40 Facts about the Dunkirk Evacuation of WW2

The end of May, early June 1940, 75 years ago in the early days of the Second World War, the most amazing rescue mission took place on the shores of Dunkirk.

A large number of Allied soldiers were pushed toward the sea by the advancing German forces. The Royal Navy had to conduct the most daring evacuation mission of the military history, evacuating a large number of troops. Following are the 40 most amazing facts about the Dunkirk evacuation.

  1. The so called ‘phoney war’ came to an end in May 1940, scores of British expeditionary force was left stranded after being pushed back towards the sea, due to the German forces sweeping through Belgium and northern France.
  2. Orders were received by the BEF commander Lord Gort from the newly appointed Prime                         Minister Winston Churchill to carry out a prompt evacuation of the stranded troops on the port of         Dunkirk.
  3. The formulation of the ‘Operation Dynamo’ commenced on May 20. Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay was heading the Dynamo formulation committee.
  4. Famous statement by General Alan Brooke went down in the pages of history as the most correct description of the situation faced by the British at the time, he said ‘Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now’.
  5. Initial estimations stated that evacuation of only 45,000 stranded troops was possible within a time frame of 48 hours. Instead the Operation turned out to be the largest and most successful evacuation operation in military history.
  6. The first stage of the operation was to make sure enough vessels were available for the evacuation. Royal Navy needed every vessel possible, big or small, to evacuate as many soldiers as possible in as less time as it was practically possible.
  7. The response of the British public to the call was unexpectedly huge, and large number of vessels was sent to the Royal navy. People gave up their paddle steamers, lifeboats, motor launches, and private yachts for the operation. Some vessels came from as far away as the Isle of Man.
  8. Now on display in the Imperial War Museum, ‘Tamzine’ was the smallest vessel used in the evacuation. The fishing boat was a mere 14ft long with an opened top.
  9. The King George VI attended a special prayer service at the Westminster Abbey, as a part of a national prayer day for the safe return of the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk.
  10. The first day of the evacuation was not as promising as it was expected. It resulted in the rescue of just 8,000 soldiers.

  1. But over the next week or so, a total of 338,226 stranded troops were successfully evacuated under intense enemy bombing.
  2. Along with the British soldiers, 140,000 Polish, French and Belgian troops were also rescued.
  3. A total of 933 Royal Navy ships and civilian vessels were involved in the Operation Dynamo.
  4. Around 200,000 soldiers waited patiently on the ‘Dunkirk Mole’ – a long stone and wooden jetty on the edge of the port – and were eventually rescued amid hail of enemy shells.
  5. Rest of the soldiers had to wait in cold, shoulder deep water for hours before the Royal Navy ships evacuated them.
  6. A total of 700 small and mostly civilian boats were used to pick up the stranded soldiers from the shallow waters near the beach. They were then transferred to the bigger vessels waiting in the deep waters, small boats had to then make multiple trips to fetch more troops from the beach.
  7. The patience and the resilience of the troops was exemplary, Signaller Alfred Baldwin said recalling the events at Dunkirk that there were no pushing and shoving by the troops, and that it seemed as if people were waiting for a bus, it sure did not seem like a war zone, except the continuous German bombing.
  8. A single vessel, a paddle steamer named ‘The Medway Queen’ made a total of seven round trips to Dunkirk, successfully rescuing more then 7,000 soldiers.
  9. A Mersey Ferry that actively took part in the Operation miraculously escaped a German attack. On her way back to home with scores of human cargo on board, ‘The Royal Daffodil’ came under attack by six German aircrafts. A few shots got connected and bore a few holes through the ferry; however, it successfully delivered its cargo to Britain.

  1. Another famous anecdote that came out of the Operation was the fact that the small boats madly swung with the weights of the soldiers.
  2. One of the facts that contributed to the success of the Operation Dynamo was Hitler’s decision to halt a full scale Panzer offensive. Hitler was determined that his Luftwaffe could absolutely dismantle British illusion of a successful evacuation.
  3. While there was a battle in progress on the beach, Luftwaffe was challenged in the airs by brave RAF pilots. In the whole wrestle, RAF lost 145 crafts while 156 Luftwaffe aircrafts were destroyed.
  4. A Spitfire that crashed during the evacuation was recovered in the 1980’s, after complete restoration the plane is expected to fetch £2.5 million in an auction.
  5. During the evacuation, makeshift jetties were made by lashing together lorries to help soldiers get on-board the rescue vessels.
  6. The Operation was an over-all success, but ships did not ‘sail’ very smooth throughout the operation. A number of tragedies occurred and a number of troops lost their lives. Most deadly of all took place on May 29, when a British destroyer named ‘Wakeful’ was torpedoed and 600 soldiers sank with it.
  7. It is estimated that a total of 3,500 British personnel perished during the evacuation, while 1,000 Dunkirk citizens were killed in air raids.
  8. The success of the Operation Dynamo was partly because of the successful rear-guard executed by the 51stHighland Division.
  9. Before the Operation had commenced all units were ordered to continue their fight to the last man standing.
  10. Despite being besieged by German soldiers and bombed by Luftwaffe, soldiers displayed amazing feats of bravery and resilience. In an incident Major Gus Jennings gave his life smothering a stick bomb in a bid to save the lives of his comrades.

  1. In a separate incident, Captain Marcus Ervine singlehandedly held back more then 17 SS soldiers, and successfully took his comrades to safety. For his bravery and gallantry Captain Marcus Ervine was awarded the Victoria Cross.
  2. 31.  On May 27, 97 soldiers of the Royal Norfolk Regiment had to surrender to Germans due to the lack of ammunition. Later all the men were executed by the SS in cold blood.
  3. Not all the soldiers made back home from Dunkirk, a total of 40,000 troops could not be rescued and ended up as POW’s.
  4. POW’s were ill treated and put into forced labour under inhumane conditions, across Germany. Some of the prisoners were also forced to march through the towns as an SS victory trophy.
  5. There were consistent efforts by the soldiers to escape from the SS clutches, and some succeeded in making out of the camps. Bill Lacey, who was from Devon, stole a fishing vessel and successfully sailed back home on his own.
  6. It was not practical to bring back all the military equipment along with the men. Therefore soldiers had to leave behind some 68,000 tons of ammunition, 65,00 military vehicles and 24,00 artillery guns.
  7. Although British Prime Minister hailed the ‘Operation Dynamo’ as a miracle, however he made it very clear that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’.
  8. Winston Churchill took to the floor of the House of Commons and delivered his famous speech that contained in the famous line; ‘we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds’ and also ‘we shall not surrender’.
  9. The miraculous evacuations of Dunkirk helped coin the term ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’ which is referred to someone who stays undeterred in the face of difficulty and impossible circumstances.
  10. The silence of Adolf Hitler to capture a significant chunk of the British Army in the very early days of the war, proved to be a turning point in the war, the Express reports.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE