A quarter-million troops of the British Expeditionary Force, together with about 140,000 French and Belgian soldiers, were safely evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, France between May 26 and June 4, 1940, in one of the largest successful maritime evacuations of trapped armies in military history. Most other marooned armies would likely have surrendered or been slaughtered on the beach by the seasoned German Panzers.
The amazingly successful withdrawal allowed Britain to remain actively in the war, and gave inspiration for another quarter-million trapped British and French soldiers to escape across the channel in the next three weeks. Churchill, in the Periclean fashion of mixing encouragement with realist caution, reminded the beleaguered British people that such defiance presaged successful British resistance to Hitler—while also reminding them that victory is never won through retreats.
There is much to be said for the current blockbuster movie Dunkirk, directed by Christopher Nolan. The cinematography of battle is excellent. The themes of confusion, paradox, irony, and unintended consequences in war are well captured through the mostly visual daylong odyssey of “Tommy” (Fionn Whitehead). In near continual silence (dialogue is scant in Dunkirk), Tommy seems to escape one disaster only to fall into another, in his Odysseus-like effort to get across the water to home.