When we left the British last week, they had just begun the process of attempting to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (or BEF, as well as French and some Belgian troops) from northwest France. As we saw, this effort, called Operation Dynamo, was something reminiscent of a football game’s last-second “hail mary” play…a desperation play designed to snatch victory from certain defeat. But in this instance, there was no victory in play. This “hail mary” would only determine the degree of defeat.
When the first of the British departed on the 27th of May, it was hoped that 45,000 of the nearly 400,000 men awaiting rescue could be picked up. Leadership believed that they had roughly enough time for two days of evacuation before German ground forced closed in for the kills and captures. But after two days, the Germans hadn’t closed in. And so the evacuation continued.
The British began to realize that maybe…just maybe…their rescue effort would bring home more soldiers than originally planned. The problem was transport. There simply weren’t enough ships to get there, load up, and get back. So the call went out, and all available vessels of any kind were asked to head for Dunkirk.
And they did. By the hundreds, they departed for the French coast. Fishing boats, pleasure boats, yachts, whatever could float set sail. If government officials couldn’t locate the owner of a boat, they simply “borrowed” it. Once on scene, the smaller boats acted as shuttles, running into close to shore, loading up, and taking soldiers to the larger ships in the bay. All the while, they were harassed by the slashing runs of the Luftwaffe, strafing and bombing and making life miserable for soldiers, standing chest-deep in water awaiting their turns.
And then, on June 4, 1940, it was done. More than 190,000 British soldiers and nearly 140,000 French soldiers were off of European soil and headed for England.
When asked about the German failure at Dunkirk, Adolf Hitler would always say that he held off the Wehrmacht and let the soldiers go as a magnanimous gesture in hopes of winning British support against the Russians. While possible, that’s a trifle too convenient. We don’t know what Hitler was really thinking, and frankly, “the unexplained” is part of why Dunkirk is considered a miracle.
There is also speculation as to whether the British could have continued fighting had the Dunkirk evacuation failed. What we do know that its success allowed the British to continue. It was against the backdrop of Dunkirk that Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking to the House of Commons on the evening of the 4th, uttered some of his most famous words…
“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.”