British and French troops waiting on the dunes at Dunkirk to be picked up by the Destroyers and taken back to England, May 1940.
Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
By Lily Rothman
May 25, 2017

It seemed like a defeat. And, in some ways, it was. Yet the evacuation of Allied troops from the port of Dunkirk, France — an operation that began 77 years ago, on May 26, 1940 — remains one of World War II’s best known examples of heroic success.

With the capitulation of Belgium, British and French troops were left trapped between German forces — hundreds of thousands of ground troops, plus their air force — and the coast. The destination for many of those troops was Dunkirk, and so that was the destination for their pursuers as well. As TIME later explained, Britain and France managed to get more than 300,000 troops off the beach during the retreat (compared to an estimated 45,000 who’d been predicted to make it) and across the water with the help of 1,200 boats, many of which were civilian leisure and fishing boats put to unexpected use.

The operation at Dunkirk provoked one of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches (“We shall not flag nor fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France and on the seas and oceans; we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air…”), and helped earn Churchill the title of TIME’s 1940 Man of the Year. It was clear almost immediately that what had happened was something that would be remembered for a long time to come.

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The reason why is seen in TIME’s coverage of the result of Belgium’s surrender, which included this description of what happened at Dunkirk:

At Dunkirk, the spectacle was prodigious, appalling. Inside the blazing line of warships lay transports of every description, from big merchantmen and passenger steamers to channel ferries, private yachts, fishing smacks, tug-drawn coal barges. Over these craft wheeled swarms of German high bombers, down at them plunged wedge after wedge of dive-bombers. Day and night the sea air was filled with screaming gulls and bats of death, including two whole German air corps commanded by Air Generals Grauert and von Richthofen (Wolfram, 44, cousin of World War I’s “Red Knight,” the late Baron Manfred).

Dunkirk is a man-made harbor cut into a sandy tidal plain, with a mole sticking out to protect a channel leading into a network of seven ship basins. When German bombs blew up the locks which held water in the basins at low tide, Dunkirk‘s inner loading piers became a muddy, smoldering shambles. Embarkation had to be carried out by shallow-draft ships at the mole or by whale boats, dories, rafts and wreckage bobbing in the surf along the flat shelf of seashore. A calm sea and bright sunshine made the rescue ships perfect bomb targets for two days, and dozens of them were smashed, burned, sunk. Britain admitted loss of 30 warships. Then a blessed fog rolled in for 48 hours, saving countless lives.

When the soldiers reached the sea they hid (one of them said later) “like rabbits among the dunes.” They were in smoke-grimed rags and tatters, many shoeless, some still lugging packs and rifles, others empty-handed in their underclothes after swimming canals. They were too din-deafened and inured to horror to be fully sensible of the incredible cataclysm that still raged over them. Some clutched souvenirs—a blood-soaked doll for a small daughter; a machine gun snatched from a crashed German plane with which one squad of men kept on shooting at new attackers and got two. Ambulatory wounded joined the rest in staggering into the oil-scummed waves, floundering out to reach the rescue craft amid spuming bomb-geysers. Day & night overhead the restless roar of air battle continued as depleted advance units of the Royal Air Force were reinforced by squadrons of the Coastal Command. To join this action came a game but outmatched auxiliary squadron of British businessmen, week-end fliers.

The Boulton Paul Defiant, a stub-winged, long-snouted fighter looking so much like the R. A. F.’s snappy Hurricane that German pilots at first fatally confused them, is the latest weapon of the Coastal Command. They carry rear-seat gunners in a power-operated turret, who knock down attackers with four machine guns. Streaking across from an English headland, one twelve-ship squadron of Defiants crumpled up 38 Messerschmitts and Heinkels in a single afternoon over Dunkirk. Other squadrons shot gaps in wave after wave of assorted German bombers. At night (to conserve planes) and also by day, British bombers dumped hundreds of tons of explosives into the onflowing German avalanche with monstrous but not impeding effect. The R. A. F. covered itself with glory in those awful hours, but every survivor repeated the dirge: “If we had more planes . . . more planes . . . more planes. . . .”

Crossing the water to Dover, Ramsgate, Sheerness was a prolongation of the stupefying nightmare. For besides the German airmadas aloft. German motorboats raced alongside firing torpedoes. Each successive boatload that came in safely seemed so precious and triumphant that British morale soared out of the jaws of death. Millions of relatives at piers and stations, watching for their own men, joined in the pitiful paean of thanks for those who were restored. Soldiers saluted R. N. sailors and said, “Thanks, mate, well done.” French (and Belgian) survivors grinned, “Merci.” A giant job well done it was. Backed partially at last by air power, the Royal Navy had stood squarely up to German air power and come off, morally at least, far ahead.

Among the Allied wounded, most talk was of getting patched up quickly and going back. The High Command received its palms for a retreat even more historic than Sir John Moore’s from Coruna, Spain in 1809. Whatever their losses, they had given Generalissimo Weygand one more week to get his new line ready to save France… Even the Germans admitted that men who had been through the Retreat to Dunkirk were fighters to be respected.

The dramatic World War II moment will be the subject of a new movie from Christopher Nolan, which will hit theaters on July 21.

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