On this day in history, June 4th, 1940, the allied forces consisting of the remnants of three French field armies, Belgium soldiers, as well as the British Expeditionary Force, completed their desperate evacuation to Britain from Dunkirk. This marked the end of the first major allied attempt to halt the German westward advance, and though the operation as a whole was a failure- leading to the fall of France, the evacuation from Dunkirk would ultimately prove a resounding success, strengthening the resolve the British in their struggle against Hitler. A sentiment outlined perfectly in Winston Churchill’s famous “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech.
After several instances of German expansion ignored by the allies, including the rearmament of the German military, the taking of the Rhineland- lands that bordered Germany and France and were considered demilitarized under the Treaty of Versailles, the annexation of Austria, and the surrender of the Sudetenland- the northern part of Czechoslovakia containing a majority German population, the final straw fell when German forces invaded Poland on the first of September, 1939. Soon after both Britain and France declared war on Germany and the British Expeditionary Force was dispatched to France to aid in the defense of their eastern border.
Under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander, French General Maurice Gamelin, the BEF was entrenched along the Belgium border at the northern end of the Maginot Line- a series of French fortifications that stretched along the French border with Italy, Germany, and Switzerland.
The line did not extend all the way to the British Channel as the French wished to leave an avenue open to counter attack through Belgium. Also it was assumed that no heavy force could make it through the Ardennes Forest, and any enemy movement through that land could be easily repulsed.
On May the 10th, 1940, the Germans began their invasion of the Netherlands. In response Gamelin advanced the forces stationed along the Belgium border in the hopes of halting the German advance in the Netherlands. However, the German advance through the Netherlands proved faster than they anticipated and he was forced to divert to the River Dyle in Belgium.
On May the 14th the German army achieved what was believed impossible and pushed their Army Group A through the Ardennes Forest. It was a force led by General Gunther Von Kluge and consisted of the first Panzer Army- Panzer Group Kleist, three army corps, and a hybrid corps made up of two panzer divisions and an infantry division. It was a truly amazing feat and one that effectively bypassed the Maginot Line. The Germans advanced rapidly west to Sedan before cutting north towards the English Channel. They reached the channel on May the 20th and immediately began pushing east, tightening the noose on those allied forces trapped in the north.
A series of failed attempts to break the German encirclement led the remaining allied forces to conclude that their best bet for survival was an evacuation to Britain. It was discerned that the best port for such a maneuver was Dunkirk.
With the allies back to the sea the German army made the now highly scrutinized decision to halt their advance. This was a move that would ultimately enable the evacuation to occur and so is debated among historians as to why it was allowed to happen. One belief was that the terrain around Dunkirk was deemed unsuitable for the German armor and thus an infantry assault would need to be coordinated, or else Hitler was trying to conserve his armor for the main invasion of France. Another theory is that the commander of the Luftwaffe- Germany’s Airforce, had closer ties to the Nazi party and was, as such, favored by Hitler to strike the killing blow. The last, and least supported theory was that Hitler was still attempting to form an alliance with Britain, an alliance that would make his later invasion of the Soviet Union easier. Whatever the cause, the German army’s advance was halted and the Luftwaffe were given the task of destroying the forces in Dunkirk.
The actual evacuation of the British forces, known as Operation Dynamo, began on May the 26th, shortly after the official Belgium surrender to Germany. With the main dock of Dunkirk destroyed the decision was made to utilize the eastern breakwater- a wall built to protect the harbor mouth, as it extended far out into the surf and had room enough for four men to stand four abreast in a long column.
Due to a near constant bombardment by the Luftwaffe and German artillery, as well as the steady advance by the German infantry, held off by a French rearguard, the decision was made to commit all seafaring vessels, military or otherwise, to the evacuation. The RAF, Royal Air Force, of the British, was focused on beating back the Luftwaffe, and by June the 3rd the last of the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated. Churchill, however, gave the order for the ships to return for the French and Belgium forces. On June 4th 26,000 were rescued, though it is estimated that a further 30-40 thousand fighting in the rearguard were unable to be saved and were thus left to be captured by the Germans.
It is estimated that out of the 861 vessels sent to Dunkirk, 243 were sunk by the Luftwaffe. The RAF lost 106 aircraft, and the Germans 135. Around 16,000 French and 1,000 British soldiers lost their lives but 338,226 men were successfully evacuated.
Later that very day British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would deliver his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech to the House of Commons, cementing his countries resolve to continue the fight, even as the rest of Europe fell to the German war machine.