May Map – Evacuation from Dunkirk

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As part of our monthly series focusing on maps from famous battles of WW2, we’ve already looked at some of the most significant moments of the war. This month, we’re going back to May 1940 and looking at the Dunkirk Evacuation.

Although the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 had caused Britain and France to declare war, Western Europe remained relatively peaceful in the first months of the war. Germany had conquered Poland and invaded Denmark and Norway in April 1940 but the situation on its Western border had remained largely unchanged since September. However, the false silence would soon be shattered. On 10 May 1940, German forces attacked France and the neutral nations of Belgium and the Netherlands. Using armoured forces following newly devised Blitzkrieg tactics, the Wehrmacht surged westward.

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Reproduction of a German map of Dunkirk, 24 May 1940 (Click for full size).

Even though the Allies had anticipated a German attack, its speed and direction took them by surprise. The Germans mounted attacks on the Netherlands in an attempt to draw the British Expeditionary Force northward. This was successful and the BEF moved into Belgium and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the main German force advanced through the Ardennes region of Belgium. More than 40,000 vehicles succeeded in advancing through the heavily forested terrain and by 14 May had broken out into the plains of Northern France. Three Panzer corps of the German Army Group A under General Gerd von Rundstedt rapidly advanced towards the English Channel. On 19 May, the first German forces reached the coast and effectively cut the BEF off from the rest of France. Over the following days, the ring around the British troops steadily tightened. By 24 May, the situation looked dire for the Allies in Northern France. They had been pushed back towards the sea and occupied a shrinking pocket centred on the French town of Dunkirk.

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British troops embarking a rescue vessel.

In order to save the situation, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo – the complete evacuation of troops from Dunkirk by sea. The evacuation began on 26 May and involved vessels from Navy destroyers all the way down to small private boats and yachts. On the first day, over 28,000 troops were evacuated. However, the Luftwaffe mounted ferocious attacks on the beaches and caused significant Allied losses. Nevertheless, over the following days, thousands more troops were rescued from the beach. By the time Operation Dynamo ended on 4 June, more than 338,000 men had been safely evacuated. Even so, between 30-40 thousand troops still remained and became prisoners of war. In addition to this, the BEF was forced to abandon all of its vehicles, heavy weapons and equipment. Thousands of tons of ammunition and stores along with over 400 tanks were left behind.

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German soldiers survey captured British equipment.

Nevertheless, Operation Dynamo had succeeded in salvaging Britain’s most important asset – its fighting men. Even though the BEF was forced to retreat, Dunkirk was hailed as a great success and help to boost the resolve of Britain to continue the struggle against the Axis powers. Had it not been for Operation Dynamo, Britain’s ability to continue the fight would have been severely impaired and the outcome of the war in Europe could have been quite different.

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