Operation Dynamo: Dover to Dunkirk

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Europe

When you cross the English Channel from France to England, the sheer White Cliffs of Dover are a beautiful sight. In late May to early June 1940, these cliffs weren’t just another landmark – they were a sign of home and freedom for hundreds of thousands of young soldiers escaping the horrors of war on the battlefields of coastal France. Operation Dynamo, one of the largest marine evacuations of the 20th century, was underway.

When Allied troops came under heavy fire between Calais and Bray-Dunes in the northernmost region of France, they were quickly surrounded. As they retreated and were pushed toward the coast, German forces were given a halt order. Knowing time was of the essence, the British government tasked Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey and his small contingent based deep within the tunnels of Dover Castle to come up with a rescue plan. They gathered as many watercraft as they could – Navy ships, commercial freighters, private yachts, fishing boats, lifeboats and more. In all, more than 930 vessels took part in the evacuation of more than 338,000 soldiers.

Barracks at Dover Castle | Photo by Olaf Unger 

Dover Castle

The imposing castle atop cliffs overlooking the southern coast of England was commissioned by William the Conqueror during the 11th century. Since then, it has played a vital role during wartime. During the Napoleonic Wars, tunnels were dug through the cliffs and well below the castle. Serving initially as air-raid shelters, the underground chambers became a crucial military communications hub and later, headquarters for the Royal Navy, Army and Air Force.

One of the largest castles in England, Dover Castle is well worth exploring. Visitors can stroll the ground and discover its rich history. From the exquisite guest hall and impeccably decorated rooms, there is plenty to see above ground. However, for military history buffs, the tunnels are a must-visit. Traverse your way through hidden barracks, an underground hospital, the impressive switchboard room and much more.

Modern-day Dunkirk | Photo by Massimo Santi 


During Operation Dynamo, Dunkirk became ground zero for the evacuation of Allied troops. Having been pushed back by German forces, the British, French and Belgian soldiers defended their position at Dunkirk until the operation was well underway. Because of the way the beaches were formed, the larger ships could not anchor nearby. Smaller watercraft were able to get closer and ferry the troops to the larger ships.

Once a sleepy fishing village, the town was almost completely obliterated during World War II during the Battle of Dunkirk. It was one of the last cities in France to be liberated in May 1945. Rebuilt with modern architecture, the scars of war can still be seen. Shipwrecks from the sunken ships during Operation Dynamo are scattered along Zuydcoote Beach. Further down the coastline, German concrete bunkers are slowly eroding down the cliffs along Leffrinckoucke. Visitors can stop by the Dunkirk War Museum, located in the former headquarters for French and Allied Forces. With fascinating exhibits, archives and stories from the French perspective, it’s well worth a visit.

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