The Guardian

Dunkirk’s darkest day: when the evacuation came close to disaster

As Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is released, a leading historian recounts the bombings and sinkings of 29 May 1940 that put the entire rescue – and the fate of 300,000 Allied troops – in peril
Allied troops huddle on the beach waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/Getty Images

The “miraculous” rescue of the British army from the jetty and beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France, has entered the national consciousness as one of the heroic episodes of the second world war – an extraordinary escape from the jaws of a potentially disastrous defeat. Between 26 May and 4 June 1940, in the course of what was known as Operation Dynamo, more than 300,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated by an armada made up of Royal Navy destroyers and warships, pleasure steamers and hundreds of those famous little ships manned by civilian sailors.

The evacuation was needed because when Hitler’s army had invaded Belgium and France on 10 May, the German panzer divisions had cut through the French troops who had lined up alongside the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium, leaving the British army one thrust away from being surrounded.

But cinemagoers queueing up to see Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster, when it opens on 21 July, particularly those too young to have parents who lived through the war, may well not appreciate how close the exodus came to ending in ignominious disaster.

For many soldiers waiting to be rescued from the Dunkirk beaches, the first indication that their evacuation was not a foregone conclusion came when they saw that the ships that had been sent to whisk them away were being attacked by German planes.

The alarm this caused on 29 May, the worst day of the evacuation in terms

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