May 27, 2022

The Evacuation of Dunkirk

The Evacuation of Dunkirk

May 27, 1940. During World War Two, the British Military launches Operation Dynamo, pulling out hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers from the French port city of Dunkirk.


Cold Open - Germany Invades France

A listener note: This episode contains a dramatization of suicide. 

It’s May 1940 in the countryside of northeastern France, less than a year into World War II.

A junior officer in France's Ninth Army runs across a muddy field firing his gun at advancing German tanks. He knows the French don’t have tanks of their own in the area to help mount a defense, and he understands that he and his men have no chance against their enemy. But still, he bravely fights on.

The officer looks up as a plane flies overhead. He prays he and his men are about to receive air support.

But his hopes are dashed when he sees it’s an enemy fighter. The German plane bombs the area, scattering the French soldiers and clearing the way for the tanks.

The French officer and his men keep fighting, but they inflict almost no damage on the German’s armored vehicles. The officer watches as men around him drop like flies. He sees no end in sight to the German onslaught.

And as the battle rages, the officer gives up hope; he turns and runs from the battlefield. The sounds of war slowly fade behind him, and he takes shelter in an empty railway station. There, the young officer makes a startling decision.

He reaches into his pack, pulls out a pen and a postcard. He unholsters his pistol. And then, he quickly scribbles a message to the President of France: “I am killing myself, Mr. President, to let you know that all my men were brave, but one cannot send men to fight tanks with rifles.”

The officer clutches the postcard in his hand, then raises his pistol…

The young French officer falls dead as his remaining men retreat across the French countryside.

The Allied Powers were not prepared for Nazi Germany’s invasion of France. Many French leaders believed the rough terrain of the Ardennes Forest would make it nearly impossible for German tanks to roll into the French countryside. But they were wrong. In May of 1940, the Germans took Belgium, and then quickly crossed through the Ardennes into France.

From there, the Germans cut a quick swath across the country and headed for the northern port towns on the English Channel. They pushed French and British troops back toward the water and crippled French communication lines.

Now, France is falling, and hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers are trapped. The British fear the potential loss of men will significantly damage their ability to defend their own island against the Germans. So British leadership will launch a valiant rescue mission. Against all odds, they will begin to evacuate hundreds of thousands of Allied troops from the French port city of Dunkirk on May 27th, 1940.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is May 27th: The Evacuation of Dunkirk.

Act One: The British conceive “Operation Dynamo”

It’s almost midnight on May 18th, 1940 at a British command post located in a small French town.

Lord John Gort, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, listens to a dire account from a French officer.

John learns that German forces made quick work of the French in the east and that they are now traveling west unabated. British and French troops are in danger of being massacred or forced to surrender.

John and the French officer discuss a possible counterattack, but neither man believes they have the resources to mount any real resistance. Soon, the two leaders part ways, and John is left with a feeling of dread.

On his own in the early hours of the morning, John weighs his options. He knows the Germans have cut off escape routes to the south. So, John starts to pin his hopes for a small port town in the north.

Dunkirk is located off the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel. John knows that France and England are only separated by about 21 miles across the Strait. He believes if Allied troops can make it to Dunkirk, the Royal Navy might be able to ferry them back to England and avoid their annihilation in France.

John quickly gathers his officers, and they agree Dunkirk is their best hope. John knows it will be difficult, but he thinks he can help coordinate a retreat of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers to Dunkirk. John just has to convince British leadership back home to greenlight the plan.

But the powers that be in Britain don’t want to hear it. Winston Churchill, who has been Prime Minister for barely a week, and his Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, hold out hope that the situation in France isn’t as bad as John thinks. They say they do not want to retreat; they want to keep fighting. But Churchill and Eden are in denial.

Days later, Allied forces launch a counterattack against the Germans to the south, but it fails. Again, John argues for evacuation, and this time, Churchill and Eden start to come around to the idea.

But everyone, including John, knows an evacuation attempt could still go horribly wrong. The Germans seem unstoppable, and retreating to Dunkirk could only corner the men. 

Despite the dangers, Churchill agrees it’s the best option. Soon, he and his advisors develop an evacuation plan. They give it the codename “Operation Dynamo".

But for the time being, Churchill keeps the full plan a secret even from Britain’s allies. If the Germans get wind of the information, all will be lost. So when over 300,000 Allied troops start their retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk, many French commanders on the ground don’t realize the evacuation is even on the table. They believe their only goal is to hold the port city against the Germans.

And even with a large-scale retreat underway and a rescue plan, Churchill fears what will happen if German ground forces attack once the Allies gather at Dunkirk. But luckily for Churchill and the men on the ground, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler is about to present an unexpected gift.

On May 23rd, Hitler takes calls from some of his highest-ranking military officers. Hitler learns that retreating Allied forces are making their way to the beaches of Dunkirk and that German ground forces are closing in. But then, something occurs that will confound historians for decades to come.

Some of Hitler’s leaders tell him they worry a ground invasion of Dunkirk could make them vulnerable to a counterattack. They suggest halting their tanks and saving them for future battles in France.

Then, Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, tells Hitler that air power will be enough to rout the Allies at Dunkirk and stop any evacuation attempt. The following day, Hitler agrees to hold off on a ground offensive and rely on his airforce to defeat the Allies at Dunkirk. His decision will give the Allies the break they need to stage their greatest evacuation in world history.

With the German ground attack halted, Churchill and Eden finalize their plans. The Royal Air Force will provide air cover and try to fight off the Luftwaffe, while ships set sail from England, cross the Dover Strait into Dunkirk Harbor, and pick up Allied ground troops from the beach. The strategy is straightforward, but executing it could very well be impossible.

Some advisors tell Churchill that a successful evacuation will most likely save only 20,000 to 30,000 of the hundreds of thousands of troops at Dunkirk. They believe they’ll have limited time before German air attacks make operations on the beach and in the Channel too dangerous to proceed. Churchill’s advisors expect that the vast majority of the soldiers trying to evacuate will end up stranded in Dunkirk. But Churchill holds out hope that they can rescue more soldiers than predicted and sets out to enlist the help of every ship he can get.

In the lead-up to the evacuation attempt, the British military will commission old converted steamers, small fishing boats, and recreational vessels to aid in the deadly and daring rescue.

If the mission is a success, the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers will be saved. If Operation Dynamo fails, for the Allies, it might very well spell total defeat.

Act Two: Ships sailing toward Dunkirk

It’s May 26th, 1940 aboard the Medway Queen, a steamer ship that was called into military action when the war began.

Today, the ship is docked near Dover, England, and Chief Cook Thomas Russell is hard at work. Thomas’ arms burn as he and his young assistant carry crates of food across the deck to the ship’s kitchen storage.

Hours earlier, a naval barge pulled up alongside their ship; the crew unloaded more food onto the deck than Thomas had ever seen in a single delivery. He grabbed his assistant and got to work without asking any questions, but both men are still curious to know what’s going on.

Thomas empties the final food crate and takes in the full scope of the delivery. He tells his assistant that he figures there’s enough food to feed an entire army. He doesn’t know why they’ve been given so much, but he’s confident it isn’t all for the small group of crewmembers they currently have onboard.

And later, Thomas is told to prepare to host hundreds or even thousands of soldiers aboard his ship over the next several days. Tomorrow, May 27th, 1940, the crew of the Medway Queen will ready the ship to leave port, and Thomas will learn they’re heading to Dunkirk.

The Medway Queen is one of almost 1,000 ships that will soon make their way across the English Channel as part of Operation Dynamo. Over 200 Royal Navy vessels and over 700 private boats make up what will come to be called the “Little Ships of Dunkirk”. Together, these vessels will set out to save as many men as they can.

And while the ships prepare to leave England and head to France, Royal Air Force pilots ready themselves to do battle with the German Luftwaffe in the skies over Dunkirk. Operation Dynamo’s air and sea missions are almost ready, but on the ground, things are falling apart.

Late on May 26th, Allied commanders at Dunkirk are losing control of some of their troops. The sheer number of soldiers at Dunkirk and the deterioration of France’s communication lines have made it difficult for officers to effectively disseminate information.

And even though Churchill has relayed his plans to Dunkirk leadership, and let his Allies in on every aspect of the evacuation, some French and British soldiers feel they’re being left in the dark. They don’t know when ships will be arriving from England, if at all, and they don’t know if there will be enough ships to get them out of France. So while they wait for evacuation, some soldiers have decided to make the most of their time.

One group of Allied troops finds a way into a deserted seaside restaurant and raids the bar. They sip cocktails and chat as if everything is normal. Another group drops their weapons, heads across the beach, and goes for a swim.

But not all of the soldiers are looking to have one last good time. Some go off by themselves and find places to hide, fearing an imminent German attack. Others huddle together in abandoned buildings in Dunkirk singing hymns and praying that they will make it out of France alive.

And with troops wandering off on their own or in small groups, Allied commanders grow concerned that not all of their men will be ready when the time comes. 

But on the morning of May 27th, the Allied Troops on the ground get a wake-up call when Hermann Göring unleashes German air attacks on Dunkirk Harbor. With bombs falling from the sky, British and French troops rally together, take cover, and try to wait out the Luftwaffe’s assault.

But the first German air raids aren’t aimed at the soldiers; they’re designed to make it impossible for the Allied rescue ships to land at Dunkirk.

Throughout the day on May 27th, German planes pound the docks along the waterfront. But the threat from German aircraft doesn’t stall Operation Dynamo. Despite the aerial bombardment, Allied leaders proceed with the evacuation.

But the German air raids have severely limited all possible escape routes. And just when it looks like most of the soldiers will not make it out of France alive, one British officer will devise a plan to help save the entire operation.

Act Three: Evacuation

It’s the evening of May 27th, 1940 on the beach at Dunkirk, and the evacuation is underway.

British naval officer, Captain William Tennant, oversees Allied soldiers as they board a ship off the battered shore. The Royal Air Force provides cover overhead, allowing the ship to successfully make it out into the Strait of Dover.

William is a skilled officer, and he’s calm under pressure. He’s also ruled by numbers. And he knows the numbers in this situation don't look good. It has taken far too long to get far too few people onto ships and out of Dunkirk. The docks along the beach are all but destroyed, ships are left exposed, and soldiers don’t have access to them without exposing themselves to German incoming. William knows he needs another plan or this mission will fail. 

As William surveys the Dunkirk shore, something jumps out at him. The Germans battered the docks, but at the entrance to Dunkirk Harbor, William spots a breakwater, a concrete structure with a long wooden bridge built on top of it. The rest of the docks are decimated, but the breakwater has gone untouched. William realizes there’s more than enough room for ships to pull up alongside it.

He speaks calmly to a group of jittery soldiers and reassures them that there will be enough boats for all of them to get out of France. William directs the troops toward the breakwater, and he radios headquarters with his new plan. It takes some time to coordinate everything, but at around 10:00 PM, William successfully gets 1,000 soldiers onto ships and out of Dunkirk, and thousands more will follow.

Over the next several days, dogfights rage in the sky, and Allied soldiers are bombarded on the beach. But thanks to William’s plan, the evacuation continues at a much faster pace, allowing ships to make several runs to and from Dunkirk. The Medway Queen alone returns to the beach seven times, rescuing roughly 7,000 people.

Most believed that a successful evacuation could have most possibly saved 30,000 Allied troops. But when Operation Dynamo is completed on June 4th, 1940, over 10 times that amount have made it out alive. The evacuation will come to be known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk”, and the lives saved will bolster Britain’s future war effort against Germany.

On June 4th, as the evacuation comes to an end, Winston Churchill uses the heroism displayed at Dunkirk as inspiration for one of his most famous speeches:

"CHURCHILL: We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender."

And even now, some historians suggest that Britain might have had to accept surrender to Germany and that the outcome of World War II might have been very different, if not for the bold plan to evacuate Dunkirk by sea, one that was put in motion on May 27th, 1940.


Next on History Daily. May 30th, 1431. In Rouen, France, 19-year-old Joan of Arc is burned at the stake.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.