Longtime readers of the blog may remember that I have often used the Dunkirk Campaign of 1940 to provide context and perspectives on events in the Civil War. I’ve blogged about Lord Gort, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) commander, in terms of leader decisions and the pressure of command. An example of a British doctor left behind with wounded helps relate to Savage Station in 1862. I’ve also used Dunkirk as an example of battlefield fortitude and noted it as part of the Zouave battle record.
Dunkirk also contains one of the more interesting “what if?” scenarios of the early part of World War II – specifically, the German panzer divisions halting for 72 hours beginning on May 24, 1940. Examining this situation illuminates the complex decisions facing both Gort and the Germans, and provides a framework for considering other “what if?” scenarios.
First, let’s lay out the situation. On May 10, 1940, German troops attacked Allied forces in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Ten days later an armored thrust reached the channel and cut off the BEF, First French Army, the Belgian Army, and assorted other units (totaling approximately half a million men) from the rest of French forces in France. (See map.) The German forces put guard forces on the southern front, while several panzer (tank) divisions slashed northward in an effort to cut off the Allies from the Channel coast. Simultaneously, German infantry divisions attacked the Allies from the east.
Now, let’s look at the key moment, or turning point, that produces the “what if?” scenario. In three days, the German troops made great progress. British garrisons were bottled up in Calais and Boulogne by 1st and 2d Panzer Divisions, and elements of the 1st penetrated to within 10 miles of Dunkirk. However, they were largely out front of the rest of German forces. On May 24, Adolf Hitler personally ordered his panzers to halt their advance, a stoppage that lasted 72 critical hours. He felt the estimated 100,000 Allied troops in the pocket could be handled by German air units. During that time Gort solidified a defense and set the BEF in motion toward Dunkirk and evacuation. Boulogne’s garrison was evacuated, while Calais held out until May 27. From May 26 to June 4, 338,226 British and French troops escaped to England, despite German ground and air efforts to stop them. Ever since, Hitler’s “Stop Order” has been one of the great “what ifs?” of the first 12 months of World War II.
Given the above, the great question is: why did the Germans forsake an attack? What is likely to have happened had they attacked? Answering the latter question helps illuminate the answer to the former.
Alternate scenarios have 1st Panzer Division striking for Dunkirk and capturing the port quickly, but little beyond. Assuming that happened, and supporting attacks happened along the line further east, it is likely that within a day or two after May 24 the Germans would have made important gains. However, if the Germans wanted to cut off the BEF and its allies from the coast, they needed to secure a strip of land along the Channel connecting the panzers with the infantry of Army Group B coming from the east. As Army Group B was making slow progress, such a move would have needed most of the available panzer divisions to execute.
Assuming such a cordon was made, Gort would have attacked with everything he had to get through. On May 25 he decided to “operate toward the coast,” and for several days before had tried to break out southward to the French. He was a determined man, a Victoria Cross recipient for leadership in World War I, and in the historical operation demonstrated powers of leadership and decision that saved the BEF. He would have succeeded or literally died trying. Also, any attack toward the coast through a German corridor would have had the support of the Royal Navy from the Channel and the Royal Air Force from England – both factors that helped the historical evacuation.
If the Germans had captured Dunkirk and stopped, there were still miles of beaches around La Panne and Nieuport available to Gort and the BEF; historically, a significant percentage of the Dunkirk evacuees left via the La Panne beaches. The port of Ostend was still in Allied hands at that time, and could have been used as a base or evacuation point. Exercising either or both options would have saved much, possibly matching the historic result.
Of relevance are German experiences in Poland in 1939 and elsewhere during the 1940 campaign. Air power had a demoralizing effort on many Allied troops, weakening their desire to resist and in some cases speeding surrender. However, many pocketed Polish units fought with resolve until overwhelmed, even launching counterattacks and breakout attempts up to the end.
It is well documented that many senior German generals were worried about French troops to the south, the strength of which they overestimated. British attacks at Arras on May 21 had given two good German units anxious moments, and there is evidence it made senior leaders nervous. On top of all that, infantry support for the panzers was lacking and many tank crews and equipment needed some rest and refitting. Germany also had only 10 panzer divisions in its army, and 9 stood committed in the Dunkirk area.
Given the above considerations, the Stop Order becomes more understandable. Germany would have staked the armored core of its army in a battle along a narrow stretch of coast, without support if something went wrong, facing several hundred thousand desperate Allied troops under leadership determined to get out.
This framework is applied to a case from 1940, which coincidentally occurred during the 75th anniversaries of the Grand Review in Washington and E. Kirby Smith’s surrender in Texas. But applying these kinds of questions and considerations is useful in other eras, including the Civil War. In all cases, it helps understanding of the people and events of the past, and how things happened as they did. This is the value of considering “what if?”