In May 1940 the Germans decisively defeated the Franco-British armies and their Belgian and Dutch allies. By the 15th the French high command admitted that they had lost the battle. By 20th May German Panzers had reached the coast, splitting the allied armies in Belgium from France. On 22nd May German armour was poised to capture the ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk. Yet two weeks later around 325,000 troops got away from encirclement by an enemy with air superiority. How did so the British and 125,000 Frenchmen get away? Where can you find the evidence today?
The French fought with greater skill, determination and courage than is given credit by Anglo-Saxon accounts. Although French senior leadership was weak and indecisive, many British accounts mention small groups of Frenchmen and tanks turning up at the right moment to save the day. The Germans spent time reducing the pocket of French troops around Lille. The French army also were the rearguard for Dunkirk.
The British rearguard actions
The British fought several rearguard actions to protect the flanks of the corridor through which troops withdrew to Dunkirk.
Mount Cassel, the highest point south of Dunkirk, was held by a British brigade which was sacrificed to deny this key ground to the Germans.
The town of Hazebrouck and the villages of Wormhout, Hondeghem were all held by British troops who put up a stubborn resistance.
The first world war battlefields of Ieper and Messines were part of the BEF’s defences.
The German Halt Order
The German high command ordered its Panzer divisions to halt on the 23rd May, and only released them three days later. The Bundeswehr historian Frieser identified nine different explanations for the Halt Order. The order did not originate with Hitler, but with some German officers concerned about the threat to their flanks. Higher command disagreed about the riskiness of the panzer advance. Hitler sided with the risk averse and the Panzers were halted. The British Official history denies that this was a significant factor.
The threat to the German advance appeared more real on the maps in Hitler’s HQ in the western border of Germany, than to the tactical commanders in France. The key decisions were taken in Hitler’s command bunker, which still exists as a ruin, but is on private land.
The Air War
The apparent success of the Luftwaffe masked the heavy losses suffered by the German air force during the three week campaign. Many German aircraft were still based in Germany. By the time that the Germans reached the channel coast, the Germans were further way from their bases than the RAF based in Britain. There are few traces of the air war over Dunkirk, except for the graves of the airmen lost in the battle.
The Arras Counter Attack
On 21st May the Allies mounted a counter attack south from Arras. This was the only attack mounted from the main allied armies north of the German penetration. Although British histories focus on the role of British troops, French armour also played an important part in the battle.
The battle took place over the 1915-17 battlefields of Artois among the cemeteries and memorials from that conflict. There are few memorials from 1940 apart from the war graves. There is a memorial to the Royal Tank Regiment in Arras and a second at Beaurains with a tank track theme. The graves of three men in Wailly communal cemetery are a reminder of the attack famously halted by Rommel in person. Two are British and one French.
The Royal Navy
The evacuation at Dunkirk could not have taken place without the brilliant and courageous operations of the Royal Navy, expertly commanded by Admiral Bertram Ramsey. Ramsey was appointed to plan the naval and masterminded the operation from what had been the dynamo room in the fortress under Dover castle, and gave it’s name to operation Dynamo.
Perfidious Albion – British Determination
After the failure of the Arras Counter attack, the British were single minded about evacuating the maximum number of British Troops. The French might have thought that the withdrawal to the coast was to form a defensive bastion. The British did not disabuse them of this until later. Alexander, the British commander on the ground, ignored a directive from Churchill that the British should provide half of the rear guard. There is truth in the claims the British extracted the maximum number of British troops at the expense of the French who were left on the beaches. The memorials to the French rear guard at Bray Dunes is a reminder of this.
Fortunes of War
Luck played a significant part.
The poorly planned and executed Arras counter attack hit the passing 7th Panzer Division at its weakest spot. Erwin Rommel the German divisional commander defeated the attack brilliantly, but exaggerated the size of the force he faced, which lead to a scare in the Germans HQ and the armour being halted.
The weather was kind to the Allies.. Rain in late May hampered the Germans, while the sea was never too rough to prevent an evacuation. Three days of gales of the sort that delayed D Day would have left much of the British Expeditionary Force on the beaches.
The collapse of France and the Low Countries in 1940 was one of the most dramatic and unexpected events in the Second World War. France was the world’s leading military power. Its ally Britain was the world’s leading naval power. Both had stronger economies than Germany, and could draw the resources of the world’s largest empires. Yet, in a short campaign the Germans defeated France, Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. There have been arguments about why ever since. Here are some of the arguments and where to go to gain insights into the campaign.
Had the Germans invented a new form of warfare? Tanks supported by dive bombers cutting a path through defences weakened by fifth columnists and parachutists. This term was coined by the media, not the Germans. It was more a description of the results of the battle rather than a deliberate tactic. However, the German invasion of the Netherlands was preceded by an advance guard dressed as Dutch policemen and audacious airborne landings seizing the ground for the panzers. The end of hostilities was marked by the bombing of Rotterdam.
The bombing of Rotterdam was reported by the world media as “Nazi frightfulness”, the airborne landings cost the Germans aircraft and men in what was really just a feint. There is still much that can be seen in the Rotterdam area.
2. Poor French Generalship
The first historian to write objectively about the Fall of France was a medieval historian called Marc Bloch, who served as a staff officer in the French First Army 1940 and was evacuated through Dunkirk. He wrote his book “Strange Victory” in September 1940 while in hiding. It would only be published in 1947, two years after his execution in June 1944 as a member of the resistance. His thesis was that the French generals had not noticed that the rhythm of modern warfare had changed its tempo and were incapable of thinking in terms of a new war. The German triumph was a triumph of intellect. There were many shortcomings in French generalship. The French Army was poorly prepared and under trained for modern war. The French “Methodical Battle” assumed that warfare had not changed significantly since 1918 and operated at a pedestrian pace. The Plan D strategy was predictable and left the allied armies unbalanced and without a reserve. Bloch’s own observations left him very critical of the General he served under, and of the French state. There is no French national museum of the Second World War. However, the Fort des Dunes near Dunkerque has a good audio visual display about the course of the 1940 campaign, in a location that is also a reminder of the gallant defence by the many French soldiers who fought bravely despite the disadvantages.
3. Rotten Fabric of the Third Republic
Bloch was not alone in thinking that France as a country was ill prepared for a second war against German. British generals such as Brooke and Spears commented at the time about the mood in France. American Journalist William L Shirer reported from the German side. His book on the Collapse of the Third Republic is a very readable account from 1870. Alister Horne’s To Lose a Battle describes France’s unstable democracy.
There isn’t a museum of 1930s France and the debacle of 1940 is not a matter for celebration. However there are sections in several museums about the events of the eras. The Memorial at Caen played a rather haunting recording , made by the Germans in secret, of the French delegation discussing the 1940 armistice terms with their government in Bordeaux.
4. The Germans had better tanks?
One of the early myths of the 1940 campaign was that the Germans had more and better tanks. In fact the allies had more tanks, which were generally more heavily armed and armoured than German tanks. However, German tanks had much better radios and were better supported by other troops and maintenance services. One French tank may have been a match for a single German tank, but the Germans hunted in packs. The best place to see 1940 French armour is the French Musee des Blindees Army Tank museum at Saumur. The nearby battlefield site of the doomed defence of the Loire bridges is a reminder of the gallantry shown by many French troops, often overlooked in accounts of the campaign. The largest tank battle was between Gembloux and Hannut in Begium where the tanks of the French Cavalry corps took on two panzer divisions.
5. Fifth Columns and Frightfulness?
The invasion was accompanied by a mass flight of Belgian and French civilians who clogged the roads. There were instances where German troops executed prisoners of war and civilians. The extreme right and left factions in Europe in the 1930s led to suspicion of Nazi sympathisers and fears of fifth columnists and spies. Apart from a handful of troops that crossed the border in Dutch police uniforms there were no fifth columnists. However, fears of fifth columnists and spies hampered the allies armies and fleeing refugees clogged the roads. British and French authorities treated civilians with suspicion and there are well documented cases of summary execution of Belgian and French civilians. There are no memorials to the dozens, if not hundreds, who perished at the hands of nervous soldiers.
6. The British were to Blame?
The British often see the Fall of France as merely as the overture to the national myth of Battle of Britain. But would there have been any need for the Battle of Britain if the British had done more to win the battle for France? The British took the lead in both appeasement at Munich and in declaring war in 1939. Britain had the stronger economy and should have been an equal partner. Yet much of British re-armament was directed to defending Britain from air attack and the supposed deterrent of its strategic bomber force. The excellent British integrated air defence system did not extend to its French Ally. The British neglected their land forces and had no provision for expeditionary force until February 1939. The French had hoped that the country which claimed to invent the tank and pioneered mechanised forces would provide a professional mobile corps. Instead it produced a partially trained and ill-equipped conscript force. The British government were keen to deny Dutch airfields to the Germans and enthusiastic supporters of the “Breda Extension” to the deployment plan which committed the French strategic reserves to an ill-fated dash to the Netherlands. Despite Gort’s status as the commander of an allied contingent he seems to have made little effort to influence overall strategy. Nor did British commanders, with some notable exceptions make any better use of the Phoney war than the French to prepare their soldiers for the type of war the Germans would wage. There is no single place to explore British culpability, except perhaps, the Arras area. Heavily fought over in the First war, the city was the site of GHQ in 1939-40. The Press were established in the Hôtel de l’Univers where General Mason-Macfarland, the head of the intelligence branch on 13th May gave the extraordinary briefing that he doubted that “Ever the British Army been placed in a graver position that that which the governments of the last twenty years placed it” Perhaps the visitor should follow with a critical eye the famous Arras counter attack from Vimy ridge and compare British capability and conduct at Arras and Cambrai in two world wars.
7. Command of the Air?
The idea of stuka dive bombers as flying artillery to support Panzers is an iconic image of the 1940 campaign. It is true that German air superiority played a big part in demoralising the allies, but the German air force wasn’t really dedicated to supporting the ground armies. The Luftwaffe made some important interventions at key moments, but German success was as much a consequence of allied inefficiency and poor long term planning. The Armee d’lAir and RAF fought hard and with stunning bravery – and the campaign cost the Luftwaffe dearly.
Unlike many British or American warbirds, few French aircraft from 1940 survived the war. The Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace, Le Bourget Airport, near Paris, has examples of two of the more advanced French fighters the Ms406 and Dewotine 520. The aerial battlefields over Sedan and the doomed RAF mission to the Bridge at Maastricht are possibly the best places to contemplate the air battles.
8. Intelligence failure?
The failure of the Allied intelligence services to identify the timing and direction of the German attack is on a par with Pearl Harbour. Despite indications of troop movements and bridging, the Germans achieved surprise, and allied reconnaissance aircraft failed to notice columns of German armour heading into the Ardennes. As all too often in history those in charge tended to ignore information that contradicted expectations and plans. Nor did the allies understand and react to the evidence of German capabilities despite the evidence from the Polish campaign.
The intelligence picture was complicated by attempts by the German resistance to Hitler warning the allies of planned dates for the invasion which were then postponed, and the accidental release of an early draft of the German plans when a courier landed by accident in Belgium.
9. Then Failed Alliance?
The 1940 campaign pitted the Germans against a coalition of Britain, France and the neutral counties invaded by the Germans. Despite the successful coalition of 1914-18 the Allied coalition of 1939-40 failed spectacularly.
Although appeasement may have given time to re-arm, it sacrificed credibility among potential allies. 1940 might have turned out differently if Belgium had remained in alliance with France and Britain. Nor did the British and French invest in the liaison organisation that evolved between 1914 and 1918. The story of 1940 is of a coalition unravelling with each party distrusting the other. One place to explore this is in the historic Hotel du Sauvage in Cassel where some of the more contentious inter allied discussions took place concerning the evacuations at Dunkirk.
10. Operational Genius, a Cunning plan and Luck?
In his semi official history of the 1940 campaign The Blitzkrieg Legend the German military historian Karl Heinz Frieser, debunked many of the myths about the campaign. The campaign succeeded well beyond German expectations. That it did was a result of some original thinking by progressive German officers in the face of deep scepticism by others, rank disobedience by relatively junior panzer commanders such as Guderian, effective doctrine that enabled the Germans to operate much more quickly than the French and a slice of luck. There is a lot to see in the land campaign, from the moves through the Ardennes, the assault crossings of the River Meuse on a fifty mile front and the advance across northern France.
How to Find out More
Contact us for a discussion about the battles and battlefields of the 1940 campaign.
On 15th May General Bernard Law Montgomery, the British commander of the Allied land forces told the assembled allied commanders that the allied troops would press on inland south of Caen, securing airfields and providing a shield for a American breakout towards Brittany. But that did not happen. Instead, after brief battles on D Day and D+1 there was no further attempt to take the city until July. To some American and British air force, commanders it seemed that the British were not trying hard enough and that Montgomery was making excuses for failure.
General Bernard Law Montgomery is a controversial figure. A good Dunkirk and an outstanding record training soldiers troops took him to Army command in North Africa at El Alemein. He was the talisman of success for the British, inspiring soldiers to believe in victory. Monty was also arrogant, abrasive and undiplomatic, and far from universally popular even within the British Army. A Time Magazine article dated 10 January 1944, says that British staff officers circulated the description “Indomitable in defeat, indefatigable in attack, insufferable in victory!” attributed to Churchill.
The delay in capturing Caen strained relationships between soldiers and airmen and between Montgomery and his boss Eisenhower. Some members of Eisenhower’s staff even tried to get Montgomery dismissed. Americans started to think that they were bearing an unfair share of the fight and casualties. Its an idea that has persisted: the only mention Stephen Spielberg included about the British in Saving Private Ryan was that the British were “drinking tea in front of Caen”. But is that fair? To what extent was Montgomery to blame? Is there anywhere on the modern day battlefields of Normandy that can provide an insight.
Failings in the 3rd British Division
The task of the assaulting divisions is to break through the coastal defences and advance some ten miles inland on D Day. Great speed and boldness will be required to achieve this. …As soon as the beach defences have been penetrated not a moment must be lost.
1st British Corps Operation order No 1 5 May 1944
There were questions about the performance of the 3rd British Infantry Division tasked with capturing Caen. This Division landed on a single brigade front on Sword Beach. At H+295 (12.30pm) the 185th infantry Brigade Group scheduled to have landed and assembled its infantry tanks and artillery to d dash for Caen. But this did not happen.
The brigade landed roughly on schedule, with the infantry ashore around 10.00 but congestion on the beaches meant that none of the armour or supporting vehicles were off the beach by 12.30, when Brigade commander started the advance with infantry only on foot, partially by a circuitous route. The assault brigade had also met unexpected resistance at a German position south of Coleville-sur-Mer which imposed a further delay. By late afternoon the leading infantry battalion had reached the edge of Lebisey wood, on the ridge just north of Caen. Around the same time the German 21st Panzer Division launched the only German armoured attack in D Day. By the time this was stopped there would be no further advance towards Caen on D Day.
The next day, D+1, 7th June, 185th Brigade mounted an attack with a single battalion. This turned into a disaster as unsupported infantry tangled with German tanks. The Brigade commander K P (Kipper) Smith was dismissed.
Post war there has been much criticism of the Sword beach plan. Why land on a single brigade front? In rehearsals there were questions the performance of the brigade commander. Why was he given a critical role in the assault?
Staff college studies have also pointed to the 3rd Division becoming overloaded with tasks. Besides capturing Caen they were to protect their own beachhead, link up with the Canadians to their west and provide artillery and armour to support the airborne troops to their east.
Retired British General Mike Reynolds book “Eagles and Bulldogs” (2003) compares the fortunes of 3rd British and 29th US Divisions in Normandy. His chief criticism are of the divisional and brigade commanders, whose performance was found wanting,. and the failure of the British Army to train its infantry divisional and brigade commanders combine armour and infantry effectively.
Some historians such as Max Hastings have argued that man for man and unit for unit the Germans were better than the British, and Americans, who could only advance through brute force. However, historians such as John Buckley and Terry Copp have challenged this interpretation.
As God once said, and I think rightly.
Bernard Law Montgomery
Poor Allied Intelligence and Unrealistic expectations
One of the myths of D day is that the allies had supremely good intelligence. The Code breakers read the Germans communications. The Invasions maps showed every detail of the German defences, prepared from aerial photographs and with the aid of the gallant French Resistance. All true, – up to a point. There were a few things wrong with the Allied Intelligence brief. During the early months of 1944 the Germans moved several formations much closer to the coast as part of Rommel’s plan to defeat the allies on the beaches. Allied intelligence missed the presence of soldiers from the 352nd Infantry Division doubling the number of defenders at Omaha Beach. They also missed reinforcements to the 716th Division sector North of Caen, including half of the infantry and the anti tank battalion of the 21st Panzer Division. (The 21st Panzer Division was an incredible organisation commanded by an extraordinary figure – General Edgar Feuchtinger.) By 15th May, the day of Montgomery’s briefing, there could not be a dash inland to seize Caen. The Germans were already there in force.
When Caen was set as an objective, back in mid 1943 the planners based their assumptions on Germans forces in France consisting of between a best case of 20 divisions and a worst case of 50 divisions. By 6th June the Germans had 60 divisions in France, and chosen to deploy them as close to the coast as possible. It may be that a ten mile advance ashore after an assault landing was not achievable objective
The Germans did a good job of defending Caen.
War is a kind of democracy: The enemy gets a say. The biggest single reason why the British and Canadians advance was so slow was because the Germans committed the necessary resources to stop them. German doctrine required the commander to determine a point of main effort. In summer 1944 in Normandy the Germans decided that they would put their main effort against Caen. On D Day itself the German local Commander General Marcks organised the armoured counter attack from Caen. In the following days two more Panzer Divisions were brought up between Caen and Bayeux. The Germans would continue to reinforce the Caen sector through out June, bringing a whole SS Panzer Corps and about 100 heavy Tiger tanks to face the British and Canadians.
To be fair to the Allied commanders and their staff, they had studied German doctrine and predicted that the Germans would strike at the British and Canadian forces. This knowledge drove the allied strategy for the British and Canadians to act a s a shield was the basis for the role outlines as the British and e Germans who needed to throw the allies into the sea.
Eisenhower should take some of the Blame.
By and large Eisenhower is praised by everybody for taking the decision to launch D Day in marginal weather, while Montgomery takes the blame for failing to achieve the objectives. This isn’t wholly fair. Launching D Day in poor weather had consequences.
High sea states caused many problems. Some landing craft had to turn back to England and others were swamped. Few of the Amphibious DD Tanks swam ashore. Difficulties operating Rhino ferries slowed the landings.
The aerial bombardment was curtailed reducing the fire suipport on the beaches.
There were problems clearing obstacles and getting vehicles off the beach
This is an argument put forward by Stephen Badsey in “Culture Controversy, Cherbourg and Caen” a chapter in “The Normandy Campaign 1944 Sixty Years on”
Was Montgomery Over Cautious?
“The commander must decide how he will fight the battle before it begins. He must then decide who he will use the military effort at his disposal to force the battle to swing the way he wishes it to go; he must make the enemy dance to his tune from the beginning and not vice versa.”
Bernard Law Montgomery
One of the major criticisms of Montgomery is that he was overcautious and relied on overwhelming firepower. Behind this criticism is the suggestion that the British were not pulling their weight and that America was bearing a disproportionate proportion of the effort and cost of the Normandy Campaign, It is true that the USA suffered higher losses than the British and Canadians 125,847 compared to 83,825, but more American were landed. Expressed as a proportion the casualty rates for both allied forces was just over 10% of the troops landed by the end of August. (10.29% of US and 10.1% for the British)
Montgomery’s style was a series of methodical attacks supported by as much fire power as possible following as closely as possible his script for the battle. This was key to winning the confidence and loyalty of his men. For the first half of the war the British had tried to do too much with too little in too much of a hurry. There was also the shadow of the Somme. The men who served in Normandy grew up with the tales their fathers told of ill prepared attacks and huge losses. My father, a Normandy veteran, told me that if Montgomery was in charge, everything possible had been done to make sure that the operation would be successful.
The methodical approach suited the British Liberation Army. The experience of the 3rd British Division on D Day suggests that it wasn’t very good at improvised combined arms operations. This was a failing that would be shown up during the campaign.
There was a further reason for British caution. In 1944, after nearly five years of war, the British had few men to spare to replace casualties. Casualty rates in Normandy were much higher than the allies expected. The US Army could draw on infantry replacements from formations still in the USA. The British would have to reduce thew size of their army.
had more manpower reserves. During the campaign they
What Can we Blame Montgomery for?
Montgomery probably didn’t give much thought to the 15 May phase lines that would cause so much trouble. According to Lieutenant Colonel Kit Dawney, Montgomery’s Military Assistant, who drew them, the intermediate lines were spaced equally. According to Dawney, Montgomery did not care groundwise where he would be between D+1 and D+90 as he was confident we would beat the Germans in three months. He was not going to capture ground. He was going to destroy the enemy. (From Hamilton Montgomery Master of the Battlefield)
Arguably Montgomery had a point. As long as the Germans could not throw the allies into the sea, and the Allied forces ashore continued to expand the Allies would achieve the aim of Operation Overlord. The conduct of the battle rest was to wear down the Germans as efficiently as possible, even if it occasionally meant giving up ground.
Soldiers needed to be given clear geographic objectives even if the aim was to provoke an attritional battle – what Montgomery described as the “dogfight.” Military history is full of examples of troops being ordered to do “Capture X” with the commander fairly certain that the enemy won’t let them.
Those that have followed the accounts of British operations so far will have realised that General Montgomery’s named intentions were clearly stated, that in no case were their geographical objective reached; yet when each operation concluded with its stated object unrealised, he asserted he was satisfied with the result. To observers… the satisfaction he professed was incomprehensible.
Ellis Victory in The West Volume 1: The Battle for Normandy p355
The report lines came to be the focus of criticism. While he could structure his plans around destroying the enemy. the media and public associated success with conquering ground. Montgomery’s blindness to this did not help Eisenhower manage expectations at a time when there was pressure for progress and a growing fear that operations had bogged down.
Among the traits that irritated and infuriated Montgomery’s claims of infallibility particularly grated – and was easily disproved by critics. Eisenhower remarked that plans always change, and good commanders adapt. But Montgomery would claim that battle had played out as he had always predicted. To see examples, read “Decision in Normandy”. Carlo D’Este documented the backtracking by Montgomery.
Why did the British put up with Montgomery?
Montgomery was probably the most influential British field commander of the Second World War. He stood out in 1940 as the only divisional commander to use the phoney war of 1939-40 to train his division for mobile war. After Dunkirk his training methods influenced the whole of the Home Army, and still shape the modern British Army. In 1942 in North Africa he restored the morale of British army and confidence in their ability to beat the Germans. That wasn’t trivial. By 1942 British soldiers had begun to lose confidence in their commanders after a long run of disasters. A contemporary joke was that the initials BEF, (British Expeditionary Force) really stood for Back Every Friday – which is why the British in 1944 were the British Liberation Army. Montgomery’s methods are analysed in Stephen Hart’s “Colossal Cracks” (2007) which is a text book at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.
Where to see this story in Normandy?
Sword beach is not as heavily visited as Omaha beach. There is no Interpretation centre or commemorative preserved battlefield. There is evidence of the battle, but dotted around the resort villages that stretch from Ouestrhem to Lion-sur-Mer. Some of the concrete emplacements remain along the coast and inland, but most were removed.
The village of Colleville-sur-Mer changed its name to Colleville-Montgomery in honour of the British commander. There is a fine statue of him in on the road from the beach to the village. For many years this is where the British Normandy Veterans Association held their annual parade.
The Hillman fortified position that caused so many problems has been preserved by local volunteers and dedicated to the Suffolk Regiment.
There is nothing to interpret or commemorate the defeat of the German armoured counter attack on D Day. But the landscape south of Periers Ridge is still open countryside. The city of Caen has expanded north and villages such as Lebesiy and Epron are now suburbs. Enough of Lebisy wood is left for a battlefield visitor to see where the Germans halted 3rd ambushed 185 Brigade on D+!.
There is an exhibition on the post D Day battles for Caen at the museum at Bayeux just down from the Commonwealth Bayeux War Cemetery. The main memorials of the inland battles are the war cemeteries, each a reminder. The Canadians have done more than the British to explain their role with a series of interpretation boards. There are a few unit memorials to mark particularly grim battles.
Dunkirk is an interesting film. Its a striking piece ofcinema – a full hour using the techniques of Saving Private Ryan. All claimed to be based on historic images and using physical props and no CGI. In one sense its based on truth – but a rather distorted version of events.
What is true:
The Movie Locations
One of the most amazing features of the film is that much was shot on location in the real town of Dunkirk (or Dunkerque – as spelled by the French. Unlike Saving Private Ryan which was filmed on Irish beaches, or Band of Brothers which was filmed in England. The resort district of Malo-le-Bains was used for the opening sequence. Its beach, the historic embarkation beaches for British and French troops was used for the embarkations sequences. The eastern Mole was dressed to look as it did in the 1940s. The aerial shots show the town looking something like it did in 1940. The Queen Elizabeth paddle-steamer that appears in the film, and took part in the evacuation is still in the town as a floating restaurant. These are the places where the events took place.
One of the features of the movie is that it was made as far as possible without Computer Generated Images. To make the post war town disappear took some serious set dressing. The modern Kursaal conference centre and casino, was disguised as a cement works. Modern lamp posts were given an art deco makeover. Hundreds of vehicles and thousands of soldiers were – life size models. This was quite amazing. Some of the sets were exhibited until July 2018 in a big building near the mole. They aren’t on display currently, but there is a plan or an intention to display them again.
The incidents in the film are all claimed to be based on historic events. Hospital ships sunk,the evacuation from the beaches by little boats, and by bigger ships from the mole, and the pier made of trucks, even aircraft crash landing onto the beach. All based on recorded or recalled incidents.
The final scene has a Spitfire gliding to land on the beaches east of Dunkirk. Could a spitfire glide to land with its undercarriage down? Possibly. Some pilots did.
What is distorted?
Movies are theatre not history. That is because of the nature of movie making. Movies concentrate action in a few places and a few people in order to avoid confusing the audience.
Size and scale of the battle
The movie gives the impression that everything happens around Dunkirk. But that isn’t what happened. The Dunkirk perimeter and evacuation beaches stretched the best part of 18 miles from Dunkirk to east of La Panne in Belgium. On a clear day you can see the beaches at La Panne from the landward end of the mole.
That is just the evacuation, where the troops left the beaches and the harbour. The ground fighting during the period of the evacuation, from 27th May to 4th June took place on an area of some 5,000 square miles of Northern France and Belgium and involved over half a million men. This area reduced as the British and French fell back to Dunkirk. But even then the rear-guards were not defending a barricade a few hundred yards from the beach, but along the Furnes Canal five miles inland.
To get an idea of the scale of the battle and understand more about what happened the visitor needs to start further out. Maybe as far as Arras. This is where the Allies mounted the only counterattack from the North. After this fails evacuation becomes almost inevitable.
There are two good military museums in the Dunkirk area. Both have been renovated in recent years.
The Dunkirk War Museum on the quayside close to the Dunkirk memorial is located on the site of Admiral Abriel’s headquarters. It tells the story of the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation DYNAMO.
The second is the Fort Des Dunes at Leffrinckouckewas defended by French soldiers until the 4th of June. It contains an excellent museum with one of the best introductions to the 1940 campaign in Europe. The fort was damaged when a German bomber dropped a stick of bombs.
The British Army….
Because the movie focuses on the evacuation, and the story of a fugitive, it doesn’t really show a balanced view of the British or French armies.
The British Army isn’t shown in a very good light. It isn’t an army, but a mob of individuals. There are no regimental badges. The only Regiment mentioned is the Grenadier Guards – and then only to tell the protagonist that this was a private queue. There is no military authority or discipline. No one in charge. Only two officers are portrayed.
One is a second lieutenant – the shaking man on the boat whose cowardice and murder are forgiven as “shell shock.” The other is a Colonel who is the foil for Kenneth Branagh’s observations about the evacuations – but takes no action himself. The only authority figure is a lance corporal in charge of the pier of trucks.
To see more you have to visit some of the other sites.
The hilltop town of Cassel dominated the area south ofDunkirk. You can see it from the motorways as well as from the top of the Fort des dunes. Some 4,000 British troops – a reinforced brigade, held the town. At the foot of the hills to the south east the town of Hazebrouck was defended by infantry and the village of Hondeghem by K battery RHA. There are plaques, monuments and graves in the locations and the course of the battle can be traced. One of the most poignant sites lies between Esqelbecq and Wormhoult a few kilometres north of Cassel. Here is the reconstructed barn where some 70plus British prisoners of war were executed by the Liebstandart SS after particular stubborn resistance defending Wormhout.
The raid on Dieppe on August 19th, 1942 is a controversial episode in World War 2. An Anglo Canadian force with some 50 Americans landed around dawn in an attempt to seize and temporarily hold, the port of Dieppe. A few hours later the force withdrew, losing 5,000 casualties, of which around 3,600 were Canadians. The operation was closely studied by American as well as British commanders and played an important part in shaping how the Allied lands on D Day.
In May 1943 Headquarters European Theatre of Operations US Army held a conference on Assault Landings in London. Before the US Army started to train troops to cross channel, the commanders wanted to ensure that doctrine and procedures would reflect the latest evidence from assault landings and the special circumstances of the English Channel. The conference started with presentations on the Dieppe Raid. The papers from this conference are available online (Assault Landings conference US Assault Training Centre ETO, 1943)
Commodore Hughes-Hallett, one of the naval commanders said that the Dieppe raid was intended as a small-scale rehearsal for a major cross channel operation, which would eventually have to be undertaken. He went on to say that the “lessons learnt caused a drastic re-casting of our ideas concerning amphibious operations in face of a heavy scale of resistance… A major disaster would have occurred had we proceeded to attack in North West Europe on the lines hitherto visualised.” Major General C J Haydon from Combined Operations spelled out the implications. Any assault would need the same level of fire support as an assault on a fortified position on land and mentioned El Alamein as a bench mark – one 25 Pounder per 17 yards. This could be provided by field artillery firing from their landing craft and specialist fire support craft mounting field guns and lighter cannon. The navy had been asked to build fire support craft, but the numbers required would mean revising naval constructions schedules and fighting for priority against demands for more landing craft or light craft as escorts or minesweepers.
Until Dieppe the British had relied on surprise and aggressive commando tactics to carry out raids on occupied Europe. This was to a large extent out of necessity. There weren’t enough landing craft, nor small warships. Using these swashbuckling tactics British Combined Operations carried out a spectacular raid on the German held port of Saint Nazaire, sailing up the river Loire, seizing the docks and destroying the facilities. The same techniques of night approach and landings worked well in the Mediterranean. If half of the small craft needed to be fire support craft fewer soldiers could be landed.
The conference also heard presentations by British Major General Hobart on specialized armour, on drills developed by combined arms teams of infantry, specialized tanks and engineers tackling a typical German defence position. It wasn’t just British talking. Colonel O’Bare USMC added the US Pacific experience, in particular deploying Army Divisions to the Aleutian Islands.
Dieppe was also a stimulus to an important armoured vehicle used on D Day. Shortly after the raid a Canadian Engineer was looking at the problem of protecting engineers working to clear routes for tanks. The Churchill tank was adapted as an engineer vehicle, capable of carrying engineer stores and mounting a 165mm petard mortar for demolition work. Although the British had developed a family of specialist armour – flails and bridge laying tanks, The Churchill AVRE was a more versatile platform. An entire assault brigade of three battalions would be used by the British and Canadians on D Day.
The Germans also learned lessons. It confirmed OKW’s optimistic view that an attempt at invasion could be destroyed on the beaches and reinforced the view that the Allies would attack a port and encouraged the Germans to waste resources in the wrong places.
The lessons from Dieppe are controversial. Many people argue that these lessons were obvious or could have been learned from other operations such as the Allied landings in the Mediterranean or Pacific. However, these arguments are counter factual. We can never know whether the D Day planners would have learned from other peoples experience, or whether they would have deduced the level of fire power for what Combined Operations argued were the unique circumstances of the Ciorss Channel Assault.
TEN THINGS YOU CAN SEE ON THE NORMANDY BATTLEFIELDS THAT ILLUSTRATE THE LESSONS FROM DIEPPE
1. Unfinished Bunkers on Gold Juno and Omaha Beaches
The Germans drew some important lessons from Dieppe: the wrong lessons. The incomplete bunkers on Gold and Omaha beach are reminders that the invasion coast was fourth out of fifth in the German defensive priorities for the Calvados coast. The Germans poured ten times as much concrete protecting ports that would not be attacked.
2. Juno Beach
The Juno Beach Centre at Courseulles-sur-Mer tells the story of the Canadian experience in the Second World War and of the preparations for D Day. The terrain on Juno beach was similar to Dieppe. As at Dieppe the assaulting soldiers were faced with fighting though a series of seaside towns. Despite the extensive fire support and technology deployed, the fight on Juno beach was tough,
Armoured Engineer Vehicles
The AVRE engineer tank at Greye-sur-Mer, on the western end of Juno Beach was one of the many from the Assault Engineer Brigade that supported the British and Canadian landings. This particular tank was buried for half a century.
Ranger Memorial Pointe-du-Hoc
Dieppe was the first action in which US troops participated against the Germans 50 Rangers were attached to No 3 and No 4 Commando. The US Army was impressed with the aggressive tough training of the Commandos to set up their own version.
5. Le Grand Bunker – Observation Bunker Riva Bella Battery
No 4 Commando which landed on the eastern side of Queen Beach had participated in the Dieppe raid where it achieved its objective of capturing the Hess battery. Captain Pat Porteous awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry at Dieppe was one of the commandos who attacked the observation tower at Riva Bella on D Day. “The observers in the medieval tower were communicating with the gunners at the inland battery. There was a single staircase up the middle of the tower and these Germans were on top. They were as safe as could be; the walls were ten feet thick. One of my men tried to climb the staircase, but the Germans dropped a grenade on him. Another fired the PIAT at the tower, but it failed to penetrate – it was useless. We tried to give the Germans a squirt with the flame-thrower, but they were too high; we couldn’t get enough pressure from those little backpack flame-throwers that we had. We couldn’t touch the observers and were starting to take casualties from rifle fire from the tower,so I decided to leave it for someone else and set off for Pegasus Bridge.”
6. Mulberry Harbour
The idea of a floating prefabricated harbour was developed before the Dieppe Raid. However, the realization that it would not be possible to capture a harbour intact led the Allies to develop techniques and technology to support landings over a beaches.
7. Centaur Royal Marine Armoured Support Group
Eighty obsolescent Centaur tanks were landed on the British and Canadian beaches to thicken up the fire on the defences particularly for the last ten minutes of the run in. These were originally intended as the turrets for close support Armoured Landing Craft, part of the armada of fire support craft for D Day. The variously gun and rocket armed support craft do not have the iconic status of the LCVP or LCA. There are models of the different types of modified landing craft in museums covering the landings at Arromanches and Utah Beach. “Seawolf” at Hermanville-sur-Mer bears battle damage. A second Centaur is in the Memorial-Pegasus museum.
8. Point 67 Memorial
The 2nd Canadian Division provided the bulk of the troops for the Dieppe Raid. It was spared D Day, but landed in Normandy in early July. They were one of the formations that captured Caen and heavily engaged in the fighting between Caen and Falaise. The Point 67 memorial on Verriers ridge overlooks the battlefield of Operation Spring 25-27th July 1944. The 2nd Division attacked over this open ground South of Caen to keep the SS Panzer Divisions pinned on the Caen front while the US 1st Army attacked west of St Lo. This fighting cost the Canadian forces over 1,300 casualties, their worst loss since Dieppe.
9 Omaha Beach
The coast along Omaha Beach is rather similar to the Dieppe beach front, Regardless of whether Dieppe could or should have been attacked from the front or the flanks, for large stretches of the French coastline there were only a few places where an army could land. These were obvious to the defenders and heavily defended. It was obvious that any attack on the Calvados coastline would include landings on Omaha beach.
10 Operation Aquatint Memorial
About half way along Omaha beach there are two prominent memorials, the concrete Liberation memorial and the steel Les Braves sculpture. About a hundred yards to the west, on the seawall is a bronze plaque to the memory of Major March Phillips and his men who fell in Operation Aquatint on 12th September 1942. After Dieppe Combined Operations was ordered to focus on preparations for the cross channel assault. No 62 Commando was left to stage small scale raids, which they did off the Channel Islands. On 12 September a navigation error resulted in the raiders landing in the middle of what would become known as Omaha Beach in the face of an alert defence. Three commandos were killed and others captured.
Frank D Baldwin is not related to me. But, I am rather proud of my namesake. He is one of only 19 US soldiers to be awarded the Medal of Honor twice.
His first award was for gallantry at the battle of Peachtree Creek near Atlanta Georgia. He was a Captain and commanded Company D of the 19th Michigan Regiment. The citation reads that he “Led his company in a counter-charge at Peach Tree Creek, Ga., 12 July 1864, under a galling fire ahead of his own men, and singly entered the enemy’s line, capturing and bringing back 2 commissioned officers, fully armed, besides a guidon of a Georgia regiment.”
This battlefield is now almost entirely obliterated by the suburb of Buckhead. However there are memorials and a trail in Tanyard Park. If you would like to visit the battlefield, there is a guide here.
As a First Lieutenant, 5th U.S. Infantry. At McClellan’s Creek, Texas on 8th , November 1874. Frank D Baldwin “Rescued, with 2 companies, 2 white girls by a voluntary attack upon Indians whose superior numbers and strong position would have warranted delay for reinforcements, but which delay would have permitted the Indians to escape and kill their captives. There is more on this action here.
It was a pleasure and a privilege to take part as a historian on the Operation Reflect Staff ride in 2018. This was the last of the staff rides organised by the British Army as part of its reflections on the centenary of the First World War. It was fascinating to see what lessons from 1918 might be relevant to 2018 and where the insights gained might help the modern army face future challenges.
I had been a historian for the staff rides in 2015 and 2016, which looked at the lessons from the Somme. This time we looked at the operations of the year from November 1917 to November 1918, from Cambrai to Sedan. After the rumble of British tanks, the first sessions looked at the Germans from their counter attack at Cambrai in November 1917 through the spring offensives to the Aisne. Then the French in adversity on the Chemin des Dames to the counter offensive in July – the turning point of the war. Then a British section from Le Hamel to Breaching the Hindenburg Line at Riqueval. The finale was the advance of the AEF from Vaquois to Sedan. Dotted around were a couple of TEWTS posiitoning participants as divisional commanders in a hypothetical war against an aggressor over the same terrain.
There is a difference between serving as a battlefield guide for a battlefield tour and a battlefield historian supporting a battlefield study or staff ride.