooking the Strait of Dover, the North Sea and the English Channel. 
      Even so, 15,000 French and British troops “defended a narrow perimeter to prevent the Germans from taking Dunkirk,” according to the Dunkirk Museum.  That attempt bought time for a rescue.

Rescue plans: Vice Adm. Bertram Ramsay of the Royal Navy planned the rescue, called “Operation Dynamo” because it was conceived in the dynamo room in the naval headquarters below Dover Castle, according to the Historic UK website. The dynamo room provided electricity to the building. (Thomas Edison’s “dynamo” was a power generator.)

May 14, 1940, the BBC made an announcement: "The admiralty have made an order requesting all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 feet and 100 feet in length to send all particulars to the admiralty within 14 days from today if they have not already been offered or requisitioned." 

May 24, 1940:  Adolf Hitler ordered the Germans to halt for two days. "After the war some German officers claimed that they were 'shocked' when they received the order to stop their tanks at the river Aa, which permitted the French to establish a defensive line on the west side of Dunkirk," recounted Charles Lutton in, "The Miracle of Dunkirk Reconsidered," an article in the Journal of Historical Review (1981).  "At the time, however, Panzer General Heinz Guderian visited his leading units on the approaches to Dunkirk and concluded that General (Gerd) Von Rundstedt had been right to order a halt and that further tank attacks across the wet land (which had been reclaimed from the sea) would have involved a useless sacrifice of some of his best troops." 
     After two days of rest, the German offensive resumed May 26. But by this time, "the German priorities had shifted and the focus of the attack was Paris and the heartland of the country where a large body of French troops remained," Lutton wrote. "Dunkirk was regarded as a sideshow. German Air Force units were assigned to bombard Dunkirk, but the weather there was generally unsuitable for flying and during the nine days of the evacuation the Luftwaffe interfered with it only two-and-a-half days -- May 27, the afternoon of May 29, and on June 1."

May 26, 1940 -- Operation Dynamo: The British military signaled the beginning of the rescue operation at 6:57 p.m.
       “Many privately owned boats started arriving at Dunkirk to ferry the troops to safety. This flotilla of small vessels famously became known as the Little Ships,” the BBC recounts.
       In all, an estimated 933 ships were involved -- including 220 naval vessels, alongside privately owned fishing boats, yachts and assorted other vessels. French, Belgian, Dutch and Norwegian ships were also involved . The "little ships" were staffed with naval officers, along with "experienced volunteers," according to the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships.
       The troops could not be evacuated from piers. A Time magazine story from 1940 reported, “German bombs blew up the locks which held water in the basins at low tide, Dunkirk 's inner loading piers became a muddy, smoldering shambles. Embarkation had to be carried out by shallow-draft ships at the mole or by whale boats, dories, rafts and wreckage bobbing in the surf along the flat shelf of seashore.”
       At the seashore, one soldier reportedly said troops hid "like rabbits among the dunes," according to Time.
       While accounts of the attack vary, the BBC reports that of the 933 ships that took part, 236 were lost and 61 were put out of action. In addition, 68,111 men of the British Expeditionary Forces were captured or killed during Blitzkrieg, retreat and evacuation, 40,000 French troops were taken into captivity with the fall of Dunkirk, and 126 merchant seamen died during the evacuation. 
      Some 200,000 of the troops were evacuated from a breakwater. The rest were taken from the beaches, Encyclopedia Britannica recounts.

June 4, 1940: The 10-day operation ended. Churchill admitted that he thought only 25,000 to 30,000 troops could be saved. But approximately 198,000 British troops were evacuated, along with 140,000 Allied troops -- a total of 338,000 lives. 
     The BBC points out that an additional 220,000 Allied troops were “rescued by British ships from other French ports -- Cherbourg, Saint-Malo, Brest, and Saint-Nazaire -- bringing the total of Allied troops evacuated to 558,000.”

Churchill's address: On that day, Churchill famously addressed the House of Commons. Part of his address can be heard on the Dunkirk trailers: "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."


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