Chapter Nine

Dunkirk – Churchill’s Miracle

Belatedly the French 3rd Light Mechanised Division went into action on 23 May only to be pounded to a halt by German dive-bombers and artillery fire. The French crews abandoned their stricken vehicles and fled. That evening the British left Arras, withdrawing 18 miles north to the canal line running through La Bassée and Bethune, to Gravelines on the coast south-west of Dunkirk. Despite this the fighting at Arras enabled four British divisions and most of the French 1st Army to withdraw toward the coast in reasonably good order.

The lumbering British Matilda II had proved a nasty shock for the Germans. Despite being unavailable in sufficient numbers, lacking adequate infantry and artillery support and no air cover, their measure of success had been due to the tough 78mm armour, which proved invulnerable to the standard German 37mm anti-tank gun.

Remarkably during the fighting around Arras against the British the Germans lost 4 times the number of casualties they had suffered during the actual breakthrough into France, consisting of 89 dead, 116 wounded and 173 missing. On 27 May Rommel gained the distinction of becoming the first German divisional commander in France to receive the Knight’s Cross.

In some quarters the British attack at Arras was seen as a waste of dwindling resources, ill conceived, poorly executed and achieving little result. This was not the case, as the Germans were alarmed at the prospect of their panzer divisions being cut off before their infantry could reach them. While the Germans dismissed all the French counterattacks, the British effort at Arras caused Generals Kluge and Kleist to pause. Guderian’s drive on Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk was slowed. This ripple of unease passed up the chain of command to Hitler who halted his forces for two crucial days allowing the British time to prepare their desperate rearguard defences at Dunkirk.

Afterwards General von Rundstedt paid British achievements at Arras the highest compliment saying, ‘A critical moment in the drive came just as my forces had reached the Channel. it was caused by a British counter-strike southwards from Arras on May 21st. For a short time it was feared that our armoured divisions would be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up and support them. None of the French counterattacks carried any threat such as this one did.’ This was praise indeed for the brave British efforts.

Although by 24 May the 6th Panzer Division was poised to attack Cassel, HQ of the BEF, Hitler ordered a halt thereby saving the BEF from total destruction. When the attack did come the British 145th infantry Brigade was as prepared as it could be, and only when they attempted to retreat was the garrison lost. First Lieutenant Bake and his Czech tanks were involved in stopping the British tanks breaking out from Cassel in the direction of Waten.

Circling south, Bake caught them in the flank and his sixteen tanks opened fire at once. The first two British tanks were blown to pieces followed by six others. The Germans then pressed home their attack and soon Bake’s tank had accounted for another three British tanks. When the fighting came to a stop 50 tanks had been destroyed, several hundred British soldiers killed and 2,000 captured. in total Bake’s division took 60 tanks, 5 armoured cars, 10 artillery pieces and 11 anti-tank guns, 30 motor cars and 233 trucks. The 6th Panzer Division then pursued the retreating French. Under attack by the 10th Panzer Division and the Luftwaffe’s Stukas the port of Calais surrendered on 26 May and the Germans took 20,000 prisoners, 3,500 of them British.

It was Hitler’s ‘Halt Order’ at Dunkirk that marred his incredibly successful Blitzkrieg against France and prevented the BEF from being annihilated. Operation Dynamo between 27 May and 4 June 1940 scooped 224,685 British soldiers and another 141,445 Allied troops from the German net. France had yet to surrender on the 21st, so for most evacuated French troops there seemed little point in remaining in Britain.

Indeed many were given no choice in the matter and were ferried home via Normandy or Morocco to help stabilise the situation on the Seine, Lower Normandy and the Marne. Not all were keen to go, as it was apparent that France could not hold out much longer, but by the end of June 1940 of those rescued only 45,000 remained in Britain.

However there were sound strategic reasons for Hitler’s actions. He was worried about protecting his southern flank and seizing Paris, after all his main purpose was the defeat of France. With her armies scattered France signed an armistice on 22 June and Hitler told General von Kleist that, ‘They [Britain] will not come back in this war.’

In terms of saving manpower the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk was a miracle; in terms of equipment losses it was a disaster of the first magnitude. Hitler captured almost every tank the British Army possessed and most of its motor transport. His haul included 600 tanks, 75,000 motor vehicles, 1,200 field and heavy guns, 1,350 anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, 6,400 anti-tank rifles, 11,000 machine guns, 90,000 rifles and 7,000 tons of ammunition. By the summer of 1940, Britain’s armoured units possessed just 240 medium tanks, 108 cruiser tanks and 514 largely useless light tanks.

The British Army also found itself bereft of transport. When the war started the British Army had approximately 85,000 motor vehicles. The bulk of these had been shipped to France with the BEF but just over 5,000 were retrieved during the evacuation and the rest were left behind. More could have been saved but most were often abandoned prematurely, for example the Army had over 10,000 light lorries but over half were abandoned.

Many British officers were dismayed at having to abandon their equipment. Lieutenant Colonel Brian Horrocks recalled,

It was impossible to evacuate our heavy weapons and transport, so as soon as we got inside the [Dunkirk] bridgehead we were ordered to immobilise our vehicles and move on foot. The drivers hated doing this because in war each driver develops a feeling of affection for his own lorry or truck. it was a horrible sight – thousands of abandoned vehicles, carriers, guns and pieces of military equipment of all sorts. it was a graveyard of gear.

During the Dunkirk evacuation the RAF flew 3,561 sorties, of which 2,739 were by Fighter Command. Documents captured after the war indicate that the Luftwaffe lost 132 aircraft despite the RAF’s grandiose claims of 3 times this number. During the Battle for France no Spitfires had been deployed across the Channel and during the evacuation Spitfire pilots were ordered not to over fly the French coast for fear of the aircraft falling into enemy hands.

The Dunkirk evacuation cost the RAF 100 fighters and about 80 pilots, which left Fighter Command with about 470 serviceable aircraft in early June and of these just 330 were Hurricanes and Spitfires. There were only 36 more aircraft in immediate reserve. The RAF lost over 1,000 aircraft over Norway and France, half of which were fighters. This was two-thirds of all aircraft delivered to the RAF since the war commenced. An even greater blow was the loss of so many aircrew. The Battle of France cost a quarter of Fighter Command’s strength amounting to nearly 200 Hurricanes.

Italian leader Benito Mussolini opportunistically moved to profit from France’s plight and his tanks were soon attacking his helpless and distracted neighbour. Belatedly he cynically threw thirty-two divisions at the French frontier on 11 June 1940, but they made practically no impression against just six French divisions. In retaliation the French Navy bombarded Genoa’s factories, oil tanks and refineries, though the dithering French High Command forbade further offensive operations against Italy.

Although Mussolini’s bombers ranged as far as the Loire Valley, on the ground the Italian Blitzkrieg failed to materialise. Only when the German panzers came sweeping down the Rhone Valley could Mussolini claim victory over the French Army. From this poor performance Hitler and his generals must have known that their ally’s tanks were unlikely to make much impression against the British in Egypt.

On 13 June ten RAF Battles strafed German troops along the banks of the Seine. in addition two formations of thirty-eight aircraft bombed German positions by the Marne and lost six aircraft to 88mm flak guns. It was clear that this was the swansong of the British bomber force in France. The order was given for all remaining serviceable bombers to return to Britain 48 hours later.

British Secretary of State for War Anthony Eden visited General Thorne on 29 June, and was shocked by his complete lack of anti-tank guns. Once informed, Churchill summoned Thorne to Chequers for lunch the following day, where the General pointed out that 3rd Division was his only fully trained unit and that it was to be deployed to Northern Ireland. Britain was completely exposed to the threat of German invasion.


A solitary French or Belgian soldier watches defeated British troops as they trudge through the streets of the town of Dunkirk in the hope of being evacuated. Note the burnt out vehicle on the right, which appears to have a searchlight mounted in it. Once the Germans had broken through the Allies’ defences in north-eastern France it became imperative that the BEF escape entrapment as swiftly as possible or face complete annihilation.


The British 1st Tank Brigade and the 1st Armoured Division lost all their tanks in France. These two shots show British Mk VIs abandoned on the beaches at Dunkirk. Following the 1940 French campaign this inadequate light tank was relegated to training duties.



More abandoned British equipment, this time two columns of motorbikes and sidecars. it looks like their former owners set them alight to prevent them being reused by the Germans.


Yet more debris left on the beaches of Dunkirk. As well as all their tanks the British Army lost tens of thousands of motor vehicles in France.


A German military film crew record the humiliation of the British, Belgian and French armies at Dunkirk.


This armoured car is a French Panhard. While elements of the French armoured and mechanised units fought bravely, they were often poorly led and motivated. France’s defensive strategy was flawed from the start.


This is a very poor quality photograph, but it shows the face of defeat on these two captured British soldiers.


More Germans savour the taste of victory by sightseeing on the beaches of Dunkirk. Nonetheless almost 225,000 British troops escaped to fight another day. Well over 140,000 French soldiers were also evacuated, but most of them returned home to France almost immediately.


This camouflaged R-35 is engaging targets in the French Alps. On 10 June 1940 the French Army also found itself at war with the Italians when Mussolini attacked southern France.


Italian troops going off to war. A high-command communiqué issued from Rome on 14 June 1940 said that French and Italian troops had effected contact on the Alpine frontier. France had just six divisions available to resist thirty-two Italian divisions.


Following Dunkirk and once it became clear that the French Army had all but collapsed, the remaining BEF beat a hasty retreat to France’s other Channel ports. These lorries were photographed in late June 1940 on the quayside at Cherbourg – the embarkation process looks well ordered and there is no sign of panic. The British 1st Armoured Division withdrew to the port with Rommel hot on its heels.


More British troops waiting patiently to be shipped back to Britain and safety. The 51st Highland Division were not so lucky and were forced to surrender to Rommel west of Dieppe.

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