Just months into the Second World War, the bulk of the British army was holed up in Dunkirk in May 1940 with nowhere to run. In one of the great what-ifs of history, Adolf Hitler hesitated, handing the Royal Navy a week in which to mount a famous rescue mission.
AFTER Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, the British Expeditionary Force, a thorn in the German side during the Great War, was again deployed to France. This time, however, the speed of the enemy’s advance through Holland and Belgium, bursting into France by the Ardennes, caught everyone by surprise.
On May 28th, 1940, the BEF and its commanding officers — in Winston Churchill’s words, ‘the whole root and core and brain of the British Army’ — found themselves crammed into Dunkirk on the French coast, facing annihilation. But ‘Operation Dynamo’ scrambled hundreds of civilian motorboats, fishing-boats and pleasure-craft across the Channel, to help the overstretched Navy bring nearly 340,000 British and French troops home by June 4th.
With the Luftwaffe patrolling overhead, almost 70,000 men and over 200 ships were lost; the Germans picked up most of the British army’s precious equipment and vehicles. It was, as Churchill said, both a ‘miracle of deliverance’ and a catastrophic defeat. Ten days later, the Germans marched triumphantly into Paris.