Battle of Dunkirk

The Battle of Dunkirk: Operation Dynamo

The Battle of Dunkirk, also referred to as the Dunkirk Evacuation, was a major military campaign that took place during World War II between the Allies and Nazi Germany. From May 26th to June 4th, 1940, around 338,000 British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops were evacuated from the French coastal town of Dunkirk to England following their seemingly impending loss in the Battle of France on the Western Front. Code-named Operation Dynamo, the huge military operation involved hundreds of naval and civilian vessels and became recognized as the “Miracle of Dunkirk’”, serving as a pivotal event in the Allied effort in the war.

British soldiers at Dunkirk
British Expeditionary Force soldiers fire at German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation, 1940. Image: AP

Taking the Allies by Surprise

After the German invasion of Poland on September 1st, 1939, to begin the second world war, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was sent to France to help defend against a potential German attack. Following a brief period with no fighting, known as the Phoney War, Germany began to attack France and Belgium through the Ardennes Forest. France did not anticipate that Germany would attack through the Ardennes as it was believed that the dense forest would be too difficult for the tanks to advance through. Instead, French authorities assumed that the German attack would occur along the France-Germany border at the defensive Maginot Line. However, the German tank division were able to mobilize through the forest with ease, taking the British and French by surprise.

As the German tank divisions steadily advanced into France, they circled north straight towards the English Channel. In doing so, they cut off all communication and transport between the Northern and Southern divisions of Allied forces, pushing several hundred thousand troops in the north into a tiny section of the French coast. With Britain now facing a huge threat of losing thousands of soldiers to the German assault, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described the crisis as “a colossal military disaster” and stated that Britain was in grave danger of losing a significant portion of its forces.

Allied troops huddle on the beach waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk. Image: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

The Dunkirk Evacuation

By May 19th, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), General John Gort had begun to seriously consider the possibility of a large-scale evacuation of his entire force by sea, in order to rescue his troops from an inevitable annihilation by the approaching German forces. It was soon decided that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would be evacuated from the coasted town of Dunkirk, France.

From May 28th to the 31st, 40,000 French troops resisted against the German attack, subsequently delaying their advance and enabling the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to build a defensive line and devise a plan of retreat across the English Channel, in return to Britain. Over the duration of the next eight days, more than 335,000 British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and French troops were able to evacuate France by sea. The retreat was achieved aboard over 800 boats, including military vessels and small merchant ships such as shipping boats, fishing boats and pleasure ships. Many other smaller British ships also journeyed across the English Channel to assist the rescue of the British forces from the German assault.

Allied troops wading through the water to board ships at Dunkirk, France, 1940.


In the end, the British retreat at Dunkirk was crucial to the eventual success of the Allied forces in the war. The rescued British and French troops would later play a vital role in the Battle of Britain and the Normandy Invasion. Churchill cautiously advised “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” While over 335,000 Allied soldiers were rescued in the evacuation, British and French forces sustained heavy casualties with a loss of around 16,000 French soldiers and 1000 British soldiers.

evacuated allied troops at dunkirk
Allied soldiers evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. Image: Western Mail Archive