War is a seemingly unending series of heavy-hearted, dark and dismal days. Almost nothing is redeeming about an event that incites such cruelty and carnage. But even in the most trying and troubling of times, there are triumphs. The fierce battle of Dunkirk, which resulted in the rescue of over 330,000 Allied troops during WWII, is one such victory.
In the early years of WWII, Nazi Germany was expanding its reign of terror across Europe. Like a virus, the enemy was spreading its control. As France fell in 1940, the Allies' northern and southern forces were divided, and German troops capitalized on the split by encircling those in the north.
By May 19, 1940, a British Commander was entertaining the thought of withdrawing the BEF (British Expeditionary Force, made up of 13 infantry divisions). But orders from London instructed against it, so an attack from Arras, France was launched. However, the Germans were powerful enough to withstand it. Led by General Heinz Guderian, the Nazis responded by closing in on Dunkirk, located on the north-west side of France. It was the only port Allies could use to escape.
Just when the fate of the Allied troops seemed bleaker than ever, Hitler intervened on May 24. For reasons unknown, he ordered the Germans to hold back. His motive in halting what could have been a crippling attack can only be speculated. Two plausible accounts, as put forward by Bruce Robinson in a 2011 BBC History file on the Dunkirk battle, are as follows: "One possible explanation is that Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe, assured Hitler that his aircraft alone could destroy the Allied troops trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk. Others believe Hitler felt that Britain might accept peace terms more readily without a humiliating surrender."
Regardless of the reason, Hitler's command afforded the Allies an unexpected chance to evacuate.
Two days later, on May 26, Hitler realized his blunder and rescinded his prior order. At the insistence of Field Marshal Walter von Brauchitsch, German tanks refocused their target on Dunkirk. By this point, though, the Allies had bolstered their defenses and Hitler made the call to advance his troops to the south. This move is widely accepted as another stroke of luck in the Allies' favor.
On the same day, the evacuation of Allied forces officially began. As ordered by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, privately owned boats began beaching on Dunkirk's shores to rescue soldiers. The flotilla of small vessels was, and still is, referred to as the "Little Ships." Three days later, on May 29, the operation was announced to the British public.
By June 4, the evacuation had been completed. Approximately 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops had been removed from Dunkirk. Much of their heavy equipment, however, did not survive. Destroyers and personnel ships, for example, sunk.
The successful evacuation of Allied troops gave the British a reinvigorated sense of confidence during the war. When morale was low, Dunkirk served as a much-needed boost, and the rescued soldiers played a crucial role in the eventual defeat of the Nazis.
”Operation Dynamo,” as it was coined by Admiral Ramsay, was remarkable, with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill calling the nine day-long evacuation "a miracle." But he remained cautious in the aftermath and advised the public to withhold celebrations. He said, "We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations."
A film detailing the exceptional evacuation was made, titled Dunkirk. Directed by Christopher Nolan, the epic drama stars Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Kenneth Branagh, Harry Styles and James D'Arcy. Production largely took place in Dunkirk, with additional locations including the Netherlands, the U.K. and Los Angeles. ~Matthew Pariselli