Like what Finnish writer Erno Paasilinna said, “It is also a victory to know when to retreat,” and that’s what differentiates a great leader from a good one. Military commanders who knew that advancing is not always the best course of action are a gem. A correctly and adequately done one could allow the forces to reassemble, regroup, realign and come back more prepared. Here are some of the largest military retreats in history:

Dunkirk Evacuation

Perhaps one of the most famous ones if we’re going to talk about retreats. The evacuation of Dunkirk, also known as Operation Dynamo in 1940, is one of the largest evacuations in military history. Germany invaded France on May 10, 1940, as well as the Low Countries, so Britain sent its British Expeditionary Force to France to help stop the Nazis’ advance. Soon, they were pushed back to the beaches of Dunkirk along with the Belgian and French troops.

The British Army in the UK- Evacuation From Dunkirk, May-June 1940. (War Office official photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Allies were back up against the sea, and Germany had every chance to finish them off, but Hitler decided to order his panzer forces to halt. The Allies could have pursued them but chose not to and instead used the time to perform the largest sea evacuation in history. So the French held off the Germans outside Dunkirk while Britain assembled some 900 ships, fishing boats, private boats, ferries, and steamers to transport men back to Britain.

What Churchill thought would be a rescue of only 20,000 to 30,000 men ended up with 338,000 troops rescued in nine days. The successful evacuation became a great morale booster to the civilians, as well as the “Dunkirk spirit” that helped Britain fight better in the summer of 1940.