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Cool Today in History, June 4th

June 4, 1940

On June 4, 1940, the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk on the Belgian
coast ends as German forces capture the beach port. The nine-day evacuation, the
largest of its kind in history and an unexpected success, saved 338,000 Allied
troops from capture by the Nazis.On May 10, 1940, the Germans launched their
attack against the West, storming into Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. Faced
with far superior airpower, more unified command, and highly mobile armored
forces, the Allied defenders were a poor match for the German Wehrmacht. In a
lightning attack, the Germans raced across Western Europe. On May 12, they
entered France, out-flanking the northwest corners of the Maginot Line,
previously alleged by French military command to be an impregnable defense of
their eastern border. On May 15, the Dutch surrendered.The Germans advanced in
an arc westward from the Ardennes in Belgium, along France's Somme River, and to
the English Channel, cutting off communication between the Allies' northern and
southern forces. The Allied armies in the north, which comprised the main body
of Allied forces, were quickly being encircled. By May 19, Lord John Gort, the
British commander, was already considering the withdrawal of the British
Expeditionary Force (BEF) by sea.Reluctant to retreat so soon, the Allies fought
on and launched an ineffective counterattack on May 21. By May 24, Walther von
Brauchitsch, the German army commander in chief, was poised to take Dunkirk, the
last port available for the withdrawal of the mass of the BEF from Europe.
Fortunately for the Allies, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler suddenly intervened,
halting the German advance. Hitler had been assured by Hermann Goering, head of
the Luftwaffe, that his aircraft could destroy the Allied forces trapped on the
beaches at Dunkirk, so Hitler ordered the forces besieging Dunkirk to pull
back.On May 26, the British finally initiated Operation Dynamo--the evacuation
of Allied forces from Dunkirk. The next day, the Allies learned that King
Leopold III of Belgium was surrendering, and the Germans resumed the land attack
on Dunkirk. By then, the British had fortified their defenses, but the Germans
would not be held for long, and the evacuation was escalated. As there were not
enough ships to transport the huge masses of men stranded at Dunkirk, the
British Admiralty called on all British citizens in possession of sea-worthy
vessels to lend their ships to the effort. Fishing boats, pleasure yachts,
lifeboats, and other civilian ships raced to Dunkirk, braving mines, bombs, and
torpedoes.During the evacuation, the Royal Air Force (RAF) successfully resisted
the Luftwaffe, saving the operation from failure. Still, the German fighters
bombarded the beach, destroyed numerous vessels, and pursued other ships within
a few miles of the English coast. The harbor at Dunkirk was bombed out of use,
and small civilian vessels had to ferry the soldiers from the beaches to the
warships waiting at sea. But for nine days, the evacuation continued, a miracle
to the Allied commanders who had expected disaster. By June 4, when the Germans
closed in and the operation came to an end, 198,000 British and 140,000 French
troops were saved. These experienced soldiers would play a crucial role in
future resistance against Nazi Germany.With Western Europe abandoned by its main
defenders, the German army swept through the rest of France, and Paris fell on
June 14. Eight days later, Henri Petain signed an armistice with the Nazis at
Compiegne. Germany annexed half the country, leaving the other half in the hands
of their puppet French rulers. On June 6, 1944, liberation of Western Europe
finally began with the successful Allied landing at Normandy.
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