Eighty years ago, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the successful completion of the largest amphibious military evacuation of all time. Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, more than 338,000 Belgian, British, and French troops fled from Dunkirk, France across the stormy seas of the English Channel to safety, narrowly escaping annihilation at the hand of the Nazis.
Call it chance, destiny, luck, or Providence, the “miracle of the little ships” kept hope alive for the fledging Allied resistance to Adolf Hitler. But it was no sure thing.
At the start of “Operation Dynamo”—the codename for the Dunkirk evacuations—Churchill had been Prime Minister for a mere 16 days. Few Britons wanted the job. Prominent men like Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax were ready to negotiate peace with Hitler.
Yet Churchill never wavered. He assumed the mantle of the British Empire’s protector as if it were made for him. As he went to bed at 3 a.m. on May 11, Churchill later recalled, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”
‘Be Ye Men of Valour’
As Harry Jaffa once noted, a true statesman knows how to judge wisely what is within his power to accomplish. No matter the worthiness of the goal, the “perfect” cannot become the enemy of the “good.” The odds of the British Expeditionary Force defending northern France and successfully repulsing the Nazi advance ranged from near-impossible to non-existent. Churchill grasped this reality, and he did not hide it from the British people.
On May 19, in his first public broadcast as Prime Minister, Churchill acknowledged “it would be foolish to disguise the gravity of the hour.” Preparing Britons for the long fight ahead, he recalled that well-equipped armies numbering millions of men could not be overcome in the space of a few weeks, or even months.
Even so, Churchill proclaimed it would be “more foolish to lose heart” and called on Britons to “wage war until victory is won…whatever the cost and the agony may be.”
Churchill concluded his radio address by quoting 1 Maccabees 3:58–60: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”
The tone was set for the trying days to come. Churchill’s words became the vital fuel to stoke the spirit of the British people.
The Withdrawal to Dunkirk
Behind the scenes, the unprecedented collapse of the French military frustrated Churchill. Furthermore, isolationist sentiments in America hamstrung FDR’s ability to provide Britain with the full totality of resources she so desperately needed.
Churchill recognized that the best hope for the continued survival of the weakened Allies was a retreat back to the southern coast of England. Foreseeing the eventual need to extricate as many troops as possible before being trapped, on the evening of May 20, Churchill ordered the Admiralty to gather “a large number of small vessels” to be held at the ready to “proceed to ports and inlets on the French coast.”
Britain’s natural advantages as an island were its salvation countless times before—so it would be again. Churchill told his Cabinet that if the army could be safely brought home, Britain could “hold out” and make the Nazis “rue the day they try to invade.”
The best exit ramp for the BEF was the harbor township of Dunkirk. “We cannot leave our army to be surrendered,” Churchill exclaimed to the War Cabinet that evening, “if we lose the men then we lose the war.”
‘The Bit of Grit that Saved Us’
The longshot chance to rescue the BEF necessitated a tragic reality. The 30th Brigade and the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment holed up in Calais would not be able to join the escape. The 30th’s commander, Brigadier General Claude Nicholson, was told of his duty: stay behind and delay the Germans as long as possible. Upon the delivery of the fatal orders, Churchill informed Anthony Eden he felt “physically sick.”
Nicholson and his men fought bravely, resisted numerous calls for surrender, and held their defense parameter for three days before ultimately succumbing to the Nazi onslaught. Of the nearly 4,000 men defending Calais, 200 evaded capture, and 300 died in combat. The rest became prisoners of the 10th Panzer Division. Tragically, Nicholson would die in captivity in 1943.
Churchill paid tribute to the steadfast men of Calais in parliament two months later, proclaiming they were “the bit of grit that saved us.”
Unbeknownst to Churchill at the time, Hitler commanded German tank progress to stop while enroute to the Dunkirk region. The führer’s order stood until midway through May 26. It took a full 16 hours for German tanks to get rolling again once the halt was lifted. This colossal misstep by the Nazis gave British commanders just enough time to establish the requisite defense parameter to support the evacuations.
Aiding Churchill’s Hail Mary operation, and compounding the effect of the Nazis’s hesitation, several storms and unprecedented heavy rains slowed down both the formidable airplanes of the German Luftwaffe and Hitler’s relentless tank divisions.
Flying over the beaches of Dunkirk three years later, Churchill remarked that he would never understand why Hitler didn’t finish off the BEF when he had the chance.
Grim Stakes and Impossible Odds
The design of Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, Operation Dynamo began in earnest at 7 p.m. on May 26. That day, British Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs Alexander Cadogan wrote in his diary that the position of the BEF was “awful” and that he saw “no hope for more than a tiny fraction of them.” Churchill told parliament the Dunkirk situation was “extremely grave” and to brace for “hard and heavy tidings.”
When there were still doubts as to whether Britain should withdraw to fight another day or sue for peace with the Nazis, Churchill drew upon his deep knowledge of history and outlined the stakes: “Nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which tamely surrendered were finished.”
“If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” Churchill told his War Cabinet, “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.” That settled the issue. Britain would carry on the fight from her island with however many men could still bear arms.
The Miracle of the Little Ships
Privately, Churchill expected no more than 30,000 BEF troops would make it back. Yet against all odds, the dire predictions proved wrong.
Some 25,473 soldiers reached the British coast from May 27-28, followed by 47,310 rescued on May 29, and 53,823 on May 30. An astounding 68,014 embarked on May 31, when at its peak, 4,000 men left France each hour.
The last daylight evacuations took place on June 1 after increasing Nazi aerial bombardment rendered them too dangerous. That day, 64,429 Allied soldiers departed safely. In the final three days of Operation Dynamo, an additional 79,177 British and French troops were carefully ferried across the Channel at night.
In an echo of ancient Spartan battlefield tradition, the last Brit to leave the Dunkirk beachhead was the officer in charge of completing the withdrawal. General Harold Alexander boarded the final Royal Navy destroyer only after he was certain all available British troops evacuated safely.
220 military ships and more than 860 total vessels took part in the evacuation. The hodge-podge armada comprised boats of all shapes and sizes. Tugboats, fishing trawlers, minesweepers, motorized lifeboats, and even pleasure craft scrambled from coastal resorts played their part alongside Royal Navy corvettes and destroyers. It was, as Churchill would tell the House of Commons, a miracle of deliverance.
Providing Hope to the Free World
Back on May 28, Churchill’s made it known he would address parliament on June 4 to provide an update on the situation. At the time, Churchill feared it would fall to him to announce the greatest military disaster in British history. Instead, he was able to report the remarkable salvation of more than 330,000 brave men.
Yet amidst the jubilation caused by the Dunkirk miracle, Churchill reminded the Commons that “wars are not won by evacuations.” And there were severe losses. More than 200 British and Allied ships were sunk, including six valuable destroyers. The Royal Air Force lost 116 pilots protecting the evacuation convoys. To prevent valuable war materiel falling into the hands of the enemy, the British abandoned or destroyed several hundred tanks, 400 antiaircraft guns, 2,000 field guns, 60,000 vehicles, 90,000 rifles, and 600,000 tons of fuel. In the final tally, more than 40,000 men of the BEF were captured, wounded, or killed during the nine days of Operation Dynamo.
Perilous times lay ahead for Britain and her Empire. Though codebreakers at Bletchley Park had discovered a direct assault on Britain was not imminent, there was little doubt in British High Command that the full weight of Hitler’s might and fury would soon assault their island home.
Into this daunting challenge, Churchill responded with one of the greatest moments of his storied career. The peroration of Churchill’s June 4 speech ranks amongst the finest oratory ever recorded. Churchill proclaimed:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. 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…
Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood wrote that Churchill’s words were “worth 1,000 guns.” Harold Nicolson told his wife, “This afternoon Winston made the finest speech that I have ever heard. The House was deeply moved.”
Following the brief moments of reprieve after Dunkirk, it fell on Churchill and the British Empire to fight the Nazi menace alone. Yet in the harsh months to come, Britain held steadfast and resolute, until, as Churchill had predicted, the New World, with all of its power and might, stepped forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old, and ensured the sacrifice of Dunkirk was not in vain.