Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, more than 338,000 Allied troops were evacuated from Dunkirk and the nearby beaches on the northern coast of France. Naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats were used in the rescue. Codenamed Operation Dynamo, it became one of the most celebrated episodes of the Second World War.

Background

In September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared war. Within weeks, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had deployed to France, taking up defensive positions along the border with Belgium.

The long-awaited attack came on 10 May 1940, with a massive German offensive through neutral Holland and Belgium and into France. Despite desperate attempts to stem the tide, German tanks broke through the Ardennes and began a charge for the French coast. Allied forces were overawed by the speed and ferocity of the advance. Within just 10 days, German panzers reached the coastline where the River Somme met the sea. The BEF and French forces in the north were cut off and began a fighting retreat towards Dunkirk.

Operation Dynamo

Trapped between advancing German troops and the sea, the BEF was in a perilous position. The Royal Navy began the evacuation of Dunkirk - codenamed Operation Dynamo - late on 26 May. So great was the task that a makeshift fleet of civilian ships was sent to assist: trawlers, passenger ferries, yachts, pleasure steamers and hundreds of other private craft.

Oil painting by Norman Wilkinson showing the little ships assisting in the evacuation. IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 6007)
Oil painting by Norman Wilkinson showing the little ships assisting in the evacuation. IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 6007)

While soldiers fought tenaciously to hold back advancing German troops, the Royal Air Force (RAF) battled to protect the vulnerable ships and the soldiers waiting at the harbour and on the beaches from attacks by the Luftwaffe. Fighting continued until the last moments with French troops remaining behind to safeguard the last to leave.

British troops fire their rifles at enemy aircraft bombing the beaches at Dunkirk, May 1940
British troops fire their rifles at enemy aircraft bombing the beaches at Dunkirk, May 1940. IWM (FX 7529)

Under heavy attack on all sides, many vessels were sunk or badly damaged including nine destroyers. By 4 June, about 200 vessels had been sunk and RAF Fighter Command had lost more than 100 aircraft.

French and British troops on board ships berthing at Dover, 31 May 1940.

French and British troops on board ships berthing at Dover, 31 May 1940. IWM (H 1621)

By the time Dunkirk fell on 4 June, more than 338,000 men had been rescued including 140,000 Allied soldiers. Many British and Allied forces fought on in France and troops continued to be evacuated from the western coast until the day of the French surrender on 25 June.

Aftermath

Losses were more than 68,000 killed, wounded or taken prisoner. With thousands of men separated from their units in the confusion of the fighting and the withdrawal, it later proved impossible to establish exactly where or when many died. Some were buried where they fell, hastily, by comrades at roadsides or in fields and their graves later lost. Others did not find their final resting place until long after the fighting was over.

Related Cemeteries & Memorials

Dunkirk Town Cemetery contains the graves and memorials of more than 790 Commonwealth servicemen of the Second World War, of whom more than 210 remain unidentified. Also commemorated in the cemetery are nearly 460 servicemen of the First World War. Within the cemetery stands the Dunkirk Memorial which bears the names of more than 4,500 Commonwealth servicemen who died in France, the surrounding seas or subsequently in captivity and who have no known grave.

Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth naval memorials in the United Kingdom bear the names of most of those commonwealth sailors who died during the evacuation.

Runnymede Memorial in the United Kingdom bears the names of more than 20,290 Commonwealth airman who died during the Second World War and have no known grave. They where lost in the skies above Britain, Europe and the surrounding seas and oceans. More than 620 of those commemorated died in May and June 1940.