Dunkirk – the evacuation of

On May 10, 1940, Germany launched their attack against France and the Low Countries.

We have the Maginot Line

There was much disquiet amongst Hitler’s generals; they considered his plan of attack as reckless. Equally, amongst the French, was a firm belief that France would not fall. For one thing – the French had the Maginot Line. This defensive 280 mile long fortification, that ran along the Franco-German border, was built in the early thirties precisely for this purpose – to keep out the Germans.

The Germans rendered it obsolete within a morning

The Germans came through the Ardennes forest, which, because of its rugged terrain, the French considered impassable, then merely skirted round the north of the Maginot Line, reaching the town of Sedan on the French side of the Ardennes on May 14. Brushing aside French resistance, the Germans pushed, not towards Paris as expected, but north, across the Verdun, towards the English Channel, forcing the French and British troops further and further back.

In 1916, despite ten months of intensive trench warfare, the Germans had failed to take Verdun. In May 1940, it took them one day.

The situation was getting worse by the day. Rotterdam was heavily bombed and, on May 15, the Dutch, fearing further losses, capitulated. On May 28 Belgium also surrendered.

Trapped

In northern France the Germans took Boulogne, then Calais. By the end of May, with their backs to the sea, over a third of a million Allied troops were trapped in the French coastal town of Dunkirk subject to German shells and attacks from the air. It was only a matter of days before the full-blown assault would come.

But the Germans, poised to annihilate the whole British Expeditionary Force, were inexplicably ordered by Hitler to halt outside the town.

Meanwhile, from within Dover Castle, the British pressed into service every military vessel it could lay its hands on. The evacuation started but it wasn’t anywhere near enough.

Panic

With the aerial assault shredding nerves, Dunkirk witnessed scenes of panic as fear and the sense of entrapment caused discipline to break. Men fought for space on the ships and boats, often caps izing the very vessels that had come to rescue them. Officers shot their men for losing self-control. Knowing that they were trapped, ready to be plucked off at any moment, is a feeling that cannot be imagined.

The men in Dover castle, realising Hitler could finish the situation off at any moment of his choosing, gathered every civilian vessel, large or small, that could float, the ‘little ships’, and sent them across the Channel.

Losses were heavy but by June 4, the evacuation had brought back to Britain 338,226 British, French, and other Allied soldiers. Plus 170 dogs. Soldiers put much store by their mascots. Meanwhile, Hitler’s generals watched, puzzled and ruing an opportunity missed.

A deliverance

On June 4, in the House of Commons, British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, was careful not to call the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ a victory but merely a ‘deliverance’. He continued to deliver his famous “We shall fight on the beaches” speech, concluding with the immortal words, “We shall never surrender.”

The French, however, saw it somewhat differently – with the Germans closing in on Paris, they considered the evacuation of Dunkirk not in terms of an heroic rescue, but as a huge betrayal. The British had betrayed them.

On June 14 the swastika was flying from the Arc de Triomphe and on the 22nd, France surrendered to the Germans.

Rupert Colley