The Dunkirk Evacuation

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On June 4, 1940, the German army seized the French port of Dunkirk, ending the evacuation that had begun nine days earlier and had saved 338,000 Allied troops.

A month later, German forces had begun speeding west, racing through the Benelux countries and storming into France. They rolled to the English Channel and split the Allied forces in two. Relentlessly, the Germans advanced toward western France and by May 24 were ready to seize Dunkirk, home to large numbers of the British Expeditionary Force and other allied troops.

Unexpectedly, the Germans halted their attack, on personal orders from Adolf Hitler himself. It seems that Hermann Goring, the man in charge of the Luftwaffe, had assured Hitler that German plans could destroy the Dunkirk defenders and that ground troops wouldn't be needed. That destruction didn't go off as planned; and two days later, the ground assault on Dunkirk reignited.

The Allies made the most of those two days. On May 26, Operation Dynamo was ready to roll. The Allies were to evacuate their forces from Dunkirk as quickly as they could, with fortified defenses aiming to hold off the Germans as long as possible.

The Germany army proved up to the task, however, and began to break through the Allied defenses within a few days. Thousands of men were still stranded in Dunkirk, their backs to the sea, with German soldiers advancing toward them. Capture seemed imminent.

Then, as if out of nowhere, fishing boats, pleasure yachts, and even lifeboats arrived by the hundreds, seeking to rescue the British and French troops seeking exile from Nazi-dominated Europe. Braving mines, bombs, and torpedoes, civilians of all stripe manned their boats and came to the rescue. German planes had bombed the harbor, so the soldiers had to be ferried from the beaches to the warships waiting at sea.

In the end, Germany captured Dunkirk, of course. But the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who escaped France that day lived to fight another day against Germany. Four years later, almost to the day, a great many of those men were on ships headed back to France, on D-Day.

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David White