World War II: The evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk ends as German forces capture the beach port

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Monday, 3 June 1940

On 4 June 1940, the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk ended as German forces captured the beach port. The nine-day evacuation, the largest of its kind in history and an unexpected success, saved 338,000 Allied troops from capture by the Nazis.

A month before the Dunkirk evacuation, the Germans had launched their attack against the West, storming into Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg and later France. Faced with far superior airpower, more unified command, and highly mobile armed forces, the Allied defenders were a poor match for the German Wehrmacht. In a lightning attack, the Germans raced across Western Europe.

By the end of May the German army was poised to take Dunkirk, the last port available for the withdrawal of the mass of Allied soldiers from Europe. Fortunately for the Allies, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler suddenly intervened, halting the German advance. This gave the Allies the chance to initiate Operation Dynamo (the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk). As there were not enough ships to transport the huge masses of men stranded at Dunkirk, the British Admiralty called on all British citizens in possession of sea-worthy vessels to lend their ships to the effort. Fishing boats, pleasure yachts, lifeboats, and other civilian ships raced to Dunkirk, braving mines, bombs, and torpedoes.

During the evacuation, the Royal Air Force (RAF) successfully resisted the Luftwaffe, saving the operation from failure. Still, the German fighters bombarded the beach, destroyed numerous vessels, and pursued other ships within a few miles of the English coast. The harbour at Dunkirk was bombed, and small civilian vessels had to ferry the soldiers from the beaches to the warships waiting at sea. But for nine days, the evacuation continued, a miracle to the Allied commanders who had expected disaster. By 4 June, when the Germans closed in and the operation came to an end, 198,000 British and 140,000 French troops were saved. These experienced soldiers would play a crucial role in future resistance against Nazi Germany.

With Western Europe abandoned by its main defenders, the German army swept through the rest of France, and Paris fell on 14 June. Eight days later, Henri Petain signed an armistice with the Nazis at Compiegne. Germany annexed half the country, leaving the other half in the hands of their puppet French rulers. But on 6 June 1944, liberation of Western Europe finally began with the successful Allied landing at Normandy.

By this stage of the War, South Africa had made her decision to support the British war effort against Germany, Italy and, later, Japan. The South African Union Defence Forces were considerably larger than they had been in World War I, comprising the Land Forces, the South African Air Force, and the Seaward Defence Force (renamed South African Naval Forces in 1942). More than 330 000 men and women of all races served in the war.

In summary timeline of South African efforts during World War 2:

  • 1939-1945 - Air force squadrons and naval vessels patrolled South African territorial waters (in which German ships were active) throughout the war. They also provided air cover and escorts for shipping convoys in the Indian Ocean.
  • 1940-1941 - A South African infantry division and an air force "brigade" (later renamed "wing") fought in the British campaign against Italian forces in Somaliland, Ethiopia and Eritrea (East Africa Campaign)
  • 1941-1943 - South African contributed two infantry divisions and two air force wings to the Allied campaign against Italian and German forces in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, from mid-1941 until May 1943. One of the infantry divisions was captured at Tobruk, in June 1942. The navy supplied a group of anti-submarine vessels for offshore operations (North Africa Campaign)
  • 1942 - British Commonwealth naval, land and air forces occupied Madagascar for a few months in 1942, to forestall a possible Japanese invasion of the French-ruled island. South Africa contributed an infantry brigade and an air force squadron.
  • 1941-1945 - Three air force wings and more than a dozen naval vessels fought in the Mediterranean in support of the land operations in North Africa, Sicily and Italy, and South East Europe.
  • 1943-1945 - Two air force wings flew in operations against German and Italian forces in Yugoslavia and Greece and the Aegean. Naval vessels served offshore.
  • 1943-1945 - Two air force wings fought in the Allied campaign in Sicily in July and August 1943. Four wings, together with squadrons attached to the Royal Air Force and the Balkan Air Force, fought in the campaign against German forces in Italy from September 1943 until May 1945. An armoured division served under British (and later American) command in Italy from April 1944 to May 1945. A few naval vessels were engaged in offshore operations in support of both the Sicily and Italy campaigns.
  • 1944 - An air force wing helped to airlift supplies to besieged Warsaw (Poland) in August and September 1944.
  • 1944 - Although no South African units took part in the D-Day invasion in June 1944, two air force squadrons flew in operations after D-Day, and the navy provided a salvage vessel to help clear French harbours.
References:
• History This day in history, Dunkirk evacuation ends [online] Available at: www.history.com [Accessed 26 May 2009]
•  Wallis, F. (2000). Nuusdagboek: feite en fratse oor 1000 jaar, Kaapstad: Human & Rousseau.

Last updated : 03-Jun-2013

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011