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Page last updated at 13:13 GMT, Friday, 21 May 2010 14:13 UK
Dunkirk evacuation: Operation Dynamo

Operation Dynamo was run from the secret war tunnels under Dover Castle

At 18:57 hours on 26 May 1940, the signal was received to start Operation Dynamo.

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and French troops from Dunkirk's beaches on the north coast of France was about to begin.

France had fallen before the German advance, and with less than a week to prepare, the operation was the responsibility of Vice-Admiral Ramsay.

The aim was the evacuation of up to 40,000 troops under attack.

A "little ship", photo from the Imperial War Museum
The "little ships" were used to ferry the troops from the beaches to the ships.

With the British and French armies cornered by the advancing German army near Dunkirk in 1940, Kent became the focus of the nation's attention as, between 26 May and 3 June, more than 330,000 troops were rescued from the beaches in one of the most astonishing operations of the war.

Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay masterminded Operation Dynamo from a bunker deep within the Dover cliffs.

On 29 May, the evacuation was announced to the British public, and many privately owned boats started arriving at Dunkirk to ferry the troops to safety. This flotilla of small vessels famously became known as the 'Little Ships'.

All available seaworthy craft in Kent, or the "Little Ships" as they became affectionately known, were assembled in Sheerness dockyard before making the hazardous crossing in flotillas to Dunkirk.

Soldiers arriving in Dover, photo from the Imperial War Museum
The soldiers arrived in Dover before being put on trains.

The contribution these civilian vessels made to the Dunkirk evacuation gave rise to the term 'Dunkirk spirit', an expression still used to describe the British ability to rally together in the face of adversity.

Dover was the busiest of the berthing ports during the frantic seven days of the evacuation. Here, ships were unloaded and refuelled before returning to the French coast, while trains shuttled the arriving soldiers away from the coast.

The cliff tunnels were the nerve centre of the operation. The best previous estimate was that only 45,000 of the troops could be brought back, yet Winston Churchill announced to the House of Commons on 4 June that 338,000 troops had been saved, despite the operation coming under attack.

The soldiers are able to shave, shower and change, photo from the Imperial War Museum
The soldiers are able to shave, shower and change after arriving in England.

Today at Dover Castle you can experience life as it was for the 700 personnel based there in the worst days of the Second World War. Relive the drama as a wounded Battle of Britain pilot is taken into the underground hospital to fight for his life in the operating theatre, and see the Command Centre in which Churchill made the plans that would eventually lead to Allied victory.

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