"Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar."

Winston Churchill

This was quoted by Churchill in his first broadcast as Prime Minister to the British people on the BBC, May 19, 1940, London.




Daily Past - pretend newspaper article

Simple traditional account, seeing Dunkirk as an heroic miracle

Basic account 



British Pathé account

Need to Know account

BBC movie-animation


  Churchill's speech on Dunkirk


Spinning Dunkirk - BBC site (essential)

  Download a radio broadcast by Lord Keyes  explaining how King Leopold of Belgium was not responsible for the defeat.


  BBC On this day and News site - excellent, inc stories from the beaches  


Animated map - really clear BBC account

An old map of the campaign


Photo taken by a US photographer - very different!








A cartoon by David Low for the Evening Standard, dated 18th June 1940 (just after the fall of France).   The British soldier shakes his fist at the Luftwaffe bombers and the caption reads: 'Very well, Alone!'   It sums up the official attitude of the British people to the events of the war at that time.

Denmark resisted the Nazi invasion for 1 day, then surrendered.   The British tried to send help to Norway, but the Nazis swept them aside.   Then, on 10 May 1940, the Nazis invaded Holland and Belgium.   The Allied forces were helpless to stop their ‘Blitzkrieg’ (‘lightning war) tactics.   Holland surrendered on 14 May, the same day as the Nazi Army invaded France.   British, Belgian and French troops were retreating, but there was chaos.   On 21 May, the Nazis captured Amiens


By 22 May, the British had decided that the battle was lost, and they began to withdraw their troops to the sea port of Dunkirk.   This opened up a gap in the Allied line which the Germans exploited.   The Belgians surrendered on 28 May, but since 26 May, ‘Operation Dynamo’ had been transporting troops from Dunkirk to Britain.   The British did not tell the French, who only found out when some French troops, who had tried to flee to Britain, complained to their commander that they had not been allowed to get on the boats.


345,000 Allied troops were evacuated.   When they heard about it, many private individuals sailed their yachts and paddle boats to Dunkirk to ‘do their bit’.   In Britain, Churchill described the withdrawal as ‘a miracle of deliverance’.   He even claimed ‘there was a victory in that deliverance’.   In the newspaper and newsreels, the evacuation was shown as a successful, heroic adventure:


Source A

More cheering evidence of the success of this amazing military exploit is the presence in Britain of large numbers of French soldiers…  They are showered with hospitality and find the tea of old England almost as refreshing as their familiar coffee…  Enjoying an unexpected seaside holiday, they bask in the sun, awaiting orders to return to France.

     The story of that epic withdrawal will live in history as a glorious example of discipline [amongst our troops]…  Every kind of small craft - destroyers, paddle steamers, yachts, motor boats, rowing boats - have sped here to the burning ruins of Dunkirk to bring off the gallant British and French troops betrayed by the desertion of the Belgian king.

     Here in these scenes off the beaches of Dunkirk you have one of the dramatic pictures of the war.  Men wade to a vessel beached at low tide, its crew waiting to haul them aboard.  Occasional German planes fleck the sky, but where was the German Navy?  Of German sea power there was little trace.

Movietone News

Images of Royal Navy warships and of small craft rescuing soldiers from the beaches were accompanied by truimphalistic military music.

Did You Know?

Chamberlain resigned, and, on 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill took over as Prime Minister.   ‘I have nothing to offer you but blood, toil, tears and sweat… victory, however long and hard the road may be’, he told the British people on 13 May.






Newspaper and newsreels were full of pictures such as this one, which shows troops wading out to a troop ship close into the shore.




1.  Make a list of all the upbeat words and phrases in Source A.

2.  Use only Source A to answer:

 - How did the British treat the French?

 - Who was to blame for the military setback?

 - How did the soldiers behave during evacuation?

 - How were the men brought home?

 - Where were the men picked up from?

 - Was Dunkirk a defeat or a victory?


Then do this task:

What impression does Source A give of the Dunkirk evacuation, and how does it achieve this?



Source B

This David Low cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard on 8 June 1940.




The reality, of course, was that Dunkirk was a monumental defeat.   Historians have called the image of the evacuation which grew up in Britain ‘the necessary myth’ – necessary to maintain morale, but not true.   When the navy tried to take the troops from the beaches, the boats became stuck on the mud, so the idea was abandoned – most soldiers were evacuated, not from the beaches, but by ferry from Dunkirk.  Small craft only became involved after 31 May, and only evacuated 25,000 men (a tiny proportion).   Although many men behaved with perfect discipline, there were examples of indiscipline – some troops stole food from local people, and there were stories of officers deserting their men to be evacuated first.  And the evacuated French hated England so much that many chose to return to France to be sent to prison camps.


In private, Churchill called Dunkirk ‘the greatest military defeat for many centuries’.  



The reality of Dunkirk: vehicles abandoned to the Nazis.   The British army left behind 2,500 guns, 84,500 vehicles, 77,000 tons of ammunition, 416,000 tons of supplies and 165,000 tons of petrol.   68,000 soldiers were killed or taken prisoner.







Use the information on this webpage other than Source A to answer:

 - How did the British treat the French?

 - Who was to blame for the military setback?

 - How did the soldiers behave during evacuation?

 - How were the men brought home?

 - Where were the men picked up from?

 - Was Dunkirk a defeat or a victory?


Then do this task:

Do you agree with the interpretation of Dunkirk in Source A?   Use Source A and your own knowledge to explain your answer.



Source C

In a bank at Accrington. Lancashire, one frightened local businessman arrived to draw his money out, asking in a panic, ‘What shall we do when the Germans get here?’   The deputy-manager answered him: ‘Do?  I’ll tell you what we’ll do.  We’ll get a gun and we’ll shoot the buggers!’   Here surely spoke the authentic accents of Britain in 1940.

Norman Longmate, How We Lived Then (1971)




Source D

This Lee cartoon of 21 May 1940 in the Evening Standard’s ‘Smiling Through’ series is entitled: ‘Ups and Downs’.   The train guard is shouting to one depressed-looking man: "No, Sir, only 'Confident Smilers' this end, Sir.  'All is lost Brigade' right at the back."



Source E

Far worse than death would be for the children to grow up Nazis, so if they land I must be prepared to shoot the children and myself.

A Cornish mother








1.   What can an historian learn from Sources B–E about the attitude of the British people in 1940?

2.   Is there enough evidence in Sources B–E to say that the British faced the disaster of Dunkirk bravely?