British soldiers wait on an improvised pier made out of vehicles in order to evacuate Dunkirk during low tide. June 1940.March Of Time/March Of Time/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Allied troops, mostly British, wade out to a fleet of military and civilian ships waiting to transport the men to England from Dunkirk. June 1940.Time Life Pictures/Pictures Inc./The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
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Destroyers filled with British troops return home to Dover, England on May 31, 1940.Puttnam and Malindine/ IWM via Getty Images
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A soldier of the British Expeditionary Force, arriving back from Dunkirk, is greeted affectionately by his girlfriend. May 31, 1940.Topical Press/Getty Images
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Allied troops wait on the beach ahead of the evacuation. Date unspecified.ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
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Crew members of a French destroyer, sunk by mine at Dunkirk, are hauled aboard a British vessel from their sinking life-raft. May 1940.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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The crew of a London-based tugboat, one of the many small craft that took part in the evacuation, pause for a cup of tea. June 5, 1940.Fox Photos/Getty Images
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Thousands of soldiers line up on the beach at Dunkirk as they prepare for the evacuation. May 1940.Fox Photos/Getty Images
The True Story Of World War II’s Dunkirk Miracle, In 33 Dramatic Photos
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.