Troops Ready For Evacuation at Dunkirk

The Real 'Miracle of Dunkirk'

With the aide of hundreds of naval ships and private vessels, more than 330,000 trapped Allied troops were rescued from northern France in the spring of 1940.

In May 1940, in the grim early days of World War II, Hitler's Wermacht rapidly advanced to northern France, with just the slender English Channel separating German troops from the English coast. Hundreds of thousands of British and French forces were trapped on the beaches and in the harbor at the French port of Dunkirk. Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images In May 1940, in the grim early days of World War II, Hitler's Wermacht rapidly advanced to northern France, with just the slender English Channel separating German troops from the English coast. Hundreds of thousands of British and French forces were trapped on the beaches and in the harbor at the French port of Dunkirk. On the beaches of Dunkirk, thousands of French and British soldiers waited, under fire, day after day, for rescue. In England, the British Navy organized an enormous rescue operation, codenamed "Operation Dynamo." ullstein bild via Getty Images On the beaches of Dunkirk, thousands of French and British soldiers waited, under fire, day after day, for rescue. In England, the British Navy organized an enormous rescue operation, codenamed "Operation Dynamo." Large war ships found it difficult to approach the beaches, due to the shallow water around Dunkirk. The rescue was made even more difficult and hazardous as the Luftwaffe relentlessly attacked from the air. Popperfoto/Getty Images Large war ships found it difficult to approach the beaches, due to the shallow water around Dunkirk. The rescue was made even more difficult and hazardous as the Luftwaffe relentlessly attacked from the air. In England, a call went out for as many private vessels as possible to cross the Channel and assist with the rescue mission. This huge flotilla -- which would be immortalized as the Little Ships -- set sail. Popperfoto/Getty Images In England, a call went out for as many private vessels as possible to cross the Channel and assist with the rescue mission. This huge flotilla -- which would be immortalized as the Little Ships -- set sail. Steamers, fishing boats -- all manner of vessel sailed to Dunkirk, ferrying tens of thousands of troops from the beaches to the destroyers and other war ships waiting offshore. It was in these days that the phrase "Dunkirk Spirit" was born. March Of Time/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Steamers, fishing boats -- all manner of vessel sailed to Dunkirk, ferrying tens of thousands of troops from the beaches to the destroyers and other war ships waiting offshore. It was in these days that the phrase "Dunkirk Spirit" was born. British soldiers in the rear guard at Dunkirk try to protect others fighting their way to the coast. Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images British soldiers in the rear guard at Dunkirk try to protect others fighting their way to the coast. Tens of thousands of troops in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had been sent to defend France, were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner before and during the chaos at Dunkirk. In fact, for every seven soldiers who escaped Dunkirk, one was captured and made prisoner. Here, a British soldier at Dunkirk helps a wounded man to some water. Historical/Corbis via Getty Images Tens of thousands of troops in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), which had been sent to defend France, were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner before and during the chaos at Dunkirk. In fact, for every seven soldiers who escaped Dunkirk, one was captured and made prisoner. Here, a British soldier at Dunkirk helps a wounded man to some water. Crew from the French destroyer Bourrasque, sunk by a mine in the waters off of Dunkirk, are helped aboard a British ship as their life raft sinks beneath them. Hulton Archive/Getty Images Crew from the French destroyer Bourrasque, sunk by a mine in the waters off of Dunkirk, are helped aboard a British ship as their life raft sinks beneath them. A huge amount of military equipment (guns, vehicles, tanks, and more) had to be abandoned and left behind during the evacuation. ullstein bild via Getty Images A huge amount of military equipment (guns, vehicles, tanks, and more) had to be abandoned and left behind during the evacuation. Huge numbers of British and French troops crammed onto warships, which were escorted back to England by the Royal Air Force. Hulton Archive/Getty Images Huge numbers of British and French troops crammed onto warships, which were escorted back to England by the Royal Air Force. Back in England, exhausted troops rescued from Dunkirk finally rest on the trains that brought them back from the coast. Keystone/Getty Images Back in England, exhausted troops rescued from Dunkirk finally rest on the trains that brought them back from the coast. The troops were given a hero's welcome and refreshments on their return. UniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images The troops were given a hero's welcome and refreshments on their return. A soldier of the British Expeditionary Force, arriving back in England, kisses his girlfriend. Topical Press Agency/Getty Images A soldier of the British Expeditionary Force, arriving back in England, kisses his girlfriend. In the end, around 40,000 Allied troops became prisoners of war after Dunkirk. Around 11,000 members of the BEF were killed outright, or died of their wounds. From a purely military perspective, Dunkirk was a massive defeat for the Allies. But 338,000 troops were rescued from enemy fire in just over a week, and in the decades since, the single word "Dunkirk" has become synonymous with courage, resourcefulness, and grit. Hulton Archive/Getty Images In the end, around 40,000 Allied troops became prisoners of war after Dunkirk. Around 11,000 members of the BEF were killed outright, or died of their wounds. From a purely military perspective, Dunkirk was a massive defeat for the Allies. But 338,000 troops were rescued from enemy fire in just over a week, and in the decades since, the single word "Dunkirk" has become synonymous with courage, resourcefulness, and grit. "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." -- From Prime Minister Winston Churchill's famous, stirring speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, immediately following the evacuation of Dunkirk. IWM via Getty Images "We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." -- From Prime Minister Winston Churchill's famous, stirring speech to the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, immediately following the evacuation of Dunkirk.