1st September 1939: Adolph Hitler’s German forces invade Poland and WWII begins. Hitler’s troops and Panzer tanks, under the command of General Heinz Guderian, push west, invading Holland and then Belgium. France, and Britain, through the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) comprising 13 infantry divisions, respond to Hitler’s “Blitzkrieg.” By May of 1940, France has already fallen and Allied forces where overwhelmed.
On 19th May, Viscount Gort, Commander of the BEF, realising that a massacre of troops is imminent, orders British forces back to England across the English Channel. If these troops, numbering over 400,000 are killed, an invasion of England is a certainty. The only port left for an Allied withdrawal is Dunkirk. Exposed and alone, the Allies had never been more vulnerable. Due to the shallow waters around Dunkirk, British destroyers were unable to assist in the evacuation alone. Then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, through the small-craft section of the British Ministry of Shipping, calls for all boats with a shallow draft to navigate Dunkirk’s waters to assist in the rescue. Pleasure boats, yachts, ferries, fishing boats and launches moored on the River Thames and along the south and east coasts respond to the call. Over 850 smaller ships of all kind took part in Operation Dynamo (the code name for the evacuation).
24th May: Guderian anticipates the order to attack the troops at Dunkirk. The order is never given. Instead, Hitler orders a withdrawal back to the canal line. One theory suggests that Hitler was willing to stave off the massacre in the hopes that Britain would surrender. Another theory is that Guderian’s tanks needed urgent servicing to protect Germany’s own troops. Whatever the case, this delay in action allowed Operation Dynamo to proceed.