The evacuation of more than 300,000 British and allied troops from Dunkirk, on the north coast of France, in late May and early June of 1940 was viewed as a near miraculous feat. The troops were rescued in the nick of time, just ahead of the Germans, by British naval vessels along with all manner of private boats, yachts, and fishing vessels whose owners were eager to help.
The troops at Dunkirk had been cut off from the rest of allied forces by a successful German advance across France in late May. It seemed Germany was poised to crush the British and French forces outright. But on May 24, German leader Adolf Hitler inexplicably ordered all German tanks to stop for two whole days. He wanted to be sure he had enough tanks to take Paris. He did not want his tanks to be stuck in the mud of the canals around Dunkirk. He also may have wanted to have the Luftwaffe get the credit for destroying the Allies on the beaches. Hilter did not know that most of the remaining French and British army was stranded at Dunkirk. If he had, he might have had his tanks finish the job in May. Whatever the reason for stopping the German tank advance, it gave the Allies precious time to escape.
Two major breaks came the Allies' way. The British had an immediate plan to evacuate Allied troops from Dunkirk—Operation Dynamo. Meanwhile, the British were able to crack the Enigma code. Enigma was the code used by the Luftwaffe to communicate with the Wehrmacht. Essentially, the British knew German operational plans for the rest of the war. This is how Churchill kept up his confidence. He knew Hitler's eyes were on Paris and not on an immediate airborne, naval, and amphibious attack into Great Britain.
Hitler, however, immediately realized that the Allies were evacuating Dunkirk and sent his forces to finish them of. With a brave rear guard of French troops providing security and Allied pilots holding off the Luftwaffe, Operation Dynamo was able to commence on May 27. Fifty German aircraft were shot down that day while 850 British ships of all makes and sizes began the evacuation. The armada was made up of warships, private yachts, and fishing boats—basically anything that could float and haul troops. The group of ships picked up thousands of British and French soldiers from the beaches. In eight days, these vessels, later joined by French and Belgian ships, rescued 226,000 British soldiers and 112,000 French soldiers. Although the Germans sunk some of the ships from the air, more than 338,000 men were rescued in seven days. It took 222 naval vessels and 665 civilian boats to complete the evacuation. The British Army lost most of its equipment and began importing arms from the United States. Hitler figured that Britain would sue for peace and his attention turned first to Paris and later to the Soviet Union. He underestimated the resolve of Churchill and the British and the industrial and fighting capacity of the United States. At this point, the conquest of France was his next objective.