History

This is the battle of Dunkirk — by the numbers

Everyone knows the basic story about the "Miracle of Dunkirk," during which trapped British troops were evacuated from the French coastal city. But how much do you really know of this miraculous nine-day operation?


Granted, Christopher Nolan's masterpiece "Dunkirk" made over $500 million, but it told just a tiny snippet of the tale. What makes the miracle of Dunkirk so impressive are the numbers of people the operation moved out of France.

The evacuation had become necessary because German tanks had attacked through the Ardennes forest – which Allied planners had assumed was impassable terrain for tanks.

There's a lesson in that, but that is for another time. As a result of the disastrous way the Battle of France unfolded, about 800,000 Nazis had roughly 400,000 British and French troops trapped with their backs to the English Channel, with the safe haven of England being 22 miles away.

The crew of a fishing boat retrieves British troops off Dunkirk. (US Army image)

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered a maritime evacuation, thinking that perhaps 45,000 troops could be pulled out. However, many British civilians brought their boats, and an armada of over 700 vessels, ranging from warships to rowboats was soon heading for the pocket.

They faced a devastating gauntlet. During the nine-day evacuation, Nazi planes dropped 45,000 bombs. That came down to roughly one bomb every 17.5 seconds. The Royal Air Force sent 16 squadrons of Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes to cover the evacuation. In 2,739 fighter sorties, they shot down as many as 240 Nazi planes.

The British Army evacuation from Dunkirk (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

The Nazis managed to kill 68,000 troops who were holding the line, along with nine destroyers (six British, three French) and over 200 of the smaller vessels carrying out the evacuation. But that armada – citizens of a free country rising up to meet the call – managed to evacuate 338,226 troops — a figure far higher than the optimistic hopes of 45,000.

You can see a video about this evacuation below.

YouTube, World War Wings

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