When was the World War 2 battle at Dunkirk, what happened, and how many soldiers were evacuated?

IN May 1940 the outgunned British army was cut off from their French allies by Adolf Hitler's unstoppable German forces, leaving them trapped in the town of Dunkirk.

The bedraggled force faced annihilation less than a year into World War Two, but somehow survived to fight another day. Here's the story of their miraculous evacuation…

What happened in the Battle of Dunkirk?

For eight months after Neville Chamberlain declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3 1939 there was a period of stalemate in Western Europe, known as the "Phoney War".

That all changed on May 10 1940, when Hitler's German army launched a devastating attack on France and the Low Countries.

Within days, the Germans' ferocious Blitzkrieg tactics had torn through the allied lines and separated the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the French forces.

Marooned in a tiny corridor of northern France the BEF and their allies looked doomed.

However, confident that his army would crush his enemies, Hitler made the decision to briefly halt the German advance, giving the British just enough breathing space to arrange an evacuation.

This was later described as one of the evil dictator's "most critical mistakes" and "one of the great turning points of the war".

Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the BEF from the port town of Dunkirk, started on May 27 1940.

On the first day, just 7,669 troops were saved by the beleaguered British fleet.

However, an appeal for a smaller civilian craft to join the rescue mission proved a resounding success – by May 31, plucky Brits had contributed nearly 400 'little ships' to the effort.

At the height of the daring evacuation, over 180,000 allied troops were brought back from France in a three-day period.

By June 4, when Operation Dynamo ended, a total of 338,226 British and French soldiers had been saved from Dunkirk.

Initially, Prime Minister Winston Churchill had predicted that only around 30,000 men could be brought home.

The Royal Navy was aided by the remnants of the French First Army, who heroically resisted the Nazi forces in Lille until the end of May, when 35,000 starving soldiers were forced to surrender.

Haunting photos that captured the trail of devastation left in the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation have since been unearthed after 77 years.

How important was the Dunkirk evacuation?

On June 5, when Dunkirk finally fell to the German army and the 40,000 remaining allied troops surrendered, Hitler celebrated the battle as a great, decisive victory.

However, if Britain had not been able to evacuate such a high number of its military force, overall victory in World War Two would have been impossible.

Instead, Churchill would have been forced to make peace with Hitler – who had no great desire to invade Britain – leaving the Nazis to rampage unchallenged across Europe and into Russia.

As well as ensuring the nation lived to fight another day, the battle, particularly the role of the 'little ships', stirred great pride and patriotism in the British public.

Indeed, the phrase "Dunkirk Spirit" has become a byword for Brits showing great courage and unity in the face of adversity.

Churchill's legendary "We shall fight on the beaches" speech, which he gave on June 4, helped to shape the mood of Britain.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills – we shall never surrender."

The defiance of the brave Brits on the beaches of Dunkirk did not go unnoticed by the rest of the world.

On June 1, 1940, the New York Times wrote: "There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendour, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hitler cannot command.

"It is in the great tradition of democracy. It is a future. It is victory."

What was the Dunkirk movie?

The big-budget Dunkirk movie, which tells the story of the battle from perspectives of the air, land and sea, was released on July 21 2017 – and received barnstorming reviews and award nods galore.

It was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the critically-acclaimed filmmaker whose credits include Inception, The Dark Night Trilogy and Interstellar.

The epic movie featured an all-star cast featuring bringing together several generations of British talent, including Oscar winners Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance.

Tom Hardy starred in a Christopher Nolan film for the third time, while Peaky Blinders' Cillian Murphy also appeared.

Dunkirk offered an exciting movie debut for Harry Styles, who was shown nearly drowning during one action-packed trailer.

Amid all the big names, the leading role fell to a relative newcomer – Fionn Whitehead, who played Tommy, a British private.

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