On 25 May 1940, large numbers of the British Expeditionary Force as well as the remaining French troops found themselves perilously surrounded by the encroaching German army. Thanks to the unexpectedly successful advance of German troops under General von Manstein, over 370,000 allied troops found themselves at great risk.
The next day, Operation Dynamo begun, and despite initial skepticism, over the following eight days would prove one of the most successful evacuations in military history. Here are 10 fascinating facts about the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’.
1. Hitler sanctioned a halt-order
In what would become known as one of the most controversial decisions of the war, Hitler sanctioned a 48-hour halt order of advancing German troops. This halt order gave Allied command a crucial window, without which such a grand-scale evacuation would have surely been impossible. Many consider it a great strategic blunder.
It is unknown exactly as to why Hitler gave this order. Some suspicions indicate he wanted to ‘let the Allies go’ but historian Brian Bond asserts that the Luftwaffe were given the exclusive opportunity to halt Allied evacuation and annihilate remaining Allied troops themselves.
2. The German Stukas had in-built sirens
German dive-bomber JU 87s (commonly known as Stukas) were equipped with air-powered sirens to spread terror. Often dubbed ‘The Jericho Trumpet’, these sirens would emit a blood-curdling wail described by witnesses of the Stukas as likening to ‘a flock of huge, infernal seagulls’.
3. The French First Army mounted a valiant last-stand
French troops under General Jean-Baptiste Molanié dug in forty miles south-east of Dunkirk and, despite being significantly outnumbered, mounted a ferocious defence enabling the evacuation. German General Kurt Waeger gave the French defenders full-honours of war before becoming POWs as a result of their valour.
4. The Germans dropped leaflets calling for surrender
As dramatised in the opening sequence of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Dunkirk’, the German planes were dropping leaflets as well as bombs. These leaflets showed a map of Dunkirk, as well a reading in English, ‘British soldiers! Look at the map: it gives your true situation! Your troops are entirely surrounded – stop fighting! Put down your arms!’
5. The Allies abandoned much of their equipment during the evacuation
This included: 880 field guns, 310 guns of large calibre, about 500 anti-aircraft, 850 anti-tank guns, 11,000 machine guns, nearly 700 tanks, 20,000 motorcycles, and 45,000 motor cars or lorries. Officers told troops falling back from Dunkirk to burn or otherwise disable their vehicles.
6. Evacuating troops were remarkably orderly
Many onlookers were amazed by the patience and calm-nature of the troops being evacuated. One of the signallers being evacuated, Alfred Baldwin, recalled:
“You had the impression of people standing waiting for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving”.
7. A national day of prayer was declared
On the eve of Operation Dynamo, King George VI declared a national day of prayer, in which he himself attended a special service at Westminster Abbey. These prayers were evidently answered and Walter Matthews (Dean of St Pauls Cathedral) was the first to pronounce the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk.
8. Appeals were made for any ship to help
A wealth of private fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, and commercial vessels like ferries were called upon to aid in the evacuation. Notable examples include the Tamzine, a 14-foot open-topped fishing vessel (the smallest boat of the evacuation), and the Medway Queen, which made seven round-trips to Dunkirk, rescuing up to 7,000 men.
9. The evacuation inspired one of Churchill’s most famous speeches
The British press were elated with the success of the evacuation, often citing the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ of the British rescuers.
This spirit was embodied in Churchill’s famous speech to the House of Commons:
“We shall fight them 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!”
10. The evacuation’s success was highly unexpected
Just before the initiation of the evacuation, it was estimated that at a push just 45,000 men could be evacuated within the small window. By 4 June 1940, the end of the operation, some 330,000 allied troops had been successfully rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.