DUNKIRK 1940 – Defeat or Victory?

Talk by Brig. Hugh Willing C.B.E. on 8th October 2014

It was a fateful decision that would ultimately transform a military defeat into a moral victory.   Operation Dynamo was the largest evacuation of allied forces during WWII and an emotive event.   Two newspaper quotes offer different points of view:

“So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence.   In that harbour, such a hell on earth as never blazed before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that had hidden the soul of democracy fell away.   There, beaten but unconquered in shining splendour, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hitler cannot command.   It is in the great tradition of democracy.   It is a future.   It is victory.” (New York Times 1st June 1940)

“For us Germans the word Dunkirchen will stand for all time for victory in the greatest battle of annihilation in history.   But, for the British and the French who were there, it will remind them for the rest of their lives of a defeat that was heavy, no army had every suffered before.”   (Der Adler 5th June 1940)

     Few of the German Sixth Army, which had attacked the Low Countries, and tore through the Ardennes towards the English Channel, could have envisaged that the war would last another five years after Dunkirk and they would end up on the losing side!

As German forces continued their advance through Europe, General Viscount Gort, Commander of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) in France, could see the German invaders were getting the upper hand.   The lightening “Blitzkrieg” through Belgium and Northern France had split the allied troops.   Faced with the deteriorating situation, General Gort made the decision to evacuate troops from the beaches of Northern France.

Winston Churchill and Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay met at Dover Castle, and agreed the evacuation would be carried out by a fleet of destroyers and merchant ships: supplementing these were over 700 ‘little ships’.   In planning it was hoped that 45,000 troops could be rescued over two days, as it was expected German interference would undoubtedly halt the operation after 48 hours.   At the time, however, the success of the mission seemed highly unlikely.   The British Army, joined by some French and Belgian forces, would have to fight their way to Dunkirk and defend the town from German attack and hope that they could defend the Eastern Mole, the Dunkirk pier still in British hands, which became a vital evacuation point.   Churchill had hoped 30,000 men would be lifted off while Admiral Ramsay hoped for 45,000.   While Britain still had an army there was hope.

Guided by the smoke and flame filled sky above Dunkirk the rescue fleet made its way through continuous German attack to reach the stranded troops.   8,000 men were rescued on the first night; a major attempt on the 28th May rescued a further 16,000 but many vessels were sunk or damaged – including nine destroyers.   Fighter planes also suffered heavy losses: the RAF lost 177 planes and the Luftwaffe 132 over Dunkirk.   On the 29th May an unexpected turn of fate took place: the German army on Hitler’s orders stopped its advance on Dunkirk and the panzer divisions called back.   Convinced that the area could be captured by the German air force alone, Hitler had reduced his arsenal.   Thus the weakened German forces made it possible for the Allies to rescue 30,000 men, while on the next day over 68,000 were evacuated, and another 10,000 or so overnight.   On the 1st June another 65,000 were rescued.   Allied material losses, however, were huge – the stores, vehicles and equipment were strewn around Northern France.

British troop casualties amounted to 68,000 while French losses were around 290,000.   German casualties, on the other hand, amounted to 27,074 killed and 111,034 wounded.   The statistics tell the story.   Hitler had reason to be pleased with his forces and his “order of the Day” on 5th June stated: “Soldiers of the West Front!   Dunkirk has fallen….. with it ended the greatest battle in Wold History!  Soldiers!   My confidence in you knows no bounds.   You have not disappointed me.”

     While Churchill praised the efforts of all concerned, he warned that we must not assign to the attributes of victory.   “Wars are not won by Evacuations.”   He was particularly proud of the Royal Navy crews and officers whose expertise was instrumental in manoeuvring so close to the shore to rescue troops from the beaches.   If Churchill’s leadership had been doubted – and in some quarters it had, prior to the evacuation – after Dunkirk, his guidance was never questioned.   To everyone’s astonishment, the vast bulk of the army had been rescued and while there was still an army, there was still hope.

If the evacuation had not been successful, Churchill would have been left to bow to pressure and seek Peace Terms.   The outcome of the war would have been vastly different.   In fact Hitler had never really wished to enter a war with Britain.   He admired a country whose Empire he believed powerfully re-enforced his ideas of racial domination, commenting that “to maintain their Empire, Britain needs a strong continental power at its side.   Only Germany can be that power.”

The aftermath of Dunkirk significantly aroused American sentiment, and by mid-June half a million rifles were on their way across the Atlantic.   British forces had arrived back in England with no weapons, and many felt an element of shame.   If Britain had signed a peace agreement it is very unlikely the USA would have been prepared to intervene.   As it was, it proved the resolve of the nation under Churchill’s leadership, and from his rallying speeches the citizens were spurred on to unwavering defiance.

However, as Britain gained one ally, it lost another.   On 22nd June France signed an armistice, in the same wagon-lit near Compiegne, where in 1918 Marshal Foch had received the German emissaries.   Later the site was razed.

A stunned French public searched for a scapegoat: they felt embittered and abandoned by Britain.   Germany poured propaganda onto the resentment, claiming British troops forced French soldiers out of the boats.   Nothing could be further from the truth.   In fact over 102,000 of the 123,000 French troops rescued were lifted into British vessels.   France felt Britain could not be relied upon and French mistrust prevailed for decades.   It can be no co-incidence that it was France, under de Gaulle, which vetoed Britain’s application to join the Common Market in the 1960s.

In June 1940 Britain stood alone.   For some this was rather a relief.   King George VI reflected such a sentiment in a letter to his mother, Queen Mary.   On 27th June he wrote “Personally I feel happier we have no Allies to be polite to and to pamper.”

After their experience in France, much of the armed forces felt the same way as the King.   Churchill played upon this theme.   His rallying cries made an instant impression on the public.   Dunkirk had proved the much publicised civilian, the myth of an army saved by ‘little boats’, had united a nation.   A sense of involvement, lacking since the declaration of war in 1939, now provided Britain with a second chance; having sleepwalked into conflict, the country prepared instantaneously.   By mid-July over a million men enrolled in the LDV (Local Defence Volunteers).   Roadblocks and pillboxes sprang up, signposts re-arranged or removed, barbed wire and beach fortifications were laid.

Copies of Hitler’s peace offer made no impression on a determined people.   Hitler lost his patience and considered if necessary, to carry out an invasion, but subsequently changed his mind.   If the Nazis had attempted an invasion immediately after Dunkirk, Germany would have been numerically superior by land and air.   Hitler refused to listen to his generals, particularly General Kurt Student who had worked at an invasion plan.   Luckily for Britain, the General had been seriously wounded in Rotterdam.   He would probably have been the only one who could have influenced Hitler to change his mind.

Goering attempted to engage multiple air combat, bombing airfields and munition factories.   He considered Britain’s very young pilots no match for German air superiority – yet they were.   Britain’s plans were faster and lighter and Goering failed.   In the end, Hitler abandoned operation Sea Lion, thinking he saw easier prizes on the Eastern Front.   As his forces had brushed aside France, considered the great warrior nation, he thought a similar lightning campaign in Russia would have equal success.   Such was his confidence that as Britain began to re-arm and prepare for ‘total’ war following Dunkirk, Hitler actually ordered a reduction on some war production.

All too often Dunkirk is regarded as the time when scores of patriotic citizens leapt into their tiny craft to rescue their army in its hour of need.   Certainly this occurred, but the truth is that most of the small vessels were in the hands of a wide assortment of experienced Naval personnel.

Dunkirk became a necessary myth, but its importance in shaping the course and development of World War II is often vastly underestimated.   It is now considered by historians as the beginning of the end of the Third Reich.

Val Tunbridge