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Why did the Germans spare Allied troops trapped at Dunkirk?

Why did the Germans spare Allied troops trapped at Dunkirk?


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I haven't seen the movie but know enough of the story to understand that Allied troops had fallen back to Dunkirk for evacuation but were trapped there until transport came.

I also understand that the German army called off the invasion/annihilation of these troops for some reason.

Why did Germany not pounce on this easy opportunity to wipe out large numbers of Allied troops?


Although we know a great deal about the events surrounding Hitler's "Halt Order" at Dunkirk, the truth is that the reasons behind it are not completely understood by historians, even now.

It is a mistake, however, to think that the German army just stood around, watching the British Expeditionary Force being evacuated. They were fighting to reach the beaches the entire time the Allies were fighting to get off them. German artillery and aircraft shelled, bombed and strafed the troops on the beaches there without mercy.


Adolf Hitler's "Halt Order" actually just confirmed an order given by General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A (the main German force fighting in western France). In turn, von Rundstedt had issued his order at the request of his tank unit commander, who had lost almost 50% of his armoured forces and wanted to regroup. However, Hitler's "Halt Order" was more specific than von Rundstedt's. It specified that the line of Lens-Bethune-Saint-Omer-Gravelines "will not be passed".

This meant that some of the more advanced German units actually withdrew from positions that they had already taken. In particular, General Wilhelm von Thoma, Chief of the tank section of the Army High Command, was with the leading tanks near Bergues, and could look down into Dunkirk. He sent radio messages, asking to be allowed to push on, but was rebuffed.

It is true that the tanks were in a commanding position, but they were low on fuel, and without infantry support. They were also within range of British naval guns in the channel. Even a Panzerkampfwagen IV (PzKpfw IV) would be outmatched by a 4.5 inch naval shell! The tanks withdrew as ordered.


Hitler's own experiences in the trenches of the First World War were almost certainly a factor. By 24 May the troops had been fighting continuously for nearly a fortnight. Hitler knew how exhausting that could be.

Also, it is certainly true that the ground around the Dunkirk pocket, with its network of canals, was not ideal for tanks. The infantry needed time to catch up. General Franz Halder wrote in his diary:

"The Führer is terribly nervous. Afraid to take any chances."

General Halder's diary is also the source of the claim that Goering had persuaded Hitler to allow his Luftwaffe to finish off the encircled troops. His diary entry for 24 May states:

Finishing off the encircled enemy army is to be left to Air Force!

Halder's diaries have been translated and digitised, with the relevant entries for 24 May 1940 in Volume IV.

General Paul von Kleist met Hitler on the airfield at Cambrai a few days afterwards. He is supposed to have remarked that a great opportunity had been lost at Dunkirk. Hitler apparently replied:

"That may be so. But I did not want to send the tanks into the Flanders marshes".


There was also the belief among the German High Command that the war was already effectively won. A handwritten note from Major-General Alfred Jodl, the deputy chief of Hitler's planning staff still survives. It is dated 28 May and was written at Führer Headquarters to the labour minister Robert Ley. It states:

"Most esteemed Labour Führer of the Reich! Everything that has happened since May 10 seems even to us, who had indestructible faith in our success, like a dream. In a few days four fifths of the English Expeditionary Army and a great part of the best mobile French troops will be destroyed or captured. The next blow is ready to strike, and we can execute it at a ratio of 2:1, which has hitherto never been granted to a German field commander… "


After the war, perhaps not surprisingly, German generals vociferously blamed Hitler for the British "miracle" at Dunkirk. Even von Rundstedt placed the whole debacle at Hitler's feet. This has led to the many theories about why Hitler had "allowed" the BEF to escape:

  • He wanted to secure better peace terms with Britain and look like a magnanimous gentleman (rather than a psychotic despot).
  • He needed the help of the British in the coming struggle against Communism.
  • Hitler sought to avoid killing Anglo-Saxons, whom he believed were "superior" to his other enemies.

These are, of course all utter nonsense and have been dismissed by all credible historians. Sadly, they still seem to be regularly trotted out by assorted Hitler apologists like David Irving, despite all the surviving evidence that should have condemned them to the dustbin of history years ago.


The truth is much simpler. Hitler didn't entirely trust his army commanders and was being cautious. He, together with his military commanders, believed that he had time to regroup his forces and attack with the combination of infantry, artillery, armour, and air power that had already brought the German army success in France. The details of that build-up are set out in General Halder's diaries.

Even after the "Stop Order" was issued to the army on 24 May, the Luftwaffe continued to attack the troops on the beach at Dunkirk. Whether this was to allow Goering's Luftwaffe the final "glory" of defeating the BEF remains just speculation.

We should also remember that on 24 May the surrender of France was not yet assured. Neither Hitler, nor his high command, were prepared to risk unnecessary losses (as they saw it) that might put the next phase of their operation in jeopardy.


It's easy to ask these questions after the fact, but a primary reason was that what we now know as the Miracle of Dunkirk was basically unthinkable.

It is easy to forget that in reaching the coast, and cutting the Allied line in two, the Germans had already won a great, practically unthinkable victory. Their victorious divisions, particularly armored units, were scattered, considered overextended, and needed time to be "realigned." One can say that the best use of these troops was to pile on, pursue the enemy into the ground, etc. but that would not have been "easy." It would have been a "brawl, the kind of fighting that the Germans disliked, with British naval gunfire taking part, as a commenter pointed out. If the Germans had managed to slaughter 300,000 troops in this way, they would probably have taken casualties of a significant fraction of this, say 75,000-100,000 men. There might even have been embarrassing losses of key units or commanders. A victory that cost the life of say, Heinz Guderian, might have been very "bittersweet," and had us asking why the Germans didn't "hold up."

Nor was it really the German way. They were winning, and planned to win, but in a more organized fashion, with armor, infantry, artillery and airpower in alignment (although that gave the enemy a chance to reorganize as well). And speaking of airpower, that was supposed to play a key role in 1) blocking retreat and 2) actual annihilation. Much to a lot of people's surprise, it did neither.

The original British hope was evacuate 45,000 men over two days. In fact, they evacuated 338,226 men over a period of eight days. This was due to the efforts not only of the regular navy, but of "little ships," civilian motor boats, pleasure craft, etc. In fact, the port was blocked and the big ships could not get close enough to shore to embark many soldiers, so the smaller ships did the actual ferrying of these men. A combined military-civilian effort involving a total of almost 1000 ships of this kind had never been seen in the history of warfare.

Another imponderable factor was the effect of the good weather during the evacuation as pointed out by a commenter. "Forecasts" were probably available to both sides beforehand, and the Germans probably thought that clear skies would help their bombers. It turned out to help the numerous ships far more.

Then, Hitler was hoping for an early cease-fire/peace with Great Britain, and would therefore rather "capture" 300,000 or so British soldiers than slaughter an equivalent number. Bombing them would have fallen under the "capture" strategy; during the same campaign, German bombers that had run out of bombs terrorized French soldiers just by remaining overhead.

Basically, the Germans thought that they could take their time, and minimize their losses and disorganization for the battle with the remaining French forces, while capturing the bulk of the British army. They could not envision not only all the trapped Britishers but almost half of the French in the pocket escaping. The conventional wisdom was that the British could rescue their highest officers, (as the Germans did from say North Africa), but the rest of the men, including most of the non-coms and junior officers, would be stranded.


That's one great mystery in history. Some say that Goering asked Hitler to let the Luftwaffe handle this problem. Some say that Hitler was afraid of his armies going too fast. Some say that Hitler was afraid of the might of the RAF.

One point is not to be forgotten though. The French army, although completely late in panzer and plane tactics, fought very hard around Dunkirk to defend the harbour as long as possible, with more than 100,000 were killed in action during the 6 weeks of the battle of France. The French air army also destroyed around 1000 Luftwaffe planes during this period; those missing 1000 Nazi planes were really missed during the Battle of Britain. But because of the armistice of shame in June 1940, those poor fighters were forgotten by history, especially in the English speaking world.

Source : Wikipedia: Battle of France/Bataille de France


From all I have read over the decades, the Germans were doing their very best to wipe out the Brits at Dunkirk. And there's a body count to prove it.


Let us not forget that Hitler assumed the UK would join him as he perceived the UK being of a similar mindset to Germany. At the time of Dunkirk, he was still hopeful the UK would join him as an ally, not an enemy and this may have stayed his hand and provided the opportunity to save the troops.

Just an idea…


The Western Front was a very minor theater. Had the Germans captured English forces it would have made no difference. Even after D Day there were few major battles in the west. The main concern was the Soviet threat. National Socialism had simply no reason to fight against British forces which had minimal logistical forces or political reason to pose a threat. This is true not only at Dunkirk but on the western front in general, where the Germans readily surrendered in great numbers as soon as the Western Allies began invading Germany. They simply had little reason to fight back.


Sometimes academics are confronted by arguments with which we disagree, vehemently. Most have something to be said for them or, at the very least, it is possible to appreciate where those proposing it are coming from and why they might believe it. There are exceptions, which deserve nothing other than a good intellectual kicking. For me, there is one particularly egregious example which simply refuses to lie down and die, coming back again and again like the baddie in a cheap horror movie. I encountered this old foe once again recently when I was editing a Naval Staff Battle Summary on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk. Historians generally acknowledge that one vital factor in allowing the British and French forces to retreat, escaping the threatened encirclement to reach Dunkirk and then to establish a rudimentary defensive perimeter there, was the German decision to halt the advance of the Panzers for three days. This let-off has given rise to the bizarre idea that it was a deliberate decision by Hitler to provide a ‘golden bridge’ for Britain, consciously choosing not to utterly humiliate his opponent in the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.

There is no denying the importance of this pause. It was not the only factor contributing to the successful evacuation but it was significant. The Allied armies had fallen, or rather leaped headlong, into the trap laid by Germany. The invasion of the Low Countries by German Army Group B, launched on 10 May 1940, presented France and Britain with precisely what they expected to see and what they had planned to counter. They therefore advanced into Belgium to meet the threat. The main German effort, of course, came well to the south as Army Group A, with the bulk of the Panzers, passed through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes. They crossed the Meuse, notably near Sedan on 14 May, broke through the second-line French units defending there and dashed for the coast. By 21 May they reached it and turned north to encircle the British and French armies that were engaged with the forces advancing through Belgium. On 23 May the Germans were closer to Dunkirk than most of the British Expeditionary Force yet that evening, the Panzers were ordered to halt their advance. They were ordered to resume on 26 May but by then, the Allies had been gifted priceless time to retreat towards Dunkirk and to establish defences that would buy them further time. When the Germans finally took Dunkirk, the commanders wrote in their diaries, ‘The town and the coast are in our hands!’… yet they added, ‘British and French troops gone’. No fewer than 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated, rescued from the closing trap. Lord Gort’s brave decision to withdraw to the coast deserves huge credit, as does the professionalism of the British Expeditionary Force (and their French allies) in conducting a hugely difficult fighting withdrawal yet without the German pause, it is most doubtful that these would have been enough.

How could the most formidable military machine on the planet at this time, which was on the verge of shattering what had previously been seen as the greatest military power in Europe, have made such an elementary mistake? Why would it voluntarily choose to leave the trap open, allowing the prey to escape? It must have been a deliberate decision… hence the golden bridge theory. This was initially propagated by Hitler to explain how he let strategic victory against Britain slip through his fingers the refrain was eagerly taken up after the war by some surviving German generals who were quite happy to shift responsibility on to the conveniently dead führer – and was spread by Basil Liddell Hart, who was perhaps a little too inclined to take the word of captured German officers, especially when they talked up the influence upon them of his interwar ideas. Nonetheless, the idea really is the most ridiculous nonsense.

First, even on its own terms, it does not make any sense. While there is room to doubt the coherence of Hitler’s strategy towards Britain in 1940, it is not implausible to suggest that he would have welcomed a negotiated peace. His prospects of achieving this would have been immeasurably improved by the additional bargaining chip of a quarter of a million British prisoners, to say nothing of the psychological blow to Britain of losing the best-trained part of her small army.

Second, the theory does not fit the facts. If the Germans really were trying to allow the British Expeditionary Force to escape, then they displayed an unusual level of incompetence: only Army Group A actually paused – and only in part, as it still captured Calais and Boulogne – and only for three days before continuing. Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe continued to attack the Allies with all of their strength. This hardly amounts to a free pass or allowing the British to slip away.

Third, there is a perfectly good explanation available that does not require a far-fetched conspiracy theory – and which, incidentally, is whole-heartedly accepted by every serious work on the subject that uses German sources. Many senior German officers were nervous from the outset about the bold changes made to the original, more traditional plan for the attack on France, and in particular about the envisaged rapid advance of the Panzers that would involve outpacing their infantry, artillery and logistic support. This bold vision was undoubtedly risky the advancing armour could have faced a serious defeat if the Allies had been able to launch a coherent counter-attack against its flanks or rear. We now know that the German offensive had precisely the effect it was designed to in paralysing the Allied high command, shattering its will and ability to devise and execute an effective counter stroke but this was not known to the Germans in May 1940. Moreover, there had been a warning sign of precisely what some of the more cautious German commanders feared when the British launched a small-scale counter-attack near Arras on 21 May. This limited and short-lived success played into a growing sense of unease among those German officers inclined to worry that their success was too good to be true, and wary of pushing their attack beyond its culminating point. The Arras counter-attack achieved only local tactical success, but it exerted a decisive influence on a debate that was already underway in the German high command.

The Panzers badly needed a pause to rest, repair and reconstitute, and to bring forward support and supplies. There was no need to risk them in unfavourable terrain, when there was a perfectly good alternative in the form of Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe, whose leadership (not least the influential Göring) were keen to seize their place in the sun – a rare case where the overclaiming of air power enthusiasts was to the benefit of the Allies. The tanks would be needed for the rest of the campaign and the push to Paris, taking on the bulk of the French Army, which still comprised a large and powerful force. The Allied armies in the north had been defeated, were nearly encircled and only needed to be mopped up. Why take a risk in rushing these closing moves of the first stage of the operation?

This last question suggests an important point about the whole debate: there is actually far less of a puzzle here than has been suggested. Why on earth would it occur to a continental power that evacuation on any significant scale was possible? After all, even the British Admiralty believed at the outset of the operation that at best, maybe 45,000 men could be rescued. There is no mystery in the fact that Germany was not alert to this possibility. The British were trapped and there was no reason for the Germans to suspect that their fate would be anything other than what would, three years later, befall Axis forces after their defeat in North Africa: without a Navy that was willing and able to go to such lengths to rescue them, 230,000 Axis troops were captured and only a few hundred escaped. It is only hindsight and the knowledge it presents of the stunning success of the Allied evacuation that raises the question in the first place with respect to Dunkirk. Considered in this light, the apparent mystery simply melts away.

Image: British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during Operation Dynamo, via the Imperial War Museum.


Dunkirk anniversary: The real reason Hitler let the British troops go

On 20 May 1940 Hitler's tanks reached the Channel coast near Noyelles-sur-Mer. Within less than two weeks they had thus achieved what the German army had failed to do in four years in 1914-18.

Huge parts of Northern France and neighbouring Belgium were now under German control. The war of Nazi Germany against its neighbours in Western Europe had reached its climax. In a daring operation, which had begun on 10 May, they seemed on the verge of victory.

Only a few bridgeheads were still held by British, French and Belgian forces. The most important one was Dunkirk. Its defence and, moreover, the evacuation of 338,682 Allied soldiers between 26 May and 4 June under the guns of German tanks, soon became part of British folklore.

The withdrawal was facilitated by the Germans' decision not to finish the Allies off. Hitler and his commanders could have pushed ahead and made the killer blow, but decided to effectively let the Allies off the hook.

This decision was surprising at the time and looks even more surprising in hindsight, giving rise to much speculation. This was nourished by one of Hitler's last statements before his suicide on 30 April 1945, claiming that he had allowed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to escape as a "sporting gesture" in order to induce British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill to conclude an agreement with Nazi Germany.

But what actually happened? Why did Hitler decide not to press ahead with a final thrust which would surely have destroyed the Allied troops?

After being forced to withdraw from a number of battles to avoid encirclement, the Allies were eventually left with their backs against the wall, in a huge pocket near Dunkirk. They were surrounded by thousands of German troops and tanks and under the gaze of German aircraft, which had also inflicted heavy losses upon the Allies in the weeks before.

On 24 May Generals von Kluge and von Rundstedt issued the order for a halt of the German 4th Army. Hitler, as is often overlooked, only sanctioned it the same day. The reasons for this halt were manifold.

Both generals had fought in World War I and realised that, like at the Marne in 1914, a sudden Allied counter-attack could change the course of the whole war. In their eyes this risk still existed, because the British and French still offered resistance in neighbouring areas. At the same time, they wanted to give their armies time to rest, repair and replenish after a thrust whose speed and distance had taken everyone by surprise.

The decision by generals von Kluge and Rundstedt did not go uncontested. The army's chief of staff, general von Brauchitsch, disagreed and tried to repeal it at once, though without success. Hitler, for the time being, remained firm. His reasons have been a matter of much controversy.

German historian Karl Heinz Friedser, after close scrutiny of all available documents, has convincingly argued that Hitler did not, in fact, call off the attack as an olive branch to Churchill. In fact his decision was the result of his intention to, once and for all, make it clear to the military leadership that he was in fact the supreme commander of the German armed forces, and not them.

The attack resumed - but too late

On 26 May the Germans began to realise that this decision had been a terrible mistake. As a result the attack upon Dunkirk was resumed, though under different circumstances. Now, the Allies had had enough time to organise the evacuation of their troops in Operation Dynamo - as well as improve their defences and offer stiff resistance to the attacker.

Thousands of Allied soldiers were now transferred across the channel by a fleet consisting of all kinds of ships – ranging from private sailing boats to Channel ferries and Royal Navy destroyers. The Allied escape owed much to luck. Calm waters allowed the evacuation fleet to get away quickly, while low clouds helped protect it from attacks by the Luftwaffe, which had to fly in from distant airfields in Germany, thus losing important time.

Hitler allowed the Allies to escape at Dunkirk. Wikipedia

Most importantly the Allies themselves could now rely upon the Royal Airforce. Its newest fighter plane, the Spitfire, proved an important means in shielding the evacuation from air attack by Messerschmidt and other planes. Goering's promise to annihilate the BEF thus proved a completely wrong forecast of what was going to happen.

When the Germans eventually reached the port of Dunkirk on 4 June, thousands of troops had safely reached British soil. The Allies had lost scores of men in combat and during the evacuation, and given up great stores of materiel including 272 ships, 177 aircraft and 2,400 guns. Yet the troops who survived would prove a crucial asset in the years that followed.

The German army had won an important battle in France, but the megalomania of Hitler and the dysfunction at the heart of the German high command denied them the chance to win the war.

Michael Epkenhans is a German military historian who specialises in the German Imperial Navy. He is director of research for the Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt der Bundeswehr in Potsdam, and he has published several books, including this biography of Prussian naval hero Tirpitz.


Operation Dynamo

The brilliance of Operation Dynamo lied in the hundreds of civilian vessels (i.e. fishing smacks and cockle boats, lifeboats, sailing barge, etc.) crewed by volunteers consisting largely of amateur seamen who answered promptly to the help call and marched across the Channel to Dunkirk. A truly noble act — they risked their lives for the trapped soldiers under German attack. The small boats were able to get closer to the beaches and pick up soldiers to transport them back home. Finally, after days of patiently waiting to be rescued, it all came to an end on June 4 and so the Dunkirk Spirit was born.

Some say that “Dynamo”, the code word used during the Dunkirk evacuation, has its origins in the Castle Dover tunnels which once held an electrical generator.

Although the evacuation boosted the British morale and saved the Allied troops from the merciless hands of the Germans, it is rather difficult whether it was a complete success: many of the British heavy equipment was left behind or destroyed and more than 50,000 troops were unable to flee from the Continent (11,000 of theme were killed and the rest turned into war prisoners). Even Germany declared it at the time as a victory for them. There exists the common misconception that most of the soldiers were rescued by the little ships, but that is far from the truth. Unsurprisingly, the troops were evacuated mainly with the help of destroyers of the Royal Navy which suffered regrettable losses.

Dunkirk, or Dunkerque, was later liberated at the end of WW2 after the surrender of Nazi Germany. The town was badly damaged during WW2 in the attacks with over three-quarters of its buildings destroyed.

The events at Dunkirk will stand for a long time to come as a sterling example of British diligence. The miracle gave soldiers and civilians hope that the war can be won that their cause is not a lost cause. Undoubtedly, a lot of mistakes were made — on both sides — but none as big as Hitler’s decision to halt. Luckily, the British turned that to their advantage and began the evacuation process accordingly. Regardless of the questionable “successful” nature of Operation Dynamo, when the urgency of rescuing human lives is involved, we should admire the courage of the tireless volunteers who managed to bring their boys back home alive — a noteworthy achievement.


Why Hitler Erred in Not Crushing the British at Dunkirk

Key point: Berlin made a big mistake. As a result, the British army would escape intact and able to fight again.

War movies tend to depict the battles a nation wins—not the ones it loses.

So with a blockbuster Hollywood movie on Dunkirk hitting the silver screen this July, one would think that Dunkirk was a British victory.

In fact, Dunkirk was the climactic moment of one of the greatest military disasters in history. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, an army of more than three hundred thousand British soldiers was chased off the mainland of Europe, reduced to an exhausted mob clinging to a flotilla of rescue boats while leaving almost all of their weapons and equipment behind.

The British Army was crippled for months. If the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had failed, and the Germans had managed to conduct their own D-Day invasion of Britain, the outcome would have been certain.

So why do the British celebrate Dunkirk as a victory? Why is it called the Miracle of Dunkirk when another such miracle would have given Hitler the keys to London?

Consider the situation. In just six weeks during the spring of 1940, Britain and France had been crushed. When Hitler invaded France and the Benelux countries on May 10, 1940, the Allies were totally off balance. The cream of the Franco-British armies, including much of the ten-division-strong British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had been stationed in northern France. The plan was for them to advance into northern Belgium to stop a German advance, because that was the route the Germans took in 1914. Unfortunately, the German panzer spearhead divisions struck in the center of France, through the weakly defended Belgian and Luxembourg Ardennes forest. Quickly penetrating through the wooded hills, their tank columns turned north to cut off the Allied forces in Belgium from behind, while other German forces—backed by paratroopers—seized Holland and squeezed the Allies from the other direction.

Plagued by disorganization and lethargic leadership, the Allies tried to retreat from Belgium back to France. But it was too late. On May 19, the hard-driving panzer divisions had reached Abbeville, on the English Channel. The bulk of the Allied armies were trapped in a pocket along the French and Belgian coasts, with the Germans on three sides and the English Channel behind. Meanwhile, other German column raced for Paris and beyond, rendering any major French counterattack nothing more than a mapboard fantasy.

The British did what they always when their armies overseas get in trouble: start seeking the nearest port for an exit. With a typical (and in this case justified) lack of faith in their allies, they began planning to evacuate the BEF from the Channel ports. Though the French would partly blame their defeat on British treachery, the British were right. With the French armies outmaneuvered and disintegrating, France was doomed.

But so was the BEF—or so it looked. As the exhausted troops trudged to the coast, through roads choked with refugees and strafed by the Luftwaffe, the question was: could they reach the beaches and safety before the panzers did? There were four hundred thousand British and French troops to evacuate, through a moderate-sized port whose docks were being destroyed by bombs and shells. Even under the best of conditions, it would have taken more time than the Allies could rightfully expect for those troops to be lifted off the beaches.

Despite the general Allied collapse, the British and French troops defending the Dunkirk perimeter fought hard under constant air attack. Nonetheless, had Hitler’s tank generals such as Heinz Guderian had their way, the hard-driving panzers would have sliced like scalpels straight to Dunkirk. The beaches would have become a giant POW cage.

Then on May 24, Hitler and his high command hit the stop button. The panzer columns were halted in their tracks the plan now was for the Luftwaffe to pulverize the defenders until the slower-moving German infantry divisions caught up to finish the job.

Why did Hitler issue the halt order? No one knows for sure. Hitler had fought in that part of France in World War I, and he worried that the terrain was too muddy for tanks.

Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering assured him that his bombers and fighters could do the job. There were concerns about logistics, or a potential French counterattack. Or maybe it was just that Hitler, that perennial gambler, was so dazzled by his own unexpected success at the dice table of war that he lost his nerve.

Whatever the reason, while the Germans dithered, the British moved with a speed that Britain would rarely display again for the rest of the war. Not just the Royal Navy was mobilized. From British ports sailed yachts, fishing boats, lifeboats and rowboats. Like the “ragtag fleet” in Battlestar Galactica, anything that could sail was pressed into service.

France has been ridiculed so often for its performance in 1940 that we forget how the stubbornness and bravery of the French rearguards around Dunkirk perimeter allowed the evacuation to succeed. Under air and artillery fire, the motley fleet evacuated 338,226 soldiers. As for Britain betraying its allies, 139,997 of those men were French soldiers, along with Belgians and Poles.

As they heaved themselves into the boats under a hail of bombs, the soldiers cursed the RAF for leaving them in the lurch. They couldn’t see above the tumult above the clouds where the RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires hurled themselves against the Luftwaffe. Weakened by losses during the French campaign, the RAF couldn’t stop the German air assault. But they at least could hamper it.

The evacuation was incomplete. Some forty thousand troops were captured by the Germans. The Scotsmen of the Fifty-First Highland Division, trapped deep inside France, were encircled and captured by the Seventh Panzer Division commanded by Erwin Rommel. The BEF did save most of its men, but almost all its equipment—from tanks and trucks to rifles—was left behind.

So why did the British treat Dunkirk as a victory? Partially it was out of necessity. The British public needed some good news now that their world had fallen apart. Yet despite Churchill’s rousing rhetoric about the battle, he knew that pseudo-victories would never defeat Hitler. “Wars are not won by evacuations,” he told the House of Commons.

The best answer is that the successful evacuation of the cream of the British Army gave Britain a lifeline to continue the war. In June 1940, neither America nor the Soviets were at war with the Axis. With France gone, Britain, and its Commonwealth partners such as Australia and Canada, stood alone. Had Britain capitulated to Hitler, or signed a compromise peace that left the Nazis in control of Europe, many Americans would have been dismayed—but not surprised.

A British writer whose father fought at Dunkirk wrote that the British public was under no illusions. “If there was a Dunkirk spirit, it was because people understood perfectly well the full significance of the defeat but, in a rather British way, saw no point in dwelling on it. We were now alone. We’d pull through in the end. But it might be a long, grim wait…”

Their patience and endurance were rewarded on May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered.

This article was originally published on May 27, 2017 on The National Interest

This article by Mark Simmons originally appeared on Warfare History Network.


Why did the Germans spare Allied troops trapped at Dunkirk? - History

War movies tend to depict the battles a nation wins—not the ones it loses. So with a blockbuster Hollywood movie on Dunkirk hitting the silver screen this July, one would think that the Battle of Dunkirk was a British victory. But what happened at Dunkirk?

At the time, Dunkirk was the climactic moment of one of the greatest military failures in history. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, an army of more than three hundred thousand British soldiers was chased off the mainland of Europe, reduced to an exhausted mob clinging to a flotilla of rescue boats while leaving almost all of their weapons and equipment behind.

The British Army was crippled for months. If the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had failed, and the Germans had managed to conduct their own D-Day invasion of Britain, the outcome would have been certain.

So why do the British celebrate Dunkirk as a victory? Why is it called the Miracle of Dunkirk when another such miracle would have given Hitler the keys to London?

Consider the situation. In just six weeks during the spring of 1940, Britain and France had been crushed. When Hitler invaded France and the Benelux countries on May 10, 1940, the Allies were totally off balance. The cream of the Franco-British armies, including much of the ten-division-strong British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had been stationed in northern France. The plan was for them to advance into northern Belgium to stop a German advance, because that was the route the Germans took in 1914. Unfortunately, the German panzer spearhead divisions struck in the center of France, through the weakly defended Belgian and Luxembourg Ardennes forest. Quickly penetrating through the wooded hills, their tank columns turned north to cut off the Allied forces in Belgium from behind, while other German forces—backed by paratroopers—seized Holland and squeezed the Allies from the other direction.

Plagued by disorganization and lethargic leadership, the Allies tried to retreat from Belgium back to France. But it was too late. On May 19, the hard-driving panzer divisions had reached Abbeville, on the English Channel. The bulk of the Allied armies were trapped in a pocket along the French and Belgian coasts, with the Germans on three sides and the English Channel behind. Meanwhile, other German column raced for Paris and beyond, rendering any major French counterattack nothing more than a mapboard fantasy.

A British Matilda II tank burns during the Battle of France.

The British did what they always when their armies overseas get in trouble: start seeking the nearest port for an exit. With a typical (and in this case justified) lack of faith in their allies, they began planning to evacuate the BEF from the Channel ports. Though the French would partly blame their defeat on British treachery, the British were right. With the French armies outmaneuvered and disintegrating, France was doomed.

But so was the BEF—or so it looked. As the exhausted troops trudged to the coast, through roads choked with refugees and strafed by the Luftwaffe, the question was: could they reach the beaches and safety before the panzers did? There were four hundred thousand British and French troops to evacuate, through a moderate-sized port whose docks were being destroyed by bombs and shells. Even under the best of conditions, it would have taken more time than the Allies could rightfully expect for those troops to be lifted off the beaches.

Despite the general Allied collapse, the British and French troops defending the Dunkirk perimeter fought hard under constant air attack. Nonetheless, had Hitler’s tank generals such as Heinz Guderian had their way, the hard-driving panzers would have sliced like scalpels straight to Dunkirk. The beaches would have become a giant POW cage.

What Happened at Dunkirk: Why it Became Known as a Colossal Failure

Then on May 24, Hitler and his high command hit the stop button. The panzer columns were halted in their tracks the plan now was for the Luftwaffe to pulverize the defenders until the slower-moving German infantry divisions caught up to finish the job.

Why did Hitler issue the halt order? No one knows for sure, but Hitler had fought in that part of France in World War I, and he worried that the terrain was too muddy for tanks.

Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering assured him that his bombers and fighters could do the job. There were concerns about logistics, or a potential French counterattack. Or maybe it was just that Hitler, that perennial gambler, was so dazzled by his own unexpected success at the dice table of war that he lost his nerve.

Whatever the reason, while the Germans dithered, the British moved with a speed that Britain would rarely display again for the rest of the war. Not just the Royal Navy was mobilized. From British ports sailed yachts, fishing boats, lifeboats and rowboats. Like the “ragtag fleet” in Battlestar Galactica, anything that could sail was pressed into service.

France has been ridiculed so often for its performance in 1940 that we forget how the stubbornness and bravery of the French rearguards around Dunkirk perimeter allowed the evacuation to succeed. Under air and artillery fire, the motley fleet evacuated 338,226 soldiers. As for Britain betraying its allies, 139,997 of those men were French soldiers, along with Belgians and Poles.

Dunkirk, late May 1940: British and French troops await evacuation to Britain.

As they heaved themselves into the boats under a hail of bombs, the soldiers cursed the RAF for leaving them in the lurch. They couldn’t see above the tumult above the clouds where the RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires hurled themselves against the Luftwaffe. Weakened by losses during the French campaign, the RAF couldn’t stop the German air assault. But they at least could hamper it.

The evacuation was incomplete. Some forty thousand troops were captured by the Germans. The Scotsmen of the Fifty-First Highland Division, trapped deep inside France, were encircled and captured by the Seventh Panzer Division commanded by Erwin Rommel. The BEF did save most of its men, but almost all its equipment—from tanks and trucks to rifles—was left behind.

British Victory? Or German Misstep?

So why did the British treat Dunkirk as a victory? Partially it was out of necessity. The British public needed some good news now that their world had fallen apart. Yet despite Churchill’s rousing rhetoric about the battle, he knew that pseudo-victories would never defeat Hitler. “Wars are not won by evacuations,” he told the House of Commons.

The best answer is that the successful evacuation of the cream of the British Army gave Britain a lifeline to continue the war. In June 1940, neither America nor the Soviets were at war with the Axis. With France gone, Britain, and its Commonwealth partners such as Australia and Canada, stood alone. Had Britain capitulated to Hitler, or signed a compromise peace that left the Nazis in control of Europe, many Americans would have been dismayed—but not surprised.

A British writer whose father fought at Dunkirk wrote that the British public was under no illusions. “If there was a Dunkirk spirit, it was because people understood perfectly well the full significance of the defeat but, in a rather British way, saw no point in dwelling on it. We were now alone. We’d pull through in the end. But it might be a long, grim wait…”

Their patience and endurance were rewarded on May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

This article was originally published on May 27, 2017 on The National Interest

Comments

Moved slowly eh not as slowly as the USA, who didn’t join the fight for another three years


A Fatal Mistake: Did Adolf Hitler Lose World War II At Dunkirk?

War movies tend to depict the battles a nation wins—not the ones it loses.

So with a blockbuster Hollywood movie on Dunkirk hitting the silver screen this July, one would think that Dunkirk was a British victory.

In fact, Dunkirk was the climactic moment of one of the greatest military disasters in history. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, an army of more than three hundred thousand British soldiers was chased off the mainland of Europe, reduced to an exhausted mob clinging to a flotilla of rescue boats while leaving almost all of their weapons and equipment behind.

The British Army was crippled for months. If the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force had failed, and the Germans had managed to conduct their own D-Day invasion of Britain, the outcome would have been certain.

So why do the British celebrate Dunkirk as a victory? Why is it called the Miracle of Dunkirk when another such miracle would have given Hitler the keys to London?

Consider the situation. In just six weeks during the spring of 1940, Britain and France had been crushed. When Hitler invaded France and the Benelux countries on May 10, 1940, the Allies were totally off balance. The cream of the Franco-British armies, including much of the ten-division-strong British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had been stationed in northern France. The plan was for them to advance into northern Belgium to stop a German advance, because that was the route the Germans took in 1914. Unfortunately, the German panzer spearhead divisions struck in the center of France, through the weakly defended Belgian and Luxembourg Ardennes forest. Quickly penetrating through the wooded hills, their tank columns turned north to cut off the Allied forces in Belgium from behind, while other German forces—backed by paratroopers—seized Holland and squeezed the Allies from the other direction.

Plagued by disorganization and lethargic leadership, the Allies tried to retreat from Belgium back to France. But it was too late. On May 19, the hard-driving panzer divisions had reached Abbeville, on the English Channel. The bulk of the Allied armies were trapped in a pocket along the French and Belgian coasts, with the Germans on three sides and the English Channel behind. Meanwhile, other German column raced for Paris and beyond, rendering any major French counterattack nothing more than a mapboard fantasy.

The British did what they always when their armies overseas get in trouble: start seeking the nearest port for an exit. With a typical (and in this case justified) lack of faith in their allies, they began planning to evacuate the BEF from the Channel ports. Though the French would partly blame their defeat on British treachery, the British were right. With the French armies outmaneuvered and disintegrating, France was doomed.

But so was the BEF—or so it looked. As the exhausted troops trudged to the coast, through roads choked with refugees and strafed by the Luftwaffe, the question was: could they reach the beaches and safety before the panzers did? There were four hundred thousand British and French troops to evacuate, through a moderate-sized port whose docks were being destroyed by bombs and shells. Even under the best of conditions, it would have taken more time than the Allies could rightfully expect for those troops to be lifted off the beaches.

Despite the general Allied collapse, the British and French troops defending the Dunkirk perimeter fought hard under constant air attack. Nonetheless, had Hitler’s tank generals such as Heinz Guderian had their way, the hard-driving panzers would have sliced like scalpels straight to Dunkirk. The beaches would have become a giant POW cage.

Then on May 24, Hitler and his high command hit the stop button. The panzer columns were halted in their tracks the plan now was for the Luftwaffe to pulverize the defenders until the slower-moving German infantry divisions caught up to finish the job.

Why did Hitler issue the halt order? No one knows for sure. Hitler had fought in that part of France in World War I, and he worried that the terrain was too muddy for tanks.

Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering assured him that his bombers and fighters could do the job. There were concerns about logistics, or a potential French counterattack. Or maybe it was just that Hitler, that perennial gambler, was so dazzled by his own unexpected success at the dice table of war that he lost his nerve.

Whatever the reason, while the Germans dithered, the British moved with a speed that Britain would rarely display again for the rest of the war. Not just the Royal Navy was mobilized. From British ports sailed yachts, fishing boats, lifeboats and rowboats. Like the “ragtag fleet” in Battlestar Galactica, anything that could sail was pressed into service.

France has been ridiculed so often for its performance in 1940 that we forget how the stubbornness and bravery of the French rearguards around Dunkirk perimeter allowed the evacuation to succeed. Under air and artillery fire, the motley fleet evacuated 338,226 soldiers. As for Britain betraying its allies, 139,997 of those men were French soldiers, along with Belgians and Poles.

As they heaved themselves into the boats under a hail of bombs, the soldiers cursed the RAF for leaving them in the lurch. They couldn’t see above the tumult above the clouds where the RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires hurled themselves against the Luftwaffe. Weakened by losses during the French campaign, the RAF couldn’t stop the German air assault. But they at least could hamper it.

The evacuation was incomplete. Some forty thousand troops were captured by the Germans. The Scotsmen of the Fifty-First Highland Division, trapped deep inside France, were encircled and captured by the Seventh Panzer Division commanded by Erwin Rommel. The BEF did save most of its men, but almost all its equipment—from tanks and trucks to rifles—was left behind.

So why did the British treat Dunkirk as a victory? Partially it was out of necessity. The British public needed some good news now that their world had fallen apart. Yet despite Churchill’s rousing rhetoric about the battle, he knew that pseudo-victories would never defeat Hitler. “Wars are not won by evacuations,” he told the House of Commons.

The best answer is that the successful evacuation of the cream of the British Army gave Britain a lifeline to continue the war. In June 1940, neither America nor the Soviets were at war with the Axis. With France gone, Britain, and its Commonwealth partners such as Australia and Canada, stood alone. Had Britain capitulated to Hitler, or signed a compromise peace that left the Nazis in control of Europe, many Americans would have been dismayed—but not surprised.

A British writer whose father fought at Dunkirk wrote that the British public was under no illusions. “If there was a Dunkirk spirit, it was because people understood perfectly well the full significance of the defeat but, in a rather British way, saw no point in dwelling on it. We were now alone. We’d pull through in the end. But it might be a long, grim wait…”

Their patience and endurance were rewarded on May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

His article first appeared in 2017. It is being republished due to reader interest.


Why did the RAF not help at Dunkirk?

Contrary to common knowledge of the events at Dunkirk, the RAF made a significant contribution to the evacuation of Allied forces. Although soldiers on the beach believed they had been abandoned as they could not see Allied aircraft, the RAF were fighting the Luftwaffe (German air force) over the English Channel.

Also Know, why was Dunkirk a failure? Dunkirk was a failure for the Germans because they allowed more than 300,000 troops, including 100,000 French soldiers to escape. Most of the French troops were repatriated to France to rejoin the battle against the invaders. The British troops were mostly regular soldiers and reservists of the Territorial Army.

Thereof, how many planes did the RAF lose at Dunkirk?

What happened at Dunkirk in May 1940?

Dunkirk evacuation, (1940) in World War II, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and other Allied troops from the French seaport of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) to England. Naval vessels and hundreds of civilian boats were used in the evacuation, which began on May 26.


The French connection

At one point in the movie, we see French soldiers clamoring to get onto the East mole that leads to the evacuation ships, only to get turned away by a British officer who tells them that the British ships are for the British soldiers, and that's final. That's about the last we hear from the French until the end, when Commander Bolton says that he'll stay behind to help evacuate the French.

Except. that's not how it went down. Of the 338,000 soldiers taken off the beach, 123,000 were French soldiers. That's more than a third of everyone who got rescued. As for the French soldiers who didn't make it off, they weren't fighting to get on an evac boat. No, they were back in the actual town of Dunkirk, holding back the Germans while the evacuation took place. Estimates put French casualties at Dunkirk between 50,000 and 90,000, and thousands more were taken captive because they took a stand and dug in to defend the other soldiers on the beach.


Churchill acknowledged the entire thing as a 'disaster'

The successful evacuation of so many was, indeed, a miracle and a testament to the power of the human spirit. But at the same time the media was spinning Dunkirk as a miracle, Winston Churchill (who had only taken over as prime minister a couple weeks before) was cautious.

When he gave a speech on June 4, it was a rallying cry that made it clear the Allies were not done fighting. But he also acknowledged Dunkirk for what it was: "a colossal military disaster," as he told the House of Commons. Today, we remember the end of the speech: "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."



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