The ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ is lauded in British history and folklore as a victory of human endeavor, celebrated each year with a profusion of TV documentary veteran accounts and memorial services. German soldiers constantly referred to the wunder or miracle of reaching Dunkirk in wartime letters back home. 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 less weeks than it took years for their fathers not to succeed in 1914-18.
The conventional narrative stems very much from Winston Churchill’s History of the Second World War, and embellished in similar vein since. The Blitzkrieg advance across France and Belgium is often described as a feint through Belgium by von Bock’s Army Group B, the bait for a trap sprung by von Rundstedt’s panzer heavy Army Group A. This unexpectedly emerged from the Ardennes forested area, seemingly impassable to tanks. The latter dashed to the coast emerging at Noyelles sur mer, trapping the bulk of the Allied armies in north west France. Ten British divisions of the BEF managed to escape back to the UK mainland.
Post war historians have tended to underestimate the extent to which Army Group B, despite facing the bulk of the Allied armies, aggressively tore into the defenses of the Low Countries with its Eighteenth and Sixth Armies. Much of the narrative concentrates on the epic run by Army Group A to the Atlantic coast. Von Bock’s, being the lesser of two powerful thrust lines, is often described as a feint. Deception there was, but the overall configuration of the advance was more a massive double offensive. Von Bock’s force with 29 divisions was about two-thirds the size of von Rundstedt’s 46 divisions with Army Group A, a force to be reckoned with. It fielded three reduced size panzer divisions and unhinged the Dutch Fortress Holland waterways defense 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 air landed by Ju 52 transport aircraft.
The Allies were shocked. Twenty-nine year old Staff Captain James Hill with General Gort’s BEF HQ 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’.1 Ten days after the start of the German offensive Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, 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, organized 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 the 28th 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’. 2
By Sunday night on 2nd June the Royal Navy was able to report ‘BEF evacuated’. About 338,000 soldiers, including 112,500 Frenchmen were taken off. Elizabeth Quayle a Woman’s Auxiliary Airforce (WAAF) telephone operator had been monitoring the progress of the German Army’s 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’.3 What had transpired was the stuff of British patriotic legend, celebrated in black and white movies like the John Mills 1958 version of Dunkirk and ever since. How on earth had they managed to get away from the clutches of the victorious Wehrmacht?
The real climax of the battle for Dunkirk was the three days between 31st May to 1st June when the bulk of the BEF’s fighting divisions were taken off, the surviving veterans, under the noses of the Germans. This is the story Dünkirchen 1940 tells, the unseen narrative from the German perspective. It is one that surprisingly, after eighty years have passed, has never 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, contrary to many of the popular myths about the ‘miracle of Dunkirk,’ has been uncovered. Very few personal German accounts 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 Russia. Most of the biographical soldier accounts were written in the early 1940s, flavored by a National Socialist bias, prior to the invasion of Russia. Virtually all the surviving corps and division after-action reports survived 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 the 4th June. One third of the soldiers in its ranks were veterans from 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, about half its soldiers had matured and were educated before the advent of Hitler’s Third Reich.
German soldier accounts testify to the idealistic fervor that characterized 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 a humiliating defeat 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 Barbarossa force that invaded Russia was bigger and more lethal, but had less moral compass than those that fought in the western campaign. The difficulty of finding surviving authentic German personal accounts of these front-line soldiers is because so few of them were to come back home after five further years of conflict.
The Germans made some interesting assumptions about their prospective opponents. Oberst Ulrich Liss, an intelligence officer at Army Headquarters specializing in enemy forces underestimated the fighting qualities of the Belgian Army, noting the sociological divide between Flemings and Walloons, (that exist 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, 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 defense, very much influenced by their World War I experience, and poorly trained. Their best units were assessed to be in north west France, and would be present at Dunkirk. Liss had spent some time during his career with the British armed forces on Salisbury Plain. 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 TA units would be of less worth.4
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, energetic commanders exercising aggressive mobile initiative, and the strategic level of command, 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 follow on German infantry formations. On the 17th May after Guderian’s XIX Corps had bounced the Sambre River and continued on, he was rebuked by his Gruppe Commander von Kleist for exceeding his authority. Guderian anticipating praise rather than censure submitted his resignation, which had to be rescinded with the intervention, the Army Group A Commander, von Rundstedt. On 21st May Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division was hit in the flank by an unexpected attack by two weak British regiments at Arras, 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 von Brauchitsch the Army Chief 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 the 24th May, the Germans would have easily 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 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 armored operations. The port lays within a concentric system of canals and is crisscrossed by a herring bone pattern of drainage ditches. Allied narratives reveal the extent to which all the low-lying countryside about was flooded. Whatever the direction of the German advance, at least five to six canal lines 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 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 motorized and panzer units held in place by the Halt Order elicit little comment about the pause, commonplace to soldiers conducting rapid armored 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 came with the Belgian capitulation on 28th May. The sheer scale of the capitulation, 22 divisions laying down their arms at one moment, filling the roads with thousands of Belgian troops and masses of civilian refugees, all going they were not sure where seriously impeded German operations. The best they could do was hastily form motorized 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 German soldiers had for their Belgian adversaries. German units suffered heavy casualties trying to cross the many waterways and canals in pursuit 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.
If the panzers were unable to capture Dunkirk, what was the role of the Luftwaffe in preventing the escape? There are problems with the air accounts because most of the Luftwaffe records were destroyed by allied bombing during the war. Nevertheless, surviving intelligence reports and the Fligerkorps 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 the 24th May, when the assurance was given, indicate many other targets, inland and along the coast, were attacked instead. The weather comes through the documents as the primary area of concern. Only 2½ of the nine-day siege of the Dunkirk perimeter offered sufficiently clear conditions to mount heavy raids. As a consequence, the Luftwaffe was never able to seriously dent the Allied ship carrying capacity, and neither could Kriegsmarine E-Boats and U-Boats.
The loss of the Lancastria, a troop-carrying liner, sunk by a lone Ju 88 after the evacuation cost an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 lives, representing one third of the fatalities suffered by the BEF in France. 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 only one sortie per day flying across France. Only the Stukas of 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. Hitting dodging and weaving destroyers spitting out a barrage of suppressive fire was a challenge to Luftwaffe pilots unused to operating over 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 veteran German account includes complaints about the RAF, who appeared to be seriously denting former Luftwaffe 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 they were high and 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 re-grouping for Operation Röt, 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 motorized forces were withdrawn from the perimeter fighting to be replaced by infantry marching up. General 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 roads 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. The British were expected to surrender on the island in any case. 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, with an impact akin to say a defeat of the United States today by China.
The key period revealed in this latest research was what happened between the 29th May to 1st June, when the encircling German divisions were unable to prevent the disembarkation of the BEFs fighting troops. Why this was so is described in the narrative of Dünkirchen 1940, 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.
1. Hill, interview, Dunkirk- The Soldier’s Story, BBC TV 2004.
2. Soldier omen, Robert Kershaw, Never Surrender, P. 63. 2009.
3. Quayle, Ibid, P. 67.
4. Liss, Westfront 139-40, P. 24-58. 1958.
THE RESEARCH STORY BEHIND DÜNKIRCHEN 1940
In 2005 I was asked to prepare a battlefield tour while serving at NATO Headquarters in Brussels. The theme had to be a combined services operation. The best historical option nearby was the fighting around the Dunkirk perimeter in May-June 1940, a large scale protected evacuation with land operations at Corps and Army Group level, and involving maritime and air forces. My task was to cover the German perspective. I spoke the language having attended the German Staff College at Hamburg, and well understood their methodology, history and tactics and particularly their mentality.
I was fortunate with the research support offered, first of all by Dr Heinrich Schönemann, who assisted with books, documents and personal contacts. Dr Eckehart Guth assisted procuring documents from the Bundesarchiv at Koblenz and further support came from the Deutsche Dienststelle in Berlin. Furthermore I was placed in contact with Albert Schick, who wrote the official history of the 10th Panzer Division. He ably assisted in grass root enquiries about the state of the panzer divisions when they reached the coast in May 1940, and their material and personnel losses prior to Hitler’s panzer halt order, issued on 24th May.
In the event, the planned exercise was cancelled due to other headquarter commitments. However, during the brief gestation period I amassed many primary documents dealing with Wehrmacht land, sea and air units that operated against the isolated Dunkirk perimeter.
Starting with panzer unit documentation it quickly became apparent that Hitler was not the author of the panzer halt, short of Dunkirk, it was von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, who had successfully broken through to the Atlantic coast after traversing France. A terrain walk-about prior to the planned exercise revealed just how unsuitable the entire area around the Dunkirk perimeter was for armored operations. Crisscrossed by a herring bone pattern of drainage ditches, I soon appreciated Dunkirk port lay within a concentric system of canals. Allied narratives revealed the extent to which all the low lying countryside about was flooded, after the sea defenses were opened. It therefore made eminent sense that the Germans tanks should halt.
Most participants for the coming exercise shared the prevailing view that but for Hitler’s Halt Order, the Germans would easily have captured Dunkirk port, before the BEF could embark. Close examination of the 1st Panzer Division documentation revealed that the only division level panzer attack leveled against the city, coming from the west, was beaten back by the French 68th Division on the very day the halt order was issued. Clearly this scenario merited further research.
If the panzers were unable to capture Dunkirk, what was the role of the Luftwaffe in preventing the escape? There were problems with the air accounts because most of the Luftwaffe records were destroyed by allied bombing during the war. Nevertheless, surviving documents, located by Dr Guth – which included intelligence reports and the Fligerkorps VIII diary – suggested that despite Göring’s promise to the Führer , it was not followed by a supreme Luftwaffe air effort. Reports and returns after the 24th May, when assurance was given, indicate many other targets, inland and along the coast, were attacked instead. The weather comes through the documents as the primary area of concern. Only 2½ of the nine-day siege of the Dunkirk perimeter offered sufficiently clear conditions to mount heavy raids.
If the Luftwaffe were unable to effectively reduce the troop carrying capacity of the evacuation fleet, what did the land forces achieve? Dr Guth managed to procure pretty well all the surviving documentation relating to the army corps and divisions that operated around the Dunkirk perimeter. At this point, document procurement finished when the planned exercise was cancelled.
Having decided to write full time on retirement from the army the following year, I thought the project should be continued, curiosity having been aroused. I carried on buying up photocopied document pages I thought relevant. Dr Guth pointed to many 1941 German publications that included eyewitness accounts of the actions I was investigating. These were purchased from Belgium before returning to the UK. One of the limitations setting up as a full time author is that one writes what the publishers want. In this case it was a book entitled Tankmen, and the Dunkirk project was put on hold, which remained the case for 15 years. Books and paperwork were stored in my attic and remained there while I wrote nine more books. When in the Spring of 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic broke, with all its limitations for travel and research the Dünkirchen project was resurrected. The material was to hand, so a ‘no-brainer’. However, I had no idea how potentially good it was.
As I began to wade through turgid National Socialist German war correspondent stories about the western campaign, and large numbers of German Feldpost letter and diary accounts, I compared them alongside the corps and division unit after-action reports sequestered earlier. They unearthed surprisingly rich pickings. There was a lot of original material which led to my questioning and reshaping many former perceptions about the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’.
Having suspected the capture of Dunkirk by the panzers was not a foregone conclusion but for the halt order, I began to look at the other key moments that had the capability of altering the outcome of the Dynamo evacuation process. I was able to closely follow the development of the Belgian capitulation of the 28th May, perhaps the greatest crisis moment for the success of Operation Dynamo. Two years training at the German Staff College aided the approach. I knew what to look for. The sheer scale of the capitulation, 22 divisions laying down their arms at one moment, filling the roads with thousands of Belgian troops and masses of civilian refugees, all going they were not sure where seriously impeded German operations. The best they could do was hastily form motorized 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.
Another cause for surprise was the healthy respect German soldiers had for their Belgian adversaries. German units suffered heavy casualties trying to cross the many waterways and canals in pursuit. 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, 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.
Another unknown was the effectiveness of RAF low level bombing and strafing attacks on over sensitive German troops. Virtually every veteran German account includes complaints about the RAF, who appeared to be seriously denting the prevailing Luftwaffe air supremacy. Unit after action accounts are also permeated with references vehicles and men lost here and there due to unexpected air attack. Many German commanders mention the frequency of headquarter location moves due RAF air attacks. Apparently the ‘Brylcream boys’ did better than the British Dunkirk veterans ever admitted, mainly because they were high and out of view.