THE BASICS The Dunkirk evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo, involved the large-scale rescue of British, French and Belgian troops from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, between May 26 and June 4, 1940, after the German army had cut off the Allies during the Second World War. The evacuation prompted one of Winston Churchill's most famous speeches, his "We shall fight on the beaches" masterpiece.
THE NUMBERS A staggering 338,226 soldiers were saved from death or capture in the nine-day operation by a ragtag fleet of 850 boats. The vessels included about 700 "little ships of Dunkirk" - merchant marine vessels, fishing boats, pleasure craft and Royal National Lifeboat Institution lifeboats. The "miracle of the little ships" remains a treasured memory in Britain.
BEFORE... Wartime censorship and the desire to bolster morale kept the extent of the Dunkirk events from the public. Still, King George VI called for a week of prayer, and the Archbishop of Canterbury led the offerings "for our soldiers in dire peril in France". Churchill, meanwhile, warned the House of Commons of "hard and heavy tidings". He cited "a colossal military disaster" and said "the whole root and core and brain of the British army" had been stranded.
...AND AFTER Churchill celebrated the outcome as a "miracle", and the British press praised "disaster turned to triumph". That in turn prompted the beloved Winnie to remind all, in a speech to the House of Commons on June 4, that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations".
THE THREE SPEECHES The prime minister's "Beaches" address was the second of three major speeches he made during the five-week period of the Battle of France. The first, on May 13, was designated as the "Blood, toil, tears and sweat" speech, and the third, on June 18, was labelled the "This was their finest hour" speech. Although similar in theme, each addressed a different military and diplomatic context. On Dunkirk, Churchill had to simultaneously note the disaster, prepare Britons for the fall of France and warn of a possible German invasion - all without doubting eventual victory.
AH, THE ORATORY Admire the rhythm, the cadence, the dramatic repetition, the sheer poetry of the key lines - delivered in that gravelly voice that both soothed and galvanised a nation - in the "Beaches" speech: "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..."
HOW HE DID IT Entire lessons on how to write well are based on Churchill's output. After all, in addition to his gifted tongue, he won the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature. Three observations: he rarely deviated from the simple sentence structure of subject-verb-object; he used short words; and he would have excelled on Twitter, given that his sentences averaged 120 characters.
IN POPULAR CULTURE The Dunkirk evacuation has been the subject of novels, television specials and mini-series, video games and at least four noteworthy films: Mrs Miniver (1942), an Academy Award-winning drama starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon; Dunkirk (1958), an Ealing film made in collaboration with British MGM; The Snow Goose (1971), starring Richard Harris and Jenny Agutter; and Atonement (2007), which features a five-minute continuous shot of Allied troops stranded on the beach waiting to be evacuated.
Triumphs on land and sea
June 4 was a pivotal day during the Second World War. Four other major events that occurred on that day were:
IN THE PACIFIC, 1942 The Battle of Midway begins. The Japanese Admiral Chuichi Nagumo orders a strike on Midway Island by the Imperial navy. But with code-breakers deciphering enemy radio communications, the US navy prevails after a pitched four-day battle. The military historian John Keegan has described it as "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare".
ROME, 1944 The US 5th Army liberates the city - the first of the Axis capitals to fall. "One up, two to go!" the US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt says as the Eternal City bursts into celebration.
IN THE ATLANTIC, 1944 A US navy anti-submarine task force captures the German U-boat U-505 off the coast of west Africa - the first time a US navy ship had claimed an enemy vessel at sea since the 19th century.
NORTHERN FRANCE, 1944 The first British gliders and paratroopers land behind enemy lines in advance of the D-Day invasion of occupied France two days later.