The Evacuation Of Dunkirk Part One: Overview & Background

August 7, 2017 by oriskany

“Dunkirk” is Christopher Nolan’s new World War II movie, recently arrived in theatres. Millions will be seeing this movie, and perhaps learning about Dunkirk for the first time. But what’s the story behind this World War II drama, and what are the wargaming potentials for us here at Beasts of War?

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Follow Dunkirk Week Here

Over the course of the coming week, we’ll be publishing a series of articles on Dunkirk, explaining its background, what happened, who was involved, and its place in the World War II timeline. Most importantly, we’ll be looking at the different kinds of wargames that can be used to recreate some of the battles around this amazing event.

First things first. Dunkirk was not a battle. It was an evacuation, carried out by the British Royal Navy and French Navy, along with other Allied ships and thousands of civilian craft. The object was to save hundreds of thousands of Allied troops who’d been trapped in the port of Dunkirk by German armies invading France in 1940.

Although not technically a battle, there was a great deal fighting around Dunkirk as Allied units fought to buy time for the evacuation to be carried out. The Germans were equally determined to break through and crush these Allied units before they could escape. There was also ferocious fighting at sea and in the air over the evacuation zone.

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So before we start looking at specific engagements surrounding the Dunkirk evacuation (and what wargame systems can be used to recreate them to best effect), let’s review the backstory. How did the British and French get in such a horrific situation, and how were at least most of them rescued from certain death or imprisonment?

“Case Yellow”

Blitzkrieg in the West

World War II in Europe started on September 1, 1939, with the German invasion of Poland. After an uneventful winter, Germany next invaded Denmark and Norway on April 9th, 1940. This was the first MAJOR fight between German forces and the western allies of France and Great Britain.

However, the real fight started on May 10th, 1940, when Germany launched “Fall Gelb” (Case Yellow), their blitzkrieg invasion of Western Europe. Three German army groups, about two million men, smashed into Luxembourg, Holland, Belgium, and France, intent on taking half of Europe in one stunning campaign.

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Also opposing the German armies was the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Lord Gort. deployed by Great Britain in northern France to help counter any German aggression in the region. It was largely this force that would be cut off at the French port of Dunkirk … and need to be evacuated in the weeks to come.

“Sickle Cut”

The German Plan

As mentioned, the German invasion was built around three massive Army Groups. Army Group “B” (Fedor von Bock) was in the north, tasked with invading Holland and Belgium. Army Group “C” (Ritter von Leeb) was in the south, facing the French border along the “Maginot Line” of fixed fortifications.

As soon as Army Group B started its advance into Holland and Belgium, this triggered the “Dyle Plan” – a response protocol worked out by the British and French to counter such a German attack. They would move into Belgium up to the Dyle River, and combine with withdrawing Belgian forces to set up a united defensive line.

However, this was actually a trap. Only after the BEF and three French armies (First, Seventh, and Ninth) committed to the Dyle plan in Belgium, did the real German attack open … not in the north (as it had in World War I), but in the centre.

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This was Army Group “A” (Gerd von Rundstedt), where most of the German panzer and motorized infantry divisions were allocated. They punched through the dense Ardennes Forest in southern Belgium, thick woods where Allied planners had been sure no large mechanized force could penetrate. The Germans proved them wrong.

Once through the breach, the German spearheads rushed through into the French back country. The main Allied forces north of them were already fatally out of position, having moved east into Belgium as part of the Dyle Plan. This just made it all the easier for the German panzers to hook around to the west, behind the Allies.

The Germans wheeled north, driving hard to the English Channel. German generals like Kleist, Hoth, Guderian, and Rommel commanded these panzer groups, corps, and divisions, and once they’d broken through behind the Allied line, there was no stopping them. In just 11 days, Kleist’s spearheads reached the Channel coast at Abbeville.

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This is what sets up the disaster at Dunkirk. Now that Army Group A had hooked around behind them, the Allies in northern France and Belgium (the Dutch had already been forced to surrender) were pressed from the front by Army Group B. These Allied forces were split off from the rest of the French Army, and pressed from three sides.

Operation Dynamo

Rescuing the BEF

As early as May 20, even before the Germans completed their drive to the Channel, Winston Churchill realized that the BEF might have to be evacuated. To avoid public panic and French recriminations, he secretly ordered Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay to start working on a plan to get the British Army safely home.

The evacuation eventually put into effect was dubbed Operation Dynamo. It would involve an immense effort of not only the Royal Navy, but also a vast flotilla of smaller, civilian vessels. Basically, anything that could float was used to sail across the English Channel and pick up as many of the encircled British soldiers as possible.

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Of course, the Germans wouldn’t patiently allow the BEF to get away. Already their spearheads had crushed these northern Allied forces into a small and shrinking pocket around the Channel port of Dunkirk, between Calais and the Dutch border. Time was running out, and by May 27, 1940 … Operation Dynamo was put into full effect.

But this…wouldn’t be easy. Operation Dynamo would also involve desperate holding actions around the collapsing Dunkirk perimeter, naval protection against U-boats, and air cover against the powerful German Luftwaffe. Simply put, huge German “jaws of death” would have to be held open while hundreds of thousands of troops to escape.

Of course, we’re just getting started here. Every day this week we’ll be putting out another article about Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo. Please check out our next one where we start to look at wargaming options for Dunkirk, and drop your comments in below. Have you seen the movie yet? How did it stack up against history?

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