The ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ is lauded in British history and folklore as a victory of human endeavour, celebrated each year with a profusion of TV documentary veteran accounts and memorial services. German soldiers, too, constantly referred to the ‘Wunder’, or ‘miracle’, of reaching Dunkirk in wartime letters back home. But there the resemblance ends. For the British, it was a miracle of survival and deliverance; for the Germans, it was one of achievement. They had reached the sea in May 1940 in fewer weeks than it took years for their fathers not to succeed in 1914-1918.
The conventional Dunkirk narrative stems very much from Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War (published in six volumes between 1948 and 1953), and it has been embellished in similar vein ever since. The Germans’ blitzkrieg advance across France and Belgium is often described as a ‘feint’ through Belgium by Generaloberst Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B, the bait for a trap sprung by Generaloberst Gerd von Rundstedt’s panzer-heavy Army Group A. The former unexpectedly emerged from the Ardennes, a forested area on the border between France, Belgium, and Luxembourg that was seemingly impassable to tanks. The latter dashed to the Channel coast, emerging at Noyelles-sur-Mer, and trapping the bulk of the Allied armies in north-west France. Ten British divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) eventually managed to escape back to the UK mainland.
Post-war historians have tended to underestimate the extent to which von Bock’s Army Group B, despite facing the bulk of the Allied armies, aggressively tore into the defences of the Low Countries with its Eighteenth and Sixth Armies. Much of the standard narrative concentrates instead on the epic run by von Rundstedt’s Army Group A to the coast. Von Bock’s advance, being the lesser of two powerful thrust lines, is thus reduced to the status of a ‘feint’. In reality, though deception there was, the overall configuration of the advance would better be described as a massive double-offensive. With 29 divisions, von Bock’s force was about two-thirds the size of von Rundstedt’s 46 divisions: a force to be reckoned with. It fielded three reduced-size panzer divisions, and unhinged the Dutch ‘Fortress Holland’ waterways defence strategy with the first major airborne landings in modern history. Some 4,500 paratroopers jumped, 500 were landed by glider over the waterways, and 12,000 light infantry were landed by Ju 52 transport aircraft.
The Allies were shocked. Twenty-nine- year-old James Hill, a staff captain with the HQ of BEF commander-in-chief General John Gort, remembered the panzer sprint heading for the coast: ‘We hadn’t quite envisaged them going right through the north and going around the flank like that,’ he claimed. ‘We hadn’t imagined that at all.’ Ten days after the start of the German offensive, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, as Flag Officer Dover, was presented with a hypothesis that the BEF may have to be evacuated. Over the next six days, he quietly laid down sea routes, organised control staffs, and concentrated shipping.
The Dutch had already surrendered, four days after the start of the offensive. By late May, elements of the BEF had reached a rectangular-shaped defensive enclave, 20 miles around and six miles deep, coalescing along concentric canals and waterways immediately west of Dunkirk and east to Furness and Nieuport on the Belgian border. On 28 May, the Belgian Army capitulated. The fighting elements of the BEF rapidly fell back to the sea, heading for the huge pillar of smoke billowing up from Dunkirk’s blazing oil refineries. One soldier described it as an omen: ‘The pillar of smoke by day and pillar of fire by night which guided the Israelites, guided the BEF as well.’
By Sunday 2 June, the Royal Navy was able to report ‘BEF evacuated’. About 338,000 soldiers, including 112,500 Frenchmen, were taken off. Elizabeth Quayle, a telephone operator with the Women’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF), had been marking the progress of the German advance to the coast with pins on an RAF operations map. ‘We had no idea they were going to be rescued,’ she recalled. ‘It seemed the whole army was going to be bottled up there and the whole army was going to be captured.’ What had transpired was to become the stuff of British patriotic legend, celebrated in black-and-white movies, such as the 1958 version of Dunkirk starring John Mills, and ever since. How on earth had they managed to get away from the clutches of the victorious Wehrmacht?
A new perspective
The real climax of the battle for Dunkirk came during the three days between 31 May and 1 June, when the bulk of the BEF’s fighting divisions – the surviving veterans – were taken off under the noses of the Germans. This is the story described in my new book, Dünkirchen 1940, which presents the unseen narrative from the German perspective. It is a story that – surprisingly, after 80 years have passed – has never before been satisfactorily told. Rarely has any account sought to portray the battle from the perspective of ordinary German soldiers. In so doing, a plethora of information, much of it running contrary to the popular myths about the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’, has been uncovered.
Very few personal accounts written by Germans about the fighting around Dunkirk survived the war. This was primarily because all ten German infantry divisions fighting around the pocket at its fall were subsequently destroyed in fighting on the Eastern Front. Most of the biographical soldier accounts were written in the early 1940s, flavoured by a National Socialist bias, prior to the invasion of Russia. Virtually all the surviving corps and division after-action reports have survived, however, and contain original material. One example is the state of training of the 216th Division, which was in at the final kill when the pocket was overrun on 4 June. One third of the soldiers in its ranks were veterans of the First World War, another third had been conscripted into the newly formed Wehrmacht after 1935, and the final third were simply eight-week-trained soldiers, called up at the last moment. Therefore, we can deduce that about half of the Division’s soldiers had matured and were educated before the advent of Hitler’s Third Reich.
German soldier accounts testify to the idealistic fervour that characterised the invading army of 1940. It would not be replicated later in the war. This was the only time veterans from the Kaiser’s Imperial Army, serving in the ranks, were of one accord with National Socialists. They believed they were fighting a ‘just war’ to reverse the humiliating defeat of the First World War and the excesses of the Treaty of Versailles. Years of bleak occupation in Europe and outrages would tarnish this image as the war progressed. The Operation Barbarossa force that invaded Russia in June 1941 was bigger and more lethal, but had a weaker moral compass than the troops who fought in the western campaign. The difficulty in finding surviving authentic German personal accounts of these front- line soldiers can be attributed to the fact that so few of them were to come back home after five more years of conflict.
The Germans made some interesting assumptions about their prospective opponents. Oberst Ulrich Liss, an intelligence officer at Army Headquarters specialising in enemy forces, underestimated the fighting qualities of the Belgian Army, noting the sociological divide between Flemings and Walloons (that exists to this day) and discipline problems. They would be defensive and follow French military principles, he surmised. They did so, but fought back fiercely, inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans at river lines, with no recourse but to retreat, in order to conform to the British and French falling back on the right. They were fighting for their homeland.
The French were assessed as being better in defence, very much influenced by their First World War experience, and poorly trained. Their best units were judged to be in north-west France, and would be present at Dunkirk. Liss had also spent some time during his career with the British armed forces on Salisbury Plain. From them, he expected high morale, good NCOs, and the resilience to take heavy casualties and fight on. He had huge respect for the veteran element from imperial wars, but thought British officers were poor and the Territorial Army units present to be of less worth.
During the headlong panzer advance to the coast, Hitler and his senior generals began to lose control of the Blitzkrieg momentum. Internal political fissures developed between the operational level of command, made up largely of energetic commanders exercising aggressive mobile initiative, and the strategic level of command, mostly comprising senior generals permeated with a ‘static front’ First World War perspective. The latter, including the Führer, became risk-adverse, as gaps opened between the speeding panzer vanguard and the slower-moving German infantry formations following on.
On 17 May, after Heinz Guderian’s XIX Corps had bounced over the Sambre River and continued onwards, the German general was rebuked by his Gruppe Commander Paul Ludwig von Kleist for exceeding his authority. Anticipating praise rather than censure, Guderian submitted his resignation, which had to be rescinded with the intervention of the Army Group A Commander, von Rundstedt.
On 21 May, meanwhile, the 7th Panzer Division commanded by Erwin Rommel was hit in the flank by two weak British regiments at Arras, an unexpected attack which was portrayed on his headquarters map board as a five-division assault. This caused massive disquiet at Hitler’s headquarters, resulting in the redeployment of 15 divisions east and west of Arras to deal with a perceived threat.
When Walther von Brauchitsch, the Supreme Commander of the German Army, personally intervened to transfer von Rundstedt’s panzer element across to von Bock’s Army Group B to simplify the reduction of the forming Dunkirk pocket, he was censored by Hitler, who felt his authority was being questioned. Von Rundstedt had decided to halt the panzers to enable the infantry to catch up. A number of historical accounts share the prevailing view that but for Hitler’s Halt Order, issued on 24 May, the Germans would easily have captured Dunkirk port before the BEF could depart. It was clearly von Rundstedt’s order; Hitler merely confirmed it. Interestingly, only one of the three days on which the panzers halted coincided with the nine days it took to evacuate the British. Moreover, the French had already fought off the only panzer division attack against the port, on the day the order was issued.
A terrain walk around the Dunkirk perimeter reveals just how unsuited the entire area is for armoured operations. The port lies within a concentric system of canals and is criss-crossed by a herring-bone pattern of drainage ditches. Allied narratives reveal the extent to which all of the low-lying countryside around and about was flooded. Whatever the direction of the German advance, at least five or six canal lines would have to be crossed to reach the port. It therefore made eminent sense for the tanks to halt.
No contemporary British veteran accounts of the evacuation mention any fear that panzers were about to break through to the beaches. The 1st Panzer Division was beaten back by the French 68th Infantry Division along the line of the Canal de L’Aa, west of Dunkirk. An exhaustive trawl through all the unit documents of the stalled motorised and panzer units held in place by the Halt Order elicits little comment about the pause, commonplace to soldiers conducting rapid armoured advances. Most of the comment was by senior German commanders and commentators after the war, when it was readily apparent Hitler had often taken illogical decisions during the war’s crisis moments.
Perhaps the greatest threat to Operation Dynamo, as the Allied evacuation of Dunkirk was codenamed, came with the Belgian surrender on 28 May. However, the sheer scale of the capitulation – with 22 divisions laying down their arms at one moment, filling the roads with thousands of Belgian troops and masses of civilian refugees – seriously impeded German operations. The best the Germans could do was hastily to form motorised units with captured enemy vehicles and head for the coast, while the mass of the German infantry advance was skillfully screened off by the retiring 2nd British Corps of the BEF. There was a real possibility the Germans might have been able to wrap up the evacuation beaches from the east, by advancing along the line of coastal sand dunes stretching to Nieuport. It was a missed opportunity, eventually stymied by British and then French resistance, enabling the BEF to escape.
Documents also reveal the healthy respect that German soldiers had for their Belgian adversaries. German units suffered heavy casualties trying to cross the many waterways and canals across Belgium. This is rarely written about in most Allied accounts. A further unknown was the tenacity of French resistance, which held both the west and east sides of the Dunkirk pocket at the height of the crisis. The French halted the strongest panzer attack by the 1st Panzer Division on the west, and to the east of the perimeter the German 56th Division was fought to a standstill, and had to be withdrawn, fought out, from the line.
Battle in the skies
If the panzers were unable to capture Dunkirk, then what was the role of the Luftwaffe in preventing the escape? There are problems, too, with the air accounts, because most of the Luftwaffe records were destroyed by Allied bombing during the war. Nevertheless, surviving intelligence reports and the Fliegerkorps VIII diary suggest that despite Göring’s promise to the Führer that he could liquidate the pocket by air alone, it was not immediately followed by a supreme Luftwaffe air effort. Reports and returns after 24 May, when the assurance was given, indicate that many other targets, inland and along the coast, were attacked instead. The weather comes through the documents as the primary area of concern. Only two and a half of the nine days of the siege of the Dunkirk perimeter offered sufficiently clear conditions to mount heavy raids. As a consequence, the Luftwaffe was never able seriously to dent the carrying capacity of Allied ships, and neither could the Kriegsmarine E-boats and U-boats.
The loss of the RMS Lancastria, a troop-carrying British liner sunk by a lone Junkers Ju 88 bomber after the evacuation, cost an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 lives, representing one-third of all the fatalities suffered by the BEF in France. For the Germans, it was an indication of what could have been achieved. The Luftwaffe had to fly the majority of its bombing missions from Germany, which meant its pilots were restricted to flying just one sortie per day across France. Only the Stuka dive bombers of Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps VIII could be brought forward. Men and machines were exhausted. Different bombs were required for sea targets, and they were not immediately available. At the same time, hitting the dodging and weaving destroyers – which were spitting out a barrage of suppressive fire – was a challenge to Luftwaffe pilots who were unused to operating over the sea.
Another unknown, revealed by the German division and corps after-action reports, was the effectiveness of RAF low-level bombing and strafing attacks on over-sensitive German troops. Virtually every German veteran account includes complaints about the RAF, which appeared to be seriously denting the Luftwaffe’s former air supremacy. Unit accounts are permeated with references to vehicles and men being lost here and there due to unexpected air attacks. Senior German commanders commented on the frequency of headquarter location moves due to RAF bombing. Apparently the ‘Brylcream boys’ did better than the British Dunkirk veterans ever admitted, mainly because the altitude at which they were flying meant they were out of view.
As the Germans closed in on the Dunkirk perimeter, the initiative shown during the advance was not replicated in reducing the final enclave. It represented a failure of command, control, and regrouping for Operation Rot (Red), the subsequent campaign in France. Having arrived with two Army Groups advancing from two different directions, there was no coordinated plan, or central aim, for reducing the pocket. There were huge traffic jams as motorised forces were withdrawn from the perimeter fighting, to be replaced by infantry marching up. General Georg von Küchler’s Eighteenth Army was not given the final role to reduce the pocket with ten divisions until five days into the nine-day evacuation.
German soldiers, witnessing the detritus of the Allied retreat strewn along the route of their advance, grew increasingly complacent. Why risk life with an Allied capitulation pending? Some 62 Dutch, Belgian and French divisions had been knocked off the order of battle, with 17 more badly mauled. Losing ten British divisions to the evacuation was small fry indeed. Most Germans assumed the British would surrender anyway with the impending French collapse, even if they did miraculously escape to their homeland. Dunkirk emerged in German military annals as merely a sign-post on the road to Paris, a victory en route to a greater one. The fall of France was the prize.
In the end, the key period revealed in this latest research is what happened between 29 May and 1 June, when the encircling German divisions were unable to prevent the disembarkation of the BEF’s fighting troops. As described in more detail in the narrative of Dünkirchen 1940, this involved both a succession of missed opportunities and the unexpected tenacity of French resistance, which lasted nearly three days longer than necessary, even after the British had got away. By uncovering for the first time in a major history what went wrong for the Germans at Dunkirk, this new material forces us to alter our view of an event that changed the tide of the Second World War, and a battle we thought we knew.
Robert Kershaw joined the Parachute Regiment in 1973. He served numerous regimental appointments until selected to command the 10th Battalion The Parachute Regiment. Since leaving the British Army in 2006, he has been a full-time author of military history as well as a consultant military analyst. His latest book, Dünkirchen 1940: The German view of Dunkirk (£20, Osprey Publishing), is out now.
Want to find out more about the German view of Dunkirk? Robert Kershaw discusses his article on our regular podcast. Visit the-past.com/podcasts to listen.