In June, 1940, British forces in France were in grave danger. Yet, they made a miracle escape from the clutches of the Nazis to reach home and safety.
After sweeping through western and northern Europe, the forces of Nazi Germany seemed poised to invade across the English Channel and add Britain to their conquests.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was resolved to resist invasion at all or any cost, but many members of Parliament disagreed with his tenacious attitude. One of them was Neville Chamberlain, his predecessor as Prime Minister.
Chamberlain was very much at odds with Winston, believing as he did that “while we would fight to the end to preserve our independence, we were ready to consider decent terms if such were offered to us.” Winston, by contrast, spoke an entirely different and much more intransigent language.
Winston was incensed when Chamberlain expressed his supine opinion at a War Cabinet meeting and hit back with a typically uncompromising rejoinder. “Nations which went down fighting rose again, “ he claimed,“ but those who surrendered tamely were finished.”
Getting across his message of defiance to the Americans was another problem Winston had to face. Since the end of World War One, more than twenty years earlier, the United States had adopted a predominantly isolationist policy.
This echoed one of the provisions of the Monroe Doctrine of 1923 which decreed that the USA should not become involved in European wars and political conflicts. Even though US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not share the unwillingness of many Congressmen to become embroiled in European quarrels, isolationist influence was for the moment too strong to be ignored.
On May 15, Winston sent a telegram to Roosevelt setting out the situation in Europe in brutally frank terms while at the same time tacitly asking for American aid.
Winston Telegraphs Roosevelt
“If necessary,” Winston told Roosevelt, “we shall continue the war alone, and we are not afraid of that. But I trust you realize, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the UnitedStates may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness…”
Winston went on to request the use of fifty U.S. destroyers from World War One that had been mothballed in American naval shipyards. Although he stressed that these destroyers were crucial to Britain’s survival, President Roosevelt refused: his advisers feared that if Britain were overrun, their destroyers might fall into Nazi hands.
The Maginot Line
The next day, May 16, the Germans outflanked the concrete and steel fortifications of the Maginot Line, built between 1930 and 1935 along France’s border with Germany and which the French had mistakenly believed were impregnable.
Winston then learned that the French were to withdraw their forces altogether. He responded with steadfast defiance and determination in a broadcast on May 19.
“It is not the appointed time for all to make the utmost exertions in their power?” he demanded. There now existed “…groups of shattered states and bludgeoned races – the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must, as conquer we shall!”
The retreat of French forces placed the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in grave danger. These ten British Army divisions, which had crossed the English Channel to reinforce the French in the first days of the war nine months earlier, were now directly in the path of the advancing Germans.
The British in peril
On May 24, Winston learned from the contents of capture documents that the Germans were planning to trap the BEF by cutting off their routes of retreat to the Channel ports.
That same night, he sent an urgent order to evacuation: the BEF were to head for the beaches and ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk along the north coast of France.
The Royal Navy was ordered to prepare for an ambitious operation to rescue the men of the BEF and bring them home to England. But by May 26, when the evacuation , codenamed Operation Dynamo, got under way, Dunkirk was the only port that had not yet been captured of which was not endangered by the rapidly encroaching German forces.
On May 27, King Leopold III of Belgium asked the Germans for an armistice. This surrender meant that the men of the BEF were now in immense danger: the Belgian king had removed his army from the path of the advancing Germans, opening up a dangerous gap on their eastern flank.
Evacuation at Dunkirk
As the month of May, 1940 drew to its close, the evacuation at Dunkirk began. A mass of so-called “little ships” – privately owned boats and yachts, paddle steamers and other pleasure craft from English coastal resorts – joined the Royal Navy in rescuing British and French soldiers from piers and jetties along a ten-mile stretch of beaches.
Overhead, the Nazi German Luftwaffe pulverized the defensive perimeter around Dunkirk and blasted the rescue ships in the English Channel.
The RAF claimed to have shot down 194 Luftwaffe aircraft for the loss of 114 of their own, but the prospects for the BEF remained grim.
Hitler halts his attacks
German tanks lined up around the perimeter were preparing to advance on Dunkirk when suddenly and unexpectedly, the Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler halted operations. Hitler’s reasons for allowing the British and French to escape from Dunkirk have remained controversial ever since.
The Führer’s desire for a negotiated peace with Britain is an explanation often given; another has been that his commanders were reluctant to risk their tanks in the difficult terrain around Dunkirk. What is certain is that the halt gave precious extra time to strengthen the perimeter and enabled thousands of men to get away.
By June 4, when the rescue from Dunkirk ended, an astonishing 389,226 British and French soldiers had been transported to England. Apart from 71 heavy artillery pieces and 595 vehicles, all their equipment had to be left behind. Yet it was, as Winston called it, “a miracle of deliverance.”
- Dildy, Doug and Gerrard, Howard: Dunkirk 1940: Operation Dynamo (Campaign) by Doug Dildy and Howard Gerrard (Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2010) ISBN-10: 1846034574/ISBN-13:978-1846034572
- Overy, Richard: The Origins of the Second World War (3rd Edition)(Harlow, Essex, UK: Longman, Pearson Education: 2008) ISBN-10:1405824697/ISBN-13: 978-1405824699