TW Viewpoint | The Miracle of Dunkirk

July 11, 2018 | Jonathan Riley

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Few moments in history stand out as being so pivotal as that of Dunkirk. How was disaster avoided, and what was so miraculous about the "Miracle of Dunkirk"?

On May 10th 1940 Winston Churchill took office as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. This was a crucial early moment in the Second World War as Germany had turned its attention to enacting Blitzkrieg across Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France. On May 16th, the Allied forces in France were caught off guard by the German Panzer divisions which circumvented the Maginot line by driving through the Ardennes Forest. What followed was a hasty retreat for the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, and other Allied forces.

After suffering a heavy onslaught at the hands of the advancing German army, the troops were stranded on the beach at Dunkirk. Initial attempts to rescue the encircled army proved to be too slow, with only 39 British and 4 Canadian Royal Navy Destroyers. It became obvious to the admiralty that the evacuation needed support and so the public were called upon to lend a hand. From May 26th until June 4th, 1940 the evacuation of the allied forces at Dunkirk, codenamed "Operation Dynamo", took place. In the end a fleet of over 800 boats, consisting of fishing vessels to pleasure yachts, helped to evacuate over 338,000 soldiers, when initial estimates had predicted that less than 45,000 could possibly be saved.

One of the most decisive factors in the survival of almost 85% of the Allied soldiers was the overcast and still weather. There was low-lying cloud for the majority of the evacuation. The usually choppy waters of the English Channel were described as a mill pond. On the UK's Met Office website the events surrounding Dunkirk are explained and weather reports are included. The Met Office writes " Somewhere among those awaiting evacuation at Dunkirk were meteorological officers who had been working with sound ranging units attached to Survey Regiments. Their task was to determine the direction and distance of enemy gunfire to assist with artillery operations. It is not known which ship they were evacuated on, but the unusually calm weather was certainly in their favour and played a significant part in what was later described by Churchill as the 'miracle of Dunkirk'."

These conditions hampered the Luftwaffe from its aerial bombardment and enabled the flotilla of vessels to rescue the soldiers. Admiral Bertram Ramsay who was responsible for the evacuation later wrote: "It must be fully realised that a wind of any strength in the northern sector between the southwest and northeast would have made beach evacuation impossible."

What would Europe look like today if the weather had been behaving normally? The Luftwaffe would have achieved air superiority and the German Panzer divisions would have continued their blitzkrieg tactics, closed out the Western front and defeated the bulk of the British army. The Met Office website provides statistical odds for the unusual weather in May/June 1940. "The maximum wind recorded throughout the evacuation was force four [13 knots] and on most days it varied between forces one and three [2-9 knots]... The odds of winds greater than force four in the Dunkirk area in May and June are slightly higher than 2:1."

In any case, the Allied forces were evacuated to safety due to the mercifully still waters of the Channel and the miraculous fog above them. Was the weather for those three days merely happenstance or was there, as Churchill once said "...some great purpose and design ...being worked out here below..."?

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