Military history

MIRACLE AT DUNKIRK

Ever since May 20, when Guderian’s tanks broke through to Abbeville on the sea, the British Admiralty, on the personal orders of Churchill, had been rounding up shipping for a possible evacuation of the B.E.F. and other Allied forces from the Channel ports. Noncombatant personnel and other “useless mouths” began to be ferried across the narrow sea to England at once. By May 24, as we have seen, the Belgian front to the north was near collapse, and to the south the German armor, striking up the coast from Abbeville, after taking Boulogne and enveloping Calais, had reached the Aa Canal only twenty miles from Dunkirk. In between were caught the Belgian Army, the nine divisions of the B.E.F. and ten divisions of the French First Army. Though the terrain on the southern end of the pocket was bad tank country, being crisscrossed with canals, ditches and flooded areas, Guderian’s and Reinhardt’s panzer corps already had five bridgeheads across the main barrier, the Aa Canal, between Gravelines on the sea and St.-Omer, and were poised for the knockout blow which would hammer the Allied armies against the anvil of the advancing German Sixth and Eighteenth armies pushing down from the northeast and utterly destroy them.

Suddenly on the evening of May 24 came the peremptory order from the High Command, issued at the insistence of Hitler with the prompting of Rundstedt and Goering but over the violent objections of Brauchitsch and Halder, that the tank forces should halt on the canal line and attempt no further advance. This furnished Lord Gort an unexpected and vital reprieve which he and the British Navy and Air Force made the most of and which, as Rundstedt later perceived and said, led “to one of the great turning points of the war.”

How did this inexplicable stop order on the threshold of what seemed certain to be the greatest German victory of the campaign come about? What were the reasons for it? And who was responsible? The questions have provoked one of the greatest arguments of the war, among the German generals involved and among the historians. The generals, led by Rundstedt and Halder, have put the blame exclusively on Hitler. Churchill added further fuel to the controversy in the second volume of his war memoirs by contending that the initiative for the order came from Rundstedt and not Hitler and citing as evidence the war diaries of Rundstedt’s own headquarters. In the maze of conflicting and contradictory testimony it has been difficult to ascertain the facts. In the course of preparing this chapter the author wrote General Halder himself for further elucidation and promptly received a courteous and detailed reply. On the basis of this and much other evidence now in, certain conclusions may be drawn and the controversy settled, if not conclusively, at least fairly convincingly.

As for responsibility for the famous order, Rundstedt, despite his later assertions to the contrary, must share it with Hitler. The Fuehrer visited the General’s Army Group A headquarters at Charleville on the morning of May 24. Rundstedt proposed that the panzer divisions on the canal line before Dunkirk be halted until more infantry could be brought up. * Hitler agreed, observing that the armor should be conserved for later operations against the French south of the Somme. Moreover, he declared that if the pocket in which the Allies were entrapped became too small it would hamper the activities of the Luftwaffe. Probably Rundstedt, with the approval of the Fuehrer, issued the stop order at once, for Churchill notes that the B.E.F. intercepted a German radio message giving orders to that effect at 11:42 that morning.17 Hitler and Rundstedt were at that moment in conference.

At any rate, that evening Hitler issued the formal order from OKW, both Jodl and Halder noting it in their diaries. The General Staff Chief was most unhappy.

Our left wing, consisting of armor and motorized forces [he wrote in his diary], will thus be stopped dead in its tracks on the direct orders of the Fuehrer! Finishing off the encircled enemy army is to be left to the Air Force!

This exclamation mark of contempt indicates that Goering had intervened with Hitler, and it is now known that he did. He offered to liquidate the entrapped enemy troops with his Air Force alone! The reasons for his ambitious and vain proposal were given the writer in the letter from Halder on July 19, 1957.

During the following days [i.e., after May 24] it became known that Hitler’s decision was mainly influenced by Goering. To the dictator the rapid movement of the Army, whose risks and prospects of success he did not understand because of his lack of military schooling, became almost sinister. He was constantly oppressed by a feeling of anxiety that a reversal loomed …

Goering, who knew his Fuehrer well, took advantage of this anxiety. He offered to fight the rest of the great battle of encirclement alone with his Luftwaffe, thus eliminating the risk of having to use the valuable panzer formations. He made this proposal … for a reason which was characteristic of the unscrupulously ambitious Goering. He wanted to secure for his Air Force, after the surprisingly smooth operations of the Army up to then, the decisive final act in the great battle and thus gain the glory of success before the whole world.

General Halder then tells in his letter of an account given him by Brauchitsch after a talk which the latter had with the Luftwaffe Generals Milch and Kesselring in Nuremberg jail in January 1946, in which the Air Force officers declared

that Goering at that time [May 1940] emphasized to Hitler that if the great victory in battle then developing could be claimed exclusively by the Army generals, the prestige of the Fuehrer in the German homeland would be damaged beyond repair. That could be prevented only if the Luftwaffe and not the Army carried out the decisive battle.

It is fairly clear, then, that Hitler’s idea, prompted by Goering and Rundstedt but strenuously opposed by Brauchitsch and Halder, was to let the Air Force and Bock’s Army Group B, which, without any armor to speak of, was slowly driving back the Belgians and British southwest to the Channel, mop up the enemy troops in the pocket. Rundstedt’s Army Group A, with some seven tank divisions, halted on the water lines west and south of Dunkirk, would merely stand pat and keep the enemy hemmed in. But neither the Luftwaffe nor Bock’s army group proved able to achieve their objectives. On the morning of May 26, Halder was fuming in his diary that “these orders from the top just make no sense … The tanks are stopped as if they were paralyzed.”

Finally, on the evening of May 26, Hitler rescinded the stop order and agreed that, in view of Bock’s slow advance in Belgium and the movement of transports off the coast, the armored forces could resume their advance on Dunkirk. By then it was late; the cornered enemy had had time to strengthen his defenses and behind them was beginning to slip away to sea.

We now know that there were political reasons too for Hitler’s fatal order. Halder had noted in his diary on May 25, a day, he says, that started “off with one of those painful wrangles between Brauchitsch and the Fuehrer on the next moves in the battle of encirclement,” that

now political command has formed the fixed idea that the battle of decision must not be fought on Flemish soil, but rather in northern France.

This entry puzzled me and when I wrote to the former General Staff Chief I asked him if he could recall Hitler’s political reasons for wanting to finish this battle in northern France rather than in Belgium. Halder recalled them very well. “According to my still quite lively memory,” he replied, “Hitler, in our talks at the time, supported his reasons for the stop order with two main lines of thought. The first were military reasons: the unsuitable nature of the terrain for tanks, the resulting high losses which would weaken the impending attack on the rest of France, and so on.” Then, writes Halder, the Fuehrer cited

a second reason which he knew that we, as soldiers, could not argue against since it was political and not military.

This second reason was that for political reasons he did not want the decisive final battle, which inevitably would cause great damage to the population, to take place in territory inhabited by the Flemish people. He had the intention, he said, of making an independent National Socialist region out of the territory inhabited by the German-descended Flemish, thereby binding them close to Germany. His supporters on Flemish soil had been active in this direction for a long time; he had promised them to keep their land free from the damage of war. If he did not keep this promise now, their confidence in him would be severely damaged. That would be a political disadvantage for Germany which he, as the politically responsible leader, must avoid.

Absurd? If this seems to be another of Hitler’s sudden aberrations (Halder writes that he and Brauchitsch were “not convinced by this reasoning”), other political consideration which he confided to other generals were more sane—and important. Describing after the war Hitler’s meeting with Rundstedt on May 24, General Guenther Blumentritt, the latter’s chief of operations, told Liddell Hart, the British military writer:

Hitler was in very good humor … and gave us his opinion that the war would be finished in six weeks. After that he wished to conclude a reasonable peace with France and then the way would be free for an agreement with Britain …

He then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world … He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany’s position on the continent. The return of Germany’s colonies would be desirable but not essential … He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honor to accept.18

Such thoughts Hitler was to express often during the next few weeks to his generals, to Ciano and Mussolini and finally in public. Ciano was astonished a month later to find the Nazi dictator, then at the zenith of his success, harping about the importance of maintaining the British Empire as “a factor in world, equilibrium,”19 and on July 13 Halder, in his diary, described the Fuehrer as sorely puzzled over Britain’s failure to accept peace. To bring England to her knees by force, he told his generals that day, “would not benefit Germany … only Japan, the United States and others.”

It may be, then, though some doubt it, that Hitler restrained his armored forces before Dunkirk in order to spare Britain a bitter humiliation and thereby facilitate a peace settlement. It would have to be, as he said, a peace in which the British left Germany free to turn once more eastward, this time against Russia. London would have to recognize, as he also said, the Third Reich’s domination of the Continent. For the next couple of months Hitler would be confident that such a peace was within his grasp. No more now than in all the years before did he comprehend the character of the British nation or the kind of world its leaders and its people were determined to fight for—to the end.

Nor did he and his generals, ignorant of the sea as they were—and remained—dream that the sea-minded British could evacuate a third of a million men from a small battered port and from the exposed beaches right under their noses.

At three minutes before seven on the evening of May 26, shortly after Hitler’s stop order had been canceled, the British Admiralty signaled the beginning of “Operation Dynamo,” as the Dunkirk evacuation was called. That night the German armor resumed its attack on the port from the west and south, but now the panzers found it hard going. Lord Gort had had time to deploy against them three infantry divisions with heavy artillery support. The tanks made little progress. In the meantime the evacuation began. An armada of 850 vessels of all sizes, shapes and methods of propulsion, from cruisers and destroyers to small sailboats and Dutch skoots, many of them manned by civilian volunteers from the English coastal towns, converged on Dunkirk. The first day, May 27, they took off 7,669 troops; the next day, 17,804; the following day, 47,310; and on May 30, 53,823, for a total of 126,606 during the first four days. This was far more than the Admiralty had hoped to get out. When the operation began it counted on evacuating only about 45,000 men in the two days’ time it then thought it would have.

It was not until this fourth day of Operation Dynamo, on May 30, that the German High Command woke up to what was happening. For four days the communiqués of OKW had been reiterating that the encircled enemy armies were doomed. A communiqué of May 29, which I noted in my diary, stated flatly: “The fate of the French army in Artois is sealed … The British army, which has been compressed into the territory … around Dunkirk, is also going to its destruction before our concentric attack.”

But it wasn’t; it was going to sea. Without its heavy arms and equipment, to be sure, but with the certainty that the men would live to fight another day.

As late as the morning of May 30, Halder confided confidentially in his diary that “the disintegration of the enemy which we have encircled continues.” Some of the British, he conceded, were “fighting with tooth and nail:” the others were “fleeing to the coast and trying to get across the Channel on anything that floats. Le Débâcle,” he concluded, alluding to Zola’s famous novel of the French collapse in the Franco–Prussian War.

By afternoon, after a session with Brauchitsch, the General Staff Chief had awakened to the significance of the swarms of miserable little boats on which the British were fleeing.

Brauchitsch is angry … The pocket would have been closed at the coast if only our armor had not been held back. The bad weather has grounded the Luftwaffe and we must now stand by and watch countless thousands of the enemy get away to England right under our noses.

That was, in fact, what they watched. Despite increased pressure which was immediately applied by the Germans on all sides of the pocket, the British lines held and more troops were evacuated. The next day, May 31, was the biggest day of all. Some 68,000 men were embarked for England, a third of them from the beaches, the rest from the Dunkirk harbor. A total of 194,620 men had now been taken out, more than four times the number originally hoped for.

Where was the famed Luftwaffe? Part of the time, as Halder noted, it was grounded by bad weather. The rest of the time it encountered unexpected opposition from the Royal Air Force, which from bases just across the Channel successfully challenged it for the first time.* Though outnumbered, the new British Spitfires proved more than a match for the Messerschmitts and they mowed down the cumbersome German bombers. On a few occasions Goering’s planes arrived over Dunkirk between British sorties and did such extensive damage to the port that for a time it was unusable and the troops had to be lifted exclusively from the beaches. The Luftwaffe also pressed several strong attacks on the shipping and accounted for most of the 243—out of 861—vessels sunk. But it failed to achieve what Goering had promised Hitler: the annihilation of the B.E.F. On June 1, when it carried out its heaviest attack (and suffered its heaviest losses—each side lost thirty planes), sinking three British destroyers and a number of small transports, the second-highest day’s total was evacuated—64,429 men. By dawn of the next day, only 4,000 British troops remained in the perimeter, protected by 100,000 French who now manned the defenses.

Medium German artillery had in the meantime come within range and daytime evacuation operations had to be abandoned. The Luftwaffe at that time did not operate after dark and during the nights of June 2 and 3 the remainder of the B.E.F. and 60,000 French troops were successfully brought out. Dunkirk, still defended stubbornly by 40,000 French soldiers, held out until the morning of June 4. By that day 338,226 British and French soldiers had escaped the German clutches. They were no longer an army; most of them, understandably, were for the moment in a pitiful shape. But they were battle-tried; they knew that if properly armed and adequately covered from the air they could stand up to the Germans. Most of them, when the balance in armament was achieved, would prove it—and on beaches not far down the Channel coast from where they had been rescued.

A deliverance Dunkirk was to the British. But Churchill reminded them in the House on June 4 that “wars are not won by evacuations.” The predicament of Great Britain was indeed grim, more dangerous than it had been since the Norman landings nearly a millennium before. It had no army to defend the islands. The Air Force had been greatly weakened in France. Only the Navy remained, and the Norwegian campaign had shown how vulnerable the big fighting ships were to land-based aircraft. Now the Luftwaffe bombers were based but five or ten minutes away across the narrow Channel. France, to be sure, still held out below the Somme and the Aisne. But its best troops and armament had been lost in Belgium and in northern France, its small and obsolescent Air Force had been largely destroyed, and its two most illustrious generals, Marshal Pétain and General Weygand, who now began to dominate the shaky government, had no more stomach for battle against such a superior foe.

These dismal facts were very much on the mind of Winston Churchill when he rose in the House of Commons on June 4, 1940, while the last transports from Dunkirk were being unloaded, determined, as he wrote later, to show not only his own people but the world—and especially the U.S.A.—“that our resolve to fight on was based on serious grounds.” It was on this occasion that he uttered his famous peroration, which will be long remembered and will surely rank with the greatest ever made down the ages:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

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