The new movie “Dunkirk”, directed by Christopher Nolan, shows how a flotilla of 861 boats of all shapes and sizes (of which 243 were sunk during the operation) managed to evacuate the trapped soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. The movie brought some attention to the evacuation of Dunkirk, or the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, which was the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force and remnants of the French, Belgian and Dutch armies after being pushed back by the German onslaught on France in May 1940.
330,000 allied troops found themselves on the beaches of Dunkirk waiting for their evacuation 77 years ago. Amongst them were 476 Cypriots, although Cyprus’ contribution to the British war effort during WWII is perhaps overlooked and forgotten. In fact, proportionally Cyprus contributed the most troops in the Commonwealth in the fight against the Axis Powers.
The arrival of the Cypriots was covered with great interest, especially by the British press, as it was the island’s first movement in a European war and, more importantly, as an ally to Britain. The Cypriot muleteers were stationed along the Maginot line – a line of concrete fortifications, obstacles, and weapon installations built by France in the 1930s to deter invasion by Germany.
The Germans attacked on May 19, 1940 and it wasn’t long before they were ordered to retreat to Dunkirk. They walked 6-7 days, hiding during the day and walking 30-40 kilometres during the night, before they managed to get to Dunkirk. They were then finally billeted in a large building with soldiers from India, as they had to wait for the British soldiers to be evacuated first.
No Cypriot lives were lost during this phase of their war and, after their evacuation to England where they remained for about three months assisting in the creation of defences, they were shipped to Egypt. By the end of the war, 17,916 Cypriots had joined the Cyprus Regiment and the Cyprus Volunteer force, including 778 women that joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and Army. According to the Veterans’ Association, some around men were killed in action and are buried in 56 cemeteries in 16 countries. A further 1,900 Cypriots were captured during the war.