How did the evacuating Allied soldiers at Dunkirk make it under the threat of the Germans??

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.

The French

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.   

Fort des Dunes, at Leffrinckoucke was the command post of the French 12th motorised infantry division and defended until after the end of the evacuations. The fort is a museum with probably the best exhibition on the part played by French troops in 1940.

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 to the Germans.
  •   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 risks 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 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. 

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.

Operation Dynamo was planned and commanded from the tunnels under Dover Castle, managed by English Heritage and open to the public. This shows the Anti Aircraft Operations Room in Hellfire Corner.

Perfidious Albion – British Determination

There was some truth in the image of British troops denying escape for the French rearguard

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 commanders on the ground ignored the 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.

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 who defeated the attack brilliantly  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 the BEF on the beaches.