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Posts Tagged ‘Dunkirk’

The German advance through France and the Low Countries in May of 1940 was, without question, one of the more remarkable operations of the Second World War.  Yeah, the wrong side (at least from my perspective) planned it, prepared it, and executed it.  And the right side (at least from my perspective) had no answer, relying on static fortifications and a real lack of will to fight.  But still, from a military standpoint, we have to be impressed by how well the Wehrmacht carried it off…it was brilliant.

Within weeks, German Panzers had pinned their French and English opponents against the English Channel, their choices reduced to either surrender or slaughter.  They were out-gunned, out-manned, and out-planned.  It was over.

Well, for the port city of Calais, it was over.  On May 26, 1940, Brigadier Claude Nicholson and his few remaining holdouts gave up the fight.  They had been been holed up in a 16th-century citadel for the better part of four days, subjected to relentless artillery fire and bombing.  When the Germans finally gained the bridges to the citadel, Nicholson knew the battle was lost and gave it up.

If there was any remaining delusion that the French and British Expeditionary Forces could stop the German advance, it vanished at this point.  The call went out from Dunkirk to Number 10 Downing Street that desperate help was needed.  And, of course, we know that it arrived just 15 or 20 miles to the north and west at another port city.

Dunkirk.

The bravery and tenacity of Nicholson and his men at the citadel in Calais should not be understated, but to credit their holdout with permitting the evacuation is to push reality.

They certainly did their part, but the evacuation should mostly be credited to Adolf Hitler, who, two days before, ordered his Panzers to halt.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War

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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

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When we left the British last week, they had just begun the process of attempting to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force (or BEF, as well as French and some Belgian troops) from northwest France.  As we saw, this effort, called Operation Dynamo, was something reminiscent of a football game’s last-second “hail mary” play…a desperation play designed to snatch victory from certain defeat.  But in this instance, there was no victory in play.  This “hail mary” would only determine the degree of defeat.

When the first of the British departed on the 27th of May, it was hoped that 45,000 of the nearly 400,000 men awaiting rescue could be picked up.  Leadership believed that they had roughly enough time for two days of evacuation before German ground forced closed in for the kills and captures.  But after two days, the Germans hadn’t closed in.  And so the evacuation continued.

The British began to realize that maybe…just maybe…their rescue effort would bring home more soldiers than originally planned.  The problem was transport.  There simply weren’t enough ships to get there, load up, and get back.  So the call went out, and all available vessels of any kind were asked to head for Dunkirk.

And they did.  By the hundreds, they departed for the French coast.  Fishing boats, pleasure boats, yachts, whatever could float set sail.  If government officials couldn’t locate the owner of a boat, they simply “borrowed” it.  Once on scene, the smaller boats acted as shuttles, running into close to shore, loading up, and taking soldiers to the larger ships in the bay.  All the while, they were harassed by the slashing runs of the Luftwaffe, strafing and bombing and making life miserable for soldiers, standing chest-deep in water awaiting their turns.

And then, on June 4, 1940, it was done.  More than 190,000 British soldiers and nearly 140,000 French soldiers were off of European soil and headed for England.

When asked about the German failure at Dunkirk, Adolf Hitler would always say that he held off the Wehrmacht and let the soldiers go as a magnanimous gesture in hopes of winning British support against the Russians.  While possible, that’s a trifle too convenient.  We don’t know what Hitler was really thinking, and frankly, “the unexplained” is part of why Dunkirk is considered a miracle.

There is also speculation as to whether the British could have continued fighting had the Dunkirk evacuation failed.  What we do know that its success allowed the British to continue.  It was against the backdrop of Dunkirk that Prime Minister Winston Churchill, speaking to the House of Commons on the evening of the 4th, uttered some of his most famous words…

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

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A couple of days ago, we discovered that, early on in the Second World War, the British had been able to decipher some of Germany’s coded message traffic.  A couple of days ago, we also learned that the British Expeditionary Force (or “BEF”) was about to be trapped in the northwest corner of France.  Combined with the French forces still fighting, the Germans were looking at a prize package worth nearly 400,000…men.

It’s impossible to know for sure, because history provides crystal-clear hindsight, but the capture or destruction of these men would have made it very difficult for Britain to continue in the war.  Maybe they would have fought on, but again, we’ll never know.  We do know that Operation Dynamo, the attempt to rescue those trapped men, was put into action with “hope for the best”, while British leadership prepared for a complete military disaster.

On the other side, the German armor which had proven so devastating in the last 3 weeks, had halted beginning on the 24th of May to consolidate their lines and conserve their forces for other operations.  So destruction of the BEF had been initally given to the Luftwaffe and the infantry, which was less effective.  On the 25th, the BEF’s commander, General Gort, knew his forces were doomed, and the decision was made to try and evacuate.  He retreated to Dunkirk and waited while, back in England, ships set sail.

May 27, 1940 was a day of movement for each side.  For the Germans, the decision was made to start up the armored Panzer Divisions again.  But their progress was hampered by less favorable terrain and solid defenses that had been given three days to dig in.  On the British side, the first of what would become a flood of boats and ships arrived, returning to the home island with more than 7,500 troops.

But that was barely a start.  With hundreds of thousands of troops trapped and even more enemy forces pounding away and closing in, the situation was still bleak for those trying to escape to England.

Recommended Reading: The Second World War – Keegan is, without question, one of the very best.

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The invasion of France and the Low Countries by Germany quickly turned into a stunning rout.  Begun on May 10, 1940, the German army had traversed the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest and reached the Meuse River in just two days.  And elsewhere along the massive front, the invading forces had encountered poorly-prepared troops in too small numbers with old-fashioned leadership trying to fight a World War I-style war against an emeny that didn’t fight like that anymore.

The French and Belgian troops were simply overwhelmed by the Blitzkrieg tactics the Germans used.  Previously, tanks and artillery had been used as infantry support.  But that was no longer the case.  Tanks were now being used as fast-moving mobile spearheads, planes (particularly Stuka dive-bombers) were being used as pinpoint artillery pieces, and troops were now massed in mobile brigades, sweeping past their bewildered and shattered Allied foes.

There had been bright spots for the Allied troops.  Indivdiuals and smaller units had fought with tenacity, and some British counterattacks had achieved modest success.  The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk (less than four weeks after the hostilities began) had been a marvel of improvisation and organization.  But when the biggest highlight was how the British exited the French field of play, it’s easy to see that this was Germany’s hour…in total.

With Dunkirk out of the picture after June 4th, the German army turned back to the south and headed for Paris.  With the French army in shambles (more than 2 million men were now prisoners) and unable to offer anything but the weakest defense, the sweep to the capital was accomplished in relatively short order.

The French government, realizing the end was at hand, and wishing to avoid the destruction of Paris, declared it an open city.  And on June 14, 1940, the German army entered the capital and took control of France and the rest of Western Europe.  And then there was one…Great Britain.

Recommended Reading: Lightning War – Blitzkrieg in the West, 1940 – I’m nearly finished with this book, and Powaski has done a great job with it.

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