The escape of the British Expeditionary Force in 1940 was largely due to Hitler’s personal intervention. After his tanks had overrun the north of France and cut off the British army from its base, Hitler held them up just as they were about to sweep into Dunkirk – which was the last remaining port of escape left open to the British. At that moment the bulk of the B.E.F. was still many miles distant from the port. But Hitler kept his tanks halted for three days.
His action preserved the British forces when nothing else could have saved them. By making it possible for them to escape he enabled them to rally in England, continue the war, and man the coasts to defy the threat of invasion. Thereby he produced his own ultimate downfall, and Germany’s five years later. Acutely aware of the narrowness of the escape but ignorant of its cause, the British people spoke of the miracle of Dunkirk.
After cutting the lines of supply to the Allied left wing in Belgium, Guderian’s panzer corps had reached the sea near Abbeville on the 20th. Then he wheeled north, heading for the Channel ports and the rear of the British army – which was still in Belgium, facing the frontal advance of Bock’s infantry forces. On Guderian’s right in this northward drive was Reinhardt’s panzer corps, which was also part of the Kleist’s group.
On the 22nd, Boulogne was isolated by his advance, and on the next day Calais. This stride brought him to Gravelines, barely ten miles from Dunkirk – the British Expeditionary Force’s last remaining port of escape. Reinhardt’s panzer corps also arrived on the canal line Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. But there the continuation of the drive was stopped by orders from above. The panzer leaders were told to hold their forces back behind the line of the canal. They bombarded their superiors with urgent queries and protests, but were told that it was the Fuhrer’s personal order.
Before probing deeper into the roots of that saving intervention let us see what was happening on the British side, and follow the course of that grand-scale escape.
On the 16th General Lord Gort, the Commander-in-Chief, brought the B.E.F. a step back from its advanced line in front of Brussels. But before it arrived in its new position on the Scheldt, that position had been undermined by Guderian cutting the B.E.F.’s communications far to the south. On the 19th the Cabinet heard that Gort was examining a possible withdrawal towards Dunkirk if that were forced upon him. The Cabinet, however, sent him orders to march south into France and force his way through the German net that had been flung across his rear – though they were told that he had only four days’ supplies and ammunition sufficient for one battle.
These instructions accorded with the new plan which Gamelin, the French Commander-in-Chief, had belatedly made and issued that morning. In the evening Gamelin was sacked and replaced by Weygand, whose first act was to cancel Gamelin’s order, while he studied the situation. After three days’ further delay he produced a plan similar to his predecessor’s. It proved no more than a paper plan.
Meanwhile Gort, though arguing that the Cabinet’s instructions were impracticable, had tried an attack southward from Arras with two of his thirteen divisions and the only tank brigade that had been sent to France. When this counterstrike was launched on the 21st it had boiled down to an advance by two weak tank battalions followed by two infantry battalions. The tanks made some progress but were not backed up, the infantry being shaken by dive-bombing. The neighbouring French First Army was to have cooperated with two of its thirteen divisions, but its actual contribution was slight. During these days the French were repeatedly paralysed by the moral effect of the German dive-bombers and the swift manoeuvring tanks.
It is remarkable, however, what a disturbing effect this little armoured counterstroke had on some of the German higher commanders. For a moment it led them to think of stopping the advance of their own tank spearheads. Rundstedt himself described it as a critical moment, saying:
For a short time, it was feared that our armoured divisions would be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up to support them.
Such an effect showed what a vital difference to the issue might have been made if this British riposte had been made with two armoured divisions instead of merely two tank battalions.
After the flash-in-the-pan at Arras the Allied armies in the north made no further effort to break out of the trap, while the belated offensive from the south that Weygand planned was so feeble as to be almost farcical. It was easily baulked by the barricade which the German motorised divisions had quickly built up along the Somme, to keep out interference, while the panzer divisions drove northward to close the trap. With such slow-motion forces as Weygand commanded, his grandiloquent orders had no more chance of practical effect than Churchill’s adjurations to the armies to cast away the idea of resisting attack behind concrete lines or natural obstacles and regain the mastery by furious, unrelenting assault.
Whilst the highest circles continued to debate impracticable plans, the cut-off armies in the north were falling back on a slant closer to the coast. They were under increasing frontal pressure from Bock’s infantry armies – though they were spared a deadly stab in the back from the panzer forces.
On the 24th Weygand bitterly complained that the British Army had carried out, on its own initiative, a retreat of twenty-five miles towards the ports at a time when our troops moving up from the south are gaining ground towards the north, where they were to meet their allies. In fact, the French troops from the south had made no perceptible progress and the British were not yet retreating – Weygand’s words merely showed the state of unreality in which he was living.
But on the evening of the 25th Gort took the definite decision to retreat to the sea, at Dunkirk. Forty-eight hours earlier, the German panzer forces had already arrived on the canal line only ten miles from the port. On the 26th the British Cabinet allowed the War Office to send him a telegram approving his step and authorised him to carry out such a retirement. Next day a further telegram told him to evacuate his force by sea.
That same day the Belgian Army’s line cracked in the centre under Bock’s attack, and no reserves were left at hand to fill the gap. King Leopold had already sent repeated warnings to Churchill through Admiral Keyes, that the situation was becoming hopeless. Now, at a stroke, it was so. Most of Belgium had already been overrun and the army had its back close to the sea, penned in a narrow strip of land that was packed with civilian refugees. So, in the late afternoon the King decided to sue for armistice- and ceasefire was sounded early the next morning.
The Belgians’ surrender increased the danger that the B.E.F. would be cut off before it could reach Dunkirk. Churchill had just sent King Leopold an appeal to hold on, which he privately described to Gort as asking them to sacrifice themselves for us. It is understandable that the encircled Belgians already aware that the B.E.F. was preparing to evacuate, did not see that appeal in the same light as Churchill. Nor was King Leopold willing to follow Churchill’s advice that he should himself escape by aeroplane before too late. The King felt that he must stay with his Army and people. His decision may have been unwise in the long view, but in the circumstances of the time it was an honourable choice. Churchill’s subsequent criticisms of it were hardly fair, while the violent denunciations made by the French Prime Minister and press were grossly unjust – considering the way that the Belgian downfall had been produced by the collapse of the French defence on the Meuse.
The British retreat to the coast now became a race to re-embark before the German trap closed – notwithstanding bitter French protests and reproaches. It was fortunate that preparatory measures had begun in England a week before – although on a different assumption. On the 20th Churchill had approved steps to assemble a large number of small vessels in readiness to proceed to ports and inlets on the French coast, with the idea that they might help in rescuing bits of the B.E.F. that might be cut off as it tried to push south into France, under the existing plan. The Admiralty lost no time in preparing. Admiral Ramsay, commanding at Dover, had been placed in operational control on the previous day, the 19th. A number of ferry-craft, naval drifters and small coasters were at once collected for what was called Operation Dynamo. From Harwich round to Weymouth, sea transport officers were directed to list all ships up to a thousand tons.
In the days that followed the situation became rapidly worse, and it was soon clear to the Admiralty that Dunkirk would be the only possible route of evacuation. Dynamo was put into operation on the afternoon of the 26th – twenty-four hours before the Belgian appeal for an armistice, and also before the Cabinet had authorised the evacuation.
At first it was not expected that more than a small fraction of the B.E.F. could be saved. The Admiralty told Ramsay to aim at bringing away 45,000 within two days, and that it was probable the enemy would by then have made further evacuation impossible. Actually, only 25,000 were landed in England by the night of the 28th. It was fortunate that the period of grace proved considerably longer.
For the first five days the rate of evacuation was restricted by an insufficiency of small boats to carry troops from the beaches to the ships waiting offshore. This need, though pointed out by Ramsay originally, had not been adequately met. But the Admiralty now made more extensive efforts to provide them and to man them, the naval personnel being reinforced by a host of civilian volunteers – fishermen, lifeboatmen, yachtsmen, and others who had some experience in handling boats. Ramsay recorded that one of the best performances was that of the crew of e fire-float Massey Shaw from the London Fire Brigade.
At first, too, there was much confusion on the beaches, owing to the disorganised state of the troops waiting to embark – at that time largely base personnel. Ramsay considered that it was aggravated by the fact that Army officers’ uniform is indistinguishable from that of other ranks, and found that the appearance of Naval officers in their unmistakable uniforms, helped to restore order . . . Later on, when troops of fighting formations reached the beaches these difficulties disappeared.
The first heavy air attack came on the evening of the 29th and it was only by good fortune that the vital Dunkirk Harbour channel was not blocked by sinking ships at this early date. Its preservation was the more important because the majority of the troops were embarked from the harbour and less than one-third from the beaches.
In the next three days the air attacks increased and on June 2 daylight evacuation had to be suspended. The fighters of the R.A.F. from airfields in southern England, did their utmost to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, but, being outnumbered and unable to stay long over the area because of the distance, they could not maintain anything like adequate cover. The oft-repeated bombing attacks were a severe strain on the troops waiting on the beaches though the soft sand blanketed the effects. Far more material damage was done over the sea where the losses included six destroyers, eight personnel ships, and over two hundred small craft- out of a total 860 British and Allied vessels of all sizes employed in the evacuation. It was very lucky that the German Navy made very little attempt to interfere, either with U-boats or E-boats. Happily, too, the evacuation was favoured by extremely good weather.
By May 30, 126,000 troops had been evacuated, while all the rest of the B.E.F. had arrived in the Dunkirk bridgehead – except for fragments that were cut off during the retreat. The defence of the bridgehead against the enemy’s encircling advance on land now became much firmer in consequence. The Germans had missed their opportunity.
Unhappily the French higher commanders in Belgium, still conforming to Weygand’s impossible plan, had hesitated to retreat to the sea and to do so as quickly as possible along with the British. As a result of that delay nearly half of what left of the French First Army had been cut off on the 28th near Lille and were forced to surrender on the 31st. Their gallant three-day stand, however, helped the escape of the remainder, as well as the British.
By midnight on June 2 the British rear-guard embarked and the evacuation of the B.E.F. was complete-224,000 men had been safely brought away, and only some 2,000 were lost in ships sunk en-route to England. Some 95,000 Allied troops, mainly French, had also been evacuated. On the next night every effort was made to bring away the remaining Frenchmen, despite increasing difficulties, and 26,000 more were saved. Unfortunately, a few thousand of the rear guard were left – and this left sore feelings in France.
By morning of the 4th when the operation was broken off, a total of 338,000 British and Allied troops had been landed in England. It was an amazing result compared with earlier expectations, and a grand performance on the part of the Navy.
At the same time, it is evident that the preservation of the B.E, F. to fight another day would have been impossible without Hitler’s action in halting Kleist’s panzer forces outside Dunkirk twelve days before, on May 24.
At that moment there was only one British battalion covering the twenty-mile stretch of the Aa between Gravelines and St Omer, and for a further sixty miles inland the canal line was little better defended. Many of the bridges were not yet blown up, or even prepared for demolition. Thus, the German panzer troops had no difficulty in gaining bridgeheads over the canal at a number of places on May 23 – and it was as Gort said in his Despatch, the only anti-tank obstacle on this flank. Having crossed it, there was nothing to hold them up – and stop them establishing themselves astride the B.E.F. lines of retreat to Dunkirk- except the halt that Hitler imposed.
It is clear, however, that Hitler had been in a highly strung and jumpy state ever since the breakthrough into France. The extraordinary easiness of their advance, the lack of resistance his armies had met, had made him uneasy – it seemed too good to be true. The effects can be followed in the diary that was kept by Halder, the Chief of the General Staff. On the 17th, the day after the French defence behind the Meuse had dramatically collapsed, Halder noted:
Rather unpleasant day. The Fuhrer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he is afraid to take any chances and so would pull the reins on us.
That was the day when Guderian was suddenly pulled up when in full stride for the sea.
Next day, Halder noted: Every hour is precious . . .Fuhrer HQ sees it quite differently . . . Unaccountably keeps worrying about the south flank. He rages and screams that we are on the best way to ruin the whole campaign.
Not until late that evening, when Halder was able to assure him that, follow-up infantry was wheeling into line along the Aisne as a flank shield, did Hitler agree to let the panzer forces sweep on.
Two days later these reached the coast, cutting the communications of the Allied armies in Belgium. That brilliant success seems to have temporarily drowned Hitler’s doubts. But they revived as his panzer forces swung northward, especially after the momentary alarm caused by the British tank counterattack from Arras, slight as this was. His panzer forces, which he regarded as so precious, were now heading towards the zone occupied by the British, whom he looked on as particularly tough opponents. At the same time, he was uneasy as to what the French in the south might be planning.
On the surface it appears to have been unlucky for Hitler that he chose to visit Rundstedt’s headquarters on the morning of May 24, a crucial moment. For Rundstedt was a wary strategist, careful to take full account of unfavourable factors and avoid erring on the side of optimism. For that reason, he was often a good corrective to Hitler, by providing a coolly balanced estimate – but it did not benefit German chances on this occasion. In his review of the situation he dwelt on the way that the tank strength had been reduced in the long and rapid drive, and pointed out the possibility of having to meet attacks from the north and south, particularly the latter.
Since he had, the night before, received orders from Brauchitsch, the Army Commander-in-Chief, that the completion of the encirclement in the north was to be handed over to Bock, it was the more natural that he should be thinking of the next phase in the south.
Moreover, Rundstedt’s headquarters were still at Charleville, near Sedan – close behind the Aisne, and in the centre of the German front facing south. That location fostered a tendency to focus on what was in front and give less attention by what was happening on the extreme right flank, where victory seemed to be assured. Dunkirk came only into the corner of his eye.
Hitler agreed entirely with Rundstedt’s reservations and went on to emphasise the paramount necessity of conserving the panzer force for future operations,
On his return to his own headquarters in the afternoon, he sent for the Commander-in-Chief. It was a very unpleasant interview, and ended in Hitler giving a definite halt order –
Halder that evening mournfully summarised its effect in his diary:
The left wing, consisting of armoured and motorised forces, which has no enemy before it, will thus be stopped in its tracks upon direct orders of the Fuhrer, finishing off the encircled enemy army is to be left to the Luftwaffe!
Was Hitler’s order inspired by Rundstedt? If Hitler had felt that his halt order was due to Rundstedt’s influence, he would almost certainly have mentioned it, after the British escape, among the excuses he gave for his decision, for he was very apt to blame others for any mistakes. Yet in this case there is no trace of his ever having mentioned, in the course of his subsequent explanations, Rundstedt’s opinion as a factor. Such negative evidence is as significant as any.
It seems more likely that Hitler went to Rundstedt’s headquarters in the hope of finding further justification for his own doubts and for the change of plan he wanted to impose on Brauchitsch and Halder. In so far as it was prompted by anyone else, the initial influence probably came from Keitel and Jodl, the two chief military members of his own staff. There is particular significance in the evidence of General Warlimont, who was in close touch with Jodl at the time. Astonished on hearing a rumour of the halt order, he went to ask Jodl about it:
Jodl confirmed that the order had been given, showing himself rather impatient about my enquiries. He himself took the same stand as Hitler, emphasising that the personal experience that not only Hitler but also Keitel and himself had in Flanders during the First World War proved beyond doubt that armour could not operate in the Flanders marshes, or at any rate not without heavy losses – and such losses could be borne in view of the already reduced strength of the panzer corps and their tasks in the impending second stage of the offensive in France.
Warlimont added that if the initiative for the halt order had come from Rundstedt, he and the others at O.K.W. would have heard of it; and that Jodl, who was on the defensive about the decision, certainly would not have failed to point out to Field Marshall von Rundstedt as the one who had initiated or at least supported the order – as that would have silenced criticism because of Rundstedt’s undisputed authority in operational matters among all senior general staff officers’:
One other reason, however, for the halt order was revealed to me at the time- that Goring appeared and reassured the Fuhrer that his air force would accomplish the rest of the encirclement by closing the sea side of the pocket from the air. He certainly overrated the effectiveness of his own branch.
This statement of Warlimont’s gains significance when related to the last sentence in Hallder’s diary note of the 24th, already quoted. Moreover, Guderian stated that the order came down to him from Kleist, with the words:
Dunkirk is to be left to the Luftwaffe. If the conquest of Calais should raise difficulties that fortress likewise is to be left to the Luftwaffe.
Guderian remarked: I think that it was the vanity of Goring which caused that fateful decision of Hitler’s.
At the same time there is evidence that even the Luftwaffe was not used as fully or as vigorously as it could have been – and some of the air chiefs say that Hitler put the brake on again here.
All this caused the higher circles to suspect a political motive behind Hitler’s military reasons. Blumentritt, who was Rundstedt’s operations planner, connected it with the surprising way that Hitler had talked when visiting their headquarters:
Hitler was in very good humour, he admitted the course of the campaign had been a decided miracle, and gave us the 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 civilisation that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of its Empire had been achieved by means that were often harsh but ‘where there is planning, there are shavings flying’. He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church – saying they were both essential, elements of stability in 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 lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer support to Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere. He remarked that the colonies were primarily a matter of prestige, since they could not be held in war, and few Germans could settle in the tropics.
He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.
In subsequent reflection on the course of events, Blumentritt’s thoughts often reverted to this conversation. He felt that the halt had been called for more than military reasons, and that it was part of a political scheme to make peace easier to reach. If the B.E.F. had been captured at Dunkirk, the British might have felt that their honour had suffered a stain which they must wipe out. By letting it escape Hitler hoped to conciliate them.
Since this account comes from generals who were highly critical of Hitler, and admit that they themselves wanted to finish off the British Army, it is of the more significance. Their account of Hitler’s talks at the time of Dunkirk fits in with much that he himself wrote earlier in Mein Kampf-and it is remarkable how closely he followed his own testament in other respects. There were elements in his make-up which suggest that he had a mixed love-hate feeling towards Britain. The trend of his talk about Britain at this time is also recorded in the diaries of Ciano and Halder.
Hitler’s character was of such complexity that no simple explanation is likely to be true. It is far more probable that his decision was woven of several threads. Three are visible- his desire to conserve tank strength for the next stroke; his long-standing fear of marshy Flanders; and Goring’s claims for the Luftwaffe. But it is likely that some political thread was interwoven with these military ones in the mind of a man who has a bent for political strategy and so many twists in his thought.
By courtesy: History of the Second World War by B.H. Liddell Hart, G.P. Putnam’s Sons