There was nowhere for the hundreds of thousands of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied soldiers to go once on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France.
In front of them sat the English Channel, while to their rear, the superior German forces closed in. All they could do was wait to see who got to them first – the Nazis or an implausible rescue.
It was May 1940 and World War II was already Adolf Hitler’s to win. His armies had stormed into the Netherlands, punched through Belgium and were tightening their grip on France.
The crumbling Allied forces were only saved when, on 24 May, Hitler inexplicably halted the advance. With this respite, BEF, French and Belgian troops fell back to Dunkirk and established a last desperate line of defence.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, preparations for a mass evacuation were underway. Few were optimistic of Operation Dynamo’s chances, so civilian vessels of all shapes and sizes were pressed into service.
Troops wade out to the ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’ during the 1940 evacuation © Getty Images
With these 800 or so ‘Little Ships of Dunkirk’, soldiers could wade through the shallow waters and clamber aboard. This meant the terrifying prospect of waiting their turn, with the sounds of fighting all around, but discipline never wavered under the command of BEF supremo Lord Gort.
Over the 10-day operation, the ragtag armada – from destroyers to the four-metre fishing boat Tamzine – rescued an extraordinary 338,226 men.
Winston Churchill described the evacuation as a “miracle of deliverance” – but it came at a cost. Thousands still perished, ships were sunk and the brave French troops maintaining a rear-guard throughout the operation were captured. If it wasn’t for RAF sorties, the casualty list would have been higher.
Exhausted, hungry, wounded and beaten, troops poured into the ports of southern England where they were met, not as a humiliated and retreating army, but as returning heroes.
The last few weeks had been, as Churchill put it, a “colossal military disaster” – not least because all the heavy equipment was lost, leaving Britain vulnerable to invasion.
Yet claiming any victory from defeat did wonders for morale. In his historic speech of 4 June, Churchill confirmed his place as a strong wartime leader by declaring Britain would stand against the Nazi menace: “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.”
Under the rallying cry of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, the nation endured the Battle of Britain and the Blitz.
Then, almost four years to the day after the last man left Dunkirk, Allied forces were on the beaches of France once more – this time at Normandy.
This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of History Revealed.