The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo and also known as the Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of Allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk, in the north of France, between 26 May and 4 June 1940.
The operation commenced after large numbers of British, French, and Belgian troops were cut off and surrounded by German troops during the Battle of France In a speech to the House of Commons , the new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called this “a colossal military disaster”, saying “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his We shall fight on the beaches speech on 4 June, he hailed their rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.
After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, France and the British Empire declared war and imposed an economic blockade. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to help defend France. After the Phoney War, Sitzkrieg of October 1939 to April 1940, Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France on 10 May 1940. Three of their Panzer corps attacked through the Ardennes and drove northwest to the English Channel. By 21 May, German forces had trapped the BEF, the remains of the Belgian forces, and three French armies along the northern coast of France. Commander of the BEF, General Viscount Gort, immediately saw evacuation across the Channel as the best course of action, and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest good port. On 22 May a halt order was issued by the German High Command, with Adolf Hitler‘s approval. Preventing the evacuation was left to the Luftwaffe until this order was rescinded on 26 May. This gave trapped Allied forces time to construct defensive works and pull back large numbers of troops to fight the Battle of Dunkirk. From 28 to 31 May, in the Siege of Lille, the remaining 40,000 men of the once-formidable French First Army fought a delaying action against seven German divisions, including three armoured divisions.
On the first day only 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats. Many troops were able to embark from the harbour’s protective mole onto 39 destroyers of the British Royal Navy , 4 Royal Canadian Navy destroyers, and civilian merchant ships, while others had to wade out from the beaches , waiting for hours in shoulder-deep water. Some were ferried to the larger ships by what came to be known as the little ships of Dunkirk, a flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats,pleasure craft, yachts and lifeboats called into service from Britain. The BEF lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign and had to abandon nearly all of its tanks, vehicles, and equipment.
In his speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, Churchill reminded the country that “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”