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World History

The evacuation of Dunkirk - 73 years on

Today marks the anniversary of the end of the Dunkirk evacuations during World War II

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the end of the Dunkirk evacuations during World War II.

Over a period of nine days, a total of 338,226 Allied soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk’s beaches by a fleet of 933 boats.

The evacuation was ordered on 26 May 1940 after British, French and Belgium troops were cut off by German forces during the Battle of Dunkirk; an event Winston Churchill dubbed “a colossal military failure”.

Churchill added that “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” appeared doomed but, with the Siege of Lille buying the stranded troops a little more time, a huge evacuation code-named Operation Dynamo was ordered.

Click here to view a large image gallery of the Dunkirk evacuations

A hastily assembled fleet of 933 boats, including the famous “little ships” – small fishing vessels, lifeboats, pleasure craft and merchant boats - embarked on a mission to rescue the troops.

Over a tense nine days the miraculous escape took place.

On 27 May, 7,669 troops were rescued from Dunkirk Harbour. The following day 11,874 soldiers were rescued from the harbour, with an additional 5,930 rescued from Dunkirk Beach itself.

Despite a heavy aerial attack from the Luftwaffe, a total of 47,310 troops were rescued on 29 May, with another 53,823 saved on 30 May – including the first French soldiers.

On May 31, 68,014 men left Dunkirk on the rescue vessels, followed by 64,429 on June 1, before the increasing number of Luftwaffe air attacks meant daytime escapes were no longer an option.

On June 2 the British rear-guard escaped Dunkirk, with 60,000 French troops in tow. The following day, June 3, a total of 26,746 soldiers left the town.

Finally, on June 4, the final 26,175 soldiers left Dunkirk – almost all leaving via the harbour.

In response to the so-called “miracle of Dunkirk”, Winston Churchill issued his famous “We shall fight them on the beaches…” speech, which took place exactly 73-years-ago today.