It was the 10th of May 1940, when Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. By the 26th of the same month, the British European Forces and the French 1st Army were bottled up in a corridor leading to the English channel, about 60 miles deep and 15–25 miles wide.
The majority of the British forces were still around Lille, over 40 miles from Dunkirk, with the French army located further south. Two enormous German armies flanked the Allied troops. General Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B was to the east and General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A to the west. Pushed back by the German Army, hundreds of thousands of soldiers had no choice but to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk.
338,226 men escaped
The War Office knew they must evacuate British forces from the beaches. In only nine days, 27th May–4th June, 338,226 men escaped. This included 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian soldiers, together with a small number of Dutch troops. These soldiers avoided almost certain capture or death entirely because of the bravery of sailors in 861 vessels.
Of all the small and mainly privately-owned boats that left England to help in the rescue, 243 were lost during the operation. The intense air battle also caused major losses on both sides – 177 British aircraft and 240 German planes lost. The docks at Dunkirk had been severely damaged and could not be used. However, the sea walls to the east and west protecting the harbour entrance were thankfully still intact. Captain William Tennant, who was in charge of the evacuation, decided to use the beaches and the East Mole to land the ships. This highly successful idea hugely increased the number of troops rescued and saved thousands of lives each day.
Over 68,000 men evacuated the beach in a single day, on 31st May. The last of the British Army left on 3rd June. At 10:50 hrs that morning, Tennant sent the famous signal to Ramsay saying “Operation completed. Returning to Dover”. However, Churchill insisted, “We must go back for the French”. The Royal Navy returned on 4th June to rescue many of the French rearguards. That final day saw over 26,000 French soldiers evacuated from the beach at Dunkirk, but between 30,000 and 40,000 more soldiers were left behind and forced to surrender to the Germans.