The 1940 evacuation of Allied troops from the shores of France was one of the key events that determined the outcome of the Second World War. On 20 May 1940 Hitler's tanks reached the Channel coast near Noyelles-sur-Mer. Huge parts of northern France and neighbouring Belgium were now under German control and they seemed on the verge of victory.

Dunkirk
The city of Rouen is enveloped by smoke and fire during the German invasionHulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
A street in Dunkirk under heavy bombardment during the German attempt to take the town before the evacuation of the Allied armiesKeystone/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
French and British troops are taken prisoner by the Germans at DunkirkHulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Refugees fleeing during the German aerial bombardment of DunkirkTopical Press Agency/Getty Images

The Allies were cornered in Dunkirk, surrounded by thousands of German troops and tanks and under attack by German aircraft. Operation Dynamo saw some 338,000 British, French and Belgian soldiers rescued between 27 May 27 and 3 June. On the first day, only 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by a fleet of over 800 boats. Some of the men waited for hours in shoulder-deep water.

Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Defeated British and French troops waiting on the dunes at Dunkirk to be picked up and taken back to EnglandTopical Press Agency/Getty Images

They were transferred across the channel by a fleet consisting of all kinds of vessels – ranging from private sailing boats to Channel ferries and Royal Navy destroyers. The success of the mission owed much to luck. Calm waters allowed the evacuation fleet to get away quickly, while low clouds helped protect it from attacks by the Luftwaffe. Most importantly, the Allies could now rely upon the Royal Air Force's newest fighter plane, the Spitfire, to shield the evacuation from air attack.

Despite suffering heavy losses, the operation was successful and the majority of the British Expeditionary Force returned to England. IBTimes UK looks back at what Prime Minister Winston Churchill described as a "miracle of deliverance".

Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Oil tanks in Dunkirk burn after being set on fire by Allied troops before they evacuatedAFP
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
English and French ships, sunk by German planes, in the harbour at DunkirkKeystone/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force lie on their backs on the beach at Dunkirk to shoot at enemy aircraft bombing the transport shipsFox Photos/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
French destroyer Bourrasque sinking after hitting a mine on the way back from Dunkirk, with some 1,200 men aboard, many of whom diedHulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Crew members of the French destroyer Bourrasque, sunk by mine at Dunkirk, are hauled aboard a British vessel from their sinking life raftHulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Three men are rescued from the sea after having had to abandon ship as they were being evacuated from the beaches at DunkirkPicture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
A flotilla of small craft sails down the Thames on the way to FranceHulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
The crew of the London-based tug Sunvill, one of the many small craft that took part in the evacuation of British and Allied troops from DunkirkFox Photos/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
A flotilla of small boats, each heavily loaded with evacuated troopsHulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Soldiers wade into the sea to reach a ship off the beach at DunkirkKeystone/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Up to their necks in water, retreating soldiers have to struggle through the sea because the waiting ships could not get closer to the Dunkirk beachBert Hardy/Keystone/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
British troops look back at the French coast from the deck of a steamer which is taking them back to England after the evacuation of DunkirkKeystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
The last few soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force waiting for evacuation from Dunkirk beachKeystone/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
5 June 1940: French marines and soldiers who had been fighting the rearguard action arrive at a South Coast town having been evacuated from DunkirkTopical Press Agency/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
June 1940: Members of the British Expeditionary Force arrive back in Britain with a Union flag after being evacuated from DunkirkKeystone/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Two members of the BEF (British Expeditionary Forces) smile after arriving in England from DunkirkFox Photos/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Exhausted troops sleep aboard a train, having returned from Dunkirk as part of the British Expeditionary ForceKeystone/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Two soldiers tuck in to the food and refreshment they received after their arrival in Britain, after evacuation from DunkirkFox Photos/Getty Images
Dunkirk
A member of the British Expeditionary Force with his mascot smiles as the arrive back home from FranceTopical Press Agency/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
31 May 1940: A BEF (British Expeditionary Force) train arrives in London loaded with happy British soldiers who escaped from DunkirkDavis/Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Dunkirk evacuation 1940
Children rush up to a train carrying BEF men back from DunkirkHulton Archive/Getty Images