Evacuation of Dunkirk ends
The 3rd of June 1940 AD
The evacuation that started on May 27 with some 8,000 troops being ferried out of Dunkirk accelerated as the days wore on, another 18,000 removed on May 28, more than 45,000 the following day, and the next three seeing at least 60,000 taken to safety daily.
While the evacuation continued the bombing and strafing by German planes got worse, and as the Wehrmacht was only two or three miles from the beaches and the port artillery fire was a constant too. British military discipline by and large held, though some troops were driven by desperation to loot food from civilians in the area.
As the port facilities were being pounded to oblivion the focus began to shift more to the beach. Here men waded into the sea which at Dunkirk slopes gently from the land, making it impossible for larger craft to get in close. Some were forced to wait for hours on end with water up to their necks, awaiting pick up.
By May 31 the situation was becoming more desperate. It was at this point that morale was helped, and a legend created, with the arrival of the ‘little ships’. These were pleasure yachts and small motor-boats, fishing smacks and sundry other craft, crewed by civilians who took to the sea from the Thames estuary Dover , and other points on the the coasts of Kent and other nearby counties. The little ships could get close to shore, and so their arrival made it easier on the exhausted troops, though it is estimated that they in fact only took around 25,000 men to safety. What is regarded as probably the smallest of these little craft, the 18’ open fishing boat Tamzine, is now housed in the Imperial War Museum in London .
By June 3 the evacuation proper was over, a few more escaping on the following day.
What was a somewhat inglorious retreat – Churchill regarded it as the worst defeat suffered by Britain for many centuries – began to grow into a tale of British pluck, of defiance by the seemingly helpless Brits in the face of enormous enemy strength. People talked of ‘the Dunkirk spirit’ with great pride, not least because of the involvement of the small craft in the dangerous evacuation, elements in what has been called ‘the necessary myth’ to hide the scale of the defeat and its consequences.
Beneath the myth, however, and the retreat, one major factor of importance in the rest of the war was revealed: Hitler, no military tactician, had blundered, as he would again and again. Churchill, Prime Minister for less than three weeks when the Dunkirk action began, was far more astute, marshalling limited resources to greater effect, and leaving battlefield control in the hands of trusted commanders.
As Churchill himself remarked, wars are not won by retreats. Over 200,000 British troops were brought home by the evacuation, and another 130,000 or so allied men. But the Germans had gained massive amounts of material that been abandoned rather than destroyed in the rush to get the men out. The Wehrmacht could count more than 1,000 artillery pieces and at least as many anti-aircraft guns in its booty. Back in Britain the tanks available to repel the expected invasion were numbered in scores not hundreds. The question is happily a hypothetical one, but has been asked many times: what would have happened had Hitler pressed on and prevented the evacuation? To which can be added, what if he had followed the evacuation with an immediate invasion or at least a beachhead?
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