The evacuation from Dunkirk on the French coast was hailed in Britain as an extraordinary achievement and the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ swiftly entered the mythology of wartime brave deeds.
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during the evacuation.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.
Some of the 'little ships' used during the evacuation of Dunkirk being towed back along the River Thames past Tower Bridge, 9 June 1940.
German forces moved into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Here German officers inspect a memorial on the sea front at Dunkirk.
In September 1938 leaders of Germany, France, Britain and Italy appeared to have resolved the Czechoslovak diplomatic crisis at discussions in Munich. Returning home, Chamberlain was greeted by expectant crowds. He read a text, signed by Hitler and himself, pledging that Britain and Germany should never again go to war. Chamberlain hailed the Munich Agreement, avoiding war over Czechoslovakia, as 'peace for our time'. Britain would be at war less than a year later.
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In September 1939 Europe went to war, starting the most catastrophic conflict in human history.
The 1920s and 1930s witnessed rising political extremism in many European countries. In 1922 Fascist leader Benito Mussolini had taken power in Italy. Stalin was unchallenged as communist leader in Russia by 1928. In 1933 Hitler became dictator in Germany and launched upon an aggressive foreign policy, tearing up the hated Treaty of Versailles.
By 1938, Germany had rearmed, occupied the Rhineland and annexed Austria, but Hitler’s demand for the German-speaking border areas of Czechoslovakia prompted a diplomatic crisis. Britain and France, busily rearming but still unprepared for war, forced Czechoslovakia to accept German take over. In March 1939, Germany invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia, and Britain and France resolved to contain Nazism, by force if necessary.
As Poland was the next obvious target for German expansion, Britain and France gave guarantees pledging to defend its independence. In August 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union agreed a cynical 'non-aggression pact', leaving Germany free to invade Poland without risking war with Russia. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939; Britain and France declared war two days later.