Dunkirk Myth vs. Reality – Operation Dynamo

The evacuation of British, Belgian and French troops at Dunkirk-Operation Dynamo- was a crucial event in the early stages of the Second World War although the Allies were ultimately severely beaten in The Battle of France, the events at Dunkirk were mostly portrayed and perceived as a victory for the British. Quite naturally, various myths surrround this event. Additionally, there’s also a myth about the German side of events which will also be addressed, so let’s get started. One of the central myths around the evacuation of Dunkirk is about the “little ships”. These were civilian ships that helped evacuate soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk. “Though commemorations represent many different groups involved in the evacuation with participation from the Royal Navy, RAF, veterans and little ships, news coverage invariably focuses on the journey made by the little ships, arguably the biggest and most dramatic part of the commemorations.” Now, these “little ships” are often portrayed to be given away voluntary by their owners and also operated by them during the evacuation. “In many cases the owners could not be contacted and boats were taken without their knowledge, such was speed and urgency of the operation.” Quite interestingly, the idea of spontaneous civil participation originated from the United States according to Alex Palmer who refers to a poem Dunkirk: A Ballad, and The Dunkirk Little Ships Association also refers to an American film. “The Mrs Miniver story of owners jumping Into The Little Ships and rushing off to Dunkirk is a myth. Very few Owners took their own vessels apart from fishermen and one or two others.” Because most of these ships were operated by Navy personnel. Additionally, some others claimed that the “little ships” were mainly ineffective and only took part in the last two days of the evacuation. Although it’s probably not really a myth, the role and actions of the RAF also require mention. Quite many soldiers complained about the absence of the RAF, yet the problem of such accounts is always that in a world where your Mark One eyeball might miss the big picture. Contrary to some complaints from troops who got strafed, the skies were not empty of allied aircraft, sometimes the action was simply elsewhere. The RAF vigorously contested the air space over Dunkirk to protect the evacuation from the 27th of May till 4th of June. Or, to Quote From the Naval Staff Report from 1949: “Unfortunately the troops on the beaches and on Dunkirk piers saw but little of the fighting in the air, for much of the weight of the effort of the Royal Air Force was directed against objectives far inland, to prevent or break up enemy raids before these reached the beaches and ships.” Now, one important point is about the French. Either often not credited at all for the success of Operation Dynamo or even worse portrayed as a problem, yet this is very wrong. Without the French holding the rear guard the evacuation would probably have turned out quite differently. Not only did the French Navy partake in the operations and lost three destroyers-in contrast the Royal Navy lost six- the French also left 40,000 men behind. Or to quote from The Cambridge History of the Second World War: “The 2nd North African Division at Dunkirk formed a valiant rearguard crucial to the evacuation of 338,000 British, French and Belgian troops. Additionally The Analysis chapter of the Naval Staff Report from 1949 on Dunkirk evacuation contains the Following part at the end “…and it Seems fitting to take a last look at the French troops as seen by commander H. R. Troup, who constituted himself piermaster at the center pier on the final night:- ‘I would like to put on record the wonderful discipline of the French troops when the last ship left about 0300 on June 4th. About 1,000 men stood to attention four deep about half way along the pier, the General and his staff about 30 feet away; and after having faced the troops, whose faces were indiscernible in the dawn light, the flames behind them showing up their steel helmets, the officers clicked their heels, saluted and then turned about and came down to the boat with me and we left at 0320.'” Of course, the French surrendering to the Germans and signing an armistice in the summer of 1940 was seen as a betrayal by the British and has changed the overall perception of the French significantly, yet this shouldn’t diminish the contributions of the French soldiers. Now, let’s look at the German side of the Dunkirk myth. Although in this case it happened actually before Operation Dynamo Prior to the evacuation, Hitler committed probably one of the biggest blunders in World War II, namely the halt order. Prior to the evacuation German Panzers were very close to Dunkirk which at this point was barely defended, yet General Rundstedt ordered the Panzers to halt. Since T the German High Command was annoyed by the continuous attempts of Rundstedt to slow down operations, it removed the Panzer divisions from his command. The problem was German High Command did this without Hitler’s knowledge or approval. As a result, once Hitler found out, he put the Panzer divisions under Rundstedt’s authority again and confirmed the halt order, thus ultimately costing the Germans three days and eight hours. Without this decision, Dunkirk could have been easily taken and very likely there would have been no escape for the trapped British, Belgian and French Troops. Yet the question is why did Hitler do it? Far too many people believe Hitler’s own excuse, namely that he wanted to spare the British and to open the British for peace negotiations. Well, there are three problems here. First, if Dunkirk would have been attacked immediately–which would have been quite easy since only a few troops were defending it–the other troops in the port would have no chance to escape and thus very likely surrender. Even if they did not surrender they could have gone nowhere and likely ran out of supplies sooner or later. After all the evacuation fleet also brought in supplies, for instance large amounts of water. Additionally, these troops surrendering would have not only spared British but also German lives. Second, to quote German military historian Karl-Heinz Reason about Hitler’s friendliness towards the British: “Indeed, during the evacuation he wanted to make use of specially fused anti-aircraft shells to bring about the bloodbath on the consanguineous Englishman who were jammed together on the beach.” And finally, third, before the war Hitler operated quite successfully on the diplomatic level whereby he used or threatened with force on various occasions. So why would he now, during the second year of the war, let go intentionally of British, Belgian and French troops which were priceless bargaining chips for any negotiations? The more likely explanation is that Hitler wanted to enforce his authority on the German High Command and show who is the boss. Considering his appointment of various yes-men and other power politics that were detrimental to the war effort, this also seems to be in line with his behavior before and during the war. Now, Operation Dynamo was a success especially considering that originally it was assumed only about a fraction of the 338,000 men could be evacuated, yet the British Expeditionary Force was also driven from the continent. Now, if we assess the victory for the Germans, The Battle of France was a strategic victory at least against France. But against United Kingdom it was merely an operational victory. Although the British Expeditionary Force lost nearly all of its equipment and many supplies, the core of its manpower was successfully evacuated. This is something that should not be underestimated. These were more than 200,000 British professional soldiers and veterans. These men were crucial since they would train and lead new recruits for the upcoming years. After all the United Kingdom only recently reintroduced military service. Additionally, the evacuation was a major moral victory for the British that had considerable impact. “…In Britain Dunkirk has been remembered both during World War II and throughout the post-war period as not only a success but one of the great achievements of Britain during the war. The evacuation was and is remembered as a victory snatched from the jaws of defeat and a moment in which the greatness of the British character was revealed.” As always source is in the description. Special thanks to Bismarck for helping me out on this video. Did an excellent job on why the Luftwaffe failed at Dunkirk, check it out here and if you want to know more about Erwin Rommel check out this video. Thank you for watching and see you next time.


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