10 Things You Should Know About the History of the Battle at Dunkirk

The Battle of Dunkirk gets its name from the port it was fought in, namely Dunkirk, France. This battle happened in the midst of World War II between the Nazi Party of Germany and the Allies, which consisted of the armies of Poland, France, and the United Kingdom. Many people don’t actually realize that the Battle of Dunkirk was a significant turning point in World War II. It is also sometimes called the Dunkirk evacuation since hundreds of thousands of troops were able to evacuate the port.

The Battle of Dunkirk wasn’t always one of the most discussed events of World War II, but thanks to Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film “Dunkirk,” the world is regaining an interest in this historical moment. The director created the World War II film with an all-star cast, including Harry Styles and Tom Hardy. He aimed to depict the Battle of Dunkirk from three different perspectives rather than a single one. The film was shot from the air, from land, and from the sea.

Dunkirk was even able to use historic boats from the actual war in order to create realistic effects and master the genre of war film. After the fact, most critics highly acclaimed the film and Christopher Nolan’s work on it. Many even consider it to be his best film overall and one of the best war films. The film’s popularity has piqued public interest in what really happened at the Battle of Dunkirk. There are many things that people don’t know about what took place and why it did at the Battle of Dunkirk.

 

10The Battle of France

The Battle of France lasted a total of six weeks, beginning on May 10th.

The Battle of France, otherwise known as the Fall of France, involved France being invaded by the Germans in 1940 as a reaction to the French invasion of Germany the year before.

The route the Germans took to invade France was assumed to be impossible, and this is why the French fell so easily. General Erich von Manstein was the one who came up with this invasion route that shocked the French nation. Manstein’s route involved German soldiers to use tanks as a means to force their way into the forests of Ardennes. These forests that laid between Luxembourg and Belgium were thought to be too thick to pass through in a short period.

From the knowledge of this terrain gained during World War I, it was assumed to require a minimum of five days to pass through the forests of Ardennes entirely. So, this is what the French and British believed. Manstein, on the other hand, had figured out that there were now narrow paths found in these forests that tanks could pass through. Instead of the presumed five days, it only took the Germans two and a half days to make their way into northern France via the forests of Ardennes.

Churchill was fast to criticize how the French generals went about leading their troops during the Battle of France, but it should not be forgotten that these French soldiers fought honorably for their nation, even when they knew they would fail.

 

9The Sea Was Their Only Way Out

Thousands of troops were able to make it back to England using the small civilian boats.

The reason that it was so difficult for troops to evacuate from the port town of Dunkirk was that the only way out was by the sea. Not to mention, the waters at the beaches of Dunkirk were shallow and the troops were not prepared for such an undertaking. Most historians note that the evacuation at Dunkirk was more of an impromptu retreat rather than a planned outmaneuver. One of the only reasons that the evacuation was able to work was the many civilian boats that were used. Unfortunately, the difficulties did not end on the water. The Germans had control over the air, and it was not uncommon for ships to be shot down on their way out from Dunkirk.

It is generally agreed that the success of the Dunkirk evacuation can be attributed to luck and courage. Simply the attempt to undertake the evacuation in the first place was a huge step for the Allies, one that could have ended very badly. Luckily, every element of the war worked together to give the Allies the chance to escape Dunkirk. By using civilian vessels and acting quickly, thousands of people were able to evacuate successfully.

The evacuation lasted for eight days and saw over 300,000 soldiers successfully evacuated. Since the German army had halted just at the outskirts of Dunkirk, the Allies had to act quickly while the German army took a much-needed break.

 

8Churchill Remembered One French Word: “Aucune”

Winston Churchill was the prime minister of France and he made his way to France.

The Battle of France began on the same day that Winston Churchill became Prime Minister, on May 10th, 1940. Only four days later, Churchill made his way to France. During this time, the people of Paris were prepping for evacuation. Churchill states his fear for France when he found out that the French army had no troops in reserve in this famous passage:

“I then asked ‘Where is the strategic reserve?’ and, breaking into French … ‘Ou est la mass de manoeuvre?’ General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, replied. ‘Aucune.’ [There is none] … I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the Great French Army and its highest chief? It had never occurred to me than any commanders … would have left themselves not provided with a mass of maneuver… This was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

Churchill made an iconic speech just after the Battle of Dunkirk, eliciting one of his most famous lines, “We shall fight them on the beaches.” He spent the speech reminiscing on the successes of the Battle of Dunkirk but reminding them that the war was not over and that invasion could even be imminent. Churchill finished delivering one of his best speeches of all time, explaining that the fight would continue no matter what, that the Allies would continue the struggle until the war was over. The reviews of this speech were wonderful, with many people calling it prophetic and inspirational.

 

7Hitler Made a Terrible Mistake During the Battle of Dunkirk

Hitler took the decision based on the persuasion of the chief of German Luftwaffe.

On May 24th of 1940, the Allies, made up of the French and Belgian armies, were left basically defenseless as they found themselves surrounded by German tanks columns. For whatever reason, the Germans chose to postpone attacking for two days at this time. This gave the British army time to create a defensive line that would allow the Allies to evacuate.

No one is sure of the reason Hitler decided to demand this reprieve of 48 hours. Some speculate that he figured his German troops were too exhausted to continue, so he wanted to give them two days to rest. Historians assume that this fear of allowing solders to fight when they are tired came from the 1914 event where German soldiers had been exhausted from WWI and ended up withdrawing from combat at the Marne. Others think Hitler may have made this decision based on the persuasion of the chief of German Luftwaffe, Hermann Goring.

Some optimistic historians say Hitler could have decided to simply let the Allies go as an act of peace – but most find this idea doubtful based on his character. It seems we may never know what swayed this decision of Hitler’s, but whether it was intentional or not, it caused him to let the Allies free. Although Hitler did sanction the cease on advancement, it wasn’t originally his idea. It was actually his Colonel-Generals, or Generaloberstens, who believed the cease would help to avoid a breakout. In the end, it allowed to Allies to escape and reorganize their troops.

 

6The French Continued to Fight to Hide the Evacuation Going On

 The Fall of France had taken place just days before, as the Germans enjoyed significant success.

According to Mental Floss, “As British and French troops withdrew to Dunkirk, 40 miles to the southeast French troops in two corps of the French First Army staged a ferocious defense against seven German divisions from May 28 to May 31, 1940, refusing to surrender and mounting several attempts to break out despite being heavily outnumbered (110,000 to 40,000). The valiant French effort, led by General Jean-Baptiste Molinié, helped tie up three German tank divisions under Erwin Rommel, enabling the British Expeditionary Force and the remaining troops of the French First Army to retreat and dig in at Dunkirk, ultimately saving another 100,000 Allied troops.”

The Allies knew that France had already fallen, but they continued to fight in order to make one last stand and help as many troops as possible escape Dunkirk. France fell so quickly because of the massive element of surprise that the German attack brought with it. Both sides of the war believed that invasion through the forests of Ardennes would have been impossible. The terrain was supposed to be far too thick and hilly for any war machinery or tanks to pass through. However, General Erich von Manstein decided to give it a shot, and it was thanks to him that the Germans were able to gain control of France. They cut off thousands of Allied troops, trapping them at Dunkirk, by squeezing all the tanks and trucks through the narrow roads of the forest.

 

5The Germans Used Psychological Warfare

The German troops used psychological warfare during World War II and also in the battle of France.  

The German troops of World War II are well-known for the use of psychological warfare. The evacuation of Dunkirk was one place where the troops made use of terrifying sirens called the Jericho Trumpet. As troops were caught beneath the German bombs, they were also bombarded with the unearthly sound of a piercing siren. The sound of the Jericho Trumpet was designed to instill fear into the minds of the Allies, with a diving and horrifying sound. The air-powered sirens were attached to the dive bombers in order to add fear to the already impending attacks by the Ju 87 dive bombers. This was not the only use of psychological warfare that the German troops used during World War II.

Hitler had psychologists working for him as he continually devised ways to manipulate his enemies and instill as much anxiety and fear as possible. Leaflets were spread around that showed wives being unfaithful while their husbands were at war, building on the already-deep insecurities that soldiers were bound to be feeling. Psychological warfare became known as the Fourth Arm of Warfare, an important element of throwing off the enemy. War quickly developed to be more of a mental struggle of longevity as Hitler worked towards instilling more and more negative emotions among the Allies.

Many of Hitler’s strategies were based upon the five enemies of individual survival. By cutting people off from these things or causing them, troops could significantly dwindle and lose morale. They are a pain, cold, hunger, thirst, and fatigue.

 

4Dunkirk is Actually Considered a Defeat

The Battle of Dunkirk clearly saw a far less devastating death toll than it could have.

By any conventional standards, the Battle of Dunkirk can actually be considered a defeat for the Allies. Unfortunately, the element of surprise by the German troops in France caught the Allies off guard and did not go well for them. During this time, the Allies lost most of their ground and control in France, as well as high numbers of their soldiers. However, it’s important to note that although many were lost and Dunkirk may objectively be considered a defeat- it was far from the worst that could have happened.

Another element of the technical defeat was the amount of equipment that the Allies ended up having to abandon as they evacuated. Thousands of guns, tanks, motorcycles, and cars had to be left behind on the beach. Luckily, troops had the foresight to either burn or disable their vehicles to avoid the Germans getting ahold of them. No matter how much was left behind, the image of Dunkirk continues to be one of victory.

In the minds of the British and the other Allies, the evacuation at Dunkirk was a success that was not supposed to happen. They viewed a success where there could have been a complete loss. At a point in the war when morale was desperately needed, Dunkirk was a saving grace, reminding the Allies not to ever give up even in the face of such great adversity in the Germans.

 

3The Germans Called for Surrender

The Germans Called for Surrender after they see that it is about to end. 

The situation at Dunkirk was bleak. The Allies were completely surrounded with absolutely no way out of the small port city- except for the sea. The Germans were calling for their surrender, dropping leaflets along with the bombs. The leaflets showed a map of Dunkirk with all the German troops surrounding it- attempting to instill fear in the minds of the Allied soldiers. Although it would have been easy to give up and surrender, the idea to evacuate ended up being a massive success. This strategic decision ended up creating the legacy that we know today as the miracle of Dunkirk.

These leaflets were another element of the psychological warfare used to aid the German troops during World War II. The truth is that surrender would have been an understandable decision, but it would have resulted in irreparable damages to the Allied forces as a whole. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers would have been stuck in prisoner of war camps for years during German reign. Not to mention, the Allies would lose many of their experienced soldiers and have a hard time rebuilding to continue fighting back.

One of the most impressive parts of the Battle of Dunkirk is the ability of the troops to remain level headed and unfazed by the impending sense of doom and defeat. The leaflets could have been the last straw, convincing them to give up. Instead, soldiers and strategists kept their courage and discipline in line to pull off one of the most impressive feats of World War II.

 

2The Troops Were Unbelievably Calm

The Troops were calm after surrender as they knew that the sea was the absolute only way out. 

One of the most unusual things that witnesses of Dunkirk note was the air of calm among all the troops on the beaches. Although the situation was bleak and the evacuation was imminent, it seemed as though everyone was perfectly patient and calm. A witness, Alfred Baldwin, said of the situation, “You had the impression of people standing to wait for a bus. There was no pushing or shoving.” Although it may seem strange for troops to be so calm in the face of such adversity, it may have simply been an exemplification of the British attitude. The famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” motto seemed to have reached even the troops at Dunkirk.

It may have also been the result of simple acceptance of fate. The sea was the absolute only way out. With the German troops surrounding the town of Dunkirk from every other angle, there was nothing left to do but wait. Alfred Baldwin was one of the only recorded witnesses of Dunkirk, an NCO signaler in the 65th Field Regiment for the British. The film by Christopher Nolan also aims to capture some of that calm feeling that was said to be present on the beaches of Dunkirk.

Nolan wanted to focus his efforts less on the blood aspects and chaos of war. Rather, he focused on the intriguing strategy necessary to pull off the evacuation of Dunkirk. Not to mention, the incredible amount of bravery and perseverance that each and every soldier there had to have.

 

1Any Ship Was Used for the Evacuation

Private citizens donated their boats for Allied use. 

The evacuation at Dunkirk necessitated an all hands on deck approach. The Allies were not at all prepared for the evacuation, and as such, they did not have a lot of ships to use. The only way to get people out to the destroyers was by using any boat they had at their disposal. Private citizens and anyone around Dunkirk was appealed to in order to donate their boats for Allied use. The smallest of the ships used was called the Tazmine, a fishing boat that was only 14 feet long and had an open top. It was definitely not the kind of boat that anyone expected to see used in an official wartime evacuation.

Although the Tazmine was small, it was still able to save hundreds of troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, making many trips back and forth to the destroyers out at sea. Another one of the smallest vessels, the Medway Queen, was able to rescue around 7,000 men- a testament to the ability of war strategists to use whatever was around them to their benefit. Without the use of the many fishing boats and pleasure boats that were privately owned, it’s unlikely that so many men would have been able to escape Dunkirk and make it back to England to fight another day. There was a total of over 800 private boats used during the evacuation, many of which were notably small and could only hold a handful of men at once, bringing them out to the destroyers or even making it all the way to England.

 

Conclusion

The Battle of Dunkirk was one of the most significant turning points in World War II. Although troops were still lost and the battle was intense, the successful evacuation at Dunkirk was nothing short of miraculous. This event was able to significantly boost morale and give the Allies a fighting chance to finally end the war. Winston Churchill called it a “miracle of deliverance,” and it truly was. The troops who were evacuated from Dunkirk were able to get back to the home shores and fight the much-needed battles going on there.

The evacuation at Dunkirk was essentially a last-ditch desperate retreat. The Allies were not expecting Germany to gain control of France, giving them no way out of Dunkirk but the sea. The harbor was blocked off by enemy forces and the troops were forced to evacuate from the shallow waters of the Dunkirk beaches. The array of boats, including small fishing boats, lifeboats, and even paddle boats were used to get troops out at sea to the destroyers waiting to bring them home.

Although Dunkirk did not mark the end of the war, it did mark an important turning point, saving them thousands of troops from losing their lives on those beaches. Without these troops, the rest of the war could have very well looked different and ended differently. Most historians believe that the Germans had one chance to crush the Allies, and Dunkirk was it. Luckily for Churchill and the rest of the Allies, they lost this chance and subsequently lost the rest of the war.