Dunkirk: The History
On 10th May 1940, the Luftwaffe (Nazi Air Force) and Wehrmacht (Unified Nazi Armed Forces) launched an offensive against France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. In response to this, British and French forces on the Belgium border quickly reacted in the effort to break the German momentum and keep the invaders from reaching any French industrial strongholds. However, another German effort came further south, through the Ardennes, where Hitler’s forces swept aside shallow French units. After this it became apparent that hundreds of thousands of British and French troops had been entrapped by the superior tactics and strength of the German military.
By the 19th May, the British Commander, Viscount Gort, was considering the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (the BEF) by sea to be the best option, and consequently planned the withdrawal of troops to Dunkirk beach, which was the closest location with good port facilities and enough space for large groups of soldiers to assemble. The Allied pocket around Dunkirk steadily shrunk until the 24th May, with a failed attempt to breakthrough the German lines being the only major attempt to escape the coastline of Northern France and Belgium. However, this German advance ceased for 3 days, for reasons still debated today by historians today. This gave the surrounded Allied forces time to recuperate, plan and begin the evacuation. Churchill ordered Operation Dynamo (the codename of the evacuation) to start at 19:00 on the 26th May, by which time 28,000 men had already been rescued.
Initial plans were to use destroyers and transport ships to evacuate the troops, but these only expected to have time to save 30,000 soldiers. However, before long the harbour at Dunkirk became blocked by ships sunk by the constant Luftwaffe attacks, this meaning troops had to be taken off the beaches, a nearly impossible task given the shallow water preventing large ships from reaching the shore. Small ships were needed to ferry the troops from the beaches to the larger ships, thus a vast number of commercial ships were requisitioned to help, some with naval crews, and some with civilian. It wasn’t long before the British command realised this was a sluggish and time-consuming method, re-routing the evacuation to two long concrete breakwaters; the East Mole and West Mole. Almost 200,000 troops embarked upon ships from the East Mole in the following week, contributing hugely to the overall evacuation. In total, 338,226 Allied troops were rescued from the beaches at Dunkirk by the hastily assembled fleet comprised of around 800 boats.
It was dubbed a ‘miracle’ by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in its aftermath, and the British press predominantly followed the line that Dunkirk was a ‘disaster turned into triumph’. The incredibly positive publicity the evacuation received was so widespread that Churchill even had to remind the country that "Wars are not won by evacuations." Newspapers ran headlines such as ‘Tired, Dirty, Hungry they came back - unbeatable’ and ‘Dunkirk defence defies 300,000’, allowing the inference that Britain had won some sort of victory over Germany. This firstly demonstrates the huge impact Dunkirk had on the British public, as the battle wasn’t seen as the crushing loss that it effectively was (with Britain being pushed out of mainland Europe, potentially being forced to fight the remainder of the war from a home front), meaning the British public were still in support of the war, determined to fight another day rather than accepting defeat that seemed all too inevitable at the time. The Dunkirk spirit had taken hold of Britain, and the government encouraged it to flourish, preventing any material being published that might damage morale. The snowstorm of positive propaganda that the aftermath of Dunkirk received I would argue was vital in the war continuing, and in turn, the final outcome of the war. This is because with more realistic and honest propaganda circulating, highlighting how the Allies were pushed out of mainland Europe so easily, the public would have ceased to back the war and forced the government to look for potential peace negotiations. The spirit of Dunkirk would have not existed if the crushing nature of the defeat wasn’t publicised in a way that gave the public hope, as it would have left Britain no motivation to ‘never surrender’ (as stated in Churchill’s famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech). The importance of Dunkirk is epitomised by the phrase ‘Dunkirk was a military defeat but a propaganda victory’, as although the Allies lost valuable ground, they managed to maintain their war effort long enough to see the war through until help came in the form of the Americans and Russians.
In addition to rousing the British feeling towards the war, the way Dunkirk was seen in the media also had a significant impact on America. The American press reported epic accounts of Allied heroism in the face of almost certain peril, capturing the imagination of the public and generating the first overt signs of popular and governmental support for Britain. An example of a tale of heroism reported in America was that New Yorkers were told that the RAF were the apparent embodiment of courage; "Between flights the young pilots of the RAF calmly sipped tea at their home fields." The Washington Star claimed a day after the conclusion of the evacuation that ‘It is a matter of inestimable importance to our own security that we should instantly remove all restrictions on the rendering of realistic, material aid to the Allies’. If Britain had shown any sign of having lost motivation to continue the war, America would have shown much less future interest in the essentially European war. Furthermore, as this quotation came from a major American newspaper, it can be inferred that this idea was presented to a large audience of Americans, and consequently pushed a large amount of the general public closer towards supporting a war that they would fully commit to after the attack on Pearl Harbour just over a year later. This growing support was shown clearly by the almost instantaneous response of sending around half-a-million rifles across the Atlantic to aid Allied fighting. The Dunkirk spirit inspired a vital amount of interest in the war, waking the Americans up to its perilous nature. This was emphasised even further by Churchill publicly announcing that Britain would prevent ‘the whole world, including the United States’, from sinking into the abyss of a dark new age’. It offered the first insight to the Americans that the war might affect them, and this proved to be of the utmost importance, when the US Secretary of State commented ‘Had we any doubt of Britain’s determination to keep on fighting we would not have taken steps to get material aid to her’.
However, you could also argue that the Germans also gained a huge amount of morale from this historic victory. German newspapers were equally as positive of those of Britain, proclaiming a famous victory that would potentially be a major stepping stone for them towards winning the war. For example; the Deutsche Allgemeine ran the headline ‘Dunkirk Taken’, reporting 40,000 British prisoners and a further 40,000 British deaths through drowning in the channel. Furthermore, the Nazi party paper (Völkischer Beobachter) poked fun at the British for abandoning their French allies, under the headline ‘Breakthrough in Dunkirk’. This infectious spread of propaganda in relation to Dunkirk would have given the Germans a similar pride over the war as it did for the British, limiting the role of British propaganda as the Germans experienced a similar Dunkirk spirit as the British, only they believed that they were close to ending the war victorious. Furthermore, the Germans also damaged the morale of British troops through posters dropped by the Luftwaffe, highlighting the Allied predicament as they were shown to be surrounded and in a hopeless situation even after the evacuation. No amount of inspirational speeches from Churchill could fully compensate for the 68,000 British casualties and the terrifying nature of a potential German invasion that seemed imminent. This was still a victory for German morale.
Consequences and potential outcomes?
The immediate consequences, although not as destructive as they could have been, were still crushing, with the Allies suffering heavy losses in both land and naval divisions. Statistically, it was near catastrophic; 68,000 men of the BEF were captured and killed in Blitzkrieg and the following retreat and evacuation, 40,000 French troops were captured at Dunkirk, with the number of French casualties reaching nearly 290,000, 416,940 tonnes of BEF stores were left in France to be captured by the Germans, and over 200 vessels were sunk, including 6 naval destroyers. The Germans on the other hand experienced the results of a superior military performance, with only 27,000 men killed and 110,000 wounded. The ‘lightning war’ tactic of Blitzkrieg was shown to be incredibly effective, and Hitler had reason to be pleased. However, I would argue that the British army’s escape from Dunkirk, although reaching home barely intact, was potentially the major turning point of the Second World War.
It is almost certain that if the evacuation of Dunkirk did not take place as well or at all, Hitler would have had roughly a quarter of a million of British troops in captivity. This would have given Churchill few other options than to search for some form of peace treaty. Britain would have been without the majority of its professional army and would not have had the means to recover. However, although the outcome of the war looked almost certain at this point in time, Hitler was still relatively unwilling to invade Britain, stating that invasion was a last resort ‘if it cannot be made to sue for peace in any other way’. This infers that firstly there would have been a relatively peaceful end to the war, as Hitler was trying to solve the problem of peace through offering ‘sensible peace agreements’, and also that there was not enough aggressive pressure placed upon Britain. Hitler gave the British a chance to breathe, whereas if he had capitalised upon his great victory at Dunkirk and launched an attack on Britain, he would have been taking advantage on the battle weary British troops, recovering from their escape across the channel.
The result of Dunkirk also allowed Churchill to notably implement himself upon the British public as a notable wartime leader. Prior to the evacuation, Churchill had been Prime Minister for only 16 days, meaning he still had to earn a great amount of respect from the British public in order to gain the undying support he had by the end of the war. Churchill’s rhetoric following Dunkirk was immense and captured the mood of the nation. Had Britain not escaped Dunkirk, then Churchill’s gloomy prognosis regarding the war that Britain should expect ‘hard and heavy tidings’ would have been more pertinent. This is because had he had no positive news to motivate the public with, his leadership skills would have immediately been placed under scrutiny, potentially undermining the Dunkirk spirit that occurred as a result of the evacuation. This in turn could have quite easily left Britain with little enthusiasm to continue with the war, and led the government towards agreeing a peace treaty. However, due to the ‘miracle’ of the evacuation, Churchill was able to keep the citizens inspired against the threat of Nazi peril. His preparations for attack were also instantaneous; by mid-July over a million men had enrolled in the Local Defence Volunteers, barbed wire, beach fortifications, roadblocks and pillboxes were put up, the country braced itself for invasion. This recovery was predominantly the result of Churchill inspiring the nation, and was the beginning of a new and improved war effort. He kept the war alive in a time when Britain were alone, with no allies, and with their backs firmly against the wall; this, in truth, was almost as important as actually winning the war. If Churchill wavered from his stoicism at any point, then his country would have fallen under Hitler’s rule as a surrender would have been inevitable.
Overall, I would make the argument that without the heroism of Dunkirk, the Allies would have capitulated, and would not have been able to even continue the war for the remaining 5 years. The Germans would have captured too many troops, equipment and weaponry of the BEF for Churchill to have justification to actually continue the war, making it even more of a necessity for the Allies to escape Dunkirk with a number of their troops. Although the events of Dunkirk were exaggerated by British and German propaganda, the media had a far greater influence in fuelling British morale, keeping the war spirit going when it could have so easily been destroyed. This turned out to be vital in that had peace been accepted by Britain, America and Russia would have never entered the war and put Germany and Hitler on the permanent backfoot. Germany had the chance to crush the Allies for good, however, Hitler only considered the invasion of Britain a last resort, allowing the recovery of Britain and the continuation of the fighting. The lack of capitalisation was the beginning of the end for Hitler’s Germany.