The battle of dunkirk may have been one of the most decisive moments in world war ii history in a miraculous escape from nearly complete destruction the british expeditionary force managed to flee the grasp of the german panzers and live to see another day many view the evacuation and its aftermath as the turning point for the war as a whole while others at a minimum cannot deny the simple fact that had the germans continued their attack the british would have not been so lucky by any stretch winston churchill became prime minister of the united kingdom.
on may 10 1940 during a precarious time for the brits and as the germans were on a mad dash to defeat the allies as swiftly and fully as possible at this point many of churchill’s colleagues were already considering the possibility of accepting defeat and coming to a deal with the germans many brits believed that germany and the uk were not natural enemies and that making peace with the german chancellor was not as bad as it may appear churchill contrarily was not ready to give up just yet still the germans had been ripping.
through both french and belgian defenses and the british were already facing defeats from the attacker the situation was not looking hopeful for the brits until may 21st at which point the expeditionary force known as the bef was able to surprise the german troops and execute a strong counter-attack at the northern french city of eris the strike included both infantry and tanks that apparently triggered psychological warfare in the mind of german general rommel who told his field marshal gerd von brunsted that the brits had attacked his seventh panzer division with hundreds of tanks.
in actuality the allies had only used 74 tanks and only 16 of those were of the newest and most capable to face off with the panzer armor at this point multiple things happened for one field marshal von runestet and the chancellor himself had agreed that the terrain surrounding dunkirk did not seem suitable for german armor and they would be better off focusing on aerys additionally harman goring a lute vapha commander requested that he be given the lead on defeating the allied troops at Dunkirk.
furthermore the german chancellor would later claim that at this time he decided to give prime minister churchill and his men a sporting chance and lastly field marshal von runestad was warned by one of his generals that their tanks had been moving at such a rapid pace annihilating the allied forces.
throughout both belgium and france that their infantrymen were unable to keep up at the same speed and needed time to catch up one or more of these reasons led to the panzer troops being halted for 36 hours ending on may 25th while the germans seemed confident that the bef troops they had trapped at the port of dunkirk and the remaining bottled up french forces fates were sealed and victory for germany was imminent runestet misread the situation.
though and in reality this pause actually gave the allies time to orchestrate their recovery both literally and symbolically the bef was able to set up new lines of defense and begin a solid plan for evacuation of the pinned down troops this suspension which ended up lasting for three days as the germans did not call for a re-engagement into battle until may 26th also gave the british royal air force time to prepare for such a crucial and risky evac.
which was necessary given the fact that the raf had previously taken notable hits and been weakened while attempting to assist the unprepared french at this point as well the french were ready to give up as one general even stated that he believed in a very early capitulation the escape of the allies was a make-or-break moment and the germany’s decision to hope their advancement gave the brits the perfect opportunity to make it happen on may 26th when the battle recommenced general lord gort the commander-in-chief of the bef had already started to plan for an escape effort along.
the lease canal the situation was complicated due to the new offensive from the germans and the british second and fiftieth divisions became pins down while the first 5th and 48th divisions took heavy fire the second division managed to keep an open corridor for the first third 4th and 42nd divisions to escape alongside a third of the french first army the second division took heavy casualties but was successful nonetheless the following day the germans became more aggressive dropping bombs and showering the allies with highly explosive artillery shell.
while the battle raged on the luftwaffe began to drop leaflets on the allies with maps of the current situation reading in both french and english look at the map it gives your true situation your troops are entirely surrounded stop fighting put down your arms on may 27th the germans still relentlessly aim to prove their superiority staging a full-scale attack to the south of ipra using three divisions and aiming to infiltrate.
the british ranks and push them back luckily for the allies the 10th and 11th brigades of the 4th division were able to reach the 5th division who was taking the brunt of the beating and they cleared the german troops enough for a counter-attack to be launched this counter-attack was able to stall the germans just enough for more of the bef to retreat although those attempts to head back towards dunkirk were met with the Luftwaffe.
a bombing that went on for two hours as the british troops tried to pass over a bridge on the easter canal and roughly 80 percent of their vehicles were either destroyed or rendered unusable another bombing occurred the following night leaving the brits with almost none of their vehicles by the time they finished their trek meanwhile on may 28th the belgian army under the command of king leopold iii stunned the british and surrendered leaving a gap.
in the perimeter that the allies had created along the belgian coastline general gort was forced to send the already worn down 3rd 4th and 50th divisions to fill the hole between the rest of the brits and the sea all the while general rommel had encircled and cut off five french first army divisions near lille and engaged directly with those troops under the command of general mullany while this was a dangerous defense for the unrelenting french garrison.
it was a vastly important act as it preoccupied seven german divisions for four days keeping them away from dunkirk the battle between the brits and the germans continued as the latter pushed the former farther and farther back as june rolled around the allies were almost entirely evacuated as they made their way more and more into dunkirk followed closely by the germans the french held their ground covering the british troops.
as they boarded the evacuation ships finally on june 3rd the french began to fall back until they themselves could evacuate with the last round of ships so what happened and why did germany allow their foes to escape their grasp the answer to why the german fuhrer made the ultimate decision to halt the german troops for over 36 hours remains a mystery historians have been unable to decide whether it was an issue of poor strategy or if it was truly about wanting to give churchill and the allies.
a sporting chance according to a letter from franz halder in july of 1957 the decision was mainly influenced by goring who had convinced him to give responsibility to the luftwaffe instead of the infantrymen halder later wrote in his diary expressing his anger surrounding the fact that the luftwaffe had been grounded by poor weather and was unable to stop the allies from evacuating.
as they had expected to do on the other hand field marshal von roonstedt after the war had ended expressed his own thoughts on the matter he believed that the supreme commander had undermined the military’s abilities because he wished to help the british due to the fact he had previously admitted to having notable respect for the british empire.
as an entity adding to this theory the chancellor himself was the one to reference in his political testament on february 26 1945 that prime minister churchill was quite unable to appreciate this sporting spirit pointing to the fact that he refrained from completely destroying the allied forces at dunkirk implying that he was in fact going easy on the brits still at the time of the actual conflict directive number 13 was issued by the supreme headquarters.
on may 24th and explicitly called for the complete annihilation of the belgian french and english troops at and around dunkirk the luftwaffe in addition was directly ordered to stop any escape attempts by the allies across the channel no matter what the reason behind the halt order was it is clear that the decision was appallingly detrimental for the germans and quite likely changed not only the course of the battle of dunkirk but of world war ii in its entirety
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