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Dunkirk was a victory for morale but ultimately a humiliating military defeat

For Britons, Dunkirk is one of the proudest moments of World War II. The evacuation of 338,226 troops and other personnel from the beaches of northern France – which took place between May 26 and June 4 1940 – was an act of stubborn defiance by a plucky island nation against Hitler’s blitzkrieg. It was a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Yet this was anything but a military success. Quite often we now forget the catastrophic defeat that led to “Operation Dynamo”.

On May 10, 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) – totalling approximately 400,000 at the height of the campaign and commanded by Lord Gort – was deployed in Belgium, alongside its allies, as part of a defensive line against German invasion. But by May 13, German units had pierced French defences and crossed the River Meuse near Sedan, close to the Belgian border in northeast France. Within a week, German panzer divisions had reached the French coast south of Boulogne, trapping the BEF and the French 1st Army in a small pocket around the channel ports, cutting them off from the main Allied force.

The German advance to the English Channel between May 16 and May 21, 1940. The History Department of the United States Military Academy

The British retreat to Dunkirk was controversial. But poor planning, intelligence, leadership, and communications had left the Allies in a desperate situation.

Prime minster Winston Churchill had promised the French that the BEF would play its part in a coordinated counterattack against the German flank. However, Lord Gort was preparing to evacuate his troops, apparently with the blessing of the secretary of state for war, Anthony Eden. To escape annihilation, the BEF staged a fighting retreat to the coast, and rescue plans were hastily made, including appeals for owners of “self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet” to contact the Admiralty.

Covered by rear-guard actions by both British and French units, exhausted troops converged on Dunkirk. Naturally, there was panic and chaos on the beaches. The town and port were bombed and time was running out. Discipline was often tested: historians have found anecdotal evidence that order was sometimes restored through the severest of measures, with guns being trained on troops by their own officers and men.

French involvement

Crucial time was bought by those covering the retreat. At Lille, the French 1st Army fought German forces to a standstill for four days, despite being hopelessly outnumbered and lacking any armour. The French forces forming a perimeter defence around Dunkirk were all either killed or captured.

British forces covering the retreat also paid a high price. Those who were not killed in the fighting became prisoners of war. But even that was no guarantee of safety. At the village of Le Paradis, 97 British troops who had surrendered were massacred by the SS. At least 200 Muslim soldiers of the French army met with the same fate.

Men of the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles awaiting evacuation at Bray Dunes, near Dunkirk, 1940. Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia

As the quays of Dunkirk had been destroyed, evacuation had to take place from the shore itself, justifying the foresight of the Admiralty to co-opt the small ships. Troops were transported by these small craft to larger vessels of the Royal Navy and French Navy under frequent harassment from the Luftwaffe. Remarkably, however, Hitler was persuaded to halt the advance on land in favour of air strikes against the men on the beaches. The limitations of isolated air operations and the deteriorating weather that reduced the number of sorties (missions) flown probably saved many British and French lives.

The BEF was rescued, but this was far from a victory. More than 50,000 men had been lost (killed, missing, or captured) and an enormous number of tanks, guns, and trucks had been left behind, too.

Victims of spirit

The spirit of Dunkirk – the pride that the British people felt after the successful rescue of the country’s men – had its own casualties, too. The crucial role of the French army has subsequently been forgotten. The RAF, criticised for failing to cover the troops on the beach adequately, actually sustained huge losses of its own, as did both the British and French navies. German errors – particularly the aforementioned halt order – that allowed the escape to happen are understated.

Dunkirk has become the focal point for this moment in history, but other rescue missions took place that are not as well remembered. In total, over 558,000 British, French, Polish and Czech personnel were rescued from the beaches of northern France between May and June 1940 – an additional 220,000 to those who were evacuated from Dunkirk.

The Daily Express, May 4, 1940. The Daily Express, Author provided

Most significantly, the role of the “little ships” has come to dominate the story of Dunkirk. Though these 861 pleasure craft and fishing boats were essential to the operation’s success in the shallow waters around Dunkirk, they were less significant in evacuations elsewhere. The boats are often viewed as an integral part of the people’s war, even though most of these ships were crewed by Royal Navy personnel, not civilians.

Dunkirk was in essence a defeat, but there was a victory in the impact it had on the country’s morale and national identity during the war – which was largely shaped by the British media.

As novelist J.B. Priestley put it in his BBC radio broadcast of June 5, 1940:

What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes and miscalculations, ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit – and you can see it running through our history – of conjuring up such transformations. Out of a black gulf of humiliation and despair, rises a sun of blazing glory.

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