Churchill Archive for Schools - Themes_Key questions_Dunkirk evacuatio

Was the Dunkirk evacuation a triumph or a disaster?

The sources have been carefully selected from the Churchill Archive to explore the question of whether the Dunkirk evacuation can be considered a ‘triumph’ or a ‘disaster’. This small selection of 5 sources can be used to build up a picture of the key events and opinions on the evacuation. Teachers can ask students to work through the entire collection or get individuals, pairs or small groups to look at a smaller number of sources and report back. However, it is probably better to try to get students to use the entire collection if possible, working through the sources in chronological order. This way they can move beyond them as a collection of individual documents and use them in the way a historian would, as a collection of documents which illustrate the past.

With this basis in mind, students who have looked at the collection might then be challenged with tasks which extend their thinking and understanding. For example…

Activity 1: Was the Dunkirk evacuation a triumph or a disaster?

You might ask students if the sources provide an answer to the question posed by this enquiry.

Source Supports the view AT FACE VALUE that the Dunkirk evacuation was a triumph Does not support the view AT FACE VALUE that the Dunkirk evacuation was a triumph Reasons why the source is strong or weak evidence about this particular issue (e.g. date of source, typicality, purpose, etc.)

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Activity 2: What kind of picture do we get about Dunkirk from these sources?

Students can sometimes fall into the trap of assuming that documents represent ‘the whole’ of the story rather than being part of the puzzle which historians have to piece together. It might be useful to ask them to discuss the following assertions in groups:

  • Telegrams, letters and charts definitely tell you about what is happening at the time
  • We can’t learn anything about the French perspective from British sources
  • Memoirs are useful for revealing public opinion
  • Personal letters definitely tell you about what the letter writer thinks
  • The sources only tell us about the British point of view so they are useless
  • Personal letters are useless as sources because they only tell you about one person

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