Thinking Aloud: 75th Anniversary of Dunkirk

May 23, 2015 by Darius 

The next week will mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Dunkirk.  The battle and the mass evacuation that followed were arguably the most important events of the first years of World War II in the western front in Europe.

On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded France and the Low Countries.  Rarely has a military campaign been so one-sided: German panzer divisions swept through French resistance.  Britain, France’s ally, dispatched hundreds of thousands of soldiers to France.  However, the British Expeditionary Force, as it was known, was too little, too late to stop the Nazis and save France.  Quickly, the BEF found itself in serious trouble, penned into pockets around ports on the English Channel.

As the German advance continued, the pockets fell one by one, until more than 300,000 British soldiers were trapped near the port of Dunkirk, France.  A hard German advance could have possibly led to the capture of the entire force, but on May 24, Hitler ordered the German tanks to halt for several days.  Hitler’s motivations are not entirely clear; he later insinuated he intentionally chose not to destroy the British army, but more likely, the German high command wanted to repair their tanks, worn out after weeks of fighting, and avoid a possible breakout by British forces.

Whatever Hitler’s reasoning, the halt gave Britain the opportunity to launch the most successful rescue operation in history.  The Royal Navy, combined with private citizens contributing their boats, evacuated more than 330,000 British soldiers from Dunkirk.  The evacuation succeeded beyond the wildest hopes of British military planners: they expected that no more than 45,000 soldiers could be removed to safety before the Nazis closed in.

While Dunkirk was still a major defeat for the British, as they were forced to abandon all their equipment, vehicles, and ammunition, the preservation of the British Expeditionary Force effectively allowed Britain to continue fighting.  If the force at Dunkirk had been destroyed, Britain would have no longer had any substantial army with which to resist the Germans.

On June 4, 1940, with his army back in Britain, Winston Churchill titled his famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech “The Miracle of Dunkirk” and used the example of Dunkirk to exhort the British people to do their bit and never give up: “I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.”  We know how the story ends.

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