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Battle of Dunkirk
The Battle of Dunkirk (in French: Dunkerque, and in Britain normally referred to simply as Dunkirk) was a major battle during World War II which lasted from around May 26 to June 4, 1940. A large force of British and French was cut off in north-east France by a German armoured advance to the Channel coast at Calais. Over 330,000 Allied troops were evacuated by sea.
After the Phony War, the Battle of France began in earnest on May 11, 1940. German armour burst through the Ardennes region and advanced rapidly driving north in the so-called "sickle cut". To the east the Germans invaded and subdued the Netherlands and advanced rapidly through Belgium.
The combined British, French, and Belgian forces were rapidly split around Armentičres. The German forces then swept north to capture Calais, holding a large body of Allied soldiers trapped against the coast on the Franco-Belgian border. It became clear to the British that the battle was lost and the question was now how many Allied soldiers could be removed to the relative safety of England before their resistance was crushed.
Main article: Operation Dynamo
From May 22 preparations for the evacuation began, codenamed Operation Dynamo, commanded from Dover by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay. He called for as many naval vessels as possible as well as every ship capable of carrying 1,000 men within reach. It initially was intended to recover around 45,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force over two days, this was soon stretched to 120,000 men over five days. On May 27 a request was placed to civilians to provide all shallow draught vessels of 30 to 100 feet (9 to 30 m) for the operation, that night was the first rescue attempt. A large number of craft including fishing boats and recreational vessels, together with Merchant Marine and Royal Navy vessels, were gathered at Sheerness and sent to Dunkirk and the surrounding beaches to recover Allied troops. Due to heavy German fire only 8,000 soldiers were recovered.
Another ten destroyers were recalled for May 28 and attempted rescue operations in the early morning but were unable to closely approach the beaches although several thousand were rescued. It was decided that smaller vessels would be more useful and boatyards were scoured for suitable craft, gathering them at Sheerness, Chatham and Dover. The Allied held area was reduced to a 30 km² block by May 28. Operations over the rest of May 28 were more successful, with a further 16,000 men recovered but German air operations increased and many vessels were sunk or badly damaged, including nine destroyers. During Operation Dynamo, the RAF lost 177 planes and the Luffwaffe 132 over Dunkirk.
On May 29 there was an unexpected reprieve: the German armour stopped its advance on Dunkirk leaving the operation to the slower infantry, and the Luftwaffe (Hermann Göring, then in great favour with Adolf Hitler, had promised air power alone could win the battle) but due to problems only 14,000 men were evacuated that day. On the evening of May 30 another major group of smaller vessels was dispatched and returned with around 30,000 men. By May 31 the Allied forces were compressed into a 5 km deep strip from La Panne , through Bray-Dunes to Dunkirk, but on that day over 68,000 troops were evacuated with another 10,000 or so overnight. On June 1 another 65,000 were rescued and the operations continued until June 4.
In total 338,226 troops were evacuated (220,000 British, 120,000 French) aboard around more than 900 vessels.
Until the operation was complete the British prognosis had been gloomy, with Winston Churchill warning the House of Commons to expect "hard and heavy tidings". Subsequently Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle" and exhortations to the "Dunkirk spirit" — of triumphing in the face of adversity — are still (occasionally) heard in Britain today. The successful evacuation of so many troops previously thought lost provided a great boost to British morale at a time of disaster. The British press presented the evacuation as a "Disaster Turned To Triumph" so successfully that Churchill had to remind the country, in a speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations."
Some of the evacuated troops, both French and British, were shipped straight back to the battle of France via ports in Normandy and Britanny, where most were killed or captured. After the French surrender, a majority of the rescued French troops returned to their homeland, but a few chose to join the Free French and continue to fight. Most of the rescued British troops were assigned to the defence of Britain, but once the threat of invasion declined they were transferred overseas to the Middle East and other theatres. Many served as the core of the much-enlarged army that returned to France in 1944.
In France, the perceived preference of the British Navy for evacuating British forces at the expense of French forces led to some bitter resentment.
The battle of Dunkirk contains one of the great "what-ifs" of World War II, that has attracted speculation from many military historians. If Hitler had not ordered the German panzer divisions to halt (from 24 May to 26 May and again on 29 May) but instead ordered an all-out attack on Dunkirk, then it is possible that the retreating Allies could have been cut off from the sea and destroyed. And if the whole of the British Expeditionary Force had been captured or killed at Dunkirk, then it is possible that morale in Britain could have sunk so low as to have toppled the government and replaced it with one more disposed to making an accommodation with Nazi Germany, like the Vichy regime in France. And without the need to oppose the British in the Atlantic and North Africa — or even with the assistance of a Quisling government in Britain — perhaps the troops and resources thus freed would have been enough to wholly defeat the Soviet Union in 1941 and led to German conquest of the whole of Europe and Asia.
On the other hand, the panzer divisions were stopped for repairs, resupply and to allow the rest of the army to catch up. Had they pushed forward recklessly, they could have outrun their supply lines and become vulnerable to being cut off themselves. And even if the BEF had been cut off and destroyed, few in Britain wanted to collaborate with the Nazis — Churchill had become Prime Minister after the fall of the Chamberlain government on 10 May 1940 precisely because his uncompromising belligerence reflected the mood of the nation.
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