Dunkirk: 6 big questions on a remarkable rescue mission

As Christopher Nolan's new film is released about the rescue of 338,000 Allied troops from the clutches of the Germans, Tim Benbow considers six of the biggest questions on ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine

Three aircraft of No 218 RAF Squadron in flight over northern France
Three aircraft of No 218 RAF Squadron in flight over northern France. The RAF was badly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe during the Battle of France. (© Getty Images)

 

1 Did Hitler let the British get away?

The German order of 23 May to halt the advancing panzers has led to a claim that Hitler deliberately allowed the British to escape – the idea being that avoiding humiliation would make them more willing to accept a peace deal that would free him to turn his attention to the east. This is utter nonsense.

First, it does not make sense. Capturing most of the trained strength of the British Army would have provided a weighty bargaining chip. Second, the claim does not reflect what happened: only one of the two advancing German armies halted (and only for two days, pushing on when it became clear that an evacuation might be under way). The other pressed on and the Luftwaffe continued to attack. If this was an attempt to allow the BEF to escape, it was distinctly half-hearted.


Soldiers climb a ladder to safety at Dunkirk. Troops were ferried from the shore on cockle boats, yachts, rubbish barges and fire tenders as well as Royal Navy warships. (© Getty Images)
 

Third, there is a perfectly adequate explanation for the halt order. The German armoured forces were stretched after a long advance and needed a pause to recover, to allow infantry and supplies to catch up, and to prepare for the next stage of the campaign, pushing for Paris and fighting the large French forces to the south. Some German commanders were nervous that their progress had been too good to last, influenced by a minor British counterattack near Arras on 21 May, which raised groundless fears that a larger Allied counterstroke might be imminent. What’s more, Hermann Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe, insisted that his force could mop up the remnants of the encircled Allied forces.

Given the understandable assumption 
that their enemies were cornered with nowhere to go, why take a risk pushing on? Even the British did not believe that a large-scale evacuation was feasible, so why would the Germans? 

The decision to halt was a grave error that greatly assisted the British, gifting them time to continue their withdrawal and to strengthen the defences around Dunkirk. This does not mean that it can only be explained by a conspiracy theory.

 

2 Did the RAF let the army down?

Some of the troops who fought in France bitterly criticised the RAF, not least for what they saw as its lack of effort over Dunkirk. Jibes referring to the ‘Royal Absent Force’ stung – and were quite unjustified.

Many of the RAF’s aircraft were obsolescent and, even alongside its French counterpart, it was badly outnumbered by the Luftwaffe. Squadrons from Fighter Command, Bomber Command, Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm did what they could to resist the onslaught, suffering terrible casualties that saw entire squadrons wiped out. But their activities were often out of soldiers’ sight. 

The troops’ wish to see friendly aircraft overhead was understandable but misconceived. Supporting aircraft might be better employed striking enemy land forces elsewhere, or intercepting their aircraft some distance from the bridgehead. There was also a need to find a balance between committing squadrons to the Battle of France and keeping enough back to defend Britain.

One legitimate criticism is the charge that the RAF placed far too much emphasis on strategic bombing. At this stage, this was far short of achieving what its proponents claimed, and meant that other areas (particularly aircraft co-operating with the army and navy) were short of resources.

However, despatches written by Lord Gort and Bertram Ramsay – high-ranking officers in the army and navy respectively, who were in a better position to appreciate the full picture than the infantry being bombed at Dunkirk – are striking. Both paid tribute to the sacrifice of the RAF, without which the evacuation would have been impossible. 

3 Who were the brains behind the operation?

Two men stand out. General Lord Gort, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, deserves enormous credit for his calmness in a confusing and disastrous situation, in which he displayed a remarkable ability to grasp what was happening. He turned down a series of flawed proposals for counterattacks, which his French allies were quite unable to carry out, in favour of pulling back towards the coast. Then, when news came of the imminent collapse of Belgium, he took swift action to redeploy his forces, filling a gap through which the Germans would otherwise have poured. 

Bernard Montgomery, a division commander at Dunkirk and future hero of 
north Africa, was not generally free with praise for others. But, in his memoir, he wrote of Gort: “He was a man who did not see very far, but as far as he did see he saw very clearly… It was because he saw very clearly, if only for a limited distance, that we all got away at Dunkirk.”

The other key individual was Bertram Ramsay. Despite officially being on the retired list, at the start of the war Ramsay was appointed Vice-Admiral Dover, a critical command given its position on the English Channel. At Dunkirk, Ramsay proved the merits of that appointment, overseeing, with consummate professionalism, what the Dictionary of National Biography calls “the largest seaborne evacuation ever attempted”. 

Ramsay showed an ability to put together and lead a team in the most trying circumstances, mastering detail yet also able to delegate. Later in the war, he led the 
planning for the D-Day landing. Having rescued the army from the continent, it 
was appropriate that he masterminded its return four years later.


While overseeing the Dunkirk evacuation, Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay combined a mastery of detail with the ability to delegate. (© Getty Images)

 

4 How important were the ‘little ships’?

The ‘little ships’ are central to how Dunkirk is remembered and portrayed. They were the more than 700 privately owned vessels that participated in the evacuation, including motor boats, sailing ships and vessels towed across the Channel. They represented the full range of seafaring activities of the nation, including fishing trawlers, cockle boats, yachts, lifeboats, paddle ferries, pleasure cruisers, a fire tender, rubbish barges and vessels owned by the Pickfords removals company. The names tell a story of their own: Lord Collingwood and Lord St Vincent served alongside Yorkshire Lass, Count Dracula and Dumpling.

Their limited capacity for passengers was outweighed by the priceless advantage of a shallow draft, which allowed them to go close inshore to 
pick up the waiting soldiers. 

The image of civilians answering the call to help save the beleaguered army is undeniably a compelling one. It was subsequently exaggerated, just like the contribution of ‘the Few’ in the Battle of Britain. Yet, just like that later example, there was more than a 
kernel of truth to the story.

The little ships’ contribution needs to be put in context. They carried few men all the way home, rather being used to ferry them out to the larger ships. Many were manned by civilian crews, yet there was also a good sprinkling of naval or naval reserve personnel. 

But Churchill’s ‘mosquito armada’ did play an important role. Many 
men would not have got home without them – and they paid a high price, coming under constant attack from the Luftwaffe and having to brave mines, fast tides, fog, and waters cluttered with ever more wrecks. More than 100 were lost, including many that were unidentified. The little ships deserve their place in history.

 

5 Was Dunkirk really a miracle?

The events of Dunkirk are often described as miraculous. While the fine weather was a remarkable stroke of luck – especially the calm seas, without which evacuation from the beaches would have been impossible – the explanation is for the most part more mundane. The Germans made a major 
mistake in pausing their advance, thereby 
easing the pressure on the bridgehead. While the Royal Air Force was not able to provide air superiority, it did enough to prevent the Luftwaffe from making the operation impossible. Ship losses were high but not sufficient to stop the evacuation. 

The BEF and the French army deserve far more credit than they usually get, for the determined and disciplined way that they fought their way out of the closing trap – while short of food and ammunition, against an enemy with air supremacy, and through roads choked with refugees – and then defended the ever shrinking perimeter long enough for the evacuation to take place. Most of all, though, the operation depended on the effective use of sea power. 
The Royal Navy had inflicted heavy losses on its German counterpart during the Norway campaign a few months earlier. This prevented the Kriegsmarine from interfering with Operation Dynamo (and also denied Germany any real option for invasion in late 1940). The Royal Navy, with great assistance from the merchant navy, then proved able to improvise a remarkably successful evacuation, despite near constant air attack.
 
Civilian and naval crews (albeit far more of the latter) went back time and again, in difficult circumstances, to bring the defeated army home to fight another day.
 

6 If the evacuation had failed, would Britain have lost the war?

While the outcome of Operation Dynamo was as great a relief to the government as it was a boost to popular morale, what was its real significance? Some historians have argued that its impact has been exaggerated, that Britain would have fought on 
regardless. This is plausible; the RAF would have been no less ready to fight the Battle of Britain, while the Royal Navy would have been equally well placed to prevent any German 
attempt at invasion.

But Britain’s situation in the summer of 1940 was dire. The defeat and occupation of Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium were followed by the collapse of France, Britain’s main ally. Germany was effectively allied with the Soviet Union, Italy now joined their side in the war, and any US entry was a long way off. Worse still, Germany controlled the coastlines of France and Norway, putting it in a far better position to wage war at sea. Britain’s survival was in genuine doubt.


A fleet of small boats are towed up the Thames after taking part in Operation Dynamo, June 1940. (© Getty Images)
 

But imagine if Britain had seen another 200,000 troops taken prisoner, losing the bulk of its trained army and the nucleus for its later expansion. This would have represented another heavy blow to its ability – and, crucially, willingness – to face the difficult years to come. At best, the successful campaigns in north Africa and the Mediterranean would have been far more difficult to fight, allowing Germany to invade the Soviet Union earlier, with better prospects for success. Material support from the US would have been slower to come – if it came at all. 

We’ve also got to consider that, while Churchill was resolute about fighting on, his position was far from unassailable. It is conceivable that, if Dunkirk had ended in disaster, his administration could have been toppled and replaced by a government willing to seek the best peace it could negotiate. Dunkirk therefore has to be seen as one of the key turning points of the war. 
 

Tim Benbow is reader in strategic studies at King’s College London. He is editor of Operation Dynamo: The Evacuation from Dunkirk, May–June 1940 (Helion, 2016)

Film: Dunkirk, a film about Operation Dynamo, is in cinemas from July 

Books: Forgotten Voices: Dunkirk 
by Joshua Levine (Ebury, 2011); Full Cycle by WS Chalmers (Hodder & Stoughton, 1959); Pillar of Fire by Ronald Atkin (Birlinn, 1990); Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man 
by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore 
(Penguin, 2007)

You can read more about the Dunkirk evacuation on the BBC Archive website: bbc.co.uk/
archive/dunkirk

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