Doug’s Darkworld’s dumbest mistake, I forgot one of Hitler’s greatest blunders
Yeesh, in the middle of the night I woke up and realized that I really blew it with my last post, I left out what was possibly Hitler’s biggest mistake aside from the ill-conceived and badly executed invasion of Russia. And since I appear to be on a roll, a post about the biggest Allied blunders is in the works, I’ll take this opportunity to discuss a great historical mystery, why did Hitler order his Panzers to halt when they had the British army trapped in Dunkirk? Nearly two hundred thousand British troops were evacuated from France in the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” averting what would have been the worst disaster in British military history. What’s going on here?
OK, some background. In 1939 Hitler invaded Poland. Britain and France declared war on Germany. (There’s actually some interesting stuff here for a future post, none of this was preordained.) Suffice it to say that German troops conquered Poland in a few weeks in the fall of 1939, and for the next six months or so nothing much happened as the Germans marched their troops from Poland back to the frontier with France. This was the so called sitzkrieg or phoney war. Why the hell didn’t France and England attack Germany while she was busy with Poland? Good question. Basically because they had prepared to refight World War One. The French had built a fortified defencive line along the border with Germany, the Maginot Line, and had massed their armies to march into Belgium hand in hand with the British to fight the advancing Germans. They had more men than the Germans. They had more tanks than the Germans. They had more aircraft than the Germans. A foolproof plan, nu?
So in the spring of 1940 just as the French and British had suspected, Germany attacked Belgium and Holland, and the British and French Armies marched north into Belgium to aid the plucky Belgium defenders. If the Germans had followed their World War One game plan, there would have been a hell of a battle in Belgium. Alas for the Allies, the Germans had updated their plan. The Germans had put all their tanks in a few units, the aptly named panzer (German for armour) units. The Allies had more tanks than the Germans, but they were spread among their armies, not concentrated into large groups of tanks. While the main German army did indeed march into Belgium to meet the British and French armies, the panzer units advanced through a lightly defended wilderness (The Ardennes) and then raced to the English Channel virtually unopposed. The Germans reached the channel in ten days, completely surrounding the massed British and French armies in Belgium.
The British and French had reacted very badly as this disaster unfolded, they simply hadn’t planned for any such contingency as hundreds of German tanks making an end run around their armies. At this point the King of Belgium ordered his troops to lay down their arms, leaving a huge hole in the French and British lines, further compounding the disaster. It was then, with the German panzers just 20 miles away, that the British began to frantically evacuate their troops from Dunkirk, using every ship that could float including flotillas of fishing and pleasure craft. For the next nine days the British fled, avoiding a calamity of unimaginable proportions. If the Germans had captured the hundreds of thousands of British troops in Dunkirk, it would have been a crippling blow to England. This would have been the lion’s share of their military manpower, and the loss of so many experienced and trained troops would have left England virtually defenceless. In fact England might have been forced to capitulate to Hitler right then and there. Why the hell did Hitler order his panzers to halt their advance and let the British escape?
Well, nobody really knows. There is a lot of speculation, but no real consensus on what happened. For one thing the “halt order” only lasted for three days, but this did give the Allies time to organize their defences around Dunkirk. The widely believed rumour that Hitler ordered the halt as some sort of gesture of mercy to the British doesn’t seem to be true from my readings. I suspect a number of factors came into play. The Germans were almost as shocked as the Allies by their historically stunning victory, Hitler himself included. He was giddy with victory, and still focused on capturing Paris as well. The speed with which the British were able to evacuate probably played a role. The German panzer units were exhausted and in need of rest and repair, Hitler may have thought he had more time. And Goring (the leader of the Luftwaffe and an old pal of Hitler’s) assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could keep the British trapped, a promise that he couldn’t keep. For one thing it was overcast almost every day, it’s hard to bomb and strafe ships one can’t see. Also this close to England the RAF (at heavy cost) was able to keep the Luftwaffe somewhat at bay for the first time in the war.
So for whatever reason, Hitler frittered away a chance to deal the British military a death blow. (Not to mention handing the British a desperately needed boost to morale.) If Hitler had ordered his armies to capture the British army no matter what the cost, there’s little doubt they would have almost all been captured. And Britain would have had no army to defend against a possible German invasion. And even if Britain hadn’t been invaded, they would have had no army to send to North Africa to fight Rommel a few years later, or to defend India against Japan. Or no army to send to Singapore to be captured by Japan in one of Churchill’s many mind-numbing military blunders. That however is for the next post.
(The above image is claimed as Fair Use under US copyright law. It’s not being used for profit, is central to illustrating the post, and is an historically important image. Troops at Dunkirk stood like this in the water for hours waiting to be picked up, freezing, and knowing all the while that German artillery or strafing planes might take their toll. The evacuation of Dunkirk was a remarkable achievement in the annals of warfare. An unplanned reverse D-Day, and no doubt many of these fellows did wade back ashore in Europe four years later.)