Last night I went and saw the Christopher Nolan movie Dunkirk. I was always planning on seeing it but it helps that the average rating of the 170+ movie critics aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes was a staggering 98%.
It was a stunning movie at every level. Perhaps the quickest way to describe it was that it had the intensity of the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan but without the gore but sustaining that intensity for the entire 1 hour 45-minute long movie! The movie, and a movie covering a similar time frame called Darkest Hour to be released in November, explores one of the defining moments of World War 2. The movie had a special poignancy for our family because my grandfather was a British Army Chaplain and was captured at Dunkirk and spent 5 years incarcerated in German POW camps. A local newspaper from his home town at the time said that he had turned down a place on the last destroyer to lift troops from the Dunkirk beach to stay and tend to wounded troops who had valiantly held the perimeter from the German Army.
Whilst on paper the Dunkirk evacuation (Operation Dynamo) was the culmination of a spectacular failure of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France to prevent a German breakthrough to the northern French coastline and thus creating the eventual encirclement of the BEF at Dunkirk, in reality, the German failure to finish off the British Army, when they had them entirely surrounded and trapped in such a small pocket, was a military blunder that was to have major repercussions for the outcome of the war. Had the majority of Britain’s professional army been killed or captured in France, Britain would’ve sued for peace and stayed out of the war. Germany could’ve immediately attacked Russia when it was even less prepared for war and with a vastly stronger Luftwaffe. By the time Hitler abandoned his plans to invade England in favour of Russian in the summer of 1941, Stalin had worked through the worst of his Army purges and had begun ramping up production of tanks and planes and the Luftwaffe’s strength had been halved by the losses it incurred in the Battle of Britain. An invasion a year earlier would’ve seen Russian less prepared and Hitler would’ve been able to inflict more bombing damage on their industrial infrastructure and it is conceivable that the Soviet Union too would’ve had to surrender. Would America have chosen to be the only army of any size to take on Germany in Europe with a seriously depleted British Army and a defeated Russia? Even after Pearl Harbour it is doubtful. Such unthinkable outcomes were what was at stake if the British had failed in their evacuation of most of the BEF in late May and early June of 1940.
There has been much speculation as to why Hitler issued his infamous halt order to the Wehrmacht thus pausing its advance on the Port of Dunkirk on May 24th, 1940. Whilst it is true that the Wehrmacht’s supply lines were stretched after the unexpected speed of its advance through France and its troops were exhausted, it did not explain why the halt order was not lifted after a day of rest and resupply. The key to the Germans’ tactical blunder lies with the political machinations at the top of the German High Command. The Army Commander General von Rundstedt was certain that his tanks and troops could quickly neutralize the mostly French and some British troops who were holding the perimeter around the town of Dunkirk. It was true that the French troops holding the perimeter put up what most military experts consider to be one of the finest displays of ferocious fighting ever seen by any army. Goering however prevailed upon Hitler to allow his Luftwaffe to finish off the trapped Allied troops by bombing and strafing as a dramatic illustration of air power. Hitler bought the argument and gave Goering a clean run at this task causing the Wehrmacht to cool their heels only 20km from the beaches of Dunkirk for a vital three days. Whilst the Luftwaffe were able to sink 243 ships and kill some 3,500 troops during the evacuation, cloudy even foggy weather over the immediate township of Dunkirk and environs robbed the Luftwaffe of the ability to strafe and bomb the amassed troop formations when they were more concentrated on the beaches leaving them to try and horizontal and dive bomb individual ships in the English Channel – a much more difficult and diffuse target. Also, the RAF, whilst prevented by Fighter Command Air Vice Marshall Dowding from sending too many fighters to the French theatre, nonetheless a good number of Spitfire and Hurricane patrols over the Channel did provide some cover to ships ferrying troops by shooting down some of the Luftwaffe fighters and bombers tasked by Goering to prevent the evacuation.
The French contribution to the success of the Dunkirk evacuation is largely overlooked by not only the British Press who at the time who mythologised the evacuation but also by many historians who tended to praise more the British forces who also helped hold the perimeter. My grandfather spoke a few times of the heroism of the French who had no guarantee that they would be evacuated after their stand. Indeed another often overlooked part of the Dunkirk evacuation was the role of the French navy in the movement of Allied troops off the beaches but also the numbers of private French vessels that joined the flotilla of small boats from England, action that was the key to the success of the evacuation as these small craft were instrumental in allowing a much larger number of larger Royal and French navy destroyers, frigates, minesweepers, cargo and supply ships to be brought into the evacuation because the smaller craft could travel to within 100m of the shallow beaches allowing troops to wade straight from the beach to these small boat and then to be ferried to the larger craft which had to remain offshore due to their size. Fully one third of these crucial pleasure craft used so effectively were French.
Over the 8 days of the evacuation, almost 340,000 troops were ferried to safety in England including 130,000 French troops and over 200,000 members of the BEF. 3,500 British troops were killed and some 50,000 were captured. Whilst the numbers who made it to safety were vastly in excess of the Royal Navy’s initial estimate of 30-40,000 enabling many to call the operation the Miracle of Dunkirk, the loss of equipment on the beaches was huge and included huge supplies of ammunition, 880 field guns, 310 guns of large calibre, some 500 anti-aircraft guns, about 850 anti-tank guns, 11,000 machine guns, nearly 700 tanks, 20,000 motorcycles, and 45,000 cars and trucks and over 140,000 gallons of fuel. The British media were ecstatic that so many of the BEF made it to safety and a wave of grateful euphoria swept the nation with tens of thousands volunteering at arrival locations and train stations across the south to provide food, tea, blankets, clothing and cheering on the returning troops. Churchill, while relieved given the dire predictions of the likely loss of troops, nonetheless wisely cautioned the British people at the beginning of his famous “We will fight on beaches” speech to Parliament on June 4th, 1940 that “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations”.
On final personal note, it took some 2 months for the Swedish Red Cross (the neutral organisation designated as the formal conduit for information regarding Allied prisoners of the Germans and vice versa) to formally confirm to the War Office that my grandfather was indeed a German POW. However, one of his cousins was on secondment to a very senior adviser in the US State Department and had gotten word of my grandfather’s capture via US Army Intelligence sources. I have seen the famous telegram to my grandmother from the US Assistant Secretary of State (ranked I believe No. 3) advising of the capture. In those days, the War Office would not release the partial pay of the captured soldier to a spouse until the formal status of the Missing in Action soldier was confirmed. My grandmother took a train to London with the high-ranking S of S telegram in hand but this was insufficient proof for the War Office to release my grandpa’s pay. That did not occur until the Swedish Red Cross confirmed his status through official German channels! My grandfather was to spend a few days short of 5 years in a variety of German POW camps because of his decision at Dunkirk.