Being a blue blooded Brit, and all that, I decided to write my piece on how historians view Dunkirk.
My earliest thoughts on it were shaped by early black and white war films; with noble Tommies against vile Huns, gallantly beating out their escape, while under heavy attack. The truth about the matter was far from straightforward, with a host of variables, as well as lots of good luck. For us Dunkirk- though admittedly a failure, we did flee the field after all- was an amazing feat of sheer courage, National spirit, as well as raw tenacity, refusing to ?kick the can’ despite every odd stacked against us- rather like in the Battle of Agincourt. As we all know the story, I see no point in telling a biased version of events, so I will go through the interesting books I found.
Interestingly enough the authors generally focus on different themes, either the success’ or failures of a particular side. My first book (see bibliography for details),edited by J. R. M. Butler, is surprisingly objective for a UK Military series book.
Admittedly slightly biased, yet at the same time remarkably fair to Germany in its appraisals. The book starts before the retreat, of the mining(with around 7000 mines) of the channel, so creating a protective passage to France taking place between 11th September to October. This was completely successful bar one U-boat which came though before its completion. Three tried to break through, the U 12, and U 40 being blown up the third grounded itself trying to escape the mine field to be shot by surface vessels. Then it describes as many of the books do how many men returned to safety(approximately 337,000), which was far in excess of their wildest dreams of only 45,000, at the very most.
It goes on to praise the men involved, is a classic example of co-operation by the three Services then before it goes on to talk about the Germans, reminds us of the casualties, the Navy lost 228 ships, 45 badly damaged. It gives reasons why the German tanks were not sent down to the beaches, which would certainly have destroyed the Allied troops. Hitler strongly said that, the tank arm must not be used for operations for which it is best suited. Under no circumstances?be permitted to become entangled in the endless confusion of rows of houses in Belgian towns.
Also, it is noteworthy that at the time neither Guderian nor Kleist when they saw the position at close quarters thought that tanks should be used to attack Dunkirk. The main reasons for the German failures are given as, Bock’s inability to exploit the gap in the British left when the Belgian front was broken. And, The mistake of German High Command in thinking that Ostend was our most important evacuation port. It concludes quite rightly that though the Germans tried their best, they failed.
Our next book is by Basil Collier, who despite his unfortunate name, gives us a very interesting insight to the air war, the priorities of the defense of England, and the tactical repercussions for both sides. The withdraw was given air support by Air Vice-Marshall Gossage, in charge of No. 11 group, who were responsible for the air defense of South- East England. The problem for Gossage was not very easy, on the one hand he had the Air- Ministry, telling him to, protect Dunkirk with maximum strength, yet he also had to consider the very plausible chance that German bombers could pop up, and attack undefended tracts of land, if he moved his bombers from that region. The books conclusion was that, the effort made was about the biggest compatible with prudence.
Gossage, did not concentrate squadrons in the area, preferring instead to fly up to an average of 300 sorties per day. The heroic pilots who were, almost at cracking point at the third day, kept up their efforts, the general consensus from the men on the ground seemed to be positive, a vital factor in the success of the mission. However the main bonus was that it boosted moral, for the Battle of Britain, which incidentally was another brilliant success for us, but I will touch on that subject again when I get to Norman Gelb’s book. The book points out one major failure of the escape, that practically all the Allies Heavy equipment had to be left behind, 600 tanks, more than 1000 field guns, 500 anti-air guns, 850 anti-tank guns, many thousands of anti-tank rifles, a large amount of lorries, cars, and motorcycles, and huge amounts of ammunition, and supplies.
The next book by Walter Lord, talks a fair deal on the Germans, who he claims had a few leadership problems. He states that although Hitler wanted to stop the evacuation, he did not want to risk his armour in the process. Hitler thought the Allied army was finished, considering how thin his lines were spread out, he thought it best to keep his armour out of the fray, saving them for the heart of France. The British had had a brief offensive near Arras, which despite their noble efforts, was beaten off. Thankfully for us this scared Hitler, 50% of his tanks were out of action so he was reluctant to pit the rest of them against those English lions. At this time the slightly egotistical Herman Goring, pushes Hitler to let his Luftwaffe finish the beleaguered army.
The author points out a curious point that, the Luftwaffe rarely strafed the crowded beaches?never used fragmentation bombs. Not through lack of desire, but lack of doctrine, Stuka’s trained for ground support, not for interdiction. As ever and to Germany’s surprise Britain was far from ruin, ironically the populace was so excited about the escape that Winston Churchill had to remind them all that, the campaign had been ?a colossal military disaster?wars are not won by evacuations. Yet the author also points out that the German propaganda machine went straight for this wonderful opportunity for them. Norman Gelb’s book provides us with some more interesting details. That Hitler thought that England would desire a, sensible peace agreement after they lost their army.
However that was before he found out that nearly all of them had escaped back to England. In Pierre Galante’s book we have another more interesting relevation, according to General Heusinger, Hitler wanted to preserve England at all costs. He didn’t hesitate to make statements like, ?We need the English-they’re the policemen of the world?and we’re of the same blood. Then from another book by Robert Payne tells of another story in which Hitler expressed a desire to, the continuation of the British Empire?he said, he was prepared to offer the services of the German Army to the British, should they find themselves confronted with uprisings in their colonies?He said he had decided to make peace with Britain in a manner that would reflect honour on both nations. So perhaps this is why he let the Allies leave, but he could have made the escape a lot easier.
The effects of Dunkirk. As briefly mentioned, the Boost to the English moral in Dunkirk, helped the Battle of Britain. This Battle lead to the loss of 1,882 German aircraft, halving their aircraft available for the blitzkrieg into Russia. Also the indecisive win at Dunkirk, meant that 40 divisions were tied up in Europe, and Africa, further weakening their offensive capabilities for their push into Russia. Maybe he could have had full control of Moscow before that bitter winter set in. Gelb points out another fact, the massive amount of aid America sent to Russia.
According to the Secretary of State Cordell Hull on Russia, Had we had any doubt of Britain’s determination to keep on fighting, we would not have taken the steps we did to get material aid to her. (You must wonder would the Cold War have been so intense without the aid of such tactful leader’s). In the book by Walter Lord, on what the word Dunkirk conjures up for us, which I believe sums the whole affair up rather nicely: To the French, it suggests bitter defeat; to the Germans opportunity forever lost?For the British?symbolises a generosity?willingness to sacrifice for common good.