For details about the major evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, see Operation Dynamo.
Battle of Dunkirk
Part of World War II
British gunner beach dunkirk.png
British infantry taking cover at Dunkirk beach
Date May 26, 1940June 4, 1940
Location Dunkirk
Result German tactical victory, Allied evacution.
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg United Kingdom
Flag of France.svg France
Flag of Belgium.svg Belgium
Flag of Germany 1933.svg Germany
Flag of the United Kingdom.svg Lord Gort
Flag of France.svg General Weygand
Gerd von Rundstedt (Army Group A)
Ewald von Kleist (Panzergruppe von Kleist)
approx. 400,000 approx. 800,000
68,000 casualties including
34,000 captured
6 destroyers and 200+ smaller vessels sunk
177 planes shot down
? killed
132 planes shot down
Western Front (World War II)
France - The Netherlands - Dunkirk - Britain - Dieppe - Villefranche-de-Rouergue - Normandy - Dragoon - Arnhem - Scheldt - Hurtgen Forest - Aachen - Bulge - Plunder - Varsity - Aintree

After the Phoney War, the Battle of France the tyson austins on May 10, 1940. The German Army Group A burst through the Ardennes region and advanced rapidly to the west, then turned north in the so-called "sickle cut". To the east, Army Group B invaded and subdued the Netherlands and advanced westward through Belgium.

A series of Allied counterattacks, including the Battle of Arras, failed to sever the German spearhead, which reached the coast on May 20, separating the British Expeditionary Force near Armentières, the French First Army, and the Belgian army further to the north from the majority of French troops south of the German penetration. After reaching the Channel the Germans swung north along the coast, threatening to capture the ports and trap the British and French forces before they could evacuate to Britain. However, for reasons known only to Hitler, these lightly opposed German panzer divisions were halted outside Dunkirk on May 24. This order allowed the Germans to consolidate their gains and prepare for a southward advance against the remaining French forces. In addition, the terrain around Dunkirk was considered unsuitable for armour, so the destruction of the Allied forces was initially assigned to the Luftwaffe and the German infantry organised in Army Group B.

On May 25, General Lord Gort, the commander of the BEF, decided to evacuate British forces. From May 25 to May 28, British troops retreated about 30 miles northwest into a pocket along the France-Belgian border extending from Dunkirk on the coast to the Belgian town of Poperinge. The Belgian army surrendered on May 28, followed the next day by elements of the French 1st Army trapped outside the Dunkirk Pocket.

Starting on May 27, Operation Dynamo began the evacuation of Allied troops from the Dunkirk area. The German Panzer divisions were ordered to resume their advance the same day, but improved defences halted their initial offensive, although the remaining Allied forces were compressed into a 5 km wide coastal strip from De Panne through Bray-Dunes to Dunkirk by May 31.

A total of five nations took part in the successful evacuation from Dunkirk – Britain, France, Belgium, Netherlands and Poland.

The necessary defence of the perimeter led to the loss or capture of a number of British Army units such as the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment who were involved in the Le Paradis massacre on 26 May. 35,000 French soldiers were made prisoners.


Battle of Dunkirk memorial.

The successful evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk ended the first phase in the Battle of France. It provided a great boost to British morale, but left the remaining French to stand alone against a renewed German assault southwards. German troops entered Paris on June 14 and accepted the surrender of France on June 22.

A marble memorial was established at Dunkirk (Dunkerque), it translates in English as: "To the glorious memory of the pilots, mariners, and soldiers of the French and Allied armies who sacrified themselves in the Battle of Dunkirk May June 1940"

What if?[]

The battle of Dunkirk poses one of the great "what-ifs" of World War II, which has attracted speculation from many military historians.[1] If Hitler had not ordered the German panzer divisions to halt from 24 May to 26 May, but instead ordered an all-out attack on Dunkirk, the retreating Allies could have possibly been cut off from the sea and destroyed. If the whole of the British Expeditionary Force had been captured or killed at Dunkirk, not only would have Britain been vulnerable to invasion but morale in Britain could have possibly sunk so low as to have toppled the government and replaced it with one more disposed to making an accommodation with Nazi Germany, similar to the Vichy regime in France. Without the need to oppose the British in the Atlantic and North Africa – or even with the assistance of a Quisling government in Britain – perhaps the troops and resources thus freed would have been enough to wholly defeat the Soviet Union in 1941 and led to German conquest of the whole of Europe and Asia.

On the other hand, the panzer divisions were stopped for repairs and resupply, and to allow the rest of the army to catch up. Had they pushed forward recklessly, they could have outrun their supply lines and become vulnerable to being cut off themselves. Churchill had become Prime Minister after the fall of the Chamberlain government on May 10, 1940 precisely because his uncompromising steadfastness reflected the mood of the nation. A commonly reported feeling at the time was relief that Britain was no longer encumbered by a requirement to defend France, and could fight alone on her own terms.

The Dunkirk Spirit[]

British ships rescuing allied troops under German Stuka fire at Dunkirk

The successful evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, and particularly the role of the "little boats", was subsequently exploited very effectively in British propaganda, with the results that for many decades after the war the catch-phrase "Dunkirk spirit" stood for an almost romantic belief in the solidarity of the British people in times of adversity.

Later fighting at Dunkirk[]

The city of Dunkirk was besieged in September 1944 by units of the Second Canadian Division; German units withstood the siege, and as the First Canadian Army moved north into Belgium, the city was "masked" and left to the rear. The German garrison in Dunkirk held out until May 1945, denying the Allies the use of the port facilities.

See also[]


  • Holmes, Richard, ed. (2001). "France, fall of". The Oxford Companion to Military History, New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866209-2.
  • Keegan, John. (1989). The Second World War, New York: Viking Penguin. ISBN 0-670-82359-7.
  • Liddell Hart, B.H. (1970). History of the Second World War, New York: G.P. Putnam.
  • Murray, Williamson and Millett, Allan R. A War to Be Won, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-00163-X.
  • Weinberg, Gerhard L. (1994). A World at Arms, New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-44317-2.
  • Wilmot, Chester. (1952). The Struggle for Europe, Old Saybrook, Conn.: Konecky & Konecky. ISBN 1-56852-525-7.
  1. See for example John Strawson, If By Chance (MacMillan: 2004); Peter G. Tsouras, ed. Third Reich Victorious: The Alternate Decisions of World War II (Greenhill Books: 2002); Niall Ferguson, ed. Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (Basic Books: 2000).

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