WWII in the European theatre was almost over before it began. If I were to ask you to identify the turning point of the European theatre you would likely choose the Battle of Stalingrad or, possibly, the Allies’ successful landing in Normandy on D Day. Good choices, and most historians would likely agree, but equally crucial was the rescue operation at Dunkirk in May-June of 1940. The Dunkirk Evacuation, aka The Miracle of Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo, took place from May 26 – June 4, 1940. (The code name was derived from the dynamo room in naval headquarters in the basement of Dover Castle that supplied electricity to the building.)
The lightning German advance through the Low Countries and Belgium in early 1940 had surprised everyone, and the entire British Expeditionary Force (“BEF”), as well as substantial numbers of French, Canadian and Belgian troops, was trapped at the nondescript little beach town of Dunkirk. Britain had deployed the BEF to defend France after the Germans had blitzed through Poland in a matter of weeks in September, 1939 and then Belgium and the Netherlands in May, 1940. Outnumbered and cut off with little hope of rescue it appeared that the entire force would be killed or captured. Had that happened, the British, French and Canadian armies would have been severely hampered prospectively, and the entire course of the war would have been changed. (Remember, the US had not yet entered the War.) As the feisty British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill famously put it: “the entire root and core and brain of the British Army” was in grave peril. Instead, the British people, civilians as well as military, rose to the occasion big-time and “saved the day” in dramatic fashion.
How did this near disaster happen? In a nutshell, the Germans outfoxed the Allies. In the 1930s the French had constructed the much-ballyhooed Maginot Line. Conceived by French Minister of War Andre Maginot, for whom it was named, basically, the ML was a series of fortifications along the French-German border designed to deter Germany from invading France, especially in a surprise attack. The ML was state of the art in many ways, but it had two glaring weaknesses: (1) in deference to Belgium’s neutrality, the French had not extended it through that country; and (2) the ML fortifications, mostly concrete bunkers, were static; they were designed to repel an attack solely from the east and were useless otherwise. The theory was that Germany would have to bypass the ML and attack through Belgium through the Ardennes Forest, which was thought to be impenetrable to tanks. Consequently, the area was sparsely defended. If Germany were to swing farther north, the Allies would have plenty of time to respond. Somehow, however, the German Army and its panzers managed to get through the Ardennes, overwhelm the light defenses in the area and split the Allies’ army. The forces to the south were mostly killed or captured. Most of those who were captured spent the remainder of the war in prisoner-of-war or labor camps. The forces to the north were pushed to Dunkirk where they were trapped with their backs to the sea and nowhere to go.
At one point, the Germans were closing in on the trapped Allies, and it seemed that victory was well within their grasp. Yet, the Germans halted their advance. The enduring question is why? One theory is that the German Army’s commander, Gerd von Runstedt, was concerned about (a) risking his panzers on the marshy ground, (b) over- extending his supply lines, and (c) exposing his flanks to a counterattack. Another is that Herman Goring, ever the overly optimistic glory-hound, convinced Hitler that his Luftwaffe could finish off the Allies without the army’s assistance. In any event Hitler had the army stand down and let Goring have his way.
That proved to be a crucial mistake. As it turned out, (a) the German pilots were worn out after the prolonged fighting to that point, and (b) more significantly, the planes’ effectiveness was dependent on satisfactory weather, and the weather did not cooperate.
The evacuation was very chaotic. The Brits did not have enough naval vessels to accommodate all the trapped soldiers, so they scrounged whatever non-military small craft they could. Even private boats, manned by civilians, participated in the rescue operation, crossing the Channel in very rough weather. All in all some 700 vessels of various types participated, most of which were non-military. Meanwhile, the RAF engaged the Luftwaffe in the skies to try to protect the evacuees.
The evacuation went on for nine days. Some 300,000 troops were rescued, but tens of thousands were killed or captured. Approximately, 150 planes were lost along with some two dozen naval ships. In addition, a plethora of tanks, military vehicles, heavy guns, weapons, ammunition, fuel and other material had to be abandoned. All in all, it was a disaster, but not a knockout blow. The Brits would “live to fight another day,” so to speak. In the midst of the post-evacuation euphoria Churchill recognized the situation for what it was and summed it up thusly: “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
Most historians agree that Hitler’s stand-down order was one of his crucial errors with respect to his conduct of the war. Hitler may have been a brilliant orator and politician, but he was a poor general, and his military strategic and tactical deficiencies showed up time and again. Even his own generals, when interviewed after the war, acknowledged this error. Von Runstedt characterized it as “one of the great turning points of the war.” General Manstein, characterized it as “one of Hitler’s most critical mistakes.” After the war, noted British military historian and theorist, Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart, interviewed several surviving members of the German High Command who had been privy to Hitler’s decision-making on the matter. He concluded that supposedly, Hitler was not that strong on wiping out the remnants of the BEF, because he believed that once it left the mainland, it would never return. (Another critical error. I can’t imagine why he would have thought that!)
In any event, we all know how things turned out. The British people deserve a tremendous amount of credit for their bravery, courage and fortitude.
The story of Dunkirk has been made into a movie, which is currently playing “in a theatre near you.” I haven’t seen it yet, and I suspect the producers have taken some license with the historical facts, but it should be worth seeing.