May 26, 1940, Dunkirk is the scene of the largest evacuation operation of WWII: theDynamo operation. It has been six days since the armored divisions of General Guderian’s 19th German Army Corps reached the Abbeville region and the mouth of the Somme. The sickle strike, the focal point of the German invasion plan for 1940 (known as the Yellow Plan), worked perfectly. The British forces (British Expeditionary Force, about ten divisions equipped with very modern equipment) and French (1st army and remnants of the 7th) rushed to the aid of Belgium and the Netherlands find themselves trapped in a pocket going from Flanders to Zeeland. A million Allied soldiers are at the mercy of the Wehrmacht ...
Operation Dynamo: a large-scale evacuation
Faced with the inevitable reduction of the pocket which is imminent, the attitude of Paris and that of London diverge. The French commander-in-chief, General Weygand, is still considering a counteroffensive on the southern German device (towards Abbeville in particular) in order to break the encirclement. The British general staff and in particular the commander of the BEF, General Gort, remain skeptical about the possible success of this maneuver. The British government, which risks losing its only real army in the affair, finally opts for an evacuation of its troops by sea: it will be Operation Dynamo.
Operation Dynamo, precipitated by the surrender of the Belgian army on May 28, is led by Vice Admiral Ramsay. It consists of a defensive retreat around the perimeter of Dunkirk, the port chosen for the re-embarkation of the troops. In order to delay the German advance, many French units (notably the remnants of the 1st Army in Lille) will sacrifice themselves, even going so far as to capture the German general commanding the 251st Infantry Division in a counter attack.
During this time, while the defensive device is formed around the port of Dunkirk and the allied units sabotage or gradually abandon their equipment (which will make the German units happy) the United Kingdom mobilizes an unprecedented transport fleet . Protected by the Royal Navy (39 destroyers engaged, and many other small vessels), it will include several hundred disparate ships, from yachts to trawlers, including barges… The re-embarkation is carried out under the continual assaults of the Luftwaffe, which the pilots of the British fighter squadrons based in the south of England fought with ardor. It is in the sky over Dunkirk that the famous Spitfire will begin to write its legend.
The success of Dunkirk
With the help of the French Navy, the Royal Navy will achieve a feat by evacuating in nine days nearly 340,000 combatants (including a third of French) in abominable conditions. On land, the units left behind, will courageously accomplish their sacrificial missions against the German troops. By the end of June 4 Dynamo, 35,000 French troops will have been captured in what was left of the Dunkirk pocket, more than 10,000 will have died. Allied fleets nonetheless lost around 100 ships in the operation.
Described at the time as a miracle, Operation Dynamo while it did succeed in saving the British expeditionary force, nevertheless brought a bare army (without equipment) back to the English beaches. As Churchill said, it could not be considered a victory since "wars are not won by evacuations". Nonetheless, it still remains today as one of the symbols of the resistance of the Allied troops to the German army and as one of the precursors of London's will to continue the fight despite everything.
Read also: May-June 1940: from Sedan to Dunkirk
- May-June 1940: French defeat, victory in Germany, under the eye of the foreign historians of Maurice Vaïsse. Otherwise, 2010.
- The battle of France day after day: May-June 1940 by Dominique Lormier. Seek Him Noon, 2010.
- Dunkirk, fiction by Christopher Nolan. 2017.