We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Western FrontJune 1940


How could the British army escape from Dunkirk?
Churchill called the successful evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk a ‘miracle of deliverance’. But how was this ‘miracle’ possible?

Video Transcript

How could the British army escape from Dunkirk?


Commentary: By the 20 May 1940, the German army had reached the French coast, here, where the River Somme meets the English Channel. North of them lay the British and French armies, now trapped on three sides by the Germans, and one side by the sea. On the 24 May the Germans held an important meeting at which they decided not to move forward at once and attack their captive enemy. Present on that fateful day were General Gerd von Rundstedt and Adolf Hitler.

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: What Hitler was doing there on the 24 May 1940, that crucial day, was actually agreeing to the suggestion put forward by the commander of the German forces in the west, General von Rundstedt, who then wanted to preserve the tanks for what they saw as a greater need, which was to destroy the French troops by moving south against them. And Goering had promised Hitler that the British troops would be bombed to bits from the air anyway.

Commemtary: For the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force who had retreated here to Dunkirk, this delay was a godsend. It meant that they had time to prepare the defence of the town, and the British Navy had time to organise an evacuation. And though Luftwaffe planes did indeed bomb Dunkirk, they didn’t manage to destroy the armies sheltering there. So as a result, at dawn on May 27, the halt ordered was reversed and the German army began to advance. In the face of the German assault several hundred thousand Allied troops, on these beaches around Dunkirk, still waited patiently to be rescued.

Words of Eric Pemberton (British soldier, Dunkirk): The Germans had got within shelling range, so we used to get in the dunes when we could, but we were helpless there too really. We just had to take it as it came.

Commentary: More than 800 civilian vessels – fishing boats, pleasure steamers, tugs – arrived to help ferry the troops across the Channel to England. But contrary to later myth, the majority of soldiers were rescued not from the beaches, but from here, inside Dunkirk’s port – taken on board larger ships, moored to the quayside. In all more than 330,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk. The British government had initially thought little more than 40,000 could be saved.

Words of Stanley Allen (sailor who helped rescue troops from Dunkirk): We took on around 800 to 900 soldiers at a time and it was so tightly packed there was no room to move. They were tired and very, very thirsty, but they hadn’t lost their spirit. On the contrary, some of them wondered why they were being taken off.

Commentary: The uncomfortable truth for the Allies was that the Germans had won this victory using superior tactics and leadership, not using superior weaponry. Most Wehrmacht soldiers relied on horses and bicycles to get around, rather than tanks and trucks.

Professor Adam Tooze: The Germans are a far less motorized army, for instance, than the British army. The British Expeditionary Corps is entirely motorized. And when the Germans actually discover the detritus of the retreating British army at Dunkirk they’re completely overwhelmed by the extraordinary depth of British motorization and the number of trucks the British have just abandoned by the side of the road.

Wartime archive narration: These had been left behind on the roads of France - tanks, guns, motorized equipment.

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: All their vehicles have been left on the beach. Most of their field artillery, anti-tank guns, ammunition, fuel stocks, all have been left to the Germans. So it’s going to take an awful long time to build them up and in fact you’re going to see old, antiquated vehicles running around in the Western Desert because the good stuff was all left behind at Dunkirk.

Commentary: Though Churchill was careful to say that this ‘miracle of deliverance’ should not be considered a ‘victory’, there were still those who almost treated it as one.

Words of J.B. Priestley (British writer): What began as a miserable blunder, a catalogue of misfortunes, ended as an epic of gallantry. We have a queer habit - and you can see it running through our history - of conjuring up such transformations

Professor Geoffrey Wawro: I think Dunkirk has tremendous morale significance for the British. Even in this darkest hour of defeat there’s this small, little victory they can cling on to - that they removed these men from battle and they’re fit to fight another day.

Commentary: But many British soldiers did not come home in 1940. Around 68,000 of the British Expeditionary Force were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The true victors of this campaign, beyond question, were Adolf Hitler and the German army. For together, they had routed the British and conquered France.

Professor Robert Citino: In some sense, for that brief moment, they found themselves with a kind of tactical battlefield superiority to the British and French. Now, that did not lead to a happy ending. It lead to a reasonably happy ending in 1940. But a sense of tactical and operational superiority, of course, just simply leads you on to more and more campaigns. If you feel no danger from any enemy army in the continent you do the craziest things - you invade Russia for example.