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What Happened At The Battle of Dunkirk? – A Quick Introduction

So you need a quick introductory guide about the Battle of Dunkirk, eh? Luckily for you, you’ve arrived at the right place. We’ve got all you need to know about this infamous battle in five simple questions – when, where, who, why and what?

British Troops Evacuate From Dunkirk - 31st May 1940
British troops evacuate from Dunkirk - 31st May 1940

When? – When Was The Battle of Dunkirk?

The Battle of Dunkirk (also known as the “Dunkirk Evacuation” and the “Miracle of Dunkirk”), happened during the Second World War. The Second World War was fought over the years 1939 to 1945. The evacuation at Dunkirk happened very early on in the war - between 26th May and 4th June 1940.

Where? – Where Was The Battle of Dunkirk?

I suppose the clue is in the title for this one. The Battle of Dunkirk happened in a small French coastal town called Dunkirk, near the borders between Belgium and France. All of the drama of the evacuation unfolded around the seaport of Dunkirk, on the shores of the North Sea.

Who? – Who Was Involved In The Battle?

The Second World War was fought between the Allied Powers (England, France and the Soviet Union) and Nazi Germany (later, alongside the Axis Powers, including Italy and Japan). After the Blitzkrieg attack from Germany (more on this below), troops from the British Expeditionary Force (also known as the BEF) and other Allied forces needed to leave France pretty sharpish.

Evacuating Dunkirk, large naval vessel and troops on the shoreline
Evacuating the troops from the shoreline to the large Naval vessels out at sea proved to be tricky.

Why? – Why Did The Battle Happen?

Germany planned a surprise attack called the Blitzkrieg meaning “Lightning War”. Starting on 10th May they put their attack into swift action, conquering the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium in quick succession. Just as Germany intended, the attack came as a shock to the Allied Powers. Soon, the German army marched on France. The troops in the Allied armies retreated up the country until they were trapped along the coastal areas of France.

At first, British and French forces wanted to hold their positions. But as the German forces cut off all lines of Allied communication and transport, and the enemy forces drew closer and closer, it soon became clear that the Allied troops would have to evacuate. Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave the go-ahead, although he only expected to be able to rescue around 45,000 troops at most.

The evacuation from Dunkirk. Troops arrive home from the Battle of Dunkirk May 1940 in little ships
British troops arrive home to Dover in large Navel vessels and on little boats across the Channel from Dunkirk.

What? – What Happened At The Battle?

Adolf Hitler, leader of Nazi Germany, halted his armies before their arrival at Dunkirk on 24th May. This gave the Allied Powers the chance to put preparations in place.

The British evacuation of troops from Dunkirk began on the evening of 26th May under the codename Operation Dynamo. Evacuation was slow because the German Luftwaffe planes relentlessly bombed the harbour and the shallow beaches meant that Royal Navy vessels couldn’t reach the shore to pick up troops.

Eventually, the Allies put a call out to smaller ships to lend a hand sailing British troops home across the Channel or carrying the evacuees from the shore at Dunkirk to the larger ships out at sea. Somewhere up to 1,200 small boats joined the cause, including leisure yachts and little fishing boats. Some were manned by members of the Navy, others were sailed by their civilian owners.

By the 4th of June when the German army finally took the town, around 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops had been safely evacuated from Dunkirk. This was hundreds of thousands more troops than Churchill had expected. The evacuation had been a success.


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