History Book – The evacuation of Dunkirk

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Monday, June 1st. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: the WORLD History Book.

Today, a notable speech from 80 years ago, delivered just hours after one of the most daring rescues of World War II came to an end—the British evacuation of Dunkirk. Here’s Paul Butler with the back story and excerpts of the speech.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: In the spring of 1940, British and French forces were trapped. The Allies had been fighting to prevent a Nazi take-over of Belgium, but the German battle machine was too much. In the middle of May, Belgium surrendered to Hitler. More than 400,000 French and British troops retreated to the coast in hopes of escaping to England. 

For days, Winston Churchill and his military advisers had been planning a daring rescue operation. The strategy relied on hundreds of civilian and merchant ships to join the navy—as the Royal Air Force provided cover.

Audio here of Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks from a 1956 BBC television special: 

HORROCKS: There is no doubt, the army was in a proper mess. And the two sister services, the Royal Air Force, and the Royal Navy did their best to get us out of there. 

The make-shift armada arrived off Dunkirk on May 26th. Operation Dynamo was underway. Naval admiral William Tennant: 

TENNANT: When we arrived on this long, sandy beach, there came from the direction of England, almost every conceivable kind of craft…Thames barges, and Dutch schuyts, and yachts, trollers, and drifters, and motor boats… 

While hundreds of thousands of soldiers awaited evacuation at the coast, Allied divisions reinforced the rear-guard and resisted to the end. British intelligence uncovered Hitler’s plan of attack, and strengthened those locations. After two days of stiff resistance, Hitler unexpectedly halted the ground assault, leaving the air forces to—quote—“finish them off.” But that didn’t happen. 

At the water’s edge, more than 1,500 British and Allied craft ferried forces back and forth over nine days. Nearly one in three ships did not return home. One hundred twenty-six merchant sailors died in the operation. 

In the planning stages, Churchill feared they’d only be able to rescue 30- to 40,000 troops. In the end, they successfully extracted 338,000 men from the beaches around Dunkirk. The people of England were ecstatic. 

But losses were still high. 68,000 troops were captured or killed. On June 4th, just hours after the conclusion of the operation, Sir Winston Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches before the House of Commons. In it he warned the euphoric nation that the war was far from over. He vowed to never surrender and ended the speech with a veiled request for American intervention in the fight. 

The famous speech was not broadcast or recorded, but nine years later, Churchill gave it again. Here are edited excerpts from that 12-minute reenactment. 

WINSTON CHURCHILL: The enemy attacked on all sides with great strength and fierceness…

They sowed magnetic mines in the channels and seas; they sent repeated waves of hostile aircraft, sometimes more than a hundred strong in one formation, to cast their bombs upon the single pier that remained, and upon the sand dunes upon which the troops had their only shelter… 

It was in conditions such as these that our men carried on, with little or no rest, for days and nights on end, making trip after trip across the dangerous waters, bringing with them always men whom they had rescued. 

We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations… 

I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone… 

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…

Churchill kept his promise, even as his appeal to America for assistance went unheeded for more than 18 months. The U-S did eventually declare war on Germany and entered the conflict on December 11th, 1941. 

That’s this week’s WORLD History Book. I’m Paul Butler.

CHURCHILL: Would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

(AP Photo, File) In this July 14, 1946 file photo, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gives his world famous V-sign, as he drives through Metz, France, during Bastille Day celebrations. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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