STOPPING SHORT OF VICTORY
Blitzkrieg was smashing France. The Wehrmacht had sailed through the “impassable” Ardennes Forest and bypassed the Maginot Line. German panzer divisions had spearheaded a push to the Channel that had effectively cut the British forces off from the French army and was pushing them back to the coast. On May 24, 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was deeply engaged with the German Second Army. On that same day, the foremost of Heinz Guderian’s panzer units were thirty miles from the port of Dunkirk. This put a substantial amount of Nazi armored and highly mobile units close to Dunkirk, the last continental channel port in Allied hands. The Nazis had more units near the port than almost all of the BEF combined. Worse yet, the BEF was totally engaged and could spare nothing to meet the threat in their rear. They were saved only because on that same day the order was received from Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt to the panzer divisions in Army Group A, which included all of the forces facing the BEF, to halt and re-form on the Lens to Gravelines canals. That move not only stopped Guderian from going for the port but relieved the pressure on the rest of the BEF as well. This order may well have lost Germany its last chance to force a peace on Britain.
The Dunkirk evacuation
There has since been a lot of speculation as to why the decision to halt the panzers was made. No one after the war was sure why this order was given. It certainly wasn’t because the armored units needed to stop. Diaries from the battle showed that the men and equipment were capable of continuing to attack, and they were frustrated at not being able to do so. Often speculation turns to the theory that Hermann Goering wanted the glory of giving the BEF its coup de grace to go to the Luftwaffe alone. Reichsmarschall Goering was also effectively the number two authority in the Nazi government and had Hitler’s ear, so he could easily have made such a demand.
This stop order came from the highest level and may have been influenced by Hitler’s desire to seek a quick peace with Britain to leave his entire army free to deal with Russia. Planning for the attack that actually occurred the next summer was already being developed. Allowing the BEF to escape, or at least surrender rather than be destroyed, may have been a ploy used by the Führer to encourage better relations with the British. At this point, he still had hopes of joining with his fellow English Aryans in his planned war against all Slavs and other untermenschen. Or perhaps it was ordered because Hitler had experienced the mud of Flanders first-hand in World War I and was afraid that the armored elite of his army would bog down and be of no use in finishing off France. What is certain is that the decision was not caused by any action taken by the Allies nor was it at all popular with the German general staff. Whatever the reason, this mistake may well have changed the entire course of World War II.
If Dunkirk had fallen, then there was no place for the BEF and associated Allied units to retreat from. The 338,000 men evacuated would have been lost or become prisoners. The bulk of the British officer corps and noncommissioned officers, who later formed the core of the British army fighting in North Africa and landing in Normandy, would have been lost.
One of the likely effects of such a loss on Britain would have been the collapse of civilian morale. If that happened, there was a high probability that Britain would have entered into the peace talks Hitler so desired. And in those talks the British empire might well have been represented by the less-determined Clement Attlee and not the then sea lord Winston Churchill. Churchill gained his premiership partially by riding the burst of confidence that came from the successful withdrawal of the BEF. If the bulk of the Royal Army had been lost, the more timid and conciliatory Attlee might well have accepted the premiership instead. In reality, Clement Attlee was offered the leadership of Britain, but he declined in Churchill’s favor. Since Hitler publicly stated that he thought of the British as being fellow Aryans, this might well have encouraged a peace agreement or at least a British openness to a negotiated peace that preserved their empire. Avoiding a two-front war was a tenet of German strategy. That doctrine combined with Hitler’s determination to attack communist Russia suggests that the terms the Führer might have offered Britain would certainly have been very generous.
Even if the loss of the BEF had not forced a peace on Britain, it would have drastically changed how that nation could fight in the next few years. It may well have meant a complete withdrawal from the Mediterranean basin, leaving it to the Axis. Many of the men who fought and eventually stopped Rommel in North Africa were survivors of the Dunkirk evacuation. With the BEF lost, it would have been unlikely that tens of thousands of men could be spared from England to go defend the Suez Canal and Egypt. Lacking enough troops to fend off their assault, Africa might well have fallen to the Italians even without an Afrika Korps being needed.
Even more dramatically affecting the course of the entire war would have been the lack of troops available to assist Greece in 1941. When the Italians attacked Greece, the British rushed several divisions to support the successfully defending Greek army. With that support, the Italians were stopped and pushed back. The Greeks were actually on the offensive in Albania within a month of Italy’s attack. Because of the Anglo-Greek success, the German army had to intervene with significant forces. That intervention delayed the kickoff of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. In Russia, later that year, the German army’s successes slowed and then stopped as the weather worsened. Without the British forces sent to Greece, the German intervention may not have been needed, or not needed on a scale that delayed Barbarossa. It was only the early winter weather in 1941 that stopped the shift of several panzer divisions back to the attack on Moscow. With no delay and another month of good weather after the invasion had started, the Russian capital might well have fallen. The capture of Dunkirk and the BEF in 1940 might well have meant that Germany in 1941 would have been able to attack Russia earlier in the summer. They would then have had enough good weather to capture, as the Wehrmacht almost did, the political and transport center of the entire Soviet Union: Moscow. Had they done so, it would have crippled, if not outright defeated, Russia before the onset of the bitter cold. The decision to stop Guderian’s panzers short of Dunkirk may well have been a mistake that lost Germany World War II.