33 Photos Of Allied Soldiers Narrowly Escaping The Nazis At Dunkirk

Many Soldiers On Beach
Retreating Soldiers
Wading Out To Boat
Boats Soldiers Crowded
33 Photos Of Allied Soldiers Narrowly Escaping The Nazis At Dunkirk
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On June 6, 1944, Allied Forces stormed the beaches at Normandy as part of the D-Day operation that would soon beat back the Nazi forces in France and ultimately bring the European Theater of World War II to a close. It was the beginning of the end.

And as storied as that moment has always been, far fewer people (namely, Americans) recognize that D-Day and Allied victory in World War II itself may not have even been possible if not for one dramatic episode that had unfolded nearby years before.

Almost exactly four years to the day before the Normandy landings, some 200 miles southwest down France's northern coast, the Dunkirk evacuation saved 338,000 British, French, Belgian, and Canadian soldiers from the approaching Nazi forces and allowed the Allies to stay in the fight. But it could have been the end.

It was May of 1940 and the Nazis were sweeping through Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France within the span of mere weeks. Western Europe was falling like dominoes, the Soviets and the Nazis were not yet enemies, the Americans had not yet joined the fight, and it looked as if Hitler would take the continent and that would be that.

As the Nazis moved westward through northern France, the remaining Allied soldiers knew that they were overmatched. And when they were finally pinned against the coast at Dunkirk with nowhere left to backpedal except straight into the English Channel, the Allies knew that they had no choice but to evacuate.

The situation grew more dire still after the German army positioned themselves to take Dunkirk itself on May 24. But then, in the prelude to the "miracle" evacuation, salvation came from the unlikeliest of places.

Acting on the advice of air force commander Hermann Göring, Hitler decided to halt the German advance on Dunkirk and instead attempt to finish the British off with an aerial attack. So, with an improbable stay of execution on the ground and bombs raining from the sky, it was now or never.

On May 26, then, the British launched the biggest evacuation in military history. Thousands upon thousands of soldiers at a time waited on the beaches as Britain mustered every boat it could, from navy destroyers to civilian dinghies, in order to get 338,000 people across the English Channel within mere days.

And, somehow, it worked. Between May 26 and June 4, enough people to populate a major city passed from doom to salvation across just 39 nautical miles.

“From hell to heaven was how the feeling was," Dunkirk evacuee Harry Garrett later recalled, "you felt like a miracle had happened.”

And that's precisely how Britain viewed the Dunkirk evacuation. So popular was this notion of Dunkirk as a miracle that Prime Minster Winston Churchill was quickly compelled to declare in a speech to the House of Commons on June 4 that, "Wars are not won by evacuations."

That iconic speech has since become known as "We shall fight on the beaches," a phrase that would prove true on D-Day four years later and further down the beach. But if not for the ten fateful days of the Dunkirk evacuation, D-Day may never have come at all.


Next, discover 21 World War II myths that we all need to stop spreading. Then, see some stirring World War II photos that bring history to life.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the Assistant Editor of All That Is Interesting.
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