For Winston Churchill, the new British prime minister, it all began with an early phone call on May 15 that roused him from sleep.
“We have been defeated,” said the French premier, Paul Reynaud. “We are beaten.”
Churchill was well aware of the Nazi advance. Days earlier, Adolf Hitler’s army had taken Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, with Denmark and Norway already in his grip. England had sent more than 200,000 troops to France and Belgium. All for nothing, it now seemed.
“Surely it can’t have happened so soon?” the stunned Churchill said. “The front is broken,” Reynaud said. “The Nazis are pouring through in great numbers.”
The Allies had severely miscalculated the path the Nazis would take. The Germans had swept south, through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest, a region the Allies had barely bothered to defend. Now British and French troops found themselves surrounded, in disarray. Their only possible escape was across the English Channel. Through Dunkirk, a city in northeast France. A mass evacuation would require funneling thousands upon thousands of soldiers, spread across hundreds of miles, into one space while the Nazis closed in with 1,800 tanks and 300 Stuka dive-bombers.
For days, Churchill resisted that escape plan. It seemed like a suicide mission. They’d be lucky to get 20,000 men home via the English Channel, let alone more than 300,