By the end of May 1940, Germany's rapid advance through north-west Europe had pushed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), along with French and Belgian troops, back to the coast of the English Channel. Stranded on the beaches of the French port of Dunkirk, they faced certain capture, which would have meant the loss of Britain’s only trained troops and the collapse of the Allied cause. The Royal Navy hurriedly planned an emergency evacuation - Operation 'Dynamo' - to evacuate the troops and get them to Britain.
Over 338,000 soldiers, a third of them French, were rescued between 27 May and 4 June. The geography of the beach meant the Navy's large warships could either pick up soldiers from a sea wall that extended into deep water or send their boats onto the beach to collect them. To speed up the evacuation an appeal went out to owners of pleasure boats and other small craft for help. These became known as the ‘little ships’. The evacuation, hailed as miraculous by the press and public, was a big boost for British morale. But losses were still heavy and Churchill was cautious in his praise of the operation. He recognised that the great challenge was still to come.
Here are seven photographs from the evacuation of Dunkirk.
1. Waiting for rescue
British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation.
2. Wading out to sea
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo.
3. The 'little ships'
Three of the armada of 'little ships' which brought the men of the BEF from the shores in and around Dunkirk, to the safety of British warships and other vessels.
4. Returning troops
British troops crowd the deck of a Royal Navy destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940.
5. Arriving at Dover
A merchant sailor assists a wounded british soldier up the gangplank from a destroyer, Dover, 31 May 1940.
6. A much needed cup of tea
Evacuated troops enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station, London, 31 May 1940.
7. Temporary safety
French troops evacuated from Dunkirk photographed in a train at a railway station in the UK.