Dunkirk – 75th Anniversary of Largest Evacuation in Military History

France and the many other countries that fought as allies against the Nazi onslaught in World War II, are commemorating the 75th anniversary of the largest evacuation effort in military history with a series of Operation Dynamo-related events at Dunkirk in May 2015.

Operation Dynamo Dunkirk 1940  (Credit ADRT Nord Tourisme)

Operation Dynamo Dunkirk 1940 (Credit ADRT Nord Tourisme)

The Dunkirk Little Ships Association (ADLS) has announced that to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo more than 50 boats, escorted by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and the Royal Navy will return to the beaches where between 26 May and 4 June 1940 the evacuation took place. The Little Ships will come to Dunkirk between 21st and 25th May. To find out which ships are involved, visit the ADLS web site.

Event programme:
Thursday 21st May: Arrival of the Little Ships at the end of the afternoon (weather permitting); Friday 22nd May 3:30pm: Commemorative ceremony at the British cemetery and memorial (route de Furnes); Saturday 23rd May 11:00 am Commemorative ceremony at the Allied memorial on the beach (time to be confirmed); Saturday 23rd May 3:00 pm (start time subject to modification) Parade in the streets of Dunkirk (marching bands, period military vehicles and cars…); Sunday 24th May 10:00 am Ceremony on Zuydcoote beach to honour the victims of the Crested Eagle, a paddle steamer sunk in 1940; Monday 25th May at around 2:30pm Military vehicles on the promenade of Dunkerque Malo les Bains.

Operation Dynamo saw the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and thousands of French soldiers ahead of an advancing German army. The evacuation was an unimaginable success at the heart of a humiliating defeat, and led to 338,226 members of the allied forces (including 123,095 French and 16,816 Belgian soldiers) escaping Dunkirk to reach Britain, regroup and rejoin the spearhead in the fight against the Nazis”.

Operation Dynamo Dunkirk 1940 forces boarding little ships (Credit Municipal Archive Dunkirk)

Operation Dynamo Dunkirk 1940 forces boarding little ships (Credit Municipal Archive Dunkirk)

According to officials at the ADRT Nord Tourisme office in Lille the commemorations are a salute to the memories of the Dunkirk spirit of May 1940. Ahead of the evacuation, “the North of France was swept up in the frightening upheaval of war. The German army’s lightning advance towards the English Channel had entrapped the French and British troops like fish in a net. Their only chance of salvation lay in the sea: all eyes were on Dunkirk. Planned on 19 May and carried out between 26 May and 4 June, Operation Dynamo led to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and thousands of northern French soldiers. It was the largest evacuation effort in military history, and an unimaginable success at the heart of a humiliating defeat”.

The officials also highlighted the fact that some wrecks are still visible from the beaches: “At low tide, the remains of a few of the Dunkirk evacuation fleet can still be seen on the beaches between Zudcoote and Bray Dunes. They bear witness to the brutality of the battles. Among them are two paddlewheel steamboats: the Devonia, which sank on 30 May 1940 after being hit by a German bomb, and the Crested Eagle, bombed on 29 May as it was transporting 200 men. Most of the troops on board were killed in the fire, the others were gunned down by the Germans as they tried to reach the shore.”

Meanwhile a commemorative exhibition will be mounted at the Dunkirk Port Museum – between 8th May and 15th Nov. The museum curators noted that the context was the four years, eleven months, and five days representing the duration of the German occupation of Dunkirk. “The inhabitants found themselves trapped, surrounded and eventually under house arrest in their own town. The exhibition focuses on the fate of the civilians, on traces of the events that still show in the urban landscape, and on what we do with that particular history today, in sculpture, photography and music.

Operation Dynamo Dunkirk 1940, on the beaches  (Credit Municipal Archive Dunkirk)

Operation Dynamo Dunkirk 1940, on the beaches (Credit Municipal Archive Dunkirk)

Another visitor attraction open during the commemorations is the Battle of Dunkirk Museum which tells the story of Operation Dynamo and the evacuation of 338 000 allied soldiers. The Memorial houses a rich collection of weapons, uniforms, models, photos and maps of military operations. Open from 1st April to 30th September. Find more info here.

A brief history of the events that led up to the Dunkirk evacuation: “On the 10th May 1940, German army group B invaded Holland, Luxembourg and Belgium. In response, three allied armies were committed to the river Dyle to counter-attack. At the same time, German army group A burst through the Ardennes and advanced very quickly towards the French coast and the English Channel. By taking Boulogne sur Mer and Calais, the Germans succeeded in surrounding the allied troops in the so-called ‘sickle cut’. Holland capitulated on the 15th May, and Belgium on the 28th. Facing an enemy which was better equipped and which outnumbered the allied troops, retreat was the only option for the French armies and the British Expeditionary Force, that had been stationed on the continent since the beginning of the ‘Phoney War’ in September 1939. 15 000 French and British troops defended a narrow perimeter to prevent the Germans from taking Dunkirk. Thanks to the sacrifices of these soldiers, a ragtag fleet of around 1400 mainly British, but also French, Belgian and Dutch ships, succeeded in rescuing more than 338 000 soldiers from the beaches and the eastern mole. On the 4th June, at dawn, the last ship left Dunkirk and the Germans entered a city that was in ruins. The success of the biggest evacuation in military history, a ‘Disaster turned to Triumph’, gave a great boost to British morale, and is now seen as a major turning point of World War II”.

Other information here:
The official commemoration website.
Details in English.
Find the sites of the commemorations on the online map here.
Explore a pdf flipbook on the different memorial sites here.

Download the story of the Crested Eagle here: Crested-Eagle-GB
Download the Operation Dynamo brochure: Dunkirk-1940-2015

For a fuller account of the commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the start of the Great War and the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings and the earlier Dunkirk evacuation, visit our World War Memorial page.

Story: Ken Pottinger

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