The Ones That Got Away – Seven of Military History’s Most Incredible Evacuations

The film Dunkirk brings the story of Operation Dynamo to the big screen. (Image source: Warner Bros.)

“Dunkirk isn’t the only ‘miraculous’ evacuation to be found in the annals of military history. There have been others.”

MHN’s TWITTER FEED was buzzing last week following the release of the new trailer for the upcoming World War Two epic Dunkirk.

The film, which is written and directed by Christopher Nolan and stars Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh, tells the story of the evacuation of the British army from France following the German Blitzkrieg of May, 1940. When Dunkirk hits theatres in the summer of 2017, it will be the first time in nearly 60 years that an account of the famous rescue of 338,000 Commonwealth and Allied troops from certain destruction, codenamed Operation Dynamo, has appeared on the big screen.

The real-life exodus, which began on May 26 and ran for nine days, saw an impromptu flotilla of 800 military- and civilian-owned vessels, including tugboats, trawlers and even yachts, cross the English Channel to take exhausted soldiers off the beaches as German bombs fell around them. Although Hitler trumpeted fall of Dunkirk and the capture of the nearly 40,000 Allied troops left behind as a resounding victory, it would prove to be a hollow one for Berlin. The British army, although defeated, escaped total destruction and would live on to fight another day. Even Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who soberly reminded jubilant Britons that “wars are not won by evacuation,” couldn’t resist calling what happened a “miracle.” To this day, Dynamo is remembered as a decisive reversal in a war that at the time seemed to be all but lost for the Allies. But of course, Dunkirk isn’t the only ‘miraculous’ evacuation to be found in the annals of military history. There have been others. Consider these:

A relocated Soviet factory somewhere in central Russia.

Russian Exodus

It wasn’t an army that the Soviets saved from Nazi invaders in 1941, it was Russia’s industrial capacity. Within days of the start of Hitler’s June 22 onslaught against the U.S.S.R., Moscow ordered as many of the country’s factories that could be saved to be broken down, loaded onto trains and transported east more than 1,500 miles to the Ural Mountains, beyond the reach of enemy tanks and bombers. By the following year, a staggering 2,500 industrial plants had been repositioned, representing nearly a third of Soviet industrial capacity. Between 10 and 16 million labourers and their families were also relocated, in most cases, with little provision made for their accommodations upon arrival. Almost overnight, cities like Novosibirsk in Central Asia became booming hubs of Soviet industry. Even the capital was temporarily moved to Kuybyshev. In 1942, the transplanted factories were up and running and cranking out arms and equipment to supply the resurgent Red Army. Within two years, the German invaders would be driven from Soviet soil and communist troops would be advancing through Eastern Europe and on towards the Third Reich itself.

Abandoned munitions are detonated by evacuating UN troops at Hungnam, North Korea, 1950. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A Christmas Miracle

United Nations forces experienced their own Dunkirk of sorts during the first winter of the Korean War. After shattering the North Korean army and driving it far above the 38th Parallel in the autumn of 1950, Pyongyang’s Chinese allies entered the fight on Nov. 26, hurling more than a quarter million troops into the UN lines. Encircled and facing certain annihilation, U.S., British and South Korean forces launched a desperate counter attack at the Chosin Reservoir aimed at breaking out of the communist cordon. Once free, coalition troops retreated south towards the port of Hungnam. Declaring the unfolding crisis a national emergency, President Harry S. Truman assembled 193 ships to evacuate 100,000 stranded UN troops, along with 100,000 civilians from the North. The operation would take nine days. One vessel, a World War Two-era Liberty ship dubbed SS Meredith Victory, carried off 14,000 refugees in a single sortie. The vessel, which was designed to accommodate just 12 passengers and a crew of 47, would go down in history for hauling the largest human cargo ever recorded. By way of comparison, the world’s biggest passenger liner, Royal Caribbean’s 1,200-foot-long Harmony of the Seas, has a maximum passenger capacity of 6,300. The evacuation of Hungnam ended successfully on Dec. 24 without casualties. It would be remembered as the “Miracle of Christmas.”

The crew of the USS Hancock look on as evacuees from Saigon arrive by helicopter. (Image source: Arthur Ritchie, USN retired)

Frequent Wind

It certainly wasn’t the Yuletide season when the last Americans were withdrawn from Saigon in April, 1975. Yet the pre-arranged signal to begin the evacuation of U.S. military advisors, diplomats and their dependents from the besieged capital was the broadcast of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” on the local Armed Forces Radio station. For months, communist forces had been sweeping south towards the city and final victory. As the encircled Siagon, the U.S. embassy issued Americans living there a secret evacuation booklet telling them that when they heard the holiday song played on the radio, they should head immediately for one of several pre-arranged evacuation points. That moment came the morning of April 29 as 120,000 North Vietnamese Army troops massed on the outskirts of the city. The operation, codenamed Frequent Wind, involved 26 ships, including the carriers USS Hancock and USS Midway and the amphibious assault ship USS Okinawa, and as many as 75 massive Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters, along with dozens of smaller UH-1 Hueys. It would take the task force less than 24 hours to rescue 1,400 Americans, making it the largest helicopter evacuation in history. Two U.S. military personnel were killed in the mission. Marines Charles McMahon, 21, and Darwin Lee Judge, 19, died in a rocket attack while manning a perimeter near Saigon’s main airport. They would be the last American casualties of the Vietnam War.

Continental troops escape across the East River under the noses of the British. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Washington’s Escape

Of course it wasn’t helicopters, but rather rowboats and barges, that saved George Washington’s beleaguered Continental Army following the disastrous Battle of Long Island in the summer of 1776. After having been thrashed by 20,000 British and Hessian troops, the outnumbered patriots retreated to the banks of the East River to make a last stand. As the redcoats surrounded the rebels on Aug. 28 with plans to snuff out the revolution once and for all, America’s future first president planned a daring escape. While bombarding the British with what few cannons he had, Washington sent word to Manhattan for all the boats that could be gathered. At dusk on Aug. 29, 9,000 Continentals began quietly withdrawing from their positions towards the safety of the boats. Fires were tended all night long to give off the impression that the army was still encamped; the soldiers were under strict orders to make no sound as they crept to the riverbank. British troops, surprised at dawn to see the Yankee pickets unmanned, advanced cautiously on the American perimeter only to find it complete abandoned – the last Continental soldier having embarked only moments earlier. Washington’s army would survive their Long Island drubbing — the 13 Colonies’ bid for independence would go on.

Yankee troops expected to charge into battle against the Rebels at Corinth, Mississippi in 1862. Instead they found the city abandoned. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Beauregard’s Famous Fake Out

Confederate general P.T.G. Beauregard undertook a subterfuge similar to Washington’s in May of 1862 at Corinth, Mississippi. Outnumbered nearly two-to-one and expecting a massive Union assault at daybreak, the wily Rebel commander hoped to confuse the enemy while stealing quietly into the night. As his 65,000 troops abandoned their positions and retreated to safety, the hero of Fort Sumter ordered a single locomotive to be rolled in and out of the town all night long to make it sound to Northern scouts as if thousands of fresh troops were arriving on an endless procession of trains. To add to the charade, Beauregard had his dwindling army cheer lustily each time the lone steam engine pulled into the station, further fooling the Yankees into believing that the reinforced Southerners were spoiling for a fight. A night of beating drums and and pealing bugles helped add to the impression of a massing Confederate army. All the while, the general and his army were melting away. By dawn, the Rebels were gone, but Corinth was in Union hands.

A convoy carries German troops and refugees from Eastern Europe in the closing days of World War Two. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Operation Hannibal

The largest wartime evacuation in modern history took place on the Baltic Sea during the closing weeks of World War Two. Operation Hannibal, which was three times the size of Dunkirk, was ordered by Berlin in January of 1945 as a last-ditch effort to rescue soldiers and civilians alike from the advancing Red Army. During the four-month operation, nearly a million civilians and 350,000 troops were boat-lifted from German controlled pockets in CourlandEast Prussia and the Polish Corridor to a handful of safe Nazi ports. Between 500 and 1,000 vessels were pressed into service for the mission. The improvised armada consisted of everything from fishing boats and tugs to ocean liners. Despite being escorted by Germany’s dwindling surface fleet, the convoys made inviting targets for Soviet submarines and warplanes. As many as 158 vessels were picked off during the course of the evacuation. The worst loss occurred a week into the operation when a Russian sub torpedoed the Wilhelm Gustloff, a German passenger liner packed with 10,000 refugees and military personnel. It took 90 minutes for the vessel to founder. Only a few hundred of those on board survived. The Gustloff tragedy remains the worst maritime disaster in history. Operation Hannibal, which continued until the war’s final days, finally ended with the Nazi capitulation.

1 comment for “The Ones That Got Away – Seven of Military History’s Most Incredible Evacuations

  1. 19 December, 2016 at 12:31 am

    This comparison is wrong from the starting point.
    There was a third part nation which compared captured T34 mod. 1944 to the German tanks, do you know their conclusions?

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