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The Dunkirk Evacuation and the German ‘halt’ Order

Sometimes academics are confronted by arguments with which we disagree, vehemently. Most have something to be said for them or, at the very least, it is possible to appreciate where those proposing it are coming from and why they might believe it. There are exceptions, which deserve nothing other than a good intellectual kicking. For me, there is one particularly egregious example which simply refuses to lie down and die, coming back again and again like the baddie in a cheap horror movie. I encountered this old foe once again recently when I was editing a Naval Staff Battle Summary on Operation Dynamo, the evacuation from Dunkirk. Historians generally acknowledge that one vital factor in allowing the British and French forces to retreat, escaping the threatened encirclement to reach Dunkirk and then to establish a rudimentary defensive perimeter there, was the German decision to halt the advance of the Panzers for three days. This let-off has given rise to the bizarre idea that it was a deliberate decision by Hitler to provide a ‘golden bridge’ for Britain, consciously choosing not to utterly humiliate his opponent in the hope of reaching a negotiated peace.

British troops passing a blazing lorry and wrecked buildings in a street in Dunkirk, while on their way to the harbour for embarkation. (Source: © IWM (HU 41239))

There is no denying the importance of this pause. It was not the only factor contributing to the successful evacuation, but it was significant. The Allied armies had fallen or rather leapt headlong, into the trap laid by Germany. The invasion of the Low Countries by German Army Group B, launched on 10 May 1940, presented France and Britain with precisely what they expected to see and what they had planned to counter. They, therefore, advanced into Belgium to meet the threat. The main German effort, of course, came well to the south as Army Group A, with the bulk of the Panzers, passed through the ‘impassable’ Ardennes. They crossed the Meuse, notably near Sedan on 14 May, broke through the second-line French units defending there and dashed for the coast. By 21 May they reached it and turned north to encircle the British and French armies that were engaged with the forces advancing through Belgium. On 23 May the Germans were closer to Dunkirk than most of the British Expeditionary Force; yet that evening, the Panzers were ordered to halt their advance. They were ordered to resume on 26 May, but by then, the Allies had been gifted priceless time to retreat towards Dunkirk and to establish defences that would buy them further time. When the Germans finally took Dunkirk, the commanders wrote in their diaries, ‘The town and the coast are in our hands!’… yet they added, ‘British and French troops gone’. No fewer than 338,226 Allied troops had been evacuated, rescued from the closing trap. Lord Gort’s brave decision to withdraw to the coast deserves huge credit, as does the professionalism of the British Expeditionary Force (and their French allies) in conducting a hugely difficult fighting withdrawal; yet without the German pause, it is most doubtful that these would have been enough.

How could the most formidable military machine on the planet at this time, which was on the verge of shattering what had previously been seen as the greatest military power in Europe, have made such an elementary mistake? Why would it voluntarily choose to leave the trap open, allowing the prey to escape? It must have been a deliberate decision… hence the golden bridge theory. This was initially propagated by Hitler to explain how he let strategic victory against Britain slip through his fingers; the refrain was eagerly taken up after the war by some surviving German generals who were quite happy to shift responsibility on to the conveniently dead führer – and was spread by Basil Liddell Hart, who was perhaps a little too inclined to take the word of captured German officers, especially when they talked up the influence upon them of his interwar ideas. Nonetheless, the idea is ridiculous nonsense.

First, even on its own terms, it does not make any sense. While there is room to doubt the coherence of Hitler’s strategy towards Britain in 1940, it is not implausible to suggest that he would have welcomed a negotiated peace. His prospects of achieving this would have been immeasurably improved by the additional bargaining chip of a quarter of a million British prisoners, to say nothing of the psychological blow to Britain of losing the best-trained part of her small army.

A hospital ship carrying wounded soldiers away from Dunkirk. In the background can be seen columns of smoke and flames from fires burning in the bomb and shell shattered port. (Source: © IWM (HU 73187))

Second, the theory does not fit the facts. If the Germans were trying to allow the British Expeditionary Force to escape, then they displayed an unusual level of incompetence: only Army Group A paused – and only in part, as it still captured Calais and Boulogne – and only for three days before continuing. Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe continued to attack the Allies with all of their strength. This hardly amounts to a free pass or allowing the British to slip away.

Third, there is a perfectly good explanation available that does not require a far-fetched conspiracy theory – and which, incidentally, is whole-heartedly accepted by every serious work on the subject that uses German sources. Many senior German officers were nervous from the outset about the bold changes made to the original, more traditional plan for the attack on France, and in particular about the envisaged rapid advance of the Panzers that would involve outpacing their infantry, artillery and logistic support. This bold vision was undoubtedly risky; the advancing armour could have faced a serious defeat if the Allies had been able to launch a coherent counter-attack against its flanks or rear. We now know that the German offensive had precisely the effect it was designed to in paralysing the Allied high command, shattering its will and ability to devise and execute an effective counterstroke; but this was not known to the Germans in May 1940. Moreover, there had been a warning sign of precisely what some of the more cautious German commanders feared when the British launched a small-scale counter-attack near Arras on 21 May. This limited and short-lived success played into a growing sense of unease among those German officers inclined to worry that their success was too good to be true, and wary of pushing their attack beyond its culminating point. The Arras counter-attack achieved only local tactical success, but it exerted a decisive influence on a debate that was already underway in the German high command.

The Panzers badly needed a pause to rest, repair and reconstitute, and to bring forward support and supplies. There was no need to risk them in unfavourable terrain, when there was a perfectly good alternative in the form of Army Group B and also the Luftwaffe, whose leadership (not least the influential Göring) were keen to seize their place in the sun – a rare case where the overclaiming of air power enthusiasts was to the benefit of the Allies. The tanks would be needed for the rest of the campaign and the push to Paris, taking on the bulk of the French Army, which still comprised a large and powerful force. The Allied armies in the north had been defeated, were nearly encircled and only needed to be mopped up. Why take a risk in rushing these closing moves of the first stage of the operation?

British troops disembarking from a destroyer at Dover after their return from the Dunkirk beaches, June 1940. (Source: © IWM (MH 5848))

This last question suggests an important point about the whole debate: there is far less of a puzzle here than has been suggested. Why on earth would it occur to a continental power that evacuation on any significant scale was possible? After all, even the British Admiralty believed at the outset of the operation that at best, maybe 45,000 men could be rescued. There is no mystery in the fact that Germany was not alert to this possibility. The British were trapped and there was no reason for the Germans to suspect that their fate would be anything other than what would, three years later, befall Axis forces after their defeat in North Africa: without a Navy that was willing and able to go to such lengths to rescue them, 230,000 Axis troops were captured and only a few hundred escaped. It is only hindsight and the knowledge it presents of the stunning success of the Allied evacuation that raises the question in the first place with respect to Dunkirk. Considered in this light, the apparent mystery simply melts away.

This post first appeared at Defence-in-Depth, the blog of the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London.

Dr Tim Benbow studied at Oxford as an undergraduate (at Brasenose College) and as a graduate (at St Antony's College). He also spent a year at Harvard University as a Kennedy Scholar and a year at King's College London. After being awarded his doctorate he remained at Oxford, conducting a post-doctoral research project and teaching International Relations and Strategic Studies at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including one year as a Tutor in Politics at University College. Dr Benbow spent two years teaching at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, before joining the Defence Studies Department in 2004. He was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2008 and to Reader in 2016. Dr Benbow is Maritime Historian on the Higher Command and Staff Course; Deputy Director of the Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies; and Director of the Strategy and Defence Policy Research Centre.

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