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Dunkirk

What happened in Dunkirk? (1940)

Dunkirk Evacuation

Dunkirk evacuation (1940) in World War II code-named Operation Dynamo or also known as Miracle of Dunkirk, was the evacuation of British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied soldiers, from the beaches and harbors of Dunkirk in the north of France to England between 26th May to 4th June.

Naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats were used for this evacuation. About 198,000 British 140,000 Belgian and France troops had been saved.

The operation commenced after a large number of  Belgian, British, and France troops were cut-off and surrounded by German troops during the six-week Battle of France.

After Nazi Germany Invaded Poland in 1939, France and the British declared war on Germany and imposed an Economic Blockade by restricting the supplies of mineral, metal, food, and textile needed by Nazi German.

Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France on May 10, 1940, and by May 21 the German forces had trapped the BEF, the Belgian forces, and three French field armies along the northern coast of France.

BEF commander General Viscount Gort saw evacuation across the Channel as the best course of action and began planning a withdrawal to Dunkirk, the closest good port. 

After a halt order issued on late 23rd May by Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt commander of Army Group A. Gave the Allied forces enough time to built a constructive defense and pull back a large number of troops to fight the Battle of Dunkirk

Background

During the 1930s, the French constructed the ‘Maginot Lines’, a series of fortifications along the border of Germans to avoid the German invasion along the Franco-German border and funnel the attack into Belgium where it could be met by the best division of the French Army and hence the war could avoid the French territory.

The north of the Maginot lines was covered by dense wooded Ardennes region, which the French General declared to be impenetrable as long and special provisions were made, and if the enemy forces would emerge through the forest will be vulnerable to ‘Pincer attack’ and taken down, he also believed that the area was of limited threat and never favored large operations.

The original plan for the Germans to invade France was an encirclement attack through the Netherlands and Belgium to avoid the Maginot lines, but the Chief of Staff of the German Army Group A Enrich von Manstein proposed a different invasion plan.

His plan suggested that the panzer division should attack through the Ardennes, and then establish bridgeheads on Meuse River and rapidly drive the English Channel this is how the Germans would cut the Allies Armies in Belgium, this part of the plan came to be known as the Schelschnitt (sickle cut) this plan was further modified and today is known as the Manstein Plan.

The Allied Collapse 

Dunkirk The Allied Collapse map

The hasty evacuation of Dunkirk was because of the German invasion of the Low Countries and northern France in May 1940.

It all began with the Blitzkrieg attack on the 10th of May where the Germans attacked the Netherlands began the capture by parachutists to keep bridges deep within the country with the aim of opening the way for mobile ground forces.

The three panzer corps of Army Group A under Rundstedt swung around the south and drove for the Channel, and by the noon of 12th May the German tanks were on the outskirts of Rotterdam.

Queen Wilhelmina and her government left the country for England on 13th May, the next day the Dutch army surrendered to the Germans.

The invasion of Belgium also began on May 10th where the Army Group B under Generalobest Fedor von Bock, attacked Belgium when the German airborne troops landed on the fortress of Eben Emael and on bridges over the Albert Canal. On 11th May, the Belgium front was down.

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.

They were ordered to begin a fighting withdrawal to the Scheldt River on May 14 when Belgium and French positions on their flank failed to hold. On May 15th they broke through the French defenses into the open country, turning westwards in the direction of the English Channel.

While the Allied leaders were still hoping for an attack that would cut-off the expanding German leap, while German forces raced and broke down the Allied force in Belgium.

By May 20 they swept on and reached Abbeville, hence blocking all communication between north and south. German General. Heinz Guderian’s corps then turned north up the coast in a drive for Calais and Dunkirk on May 22. 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.

On May 19 Gen. Gort, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) began to consider a necessary evacuation of his force by the sea and the steps required to make this evacuation possible On 20 May, on Churchill’s suggestion, the Admiralty began arranging for all available small vessels to be made ready to proceed to France. 

After continued engagements and a failed Allied attempt on 21 May at Arras to cut through the German spearhead, the BEF was trapped, along with the remains of the Belgian forces and the three French armies, in an area along the coast of northern France and Belgium. 

The Battle of Dunkirk

The British were planning the evacuation of (BEF) from May 20 without informing the French, Ships began gathering at Dover for the evacuation. On May 22 British Cabinet suggested BEF attach southwards in coordination with the French Armies Gort argued that such a long-range drive in reverse was not practicable, either tactically or administratively.

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 armored troops he had.

When this riposte was launched on May 21, it comprised no more than two tank battalions backed by two infantry battalions, while elements of one French light mechanized division covered its flanks.

The British light tanks proved to be surprisingly effective against German anti-tank weapons, and this small drive into the corridor momentarily shook the nerve of the German High Command.

German planners realized that if two or three armored divisions had been available for a concentrated counterstroke. The German advance might have been dislocated.

After this flash in the pan, the Allied armies in the north made no further effort to break out of the trap, while the belated relieving push from the south was so feeble as to be almost farcical.

The prevailing confusion was increased by Weygand’s arrival to take over supreme command.  His grandiloquent orders had no more chance of being translated into practical terms than those of Reynaud or new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

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.

More dangerous still was the backdoor approach of Guderian, whose armored forces were sweeping north past Boulogne and Calais.

 By 24th May, the Germans had captured the port of Boulogne and surrounded Calais; they built five bridges over the canal line while there was only one British battalion barred the way to Dunkirk.

Rundstedt ordered the panzer unit to halt concerns about the vulnerability of his flanks and that the marshy ground of the Dunkirk would be unsuitable for the tanks and could be used for later operations, Hitler was also apprehensive.

Air Marshal Hermann Göring urged Hitler to let the Luftwaffe finish off the British. Rundstedt issued another order, which was sent uncoded. It was picked up by the Royal Air Force (RAF) “By order of the Fuhrer … attack north-west of Arras is to be limited to the general line Lens–Bethune–Aire–St Omer–Gravelines.

The Canal will not be crossed.” Later that day Hitler called the Luftwaffe to bring down the Allied Forces and stop their evacuation and on Mat 26 Hitler ordered his panzer group to continue their advance, but it took another 16 hours to attack which gave the Allies time to prepare for defenses and evacuation.

Evacuation

On May 26th Churchill ordered to began Operation Dynamo, the retreat was the messy condition with a vehicle blocking the roads and tons of refugees heading in the opposite direction, by the time Operation Dynamo was undertaken 28,000 men had already been departed initial plans were securing 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, but only 25,000 men escaped during the period which includes 7,669 on the first day.

On 27 May, the first full day of the evacuation, one cruiser, eight destroyers, and 26 other craft was active. Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards for small craft that could ferry personnel from the beaches out to larger craft in the harbor, as well as larger vessels that could load from the docks.

An emergency call was put out for additional help, and by 31 May nearly four hundred small craft were voluntarily and enthusiastically taking part in the effort. The same day the Aerial Warfare branch Luftwaffe heavily bombed Dunkirk, an estimated a thousand civilians were killed, the Royal Air Force was ordered to provide supremacy to the British navy during the evacuation.

Although more than 3000 troops were flown in support of Operation Dynamo. The RAF continued to inflict a heavy toll on the German bombers throughout the week. Soldiers being bombed and strafed while awaiting transport were for the most part unaware of the efforts of the RAF to protect them, as most of the dogfights took place far from the beaches.

As a result, many British soldiers bitterly accused the airmen of doing nothing to help.

Belgium surrendered on 28th May leaving a large gap to the east of Dunkirk the Luftwaffe switched their attention to the Belgian ports; the weather over Dunkirk was not suitable for Dunkirk to dive or low-level bombing.

On May 28, 17,804 soldiers arrived at the British Port, the day after that 43,310 British troops were rescued. The British destroyer HMS Grenade was sunk and the French destroyer Mistral was crippled by the Luftwaffe, British destroyer Jaguar and Verity were also painfully damaged but escaped the harbor, later the passenger steamer SS Fenella sank with 600 men aboard but they were able to get off.

Unfortunate to the soldiers aboard on paddle steamer HMS Crested Eagle which took a direct hit caught on fine and suffered severe casualties along with SS Lorina and SS Normannia. The British lost 16 fighters in 9 Patrols while 11 Ju 87s were destroyed or damaged on the German side.

On May 30 the British division and the French First Army were not behind the defensive lines. By this time the parameters ran along with a series of canal 11 kilometers from the coast with the docks and harbors rendered unusable by the German Air attacks, senior naval officer Captain William Tennant initially ordered to evacuate from the beaches which turned out to be less effective and slow.

So then he re-routed the refugees through two long stone and concrete breakwaters, called the east and west mole as well as the beaches, irrespective of the fact that the moles were not designed to dock ships the majority of troops rescued from Dunkirk were taken off this way. Almost 200,000 troops embarked on ships from the east mole over the next week.

Once more the low clouds kept the Luftwaffe threat to a minimum, the following day the Luftwaffe sank one transport and damaged 12 others at a cost of 17 losses. The RAF and Fleet Air Arm lost 28 Aircraft.

The following day, an additional 53,823 men got on board, including the French soldiers, 68,014 men along with Lord Gort were evacuated on 31st May. 64,429 Allied soldiers were embarked on 1 June, before the air attack increased and prevented further daylight evacuation.

The British rearguard of 4,000 men left on the night of 2–3 June. An additional 75,000 French troops were retrieved over the nights of 2–4 June, before the operation finally ended. The remainder of the rearguard, 40,000 French troops, surrendered on 4 June.

Churchill made a point of stating in his “We shall fight on the beaches” address in the House on 4 June that the evacuation had been made possible through the efforts of the RAF.

Aftermath

 The Dunkirk evacuation was not less than a miracle for the Allied forces. The British press presented the evacuation as a ‘disaster turned into triumph’. A total of 338,226 troops landed from Dunkirk.

But it could not hide the fact that the British had suffered a terrible defeat; the BEF had been saved but had to leave behind all the artillery, tanks, equipment, heavy machinery, and transport.

And we cannot ignore the fact that 50,000 British soldiers were unable to escape of which 11,000 were killed and the rest were made prisoners of the war.

The Germans marched into Paris on 14th June and France surrendered 8 days later. 100,000 French troops evacuated from Dunkirk and were shuttled in various parts of South England and were temporarily lodged before being repatriated.

On 5th June 1940, Hitler stated ‘Dunkirk has fallen, 40,000 French and English troops are all that remains of the formerly great armies. Immeasurable qualities of material have been captured. The greatest battle in the history of the world has come to an end’.

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