When the soldiers retreated to Dunkirk, they were tired, hungry, and thirsty. Waiting seemed to be their only option. There were two embarking places: one at the beaches and the other at a breakwater, a wooden walkway with a concrete foundation that jutted out into the sea to break the force of the water from the harbor. Large ships anchored at the breakwater, or mole, while the troops boarded her. Organizing the departing troops at the breakwater was Captain Tennant, who loaded the soldiers into ships at an astounding rate. However, the mole proved a perfect target for the Luftwaffe, and more than one ship was sunk while being loaded. The breakwater itself also suffered severe damage. Disorder ruled on the beaches. Small boats would come close to shore and take as many men as possible, transporting them to larger vessels further out. Sometimes the men were so anxious to be rescued they would sink the little boats by overcrowding. The water around Dunkirk was full of debris from sunken ships, oil, and dead bodies. Many men swam through the murky water to the waiting ships.

When it became obvious that the BEF and the Allies needed to be evacuated more swiftly, the British leaders realized the difficulty of the situation. Previously, Winston Churchill had predicted that only 30,000 might be saved; Vice-Admiral Ramsay thought 45,000 could possibly be rescued. But that was only a fraction of the 400,000 troops trapped at Dunkirk! In addition to the tragic loss of life, those soldiers could not be replaced. Small boats were needed to pick up the men on the beaches.

Operation Dynamo took on another dimension when the Admiralty asked private citizens to take their boats to France and help with the evacuation. Eagerly the British people responded. Pleasure yachts, paddle steamers, fishing boats, and even dories were among the 800 ships that made up this strange armada. Some of these ships were manned by their owners, while others were put under the command of a Navy crew or volunteers. On May 30, 1940, the English Channel was surprisingly serene, and a fog hung over the French coast. The "Little Ships," as they came to be called, played a crucial role in helping to rescue the troops at Dunkirk. They lifted over 53,000 troops on May 30. That night and the following day over 68,000 more troops were evacuated. This powerful fleet of average people helped save the soldiers who would one day return to defeat Hitler. Without the brave actions of these citizens, the outcome at Dunkirk would have been very different. Miraculously, over 338,000 men were saved.

From a military viewpoint, Dunkirk was an utter defeat for the Allies. They had been beaten and were within an inch of annihilation. Yet many escaped. Winston Churchill said it was a "miracle of deliverance." Miracle seems the best word to describe the evacuation from Dunkirk. Every event pointed to something out of human control. The calm sea during the nine days' operations was a miracle. The heavy fog on several days, the smoke from the oil refinery, and the halt order from Hitler were all miracles. Plus, the amazing part taken by the "Little Ships" made the impossible happen!

Even though many of the troops were safe, nearly all their equipment was left in France. As Churchill pointed out, "wars are not won by evacuations," but in this case the miracle at Dunkirk enabled the British to regroup and eventually defeat Germany. How would World War II have turned out if the Allies had been defeated at Dunkirk? We will never know, because the miracle did happen! It's comforting to know that we serve the same God who orchestrated this amazing miracle.  

Study questions and follow up research

  • How long did the evacuation last?
  • What were some of the miracles that happened at Dunkirk?
  • Discuss why the events at Dunkirk were significant.
  • Younger students would enjoy the illustrated book The Little Ships by Louise Borden, and older students would enjoy The Miracle of Dunkirk by Walter Lord (please note there are a few quotes with bad language).
  • Visit www.AmyPuetz.com/ Dunkirk.html to watch a video made during World War II about Dunkirk and also to hear Winston Churchill's "We Shall Never Surrender" speech, given on June 4, 1940.

FREE BONUS: Download a free lapbook activity pack to enhance your Dunkirk learning experience! This activity pack was created exclusively for Home School Enrichment Magazine by Katie Kubesh, Kimm Bellotto, and Niki McNeil of In the Hands of a Child. Download your FREE bonus at www.HSEmagazine.com/dunkirk.pdf 

*This article published April 28, 2010.

Amy Puetz, a homeschool graduate, loves history. She is the author of Uncover Exciting History: Revealing America's Christian Heritage in Short, Easy-to-Read Nuggets, and Heroines of the Past, as well as a growing number of historical books. Visit her Web site at www.AmyPuetz.com to see many resources relating to history. Join her mailing list and receive a free e-book! 

This article was originally published in the Mar/Apr 2010 issue of Home School Enrichment Magazine. Sign up now to receive a FREE sample copy! Visit www.HSEmagazine.com today!