Friday, May 1, 2020

The Miracle Behind Dunkirk: A World War II Story

by Cindy K. Stewart

Dunkirk Beach in 2012. Courtesy of User: Eporte in Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

The end of May and early days of June mark the 80th anniversary of the "Miracle of Dunkirk." Many have seen the 2017 war drama Dunkirk and learned about the facts that shaped this extraordinary event, but few know what was behind this miracle. 

In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force, approximately 400,000 strong, was stationed in Europe in anticipation of German hostilities. On May 10th, the Germans invaded Holland and Belgium, and the bulk of the Allied forces moved into Belgium to meet the attack. What the Allies didn't expect was that the main thrust of the German forces would come through the Ardennes Forest to the south of their position. The Allied military leaders didn't believe it was possible to move a large amount of soldiers and equipment through this area, but the Germans proved them wrong.

Courtesy of Military History Matters. Used by Permission.

By May 13th, the first German troops crossed the River Meuse into France, where the Allies were poorly defended. A total of nine German Panzer divisions rapidly headed west in what is known as the Blitzkrieg, "Lightning War." A half million French, British, and Belgian soldiers were trapped between the German troops north of them and those headed to the coast. So effective was this maneuver that on May 15th, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud called British prime Minister Winston Churchill and said, "We are beaten. We have lost the battle." 

On May 20th, the first German division reached the coast near Abbeville. They captured Boulogne on the 25th and Calais on the 26th. On May 23rd, General John Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, defied the orders of the British Imperial General Staff to conduct an all-out assault on the German army. Instead, he sent his troops to the coast and instructed them to form a defensive perimeter, which allowed thousands of troops 
scattered over hundreds of miles to funnel through to the little known town of Dunkirk. Thousands of French troops also took positions along the outer perimeter. 

Courtesy of Military History Matters. Used by Permission.

Churchill thought he would be forced to announce the grim news that a third of a million British soldiers had been captured or killed before it was all over with. He couldn't envision evacuating more than 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers before the Germans cut them off at the coast.

Churchill shared the hopeless situation with British King George VI, and the king appealed to the British people over a radio broadcast on May 24th. He asked the nation and all within the empire to pray for deliverance and announced a national Day of Prayer to take place on 
Sunday, May 26th. He implored, "Let us with one heart and soul, humbly but confidently, commit our cause to God and ask his aid, that we may valiantly defend the right as it is given to us to see it."

The British Lined Up Outside Westminster Abbey on the National Day of Prayer - May 26th. Public Domain.

The British people answered the call and met in churches throughout the country to pray together for their troops and for their nation. Long lines formed outside many cathedrals, including Westminster Abbey where King George and his cabinet went to pray.

On May 24th, the day that King George appealed to the British to pray, General Guderian and Adolf Hitler ordered the German Army to halt. The Panzers were less than 15 miles from Dunkirk. Hitler and his generals were concerned their tanks would be needed in case of an Allied counterattack, and they wanted to prevent the loss of tanks they would need for the march to Paris. In addition, Herman Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe, had requested that Hitler allow the air force to prevent the evacuation of British troops instead of the army. It wasn't until May 26th that the German army was allowed to move toward Dunkirk. By then, the British and French defenses were well entrenched.

The British Expeditionary Force Evacuating at Dunkirk. Public Domain

On May 26th, Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey commenced Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk. The Luftwaffe had already destroyed the port facilities, so the British destroyers loaded men at the East Mole, a flimsy wooden pier five feet wide, which extended 1400 yards into the sea. This process proceeded slowly, so Ramsey also requisitioned small boats to shuttle the troops waiting on the beaches to bigger ships anchored in deep water. During this process, the Luftwaffe attacked, strafing and bombing the beaches, the Mole, the ships, and the men backed up around the port. 

On May 27th, General Halder, Chief of German General Staff "proudly boasted that the British Army was about to be annihilated," but the Germans didn't reckon with the prayers of the British. On May 28th, a terrible storm developed over Flanders, grounding the Luftwaffe and allowing the British troops to move to the coast unhindered. The defensive perimeter continued to hold the German Army back. 

Following the storm, the normally turbulent waters of the English Channel calmed. Ramsey called for hundreds more small boats to head to Dunkirk. Many of these vessels wouldn't have made it safely across and back if it hadn't been for the unusual stillness of the waters. They carried thousands of troops back to England and saved their lives.

Small Boats Taking Troops Back to England from Dunkirk. Public Domain.

Despite the loss of 6 destroyers, 8 personal ships, and over 200 small craft, about 330,000 British and French troops were evacuated from Dunkirk between May 26th and June 3rd. The British were so grateful that they held a National Day of Thanksgiving on Sunday, June 9th. C
hoirs and congregations all across the country sang the words to Psalm 124.

"If the Lord himself had not been on our side, now may Israel say: if the Lord himself had not been on our side, when men rose up against us; They would have swallowed us up quick: when they were so wrathfully displeased at us. Yea, the waters of the proud would have gone over our soul. But praised be the Lord: Who has not given us over for a prey unto their teeth. Our soul is escaped even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler: the snare is broken, and we are delivered. Our help standeth in the name of the Lord: who hath made heaven and earth."

Many of the troops saved at Dunkirk lived to return across the Channel and help the Allies win WWII. God heard and answered the prayers of a nation who humbled themselves and sought His face.

Cindy Stewart, a high school social studies teacher, church pianist, and inspirational historical fiction author, placed second in the North Texas Romance Writers Great Expectations contest, semi-finaled in the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Genesis contest, and won ACFW’s First Impressions contest in the historical category. Cindy is passionate about revealing God’s handiwork in history. She resides in North Georgia with her college sweetheart and husband of thirty-eight years and near her married daughter, son-in-law, and four adorable grandchildren. She’s currently writing a fiction series set in WWII Europe.


  1. Amazing! I'll have to look for that movie! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for dropping by and leaving a comment, Connie! Your observations are always encouraging.

  2. Great story. I knew all but the call to prayer!!!

  3. One of the most dramatic moments in World History.