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Why the Battle of Dunkirk Matters                                                                                     Print this essay

Posted at: Oct/22/2017 : Posted by: mel

Related Category: Historical Insights,

Historians tend to document and teach about war and its campaigns in terms of its greatest battles and prizes. Not surprising therefore, when learning about World War II (WWII) history in the European theater we talk of the second Battle of El Alamein, the Battle for Sicily, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Normandy landing, the raid on Ploesti, the Battle of Arnhem (Operation Market Garden) and the Battle of the Bulge. Yet, one of the most critical battles of the war is seldom spoken of…the Battle of Dunkirk.

This shouldn’t really be too surprising, history is always told with respect to a specific perspective. For Americans, our overt participation in WWII did not begin until the North African campaign following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For this reason Dunkirk is often omitted from world history books used in the United State. Yet in retrospect the Battle of Dunkirk may rank higher in importance than nearly every battle previously listed.

The Battle of France began on May 10, 1940 when German Army Group-B invaded the Netherlands and began a rapid advance westward to the sea. The French countered with their First and Seventh Armies along with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 10 division commanded by General Gort. The Allied forces were commanded by French General Maurice Gamelin, considered by the west as one of the best strategist of his day. Gamelin’s “Plan D” was to move his forces through Belgium and engage the Germans in the Netherlands, while depending on his forces at the Maginot Line and its fortifications on the French-German border to stymie a direct German assault from Group-A.

In retrospect, Gamelin’s strategy and timelines were clearly based on the pace of war 25 years earlier. By the time Gamelin’s forces were organized and ready to move, Germanys Group-B commanded by General Fedor Von Bock had already crossed most of the Netherlands and was entering Belgium. Despite a series of Allied counter-attacks including the Battle of Arras, the German spearhead reached the coast on May 20th. Meanwhile, German Army Group-A commanded by General Von Rundstedt having circumvented the Maginot Line was rapidly moving across northern France. With every attempt at an organized counter attack failing, the Allied forces began destroying vehicles, artillery, stores and equipment in a disorganized retreat to a region including the northern French coast and the Belgium coast.

On 18 May General Gamelin was dismissed from his role and General Maxime Weygand appointed to the position of Supreme Commander. Within 2 days, new plans has been published dubbed the Weygand Plan. Supporting Weygand’s plan, General Gort was ordered on May 22 by Churchill to push his BEF south in order to join up with the French First Army. While this plan showed initiative, it lacked the support of good intelligence and quickly faltered. Northern France and Southern Belgium are divided by a series of canals. In order to hinder the German armor, many of the sluice gates had already been opened flooding large areas. While slowing the German forces, these flooded fields also severely hindered the potential for any large scale allied troop movement beyond the coast.

On May 24th, the Allied forces mostly in disarray except for a few “holding actions” were on the verge of collapse. On that same date an order was issued for the German armor to halt. The order was requested by Generals Von Rundstedt and Kluge. In their request they shared the belief that the Allied forces now bottled up in the Flanders – Dunkirk area were preparing for a counter strike or break out. The geography of Northern France and Western Belgium was not conducive to the German armor due to poor roads, soft fields and flooded canals. The German forces, especially those of Army Group-B had narrowed their rapid mobile attack to only a few roads and bridges leaving their infantry days behind. The “Halt Order” as it became known was intended to give the Germans a chance to consolidate their forces in preparation for the anticipated Allied breakout. Strategically, the German armor was planned as the tip of the spear, but infantry and artillery were supposed to be close behind and fill in the gaps between armored units. If the Allies were planning a breakout, the gaps in the German lines might be vulnerable. With all this in mind. Hitler endorsed the order on May 24th.

There is some debate as to whether the “halt order” was also tied to political posturing within the Nazi Party. The Luftwaffe’s (Germany’s Airforce) leadership was much higher positioned in the Nazi party than Army leadership. On May 24th another order titled Directive No. 13 was issued to the Luftwaffe calling for the annihilation of the French, English and Belgian forces now consolidated in the pocket centered on Dunkirk. Regardless of halting ground forces for a few days, the Germans confidently believed that the Allied troops were doomed.

On May 26th General Gort, Commander of the BEF began to realize the futility of the situation. Gort had foreseen that the defense along the Lys Canal as earlier ordered by Gemelin could not be carried out. This reasoning was based on the knowledge that the Germans had already flanked that position to the north. Leveraging the lull, British and French forces got organized enough for a reasonable defense around Dunkirk. Gort had lost faith in the French and had begun discussing with his senior officers an evacuation possibility as early as the 16th. The 2nd Division of the BEF at the cost of more than half its strength created a corridor that day that allowed for the escape of the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 42nd division from German facing areas to within the besieged Dunkirk region. Without consulting the French or the Belgian commanders, Gort began to prepare plans for an evacuation. Gort selected the port of Dunkirk for his evacuation site. Dunkirk had good port facilities, defensive marshes that would hinder attacking armor and the longest sand beach in Europe where large forces of men could be organized and assembled.

On May 27th, as the Germans were consolidating their positions, members of the 3rd SS Division machine-gunned 97 English and French prisoners in what has become known as the Le Paradis massacre. Also on the 27th the “halt order” was lifted. The German supply lines and infantry divisions had caught up with the fast moving armor divisions, but the opportunity for a complete victory had been lost and an entrenched Allied defense had been established around Dunkirk.

Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk was approved and began executing on the 26th of May. Over 860 ships of various sizes were mobilized as part of the flotilla. 39 of the vessels were actual commissioned ships of the Royal Navy, the rest were merchant marine, fishing boats, pleasure craft, yachts and even a few powered lifeboats. One of the major challenges was getting the troops to be evacuated onto ships. The German air power had already destroyed most of the harbor facilities, but the two large sea walls made of stone and concrete remained and were repurposed for moving troops to ships. The eastern most of these two sea walls stretched nearly a mile out to sea affording room for many vessels at once to be loading and evacuating soldiers.

The initial version of the plan was expected to only recover 45,000 troops from the BEF in a two day window before the defensive perimeter collapsed. Unfortunately, in the first two days just under 25,000 were evacuated. But the “halt order” and the marshes around Dunkirk provided the Allies with an opportunity to get organized and structure a rearguard allowing for troop evacuations to continue beyond a mere 2 days. On June 4th, the remainder of the rearguard consisting of 40,000 French troops surrendered, but their efforts saved the lives of many thousands of soldiers. During the period from May 26 to June 4 over 338,000 soldiers were evacuated including 75,000 French troops. When all the numbers were totaled nearly 200 sea craft of various sizes and classes were lost.

Ultimately, what happened at Dunkirk was one of the most significant turning points of the war. At the conclusion of World War I, the French Army was considered one of the most formidable Armies of its day. This notion persisted until May of 1940 and Dunkirk. The French deployed 94 of its 157 divisions against the 39 active German divisions with another 40 in reserve. The French were still using horses to move artillery and had only fully motorized 20 divisions. More than a third of the French troops were reservist over 30 years old casting doubt on their fitness and willingness to fight. The BEF consisted of 10 divisions which were considered the best equipped and best trained in the theatre and were staffed by professional soldiers. The German forces, despite their previous successes were viewed as being dependent on gadgets and politically trickery. It was generally believed that when the Germans faced “a real army” they would find themselves humbled. With fixed fortifications and limited, but very dated tanks and mobile artillery…the French were not looking to the future of warfare. Clearly, arrogance cost the French dearly in readiness and enemy assessment.

Following Neville Chamberlain’s resignation in May of 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10th, 1940. In cooperation with the faltering French government, one of the first orders he gave to a general in the field was ultimately ignored. Facing the real possibility that France would fall and Germany would be just across the channel, he did not want to commit in full strength the Royal Navy to the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force. With the Admiralty advising that German air power could destroy the fleet Operation Dynamo leveraged “the reserve fleet” along with only a handful of destroyers. With an expectation of bringing home less than 45,000 troops this seemed reasonable.

The response by the “reserve fleet” coupled with the “halt order” allowed for more troops to be brought home than anyone could have imagined. While the press was quick to call this a victory, Churchill was quick to warn that this was “a colossal military disaster”. Enough equipment, fuel and ammunition was left behind to outfit 8-10 divisions and Germany was now just across the channel. Short of supplies on the home front, the most common troop transport for British troops became repurposed school busses. The loss of some of their newest and best equipment was a bitter pill for the British Royal Army.

One of the extremely important lessons for British Royal Army that created controversy for the rest of the war was command ownership. Many of the BEF losses were blamed on poor strategy and ill-conceived plans by the French. With the exception of Eisenhower, all British forces would serve only under British leadership for the remainder of the war. Even when future orders did come from Eisenhower, they had to be vetted by senior British general.

For the Germans, Dunkirk was scored as a victory…but was clearly an opportunity lost. When the German forces stopped to regroup with their halt order, they afforded the Allies an opportunity to create and fortify a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk. Even when the order was lifted, the opportunity for an easy push to the sea had been lost. The defenses held for eight days affording the escape to fight another day for over 253,000 battle hardened professional British soldiers and another 75,000 French troops.

For the Allies, the most painful of lessons that they learned was that the German military was a force to be taken seriously and the nature of war had changed significantly.

Many accounts of Dunkirk will tell the individual stories of bravery and tragedy on those beaches. But Dunkirk is also about a critical lost opportunity and key lessons that would change how the rest of the war to come in the European Theater would be fought.

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Denis Waitley
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