There are many important battles that have defined history, and most of the times, only a few of them are published and presented in all sorts of contexts. For example, we all have heard about the Battle of Stalingrad or Pearl Harbor. Recently the Battle of Dunkirk started to gain more and more attention.
Yes, we know that there is no need for further articles, now that a big budget movie is available, but we think that it would be better to present some facts in a more objective way.
The Battle of Dunkirk took place between 27 May and 4 June 1940, in Dunkirk, France. The crash happened between Nazi Germany and the Allied troops, and it was part of the Battle of France on the Western Front.
The biggest hope for blocking the German advance was related to the Maginot line of fortifications, built along the German-French border, but the problem was related to the fact that the German troops went through the Netherlands before the arrival of the French.
Even if the French General Maurice Gamelin, who was the Supreme Allied Commander, launched the so-called “Plan D”, with the intention of entering Belgium in order to stop the German attack, it was too late.
The German Army Group A went through the Ardennes during May 1940 and reached Sedan. Eventually, they turned to the English Channel during the “Sickle Cut”, or “The Yellow Plan”, how Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein, who wanted to flank the Allied forces, called it.
Many Allied counter-attacks were launched, but without reaching any positive result; the German troops reached the French coast on May 20, managing to cause major problems to the Allies. The German’s attack caused the separation of the British Expeditionary Force from the French and the Belgian armies. Afterwards, the Germans moved north following the coast, with the intention of capturing the ports and catch the British and French troops before they could evacuate the beaches.
When everything seemed lost, a strange gust of luck saved many of the Allied soldiers. At some point, the almost unstoppable German advance stopped. What is known as the “Halt Order”, saved many lives. The Germans stopped their advance on Dunkirk, in order to regroup and avoid a possible Allied escape. The Germans had a three-day delay, three days that became vital for the Allied, considering that during those three days they managed to build some defensive positions and most important to organize the Dunkirk evacuation.
The turning point
The situation was truly desperate. The Brits were even considering a conditional surrender to Germany, but the three days of delay changed the situation, permitting the Allies to evacuate around 350,000 soldiers.
The so-called “Halt Order” was the moment that made the vital difference. At the beginning the “Halt Order” decision was directly related to Hitler’s will, but in fact the situation was built around the decisions coming from Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Günther von Kluge.
The Allied forces stationed at Dunkirk seemed doomed and very close to destruction. The annihilation of the Allied troops was attributed to the German pilots from the Luftwaffe and the infantrymen of the Army Group B. The pilots were supplied with methamphetamine in order to sustain the fight missions even after two consecutive weeks of fighting. Until today, we don’t have a clear answer related to the halt of the German troops.
Some say that both Hitler and Von Rundstedt wanted to regroup and conserve the armored forces for another operation called “Fall Rot”. Others stated that Hitler was interested in a diplomatic peace with Britain, before the Operation Barbarossa.
That is what the historian Brian Bond concluded about the situation:
“Few historians now accept the view that Hitler’s behavior was influenced by the desire to let the British off lightly in [the] hope that they would then accept a compromise peace. True, in his political testament dated 26 February 1945 Hitler lamented that Churchill was “quite unable to appreciate the sporting spirit” in which he had refrained from annihilating the British Expeditionary Force, at Dunkirk, but this hardly squares with the contemporary record. Directive No. 13, issued by the Supreme Headquarters on 24 May called specifically for the annihilation of the French, English and Belgian forces in the pocket, while the Luftwaffe was ordered to prevent the escape of the English forces across the channel.” Brian Bond – 1990
Eventually, Von Rundstedt stated that the “Halt Order” related to the Dunkirk situation was “one of the great turning points of the war”.
During the Dunkirk “situation”, there were several important clashes that shaped the outcome of the battle. We remember the Battle of Wytschaete, where the British were pushed back by German infiltrated troops, or the Battle of Poperinge, where the German Luftwaffe made the difference, forcing another retreat of the British troops.
Another crucial moment at Dunkirk was the surrender of the Belgian troops. On 28 May 1940, the Germans outnumbered the Belgian troops commanded by King Leopold. The situation was tragic, so Leopold surrendered without consulting the Belgian government.
King George VI sent a telegram to Lord John Gort, the Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force in Western Europe:
”All your countrymen have been following with pride and admiration the courageous resistance of the British Expeditionary Force during the continuing fighting of the last fortnight. Faced by circumstances outside their control in a position of extreme difficulty, they are displaying a gallantry which has never been surpassed in the annals of the British Army. The hearts of everyone of us at home are with you and your magnificent troops in this hour of peril”
After reading the telegram, Gort sent three British divisions to fill the positions left empty by the Belgian surrender.
On May 25th, the War Office took the evacuation decision. Between May 27 and June 4 338,226 men managed to escape the Dunkirk hell, among them 139,997 were French, Polish or Belgian soldiers (and also a small number of Dutch soldiers). Using 861 vessels made the Evacuation, but 243 of them were sunken during the operation.
Different numbers were related to the aircraft losses: some are saying that the British Fighter Command lost 106 aircrafts over Dunkirk, while the Luftwaffe around 135, others claim that the British lost 177 aircrafts while the Germans 240.
Dunkirk represented a severe loss for the Allies, considering the total incapacity to stop the German troops, and also the huge quantity of materials lost, destroyed or captured from the Dunkirk’s Allied positions.
In the same time, what happened at Dunkirk would be remembered as the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, because of the miraculous evacuation of the Allied troops who seemed to be condemned to the worst fate.