World War II: The Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk
The Miracle Of Dunkirk
The rescue itself was deemed a ‘miracle’ as a hastily assembled flotilla of military and civilian vessels of every description ran a gauntlet of air attacks by the German Luftwaffe to ferry the troops to safety.
For eight months, the opposing armies had only watched one another warily. Then, on the 10th May 1940, the Sitzkreig or ‘Phoney War’ was shattered with the German invasion of France and the Low Countries. In the north, 30 divisions of Army Group B advanced across the frontiers of The Netherlands and Belgium on a 200 mile front. Further south, 45 divisions of Army Group A slashed through the Ardennes Forest and skirted the defences of the Maginot Line. Led by one of the world’s foremost proponents of mobile warfare, General Heinz Guderian, German tanks and motorised infantry swept relentlessly northwest in a great arc, reaching the coast in only 10 days.
The startling swiftness of the German offensive threatened to trap all Allied troops north of the thrust by Army Group A as Guderian sent three panzer divisions racing towards the Channel ports of Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. Three key positions, the French at Lille, Belgian Army units along the Lys River and the British at Calais, offered resistance to the German onslaught. Within 72 hours of reaching Abbeville, the Germans captured both Boulogne and Calais, and elements of the 1st Panzer Division had advanced to within 12 miles of Dunkirk, the sole remaining avenue of escape for Allied forces in northern France and Belgium. Although he had been ordered to mount a counterattack in support of the French, Field Marshal John, Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, chose instead to concentrate his troops in the vicinity of Dunkirk in order to evacuate as many soldiers as possible to the relative safety of England. The heroic defence of Lille by the French, of Boulogne by the 2nd Battalion Irish Guards and a battalion of the Welsh Guards, and Calais by the British 30th Infantry Brigade, bought precious time for Gort to prepare a defensive perimeter around Dunkirk. But the effort appeared to be in vain as German tank commanders peered at the town’s church spires through binoculars.
Did This Man Save The BEF?
The Panzers Pause
Quite unexpectedly, the greater assistance to the Allied evacuation plan came from Hitler himself. On the 24th May the Fuhrer visited the headquarters of General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, at Charleville. Influenced by Reichsmarschall Herman Goring to allow his Luftwaffe to deliver the death blow to the enemy at Dunkirk, Hitler directed Rundstedt to halt the tanks of six panzer divisions along the Aa canal. Guderian was rendered ‘utterly speechless’ by the order. For nearly 48 hours the German ground assault abated and the Allied troops around Dunkirk were pummelled by screeching Stukas and strafed by Luftwaffe fighters. On the 26th May, the ground attack resumed but the reprieve allowed Gort to patch together the tenuous defence of a 30 mile stretch of beach from Gravelines in the south to Nieuport, Belgium, in the north. Two days later Belgian King Leopold III ordered his forces to surrender, and the Allied defensive perimeter continued to contract. Eventually the Allies were squeezed into a pocket only 7 miles wide.
As early as the 20th May, while the Allied debacle on the Continent was unfolding, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill authorised the preparation of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France.
The hard pressed Royal Navy could not possibly supply the number of vessels needed for the rescue, and Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey called for boats in excess of 30 feet in length to assemble at ports in England. Cabin cruisers, ferries, sailing schooners and their civilian crews joined Royal Navy destroyers in the treacherous 55 mile journey through a maze of German contact mines sown in the Channel, under continuous air attack and often within range of fire from German heavy artillery.
The Mad Scramble
Luftwaffe bombing had set the town of Dunkirk ablaze and wrecked the port facilities. Rescue vessels were compelled to risk running aground in the shoals along the beaches or to tie up at one of two ‘moles’- rocky breakwaters covered with planking wide enough for men to stand three abreast- in order to take soldiers aboard. Countless acts of heroism occurred as vessels made numerous shuttle runs. One 60 foot yacht, the Sundowner, carried 130 soldiers to safety, while close to a hundred perished aboard the paddlewheel steamer Fenella when a German bomb ripped through its deck and detonated. Nearly one third of the 693 boats involved were destroyed, but from the 26th May until the final rescue run in the pre-dawn hours of the 4th June, a total of 338,226 Allied soldiers reached England.
When the battered and exhausted Allied troops arrived, they were welcomed as heroes. Townspeople poured out of their homes with food and drink for the famished soldiers. Virtually all of their heavy equipment had been abandoned on the Dunkirk beaches, thousands of their comrades were soon killed or captured, and the armed forces of Britain and France had suffered one of the greatest military defeats in their history.
Yet these men had survived. Amid the celebration Churchill groused, ‘Wars are not won by evacuation.’ He later wrote, ‘There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end…and the tale of the Dunkirk beaches will shine in whatever records are preserved of our affairs.’
Historians have debated Hitler’s reasons for halting the panzers. Some assert that the focus of the Germans was already on the complete defeat of France and the capture of Paris. Others say that Hitler was concerned about the marshy terrain in Flanders, which was less than ideal for the manoeuvring of tanks. The tanks themselves had been driven rapidly and engaged for some time. Many of them undoubtedly needed refitting and some of their precious number would have been lost in all-out attack on the Allied defences. Goring had argued that the Luftwaffe was certainly more loyal and fervently Nazi than the leadership of the German Army; therefore, his arm should be given the honour of annihilating the enemy.