The 75th anniversary of Dunkirk & a brief history

75 years ago today, the mass evacuation at Dunkirk, described as a ‘miracle’ by Winston Churchill, began. Here we offer a brief history of this fateful event

Some of the many ships carrying Allied forces across the English Channel from Dunkirk, France, between May 29 and June 3, 1940, are shown en route for England during the successful Operation Dynamo in World War II. Image credit: Press Association Images.

The evacuation at Dunkirk was called a ‘miracle’ by Winston Churchill.

Between the 27 May and 4 June 1940, thousands of boats set sail to rescue almost a quarter of a million Allied troops who had retreated from Hitler’s forces onto the shores of Dunkirk.

Codenamed Operation Dynamo, the phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was coined as result of the bravery of the soldiers who waited to be rescued as they were encircled at a time when Britain faced the possibility of defeat.

Heavy German bombing had destroyed Dunkirk’s harbour, leaving hundreds of thousands of men stranded on the beach, with the Luftwaffe attacking overhead.

Over nine days, 338,226 men were repatriated, in no small part thanks to the brave actions of the captains of the Little Ships, a 700-strong flotilla of pleasure boats, yachts, steamers, lifeboats, tugs and other small vessels which travelled east from Ramsgate to lend assistance to the military. They did so by carrying troops from the beaches to waiting larger vessels, a role that became particularly crucial after 27 May when the Luftwaffe bombing destroyed Dunkirk’s main port, making normal docking impossible.

Although the Germans had taken over a million Allied prisoners in three weeks at a cost of 60,000 casualties, the evacuation considerably boosted British morale and arguably enabled the Allies to keep fighting.

During the Dunkirk Little Ships Festival on 16 & 17 May 2015, over 20 ships used in the evacuation gathered in London’s Royal Docks to mark the 75th anniversary of Dunkirk.

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