A gray fog hovered over the masses assembled on the beaches around Dunkirk. Usually the English Channel tossed and rolled, but today the waves were calm. Looking out to sea, the tired soldiers knew their only hope of survival lay in reaching England. Could they make it? Would they be destroyed by the German army, getting closer each hour?

During the years before the Second World War, few people took Hitler and his crazy ideas seriously. When Winston Churchill tried to warn the world about Hitler, no one listened. Austria and Czechoslovakia were captured by Germany without fighting—but when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, it finally became apparent that Hitler must be stopped. The Allied forces of England and France agreed to help if Belgium suffered invasion.

In 1940, the Germans did indeed attack Belgium.

The Germans employed a new kind of warfare called Blitzkrieg—lightning war. Expecting the Germans to march through Belgium just as they had in World War I, the Allies sent most of their troops there. Instead, the Nazis marched through the Ardennes, which everyone thought impassable for tanks. The Germans advanced swiftly, and soon they pushed the Allied troops toward the sea. Since the assault took the Allies by surprise, many troops didn't know where they were or what they should be doing. One thing was crystal clear: they were being defeated. The attack on Belgium began on May 10, and by May 24 the Germans had pushed so far into France that Hitler feared his tanks would be separated. On May 24 he gave a halt order. This gave the tanks a chance to regroup, but it also gave the Allies a needed reprieve and helped save many men from certain death.

For over two weeks the Allied soldiers had been marching or fighting every day. Their fatigue overwhelmed them. A few clever men devised a way to sleep while marching! Three men abreast would lock arms, and the two on the outside kept the middle man in step. That way he would be able to sleep while he marched. Each took a turn in the middle.

When the troops began heading north, they were told to congregate at Dunkirk. A large, billowing cloud of black smoke served as a beacon to the troops. An oil refinery and oil tanks at Dunkirk had been bombed by the Germans, and the smoldering clouds emitted were a blessing in disguise. They led the shattered troops to Dunkirk. The clouds also hid many of troops' activities from the Luftwaffe, the German air force. Even though the German tanks were temporarily stationary, the Allies still suffered from air attacks. Hitler wanted the glory of victory to go to the Luftwaffe. Goering, the commander of the air force, even bragged, "My Führer, leave the destruction of the enemy surrounded at Dunkirk to me and my Luftwaffe!" However, the Luftwaffe's attacks were indecisive, and on May 27 the tanks began moving again. By now large numbers of troops had reached Dunkirk, including many of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

Initially, evacuation seemed unnecessary. The troops needed to regroup, dig in, and fight again. At least, that's what the military leaders in England thought—but the field commanders knew the time had come to retreat. The Germans marched across France and surrounded the Allies. Pushing them in a semicircle closer and closer to the sea, the Germans squeezed a little tighter each day. As early as May 22, 1940, plans were put into action to evacuate the troops. The Admiralty met in the "Dynamo Room," which served as part of their offices under Dover Castle. Thus the evacuation bore the codename "Operation Dynamo."

On May 26, the first troops were transported from Dunkirk to England, and the evacuation continued until June 4.

Since the retreat of the BEF and their Allies was chaotic, it's no wonder the evacuation lacked organization too. Adding to the disorder were the attacks from the Luftwaffe. On May 27 and 29 and June 1, the Luftwaffe led devastating attacks on the ships and men at Dunkirk. Other days, the Luftwaffe were still a threat, but not as effective. Not only was there danger from the air: the calm water also hid mines and German submarines. When the evacuation started, Britain had 40 destroyers, but by the end only 11 remained. For the soldiers, getting on a ship was not a sure ticket home; many soldiers died or found themselves stranded in the water when their transports sank. Frequently, survivors were picked up by other ships.

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!