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November 21, 2023

A Miracle that Saved 338,000 Soldiers from Hitler: The Miracle of Dunkirk

During the Spring of 1940, World War II was in full swing across Europe. During this time, a desperate and unprecedented battle, the Battle of France, was taking place on the coast of northern France and into the English Channel. This was a battle that eventually led to an evacuation that became known as the Miracle of Dunkirk. It was a testament to human courage and resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity. The Battle of France was between the German army and the French and British forces and their Allies. In September 1939, while the Germans were invading Poland, British expeditionary forces were sent to France. By May the following year, the British forces in France had risen to ten infantry divisions. Hitler orchestrated the invasion of Belgium and France because Britain and France had declared themselves to be at war with Germany. The Germans had been successful at conquering Poland in 1939, and now they sought to devour France too.1

Planned for the dawn of May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler had issued orders for a general offensive, planned by General Erich von Manstein, against France, Belgium, and Holland. The German air force and army had struck in accordance with that plan. The Allied troops had been prepared for the attack, and developed their own plan to counter an invasion by the Germans. Two French armies and nine divisions of the British Expeditionary Force had advanced into Belgium to engage in battle with the Germans there. Hitler’s troops, in the first three days of the battle, had overpowered the British and Allied troops and been able to break through the primary French defenses; and they began to move towards the northwest, towards the English Channel. A week later, ten days after the initial attack on May 10, the German troops had made their way up to the English Channel, trapping the British and Allied troops in Belgium and northern France. The commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, General Lord Gort, had been alarmed at the speed and destruction caused by the German forces and was considering evacuation from northern France for his nine divisions. The prospect of evacuation was seemingly impossible because the German forces moved towards the last possible evacuation point. However, Hitler ordered General Gerd von Rundstedt to halt their advance. Seemingly out of nowhere, the British and French soldiers had a chance at evacuation. Hitler and the Germans had become complacent, with Hermann Göring, commander of the German Luftwaffe, informing Hitler that the evacuation would be stopped, if they tried an evacuation, by simply using the German air force to bomb the rescuing vessels. This halt was a pivotal moment in the battle, and it allowed the Allies time to plan for an evacuation. That evacuation, led by Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, would be called Operation Dynamo.1

The destroyed city of Dunkirk after the invasion| Courtesy of IndieWire

Dunkirk was war-torn. The constant distant echoes of artillery were overshadowed by the screaming of wounded soldiers and the sharp sounds of guns being fired. The never-ending sounds of military vehicles moving along the shore, and German bombers flying overheard, encompassed the scene with country roads filling carts and horses, as hungry fleeing families desperately tried to seek refuge under roadside trees. Being so close to the ocean, the salt was a prominent taste, only to be interrupted by the bitter, disgusting flavor of smoke and explosives. All of the metallic weapons also created a hint of metal in the air, a taste that could only mean incoming fighting and danger. There was a plague of drunkenness involving military and civilians alike; an ominous scene in a burning port as the people sought oblivion in brandy and champagne. The feel of the ground beneath the feet was inconsistent. The coarse roughness of the sand was mixed with muddy spots due to the vehicles moving and the constant movement of ground from footsteps repeatedly disturbing the same areas over and over and over again. The feeling was unstable, reflecting the nature of war, particularly when fighting a lost battle.3

Bertram Ramsay was a British naval officer in World War II. He followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, being a naval commander and an admiral in the Royal Navy respectively. Having grown up in an environment in which war, in particular naval war, was such a big part of the family, Ramsay’s career choice in the navy instilled in him a deep sense of duty. Ramsay played a major part in the eventual evacuation of the British and Allied troops off the beaches of Dunkirk in that Operation Dynamo. Being one of the British naval officers, he was in charge of the evacuation of the troops, which included meticulous, strategic planning. There were a variety of factors that had to be considered. These, for the evacuation, included the vessels that were going to be used, the ports the vessels would leave from, and where the soldiers would be able to evacuate from. There were also other important factors, such as communication channels to use. The pressure that he faced while trying to evacuate the troops was immense. The Germans’ constant air raids placed Ramsay under time pressure to get the evacuation moving along. His calmness in the process of evacuation undoubtedly was a pivotal factor in saving the lives of 338,000 men from the German encirclement. Ramsay was also the instigator of the now-famous use of civilian boats to assist in the evacuation. This decision increased the capacity of the operation, allowing a significantly higher number of soldiers to be rescued, and not be left stranded awaiting certain capture or death from the Germans.4

British troops lined up on the beach awaiting rescue from Dunkirk | Courtesy of Imperial War Museums

Ramsay became the leader of the evacuation, which did not seem possible a couple of days prior. While the reason for Hitler’s halt to the German encirclement is unknown, it stopped the Germans from securing their victory. It also paved the way for the evacuation of British and French troops trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk. Having such limited time and opportunity to conduct a rescue mission, Ramsay was faced with the task of appointing men to assist him. On a beach that was full of not just physical stress, but emotional stress among the soldiers, some were stranded in a foreign country, not knowing whether they would be rescued. Being rescued was one thing, but so also was not knowing where their next meal would come from. Resources such as food and water were scarce, which was another problem that Ramsay had to face in order to keep his men healthy enough for the potential voyage back home. As Ramsay was overseeing the operations, he witnessed the sheer determination of his men as they mentally fought every day to save themselves. The toll of war was present in Ramsay’s eyes. Through the mentally and physically draining days that stretched on, a sense of spirit and camaraderie developed, with each man looking out for the other. The spirits of the men stranded were lifted when the sights of the civilian boats arrived. These civilians were willing to risk their lives and their boats in order to help the operation led by Ramsay and his team. They would try to evacuate hundreds of thousands of soldiers off the beaches of Dunkirk.5

Many civilian sacrifices had to be made to ensure that Ramsay and his men would be able to flee the squelching grounds of a war-torn Dunkirk. There was their willingness to be able to help out in the face of danger. The British and Allied troops were surrounded, meaning that there was no way they would be able to escape on land. They were stranded on the beach, with only the English Channel serving as a means of escape from the advancing Nazis. For Ramsay, the German pause in their advance was a significant help. Ramsay, along with his team, called for help from the civilians from across the English Channel, requesting their assistance. They were able to bring hundreds of vessels to help make possible the evacuation process from the Germans. The help was still quite far away but, through the eyes of Ramsay and his team, some help was better than no help. The uncertainty of where the Germans were at any given time provided even more of a challenge in not knowing when their last opportunity for evacuation would be. Boats flocked onto the beach to assist the transportation of soldiers to the anchored navy vessels offshore. They sought to get as many soldiers out of Dunkirk as quickly as possible. With the civilian boats being smaller, the soldiers were able to wade out into the water to make the evacuation safer and more efficient. Having possible German air threats also proved to Ramsay how crucial the civilians were in their assistance. With the efficiency of the evacuation of the beaches, air threats and German forces had less time to try and stop the whole process from happening.6

Along with their willingness to sacrifice their lives to help soldiers, the civilians involved also had to sacrifice their own personal belongings. These were sacrifices highly appreciated by Ramsay and his team. These civilian vessels made the evacuation proceed at speeds that would have been unthinkable without the added help. The vessels that they used were their own private property, and they ranged from fishing boats to their own luxurious yachts. With the initial trip to cross the English Channel, they had already been subject to having their own personal property damaged, and many of the vessels were not suited to cross rough seas. However, the unprecedented calmness of the English Channel that May provided a safer way for English civilians to cross the channel and help with the transportation of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk to the naval vessels that were anchored further out to sea. They ran the risk of scratching the bottoms of their boats on the ocean floor, and of hitting possible protruding rocks and sandbanks as well. Also, they had to deal with air threats, and debris could hit boats and damage them, or even sink them. Many of the vessels these civilians sailed were severely damaged or lost in the evacuation. Ramsay saw this willingness to sacrifice their personal belongings as extremely selfless and saw that they were willing to do anything to help the people of their country. Ramsay saw the true spirit of the British people. Their true colors were their willingness to do anything to help the soldiers who were serving their country and trying to protect them.7

While Ramsay was receiving help from civilians to rescue soldiers by the thousands, there were still many issues that he had to endure. One of these issues was the issue of communication. Dunkirk was war-torn and broken down with stressed soldiers fearing for their lives. There were soldiers who did not know if they would be able to go home again, who did not know if they were ever going to see their parents, their siblings, their girlfriends, or their friends ever again. This was a major setback that Ramsay had to endure. Everyone was stressed when the evacuation was taking place, everyone wanted to get on the next boat that would lead them to their freedom, and lead them back home to their loved ones. The stress and panic was evident and could be felt along the beach. Being able to organize people would have been a major challenge, especially because of the overshadowing threat of possibly dying or being severely injured at any moment. Communication was an issue also between the French and British troops. There was a language barrier that proved a problem, especially in high-pressure situations. Having to communicate in an environment in which everything has to be done quickly and properly was essential. These high-pressure situations between the French and British proved to be challenging as clear instructions were hard to give in the right language. If the soldiers were able to speak the other language, there were also accents that had to be understood as well.8

The communication that Ramsay and his men had with the soldiers and troops were a problem, but also the communication that had to be done back to Britain and the ships also posed a problem. The British Expeditionary Force’s communication relied on cable-based telegraph and telephone communication. Wireless was restricted by excessive regulation, frequently treated with ambivalence, and, consequently, failed to fulfill its theoretical potential. Ramsay’s faulty wireless communication system made the evacuation more challenging. Having a system to communicate with people was essential. Boats from across the English Channel from England had to be organized to have the evacuation flow as smoothly as possible. Ramsay was under lots of pressure to be able to organize the evacuation to ensure as many soldiers as possible, both French and British, were able to return home safely. The communication with the civilians also posed a problem to Ramsay. The civilians had answered the call for help, and had given up their own personal boats to be able to help in the evacuation, but lacked equipment that would have required essential communication. Communication had to be done in the simplest of manners, shouting and signaling instructions to each other to communicate the simplest of ideas to one another.8

Radios were being used as essential modes of communication, but there was a problem with them. The rough weather of the English Channel posed difficulties in communication from the land out to sea. The rough seas and stormy weather proved to be the factors that impacted radio signals. Ramsay, needing to communicate through radio to organize boats, found this challenging. The poor communications in both the political and military spheres, combined with the inadequate provision of liaison officers, all contributed to the cumbersome command and control structure that handicapped the expeditionary force throughout the campaign.10

Along with the communication issues was the issue of keeping track of how many people were being evacuated. It was one thing for the evacuation to happen, but another to keep track of all the people being evacuated. Keeping track of the people being evacuated meant that they could only estimate the number of people who still needed to be rescued. They needed that estimate to know how many more boats were needed for more rescues. Ramsay was already using the civilian boats to help evacuate the British troops off the beaches. There was activity around the eastern mole, and one of two breakwaters that were guarding the entrance to the harbor at Dunkirk. One of the evacuation leaders, Captain William G. Tennant, was the leader of the evacuation from the shore of Dunkirk and under the command of Admiral Ramsay. Captain Tennant oversaw the evacuation process from the shore, which provided him an opportunity for to evacuate thousands of soldiers. After arriving on shore, Captain Tennant noticed that the Luftwaffe had overlooked two long breakwaters in their attempt to destroy the piers and quays of the port. He had noticed that the eastern mole, one of the breakwaters, was able to serve as a pier. There was a risk involved in trying to bring ships alongside the breakwater, but it was tried anyway, and it was successful. This led to thousands of soldiers rushing to the breakwater.11

Even when the soldiers were safe and had left the dull beaches of Dunkirk, they were still faced with the task of making it back across the English Channel, and of avoiding the possible air threats that the Germans posed. Those air threats that made evacuation off the beaches hazardous were also present after making it to the ships. The English Channel is a rough, stormy passage that is between France and England, and navigating through it with the added pressure of possible air strikes made it seemingly impossible. However, during the nine days of the evacuation, the English Channel remained calm. This allowed for the small vessels that the British were using to be able to transport the soldiers through the miraculously calm water without too much of a threat of rough waters disrupting the escape of Dunkirk.12

British troops looking back at the French coast during the evacuation | Courtesy of IndieWire

Amidst the fading twilight on the beaches of Dunkirk, where the echoes of war still lingered in the salt-laden air, Ramsay stood tall, his eyes focused on the distance. He had already lost a Commander who had perished trying to save more men. The sun dipped below the waters of the English Channel, giving the faces of the weary soldiers a golden tinge to their fear-stained eyes, as the numerous vessels swaying in the seas were beginning to make their way back across the channel. The rhythmic sounds of waves crashing against the shore etched in a memory that would never be forgotten for as long as he lived. Ramsay’s heart pounded in his chest as he watched the 338 thousandth person be finally evacuated off the war-torn grounds of Dunkirk onto a waiting boat, his silhouette framed in the ever-darkening light. The weight of the operation, all the lives he was trusted to try and save, crashed down on him as he realized that he had helped so many of his men escape the inescapable. For him, this was the pinnacle of those days and nights working on how he was going to be able to save his men. With a deep breath, Ramsay allowed himself a moment of relief, his eyes watering with a mixture of exhaustion and gratefulness. The evacuation, which was only possible with the biggest strike of luck with the Germans halting their advancement, was one of the biggest challenges, mentally and physically, he had ever faced. Against all odds, he had overseen the safe return of hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers, a feat that would echo through history as the Miracle of Dunkirk. The soldiers, the civilian volunteers, and the naval crews had stood up and shown that war is able to bring out the side of people they didn’t even know they had. As the last boat pulled away from the shore, Ramsay’s shoulders relaxed as relief flooded his body. He had witnessed the resilience of humanity in the face of relentless adversity. His relief was shared with every single other person who had helped him with the evacuation. The collective spirit of determination had proved you could do anything when you wanted something badly enough. With a steady gaze, Ramsay turned away from the receding boats, his eyes now fixed on the future. The Miracle of Dunkirk was not just a moment in history but an acknowledgment of the sheer will that people have inside of them. As the last soldier disappeared from view, Ramsay knew that this evacuation would forever highlight the sense of togetherness in humanity to pull through in the darkest of times. Eventually, the soldiers arrived back on British soil and were able to be transported on trains to places where they would be able to stay safely and thoroughly reflect on what they had just experienced.13

French troops temporarily safe back in the UK after the Dunkirk evacuation | Courtesy of Press Agency photographer

When back on home soil, Ramsay allowed little time to reflect on the heroics of Dunkirk. Instead, he continued on with his work in the Navy. From the years of 1942 to 1944, he was involved in three more operations. In 1942, Operation Torch involved the planning of the landings in North Africa. In 1943, he was involved in Operation Husky, which was the planning of the landing in Sicily. In 1944, due to Ramsay’s expertise shown in these naval plannings, he was chosen to mastermind Operation Neptune during the invasion of Normandy. Post Dunkirk, Ramsay continued playing a significant part in the naval plans, especially in being chosen to mastermind Operation Neptune. However, in May of 1940, his vision to understand the severity of the situation in Dunkirk and his ability to create a plan that seemed impossible to rescue the British and Allied forces will go down in history forever.14

  1. Samuel K. Eddy and Donald L. Layton, “Evacuation of Dunkirk,” in Salem Press Encyclopedia (Salem Press, 1 January 2023), Research Starters.
  2. Samuel K. Eddy and Donald L. Layton, “Evacuation of Dunkirk,” in Salem Press Encyclopedia (Salem Press, 1 January 2023), Research Starters.
  3. Sinclair McKay, Dunkirk : From Disaster to Deliverance – Testimonies of the Last Survivors (London: Aurum Press, 2014), Blitzkrieg.
  4. “D-Day: Admiral Neptune – Sir Bertram Ramsay, Right, Brought the Troops Home from Dunkirk and Sent Them Back Again on D-Day. Dan van Der Vat on a Forgotten Hero,” The Guardian (London, England), 20 May 1994.
  5. Hanna Diamond, Fleeing Hitler : France 1940 (Oxford, UNITED KINGDOM: Oxford University Press, 2008), 43.
  6. Sinclair McKay, “Just Follow the Ferries,” from Dunkirk : From Disaster to Deliverance – Testimonies of the Last Survivors (London: Aurum Press, 2014).
  7. Edward Smalley, “Signal Failure: Communications in the British Expeditionary Force, September 1939–June 1940,” War in History 28, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 151.
  8. Edward Smalley, “Signal Failure: Communications in the British Expeditionary Force, September 1939–June 1940,” War in History 28, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 144.
  9. Edward Smalley, “Signal Failure: Communications in the British Expeditionary Force, September 1939–June 1940,” War in History 28, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 144.
  10. Edward Smalley, “Signal Failure: Communications in the British Expeditionary Force, September 1939–June 1940,” War in History 28, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 145.
  11. Edward Smalley, “Signal Failure: Communications in the British Expeditionary Force, September 1939–June 1940,” War in History 28, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 164.
  12. Edward Smalley, “Signal Failure: Communications in the British Expeditionary Force, September 1939–June 1940,” War in History 28, no. 1 (1 January 2021): 147.
  13. Frank Uhlig, review of Review of The Miracle of Dunkirk, by Walter Lord, Naval War College Review 36, no. 4 (1983): 92–95.
  14. “Mastermind of Dunkirk and D-Day: The Vision of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay,” Military History (World History Group, LLC, 1 November 2021).

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