Dunkirk (dŭnˈkûrk) [key], Fr. Dunkerque, town (1990 pop. 71,071), Nord dept., N France, on the North Sea. It is a leading French port with daily ferry service to Ramsgate and Dover, England. It is a steel center; oil refining, shipbuilding, food processing, and the manufacture of electrical equipment are also important. Among Dunkirk's chief exports are construction materials, steel products, cement, fruits and vegetables, sugar, fertilizer, and pre-assembled structures. Probably founded c.7th cent. A.D. and often fortified, Dunkirk played a key role in the struggles in Europe that extended over centuries; it was ruled successively by Flanders, Burgundy, Austria, France, England, and Spain. Ceded briefly in the 1650s to Oliver Cromwell, it was bought back permanently from Charles II by Louis XIV in 1662. The town withstood an Anglo-Dutch bombardment in 1694 and an English siege in 1793. During the 19th cent. improvements were made on the harbor, and Dunkirk grew in commercial importance. During World War II, more than 300,000 Allied troops who were cut off from retreat on land by the German breakthrough to the French Channel ports were evacuated (May 26–June 4, 1940) from Dunkirk. The retreat was carried out by all kinds of available British craft, some manned by civilian volunteers, and was protected by the Royal Air Force. It is considered one of the epic actions of naval history.
See studies by P. Turnball (1978), J. Harris (1988), and H. Sebag-Montefiore (2006).