On This Day | 26 May 1940: The Battle of Dunkirk begins

Have you heard of ‘Dunkirk Spirit,’ or seen Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film on this remarkable mass evacuation?

Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation
Soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force fire at low flying German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation | Image via the Australian War Memorial

26 May 1940: The ten-day Battle of Dunquerque which would culminate in the flight of Allied forces from France across the North Sea to the British mainland began on this day in history.

After the winter-long stalemate nicknamed the ‘Phoney War,’ the German Army had moved with astonishing speed – not least, new research concludes, due to the quantity of amphetamines they were consuming – and meticulous planning, occupy the Low Countries and bypass the Maginot Line on which France had relied.

The capitulation of France within weeks had marked for Germany one of the most spectacular military victories in world history. As the Germans ploughed on toward Southern France and the calamity worsened, both French troops and the British Expeditionary Force found their efforts at counter-attacks frustrated and, to evade total encirclement, were compelled to retreat.

British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation from Dunkirk
British troops were lined up on the beach while awaiting evacuation | Image via Imperial War Museums

After a visit to Paris left him dismayed by the despondent state of French high command, Churchill began planning ‘Operation Dynamo,’ the evacuation of 338,000 troops by sea. Civilian fishing vessels and lifeboats (the ‘little ships’) were pressed into action to assist the Royal Navy.

The soldiers, strafed by the Luftwaffe, abandoned their weaponry and leapt homewards. Thousands of French troops were captured, to become prisoners of war. Almost all the best troops Britain and France had to offer had been either evacuated to the United Kingdom or had been killed.

The Germans sliced their way south, toward Paris, like a knife through butter.

Yet the successful evacuation of hundreds of thousands led the Battle of Dunkirk – described by Churchill as a ‘miracle’ – to be received as a success back at home. Following the German capitulation in 1945, Dunkirk become emblematic of an indomitable British fortitude – and pluckiness.

This edition of On This Day in History was written by BBS Member Finn Ballard.

It’s one of four events he chose to remember this month. Take a look at our blog to see what else is covered.