Nazi Germany invaded northern France and the Low Countries in May 1940 during the early years of World War II. Please select which sections you would like to print: While every effort has been made to follow citation style rules, there may be some discrepancies. To remedy this, he directed the soldiers to board rescue ships from a 1,400-yard (1.3-km)-long breakwater to the east. Together with the civilians who aided the Royal Navy, they saved countless lives. On May 29 there was an unexpected change of fate; the German army stopped its advance on Dunkirk and the panzer divisions were called back. General Alan Brooke returned to France to command the few remaining British units and judged the situation untenable. Soon, as Churchill predicted, the “tide of the world war” would shift toward the forces of freedom. The harbor at Dunkirk was bombed out of use, and smaller civilian vessels had to ferry the soldiers from the beaches to the warships waiting at sea. Be on the lookout for your Britannica newsletter to get trusted stories delivered right to your inbox. There are going to be some Dunkirk spoilers, so go and watch it and then come back. After Gamelin’s startling message, French Premier Paul Reynaud hastily decided to move the seat of government from Paris to Tours. The agreement divided France into two parts, the northern half under direct German occupation and the south under a puppet regime led by Pétain. The new French commander, Maxime Weygand, transferred soldiers from the Maginot Line, but could muster only 43 infantry divisions to face the Third Reich’s 104. Although it takes place in one of the most dramatic chapters of World War II, Dunkirk isn’t really about conflict, or violence, or the horrors of combat. On May 10 the German blitzkrieg attack on the Netherlands began with the capture by parachutists of key bridges deep within the country, with the aim of opening the way for mobile ground forces. Instead, 20 German planes were damaged and another 60 shot down. Meanwhile, the French military was in tatters and seemed poised for defeat. A similar
 atrocity unfolded on the 
same day with the 2nd
 Battalion of the Royal
 Warwickshire Regiment,
 which had been captured 
near Wormhout. The remaining obstacles that could have blocked the advance were not manned in time. ‎What happened at Dunkirk in May 1940 was one of the greatest escapes of all time. On May 10 German tanks crossed Luxembourg to the southeastern border of Belgium, and by the evening of May 12 the Germans were across the Franco-Belgian frontier and overlooking the Meuse River. Those are things you never forget.”, British soldier Peter Wagstaff recalled similar treatment. The German strategy, called blitzkrieg, relied on sustained and concentrated forward momentum to ensure a swift victory before the enemy could respond. Hulton Archive/Getty. It had taken the Germans just 18 days after Dunkirk to capture France. Not Everyone Escaped at Dunkirk. All Rights Reserved. Naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats were used in the evacuation, which began on May 26. On September 15, the Luftwaffe launched over 1,000 aircraft in the campaign’s most concentrated bombing raid yet against London. An official checking the papers of French refugees during the Dunkirk evacuation, May–June 1940. They determined that the beach at the French seaport of Dunkirk would best serve this purpose. British soldier Charlie Waite’s story was not uncommon. You are fighting to keep alive.”. * The request timed out and you did not successfully sign up. Naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats were used in the evacuation, which began on May 26. The Battle of Dunkirk, and subsequent evacuation of the French seaside town, … Paris fell on June 14. The next day they crossed the Meuse, and on May 15 they broke through the French defenses into open country, turning westward in the direction of the English Channel. Britain now stood alone against the Nazis and many wondered whether it would be the next to concede. Get a Britannica Premium subscription and gain access to exclusive content. By evening more reassuring reports had come from the Aisne, and Reynaud broadcast a denial of “the most absurd rumours that the government is preparing to leave Paris.” At the same time, he seized the opportunity to replace Gamelin and for that purpose summoned Gen. Maxime Weygand from Syria. Critical to this process was the British Royal Air Force, which intercepted German bombers above the beach. The scene on the pier in Dunkirk. Convinced that the area could be captured by the German air force alone, Hitler reduced his arsenal in Northern France to slower infantry, with the help of the Luffwaffe in the skies above. Updated: March 26, 2018 2:27 PM ET | Originally published: July 21, 2017 6:29 PM EDT. Two were dropped from the air and one arrived by ship and stormed the beaches beside its American allies. Queen Wilhelmina and her government left the country for England on May 13, and the next day the Dutch army surrendered to the Germans. Weygand did not arrive until May 19, and thus for three critical days the Supreme Command was without direction. "A miracle" - is the best description of what happened at Dunkirk in May and June 1940. The threat of a German invasion was over. Tennant observed that evacuating troops directly from the beach would be an arduous and potentially costly process. You accepted it. As the days proceeded, Rommel simply directed his Panzers around the remaining Hedgehogs, and the French were unable to mount an effective counterattack. All he could manage was an attack by two divisions, which had just been rushed south to Arras, led by a brigade of infantry tanks, the only armoured troops he had. As described in Dunkirk: The Men They Left Behind, by Sean Longden, some were summarily executed. His grandiloquent orders had no more chance of being translated into practical terms than those of Reynaud or new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. To cut his losses, Hitler scaled back the raids in favor of the limited nighttime strikes known as the Blitz, which continued until May 1941. The Allied armies in Belgium wheeled back to the line of the Scheldt. In the film (based upon true events) the British army has fallen back to Dunkirk and is trapped there until a flotilla of small boats helps remove 350,000 troops mixed British, French, Belgians armies. Gen. Paul Ludwig von Kleist surprised the Allies by advancing through Luxembourg and into France over the course of five days. Let us know if you have suggestions to improve this article (requires login). Some members of the British government, beginning to regret the rise of the uncompromising Churchill, considered what sort of an agreement might be reached with the German leader. While the governments and commanders got into a tangle of divergent views and orders, the cut-off armies in the north fell back on a slant closer to the coast under increasing pressure from Gen. Walther von Reichenau’s advance through Belgium. By signing up you are agreeing to our. The French government panicked and nearly evacuated Paris; their worries were compounded by further German advances into Belgium on May 17. He described his two forced marches, one when he was captured in 1940 and the second in 1945, in his book, Survivor of the Long March: Five Years as a POW: “[The first march] was in hot weather and I was still wearing my greatcoat but I was in good physical shape. During the evacuation, 126 civilian sailors were killed. That same day, Gen. Henri Giraud assumed command of the French Ninth Army and drew up a plan for a counteroffensive on a line 25 miles (40 km) west of the Meuse. Told from the perspective of the decision makers and the soldiers on the ground, this series offers a tr… More than 930 ships took part in the evacuation. From the day of the German invasion on May 10 through the evacuation of Dunkirk, France had lost 24 infantry divisions, including six of seven motorized divisions. The French fought as well as they could, relying on small groups of troops and armaments gathered into tight factions called “Hedgehogs.” From June 5 to June 7, these pockets of resistance slowed the Germans as they crossed the marshes of the Somme River at Hangst in the west and at Péronne in the east. Trump's Presidency Divided Families. Dunkirk's timeline is so intricately woven that it would take a whole other article to fully explore, but to explain the ending we do need to have a strong grounding of everything that's happened thus far, so here's a quick recap.. Instead of four armored divisions equipped with 200 tanks each, the country now had three, each equipped with 40. The Dunkirk evacuation moved about 340,000 British, French, and Belgian (Allied) soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, across the English Channel to England. On August 20, as the aerial conflict entered its most intense stage, Churchill took to the airways to pay tribute to the courageous pilots of the RAF: “The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. The assault failed to produce the desired results, with the British capital escaping serious harm. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook . On May 28, the SS Totenkopf Division marched about 100 members of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment, which had just surrendered, to a pit in a farm in Le Paradis and murdered them with machine gun spray. Updates? The 73-year-old veteran of World War I was better at expounding outdated theory than grasping the realities of a rapidly changing, increasingly motorized battlefield. However, Hitler exercised restraint at Dunkirk, halting his panzer tanks short of the seaport only days before the evacuation. More dangerous still was the backdoor approach of Guderian, whose armoured forces were sweeping north past Boulogne and Calais. Brilliantly spinning the defeat at Dunkirk into an expression of the “Dunkirk spirit,” Churchill urged his people to display the grit of the British troops and the can-do attitude of civilians who volunteered their ships for the rescue operation. Steven Spielberg Helped Christopher Nolan Fine-Tune His Vision For The WWII … The Dutch defenders fell back westward, and by noon on May 12 German tanks were on the outskirts of Rotterdam. 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.”. Hitler tentatively planned for a British invasion, code-named Operation Sea Lion, but he knew that such an incursion would be risky, difficult and very costly, and so he waited for a British peace offer. Dunkirk was a critical turning point in World War II. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”. The Battle of Dunkirk (French: Bataille de Dunkerque) was fought in Dunkirk (Dunkerque), France, during the Second World War, between the Allies and Nazi Germany.As the Allies were losing the Battle of France on the Western Front, the Battle of Dunkirk was the defence and evacuation to Britain of British and other … On arriving at train stations the POWs were loaded into cattle cars for trips to work sites in Germany and Poland. The film is told in three timelines that unfold concurrently but are in fact of varying in … After the last rescue boats left Dunkirk harbor on June 4, 1940, the Germans captured some 40,000 French troops who’d been left behind as well as at least 40,000 British soldiers in the Dunkirk vicinity. On May 11 the Belgian front was broken, and German tanks ran on westward while Belgian, French, and British divisions fell back to a line between Antwerp and Namur. Guderian’s corps then turned north up the coast in a drive for Calais and Dunkirk on May 22. The crimes began as Dunkirk was being evacuated. German planners realized that if two or three armoured divisions had been available for a concentrated counterstroke, the German advance might have been dislocated. You can unsubscribe at any time. Within Reynaud’s cabinet, there was an appeasement faction, coalescing around Deputy Premier Marshal Pétain, which was considering a potential deal with Adolf Hitler. Their sacrifice had brought the salvation of the British nation. Even before the German military forced Belgium’s surrender on May 28, 1940, the British government had been quietly preparing for an evacuation of its ground forces and other Allied troops under the code name Operation Dynamo. Adm. Bertram Home Ramsay directed this operation and charged Capt. Could Amsterdam's New Economic Theory Replace Capitalism? This lining of the Aisne had an important indirect effect of playing on the most instinctive fear of the French. The prevailing confusion was increased by Weygand’s arrival to take over supreme command. Read more in TIME-LIFE’s new special edition, World War II: Dunkirk, available on Amazon. By the next day motorized divisions had taken over the line of the Somme from Péronne to Abbeville, forming a strong defensive flank. Encyclopaedia Britannica's editors oversee subject areas in which they have extensive knowledge, whether from years of experience gained by working on that content or via study for an advanced degree.... British and other Allied troops wading through the water to board ships at Dunkirk, France, 1940. An evacuation is the process of moving people away from where they are in danger to a safer place. He began currying a relationship with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, who signaled his intention to assist the British in any way he could. The Battle of Arras and the Belgian surrender, https://www.britannica.com/event/Dunkirk-evacuation, Social Studies for Kids - The Dunkirk Evacuation, Military History Encyclopedia on the Web - Dunkirk Evacuation, Dunkirk evacuation - Children's Encyclopedia (Ages 8-11). The History Learning Site, 20 Apr 2015. Here's a Formula That Explains Where We Need to Invest in Climate Innovation, Sign up to receive the top stories you need to know now on politics, health and more, © 2021 TIME USA, LLC. You didn’t have time to analyze yourself. The next day, however, orders came from the British Cabinet that the BEF was to march south on Amiens. As the war dragged on, forced marches became more common, sometimes with very little food or none at all — one British battalion reported receiving only two sugar lumps and two tablespoons of a mixture of carrots and potatoes a day. In a tense conversation with Churchill, Brooke demanded a further evacuation, and when Churchill argued that a British presence was needed to make the French feel supported, Brooke replied: “It is impossible to make a corpse feel.”. During World War II, in May–June 1940, the British Expeditionary Force and other Allied troops, cut off by the Germans, were evacuated from Dunkirk to England by naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats. The opposite was the case. The year 2020 will mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France between May 26th and June 4th 1940, during World War II. When the Belgians’ extended right flank, adjoining the British, gave way under pressure from Reichenau, these two divisions were rushed north again. When the Allied forces landed in Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944, three of the eight divisions that took part were British. German troops and French prisoners of war crossing the Meuse River after the Battle of Sedan, May 15, 1940. That’s what happened at Dunkirk — a small town on the northern coast of France — in the early stages of World War II, before the US had entered the war. While Allied leaders were still hoping for an attack that would cut off the expanding “bulge,” German armoured forces raced to the Channel and cut off the Allied forces in Belgium. Some were killed. Gen. Georg-Hans Reinhardt swung south of the British rear position at Arras, headed for the same objective—the last escape port that remained open for the British. “The Kommandant, a German we called the ‘Purple Emperor,’ told us, ‘If you look out of the window you are going to be shot.’ One officer said he was still going to do it — and he was shot. When, on May 15, French commander-in-chief Maurice Gamelin received an alarming report that the Germans were crossing the Aisne between Rethel and Laon, he told the government that he had no reserves between that sector and Paris and could not guarantee the security of the capital for more than a day. Dunkirk, and the evacuation associated with the troops trapped on Dunkirk, was called a “miracle” by Winston Churchill. They had fought the battles to ensure the successful evacuation of over 300,000 fellow soldiers. The 7th Panzer Division, led by Erwin Rommel, finally broke through in the west and charged 20 miles south of the Somme to cut off one British division, which retreated and later evacuated. On May 16 Giraud found that the forces for such an undertaking were not available, while the Germans had advanced in strength far beyond that line. Just 20 when he was captured, Wagstaff and his fellow POWs were threatened by their Nazi captors. After crossing the Oise on May 17, German Gen. Heinz Guderian’s advance troops reached Amiens two days later. In the Dunkirk movie, the Royal Air Force pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) engages in aerial battles to help prevent the Luftwaffe from assaulting the men stranded on the beach and sinking the boats in the water. World War II, the biggest news story of the 20th century, continues to attract filmmakers 72 years after it ended. At Amiens, 90 miles northwest of Paris, the German 10th Panzer Division lost two thirds of its tanks in just three days. Allied planners had hoped to check the Germans at the Dyle Line—a defensive line that ran from Antwerp south to the French frontier, north of Sedan—but by May 16 Gamelin had determined that such a stand was impracticable. Hundreds of thousands of troops were rescued from the German advance in the nick of time. Newly fortified, British soldiers fought against advances in North Africa and the Middle East by the Axis forces. A 20-year-old from Essex, Waite was captured on May 20. On May 19 Gen. John Gort, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), began to consider the necessity of evacuating his forces by sea and the preparatory steps that such an endeavour would require. What happened at Dunkirk? In this article we are going to take a look at the amount of equipment that was left in France, the amount of equipment remaining in the United Kingdom and the ability of the United Kingdoms industry to replace the losses suffered. To lower officer morale, the Nazis told British officers that they would lose their rank and be sent to the salt mines to work. Please try again later. The Germans cut off various Allied escape ports along the English Channel and quickly shrunk their defensive lines. Consequently, three of Gort’s divisions were withdrawn from the front and sent south to strengthen the line of canals that covered Dunkirk and the Allies’ rear. The French government, which had been in a state of crisis for weeks, signed an armistice on June 22. The smaller vessels did help in the battle of Dunkirk, but it was largely the British Royal Navy and a few other larger ships that evacuated approximately 95% of the soldiers from the beaches. Kleist’s southern flank was progressively lined by his motorized divisions, which in turn were relieved by the infantry corps that were marching on as fast as possible. The 1940 evacuation at Dunkirk — the subject of Christopher Nolan’s critically acclaimed new film — remains one of World War II’s most striking episodes. Dunkirk evacuation, (1940) in World War II, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops from the French seaport of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) to England. By advancing through Luxembourg and into France over the line of the Low Countries, 1940 June. Up the coast in a drive for Calais and Dunkirk on May 26 July 21, 2017 6:29 PM.! 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