This week marks 80 years since Dunkirk - here's what happened during the World War 2 operation

Tuesday, 26th May 2020, 1:48 pm
Updated Tuesday, 26th May 2020, 1:49 pm

In Winston Churchill's famous "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, the Prime Minister hailed the evacuation of Dunkirk as a "miracle of deliverance".

When Allied forces were cut off and surrounded at Dunkirk by the German army during the Battle of France, the situation was dire.

Churchill regarded it as the greatest military defeat for centuries, and was certain it would cost Britain the war, leaving the country open to invasion.

Plans for evacuation were put into action, but there was a problem - surrounded on all sides, the only clear path was out to sea, back across the English channel.

As 26 May 2020 marks 80 years since Dunkirk, here’s everything you need to know:

What happened at Dunkirk?

The evacuation (known as Operation Dynamo) began on May 26 1940 in less than ideal conditions.

Resources were stretched. With British destroyers unable to approach the beaches due to shallow waters, soldiers had to wade out, many of them waiting for hours in shoulder deep water.

Helping hands

Efforts to formulate a plan to evacuate 45,000 men in 48 hours from Dunkirk were originally begun by Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay on 20 May. Seven days later, only 8,000 men had been evacuated – a small fraction of the total number waiting to get home.

A solution was needed.

So on May 27, the British Ministry of Shipping began asking boat builders for vessels with "shallow drafts" that could navigate the waters and treacherous sandbanks.

Some of them were taken with permission, but many were requisitioned by the government with no time for the owners to be contacted.

When the borrowed boats reached France, some acted as shuttles between the beaches and the destroyers, ferrying men to the warships, while others carried soldiers back to Britain.

Many of these vessels were pleasure boats and private yachts moored on the River Thames and along the south and east coasts, though some came from further afield.

338,226 soldiers had been evacuated by the night of June 4, including 14,000 French and Belgian troops.

The ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk?

Despite Churchill’s claim that the efforts at Dunkirk were nothing short of a “miracle”, it wasn’t all good news.

“The famous stories of the so-called little ships of private boats crewed by ordinary civilians heroically rescuing the men of the BEF from the beaches of Dunkirk is something of a myth,” says John Grehan, author of new book ‘Dunkirk Evacuation – Operation Dynamo: Nine Days that Saved an Army.’

“The image of boat owners risking everything to sail across the Channel to bring the boys back home was a powerful one. The reality, however, was that most boats were simply requisitioned, with or without the owners’ permission, and taken over by the Royal Navy.

And the human cost of the operation was beyond what anyone had predicted, with more than 1,000 French civilians killed and an estimated 3,500 British soldiers slain on the beaches.

By the end of the operation, 68,111 troops had been killed and 4,000 captured.

Allied prisoners of war were mostly treated with mercy, but at Wormhoudt (a farm south of Dunkirk) the Waffen SS massacred 97 British and French PoWs after they had surrendered.

At the village of Le Paradis, the 14th Company SS Totenkopf executed 21 Royal Scots Guardsmen who acted as a rearguard to Dunkirk.

Yes, Operation Dynamo could have gone much worse. But let’s not forget the suffering and death endured by all sides at a desperate turning point for World War II.