Dunkirk, and the evacuation associated with the troops trapped on Dunkirk, was called a "miracle" by Winston Churchill. As the Wehrmacht swept through western Europe in the spring of 1940, using Blitzkrieg, both the French and British armies could not stop the onslaught. For the people in western Europe, World War Two was about to start for real. The "Phoney War" was now over.
The advancing German Army trapped the British and French armies on the beaches around Dunkirk. 330,000 men were trapped here and they were a sitting target for the Germans. Admiral Ramsey, based in Dover, formulated Operation Dynamo to get off of the beaches as many men as was possible. The British troops, led by Lord John Gort, were professional soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force; trained men that we could not afford to lose. From May 26th 1940, small ships transferred soldiers to larger ones which then brought them back to a port in southern Britain.
The beach at Dunkirk was on a shallow slope so no large boat could get near to the actual beaches where the men were. Therefore, smaller boats were needed to take on board men who would then be transferred to a larger boat based further off shore. 800 of these legendary "little ships" were used. It is thought that the smallest boat to make the journey across the Channel was the Tamzine - an 18 feet open topped fishing boat now on display at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Tamzine - one of the 'little ships'
Despite attacks from German fighter and bomber planes, the Wehrmacht never launched a full-scale attack on the beaches of Dunkirk. Panzer tank crews awaited the order from Hitler but it never came. In his memoirs, Field Marshall Rundstadt, the German commander-in-chief in France during the 1940 campaign, called Hitler's failure to order a full-scale attack on the troops on Dunkirk his first fatal mistake of the war. That 338,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk would seem to uphold this view.
Their job done, the 'little boats' are towed up the Thames
One of the reasons put forward for Hitler not ordering an attack was that he believed that Britain had suffered from the might of the Wehrmacht once and that this experience would be sufficient for Britain to come to peace terms with Hitler. The total destruction of the British Expeditionary Force might have created such a climate of revenge in Britain that our involvement would be prolonged. That is one idea put forward for why Hitler did not order a full-scale attack on the beaches of Dunkirk - however, we will never know the true reason.