Today marks the start of the anniversary of the Battle of Dunkirk, 26 May – 4 June 1940. I read Walter Lord’s book on this in my youth and I did enjoy the recent film of the battle as well. It is a fascinating struggle.
The German invasion of France was stunning on many levels. France and Britain had been huddled behind the fortifications of the Maginot Line and along the coast. Germany invaded Belgium and it appeared that they were executing the same strategy they had tried to employ in the Great War, a dash along the coast, sweeping down to Paris from the north. The British moved eastward to blunt this assault.
It was a grand strategic deception.
The German force in Belgium was enough to hold the BEF in check. Meanwhile, the Germans came through the Ardennes, an area that was lightly defended and thought to be impossible as a venue for attack. They allowed their panzer divisions to operate far from their infantry support, cutting deep into the rear areas. The French fought valiantly, but could not hold. The Germans then swung north, essentially trapping the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) around Dunkirk.
The panzers at this stage of the war were not the bulk of the German Army. They were actually rather primitive compared to the tanks produced even a year later. In reality, the German Army was still using horses to move their heavy equipment. But General Guderian operated his panzers boldly, thrusting deep into the rear areas, confusing the French attempts to coordinate defenses. The German army’s use of radio communications for command and control was vastly superior to that of the British and French forces, allowing them to bring in Luftwaffe assets and artillery quickly and effectively.
A lot was at stake, more than the world realized. The BEF constituted the bulk of the British Army. If it were destroyed or captured, Britain would be left vulnerable, possibly unable to resist the Germans if they invaded. WWII would have played out very differently. The fate of the United Kingdom hung on the small port of Dunkirk, though at the time, few realized just how desperate things were.
The German assault slowed, stalled, and stopped. The Luftwaffe felt it could finish off the BEF. Meanwhile the Royal Navy scrambled every ship, civilian and military, to rush across the channel to ferry out what personnel it could save. So much has been written about the small civilian ships that ferried troops, I cannot possibly do it justice in a blog post.
The British felt they would be lucky to save 10,000 – 30,000 troops at the start of Operation Dynamo, the rescue mission. While the Germans bombed, strafed and shelled them, the British and French forces clung to the beaches, desperately attempting to get to their ships and to England.
When it was over, 330,000 British and French troops were saved, with a loss to the BEF of 68,000. Almost all of their equipment was lost. Most importantly, Britain would survive and go on to be one of the victors of the war as a result. Dunkirk was a tactical defeat, a painful lesson, but it galvanized the British people and gave hope that they would fight on.