This week: Dunkirk

British soldiers firing at German aircraft during the Dunkirk evacuation. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons/Australian War Memorial/

The events of late May and early June 1940 have long been the stuff of patriotic British legend, celebrated in classic war movies (most recently Christopher Nolan’s 2017 blockbuster), and hailed by Winston Churchill as a ‘miracle of deliverance’.

For generations of Britons, this miraculous narrative has run along conventional lines, reminding us how a plucky evacuation fleet – including a ramshackle collection of ‘little ships’, from fishing boats to pleasure craft – defied the odds to rescue more than 300,000 British, French, and other Allied soldiers trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk from under the noses of the Wehrmacht.

As we discover this week on The Past, however, there is another side to this familiar story: one that has remained largely untold until now.

In the new issue of Military History Matters, and on the latest episode of our brilliant PastCast podcast, we learn that the German troops advancing so rapidly towards the French coast also regarded the events of May-June 1940 as a ‘miracle’ – though for them, it was a miracle of achievement, rather than one of deliverance.

Starting on 10 May 1940, Hitler’s armies had stormed through the Low Countries in a matter of days, sending the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) assembled on the French-Belgian border into headlong retreat towards the coast. To the Germans, the fall of France was the prize, and the eventual capture of Britain’s fighting forces massing at Dunkirk a mere formality on the road to Paris. So where did it go wrong for them, and how were the BEF really allowed to get away?

Drawing on unseen archive material, Robert Kershaw – the author of a major new history of Dunkirk – reveals the German view of the battle. In an article that challenges the traditional British narrative, he explains how German complacency, along with strategic and tactical blunders on the part of Hitler’s high command, played an unseen part in allowing the BEF to escape, thereby changing the tide of the Second World War.

Elsewhere this week, we have also been delving into the archive for more about the events of 1940: we analysed Churchill’s relationship with British generals during that pivotal year; we looked at how ‘a few misplaced bombs’ saved the RAF from defeat in the Battle of Britain; and we even took issue with Churchill’s famous claim that 1940 was our ‘finest hour’.

And finally, if all that simply whets you appetite for more, don’t forget to have a go at our latest Quiz, which this week is also themed around the events of 1940. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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