There are certain events that occur in our lives that we can remember in great detail. We may recall where we were when the event happened, the people we were with, and maybe even the clothes we wore. For my generation, it’s probably the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For my parents, it was likely the assassination of President Kennedy. But it may not necessarily be a cataclysmic world-changing incident. Maybe it’s something personal, like a marriage proposal, or the sudden passing of a loved one, or the purchase of a first car. Big or small, nearly everyone has one (or more) of those moments.
For a good number of the German officers still alive at the end of the Second World War ended, one event stood out with crystal clarity. In a war that spanned six years, it was May 24, 1940 that was remembered in many minds. It was then that the German Panzers were ordered to halt. In just two weeks, they had rolled over Belgium (via the brilliant insanity that was the capture of Eben Emael) and the Netherlands and executed a brilliant right hook that trapped the British Expeditionary Force (and the French forces with them) against the English Channel. Nearly 400,000 men and their equipment awaited capture…or worse, annihilation at the hands of a Wehrmacht that had made mincemeat of them all over the Low Countries.
But orders were orders, and they had come from the very highest of the German High Command. General Kluge, the 4th Army Commander, had a highly developed sense of caution and believed his flanks were over-exposed to counterattack. It mattered little that Army Group A (of which 4th Army was a part) was just 12 miles from Dunkirk and had little opposition in front of it. Army Group B, while further away, faced only infantry. There were no counterattacks to be made…on the Allied side, General Gort was facing a military disaster and was looking at the Channel, praying for a miracle.
As overall commander of Army Group A, General Gerd von Rundstedt took Kluge’s concerns to heart and ordered a temporary halt to allow his forces to consolidate their positions. But it may have been a little more than that, too. As head of the Luftwaffe (the German air force), Field Marshal Hermann Goering had been watching the ground forces garner victory after victory, gaining most of the glory. Now with the Allied forces trapped and their capitulation imminent, he wanted his share of the spotlight. In a meeting late on the 23rd, he was reported to have pounded his fists on the desk and yelled, “This is a special job for the Luftwaffe! I must talk to the Fuhrer immediately.” So it’s quite possible that more was going on than just a “catch our breath” pause.
Regardless, the reaction to the decision was immediate and clear. General Guderian was furious, as was General Franz Halder. Field Marshal von Brauchitsch argued with Hitler to no avail, and even tried to order a resumption of the offensive on his own. Hitler put a stop to it. “Dunkirk,” he said, “is to be left to the Luftwaffe. Should the capture of Calais prove difficult, this port too is to be left to the Luftwaffe.”
Up and down the chain of command, frustrated officers tried to sway the decision, but a sudden bout of overconfidence took over at the very top. General Jodl, when confronted by a subordinate, stated that the war was already won and using the air force to finish the deal meant fewer lives lost.
Of course, the confidence in the Luftwaffe’s chain of command was not nearly as great as Goering’s himself. Albert Kesselring, then a General in charge Air Fleet 2, believed the task too great. His pilots were exhausted and the whole of idea of Blitzkrieg was air and armor working in close coordination. Take away the armor?…well, that didn’t bode as well. Goering ignored him.
We covered Operation Dynamo last year and spoke to the successful evacuation of nearly 340,000 men from Dunkirk. The halt on May 24th made the miracle of Dunkirk possible as it allowed the British to consolidate their defenses and begin bringing in rescue ships. By the time the Panzers got ramped up again, it was too late. The British and French were gone, and Germany’s best chance to knock England from the war had vanished.
The first seeds of Germany’s ultimate defeat in 1945 began back in May of 1940, when Germany squandered almost certain victory against the British on the European mainland.
Recommended Reading: Lightning War