Second World War 1939-45
On the 3rd September 1939 Britain declared war on Germany and in the same month an initial 300,000 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) led by Lord Gort arrived in France. The period between then and the start of the German Blitzkrieg was known as the 'Phoney War' and British soldiers settled down to constructing defences along the Belgian-Franco border. This came to an abrupt end on the 10th May 1940, when the Germans launched their devastating attack on Belgium, followed by France on the 13th May. British troops by this stage had moved into Belgium to face the German attack. After the loss of Sedan on 15th May nothing could stand in the way of the Panzers, but instead of heading for Paris as the Allied Commanders expected, they turned towards the Channel Coast. As the pressure of the unstoppable German advance grew Lord Gort became convinced that only evacuation could save the BEF.
Despite a spirited counter attack by the Durham Light Infantry and the Royal Tank Regiment, the retreat to the coast gained political clearance and was put into operation. A system of delaying positions using canals, rivers and strong points provided a corridor back to Dunkirk.
The decision by Hitler to halt his Panzers only ten miles from Dunkirk undoubtedly bought time for the BEF and the subsequent Operation Dynamo. The evacuation from Dunkirk organised by Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay from Dover Castle, saw over 300,000 rescued from the beaches and Dunkirk harbour by the Royal Navy, Merchant ships and 'small boats'.
Despite heavy losses with over 60,000 killed, wounded or captured, the evacuation preserved the foundation of the British Army. Learn more about the fighting in this area as we follow the story of the BEF on the ground and the following plans for the evacuation along the corridor that provided the escape route for thousands of soldiers. Hear about the battle in the air, as the Royal Air Force fought to keep the Luftwaffe away from the embarkation zones, and the bravery of the crews of the vessels who returned time after time to take soldiers from the beaches.
The courage and sacrifice displayed by all those involved is commemorated in the cemeteries and museums to be found in this area and only a trip to the sites can give you a real perspective of the events that led up to the Miracle of Dunkirk.
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