Dunkirk on Thursday, May 30, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Day 4 saw 53,823 evacuated from Dunkirk, with the total evacuees now at 126,606.
  • Thanks to better discipline, the lorry jetties, and above all, the surge of little ships, the number of men lifted from the beaches rose from 13,752 on the 29th to 29,512 on the 30th, which offset the 9,000 drop from the harbours.
  • Due to the heavy overcast skies, rescue fleets were able to stream across the Channel unchallenged by the Stukas and Heinkels.
  • In the wake of the previous day’s losses, the British Admiralty ordered all modern destroyers to depart Dunkirk and leave 18 older destroyers to continue the evacuation.
  • President Roosevelt rejected a request from US Ambassador to France William Bullitt, which asked for an American fleet to move into the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Benito Mussolini advised Hitler that Italy was ready to enter the war.
  • Three British battleships with £60 million in gold departed from Britain for Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
  • Germany increases food rations due to increased supplies from newly conquered countries.

BEF Commander Gort’s efforts to retreat to the coast had amazingly been executed. From Norman Gelb’s book, Dunkirk:

By nightfall of May 29, three days after its pilgrimage to the coast had begun, virtually all of the British Expeditionary Force had completed the trek. Except for stragglers, it had withdrawn into the Dunkirk perimeter. Paying a steep price in casualties, the troops holding the escape corridor open had done their job, and now the survivors among them had withdrawn as well. The desperate retreat had been carried out. But for most of the men, the great escape still appeared to be no more than a hope.

Men were dismayed by what they saw as they approached the end of their trek. From a distance, they beheld the pall of smoke from Dunkirk’s burning oil tanks….

…. to reach the beach, and see the mass of humanity there, all of them apparently with prior claim to evacuation, seemed another foretaste of doom. Those who had just been fighting the Germans knew the enemy advance guard couldn’t be far behind. And all had been under attack or threat of attack from German aircraft and knew their safety was still far from assured.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; Churchill’s reaction to Gort’s decision not to leave:

One man absolutely determined not to leave was Commander Gort. The General’s decision became known in London on the morning of May 30, when Lord Munster arrived from the beaches. Winston Churchill was taking a bath at the time, but he could do business anywhere, and he summoned Munster for a tub-side chat. It was in this unlikely setting that Munster described Gort’s decision to stay to the end. He would never leave without specific orders.

Churchill was appalled at the thought. Why give Hitler the propaganda coup of capturing and displaying the British Commander-in-Chief? After discussing the matter with Eden, Dill, and Pownall, he wrote out in his own hand an order that left Gort no choice:

If we can still communicate we shall send you an order to return to England with such officers as you may choose at the moment when we deem your command so reduced that it can be handed over to a corps commander ….no personal discretion is left you in the matter.

As the logistical difficulties begin to be overcome, there appears a great surprise on the beaches. Again from Gelb’s book, Dunkirk:

…. A vast flotilla of small ships and boats, far more than had been there before, appeared off the coast. The methodical work of the Admiralty’s Small Vessels Pool and the requisitioning teams Ramsay had sent out was proving its worth. It was an extraordinary sight. All manner of small and medium-sized craft appeared — barges, train ferries, car ferries, passenger ferries, RAF launches, fishing smacks, tugs, motor-powered lifeboats, oar-propelled lifeboats, wherries, cockle boats, eel boats, picket boats, seaplane tenders. There were yachts and pleasure vessels of all kinds, some very expensive craft, some modest do-it-yourself conversions of ship’s lifeboats. There were Thames River excursion launches with rows of slatted seats and even a Thames River fire float.

They came from Portsmouth, Newhaven, Sheerness, Tilbury, Gravesend, Ramsgate, from all along England’s southern and southeastern coast, from ports big and small, from shipping towns and yachting harbors. Some, from upriver, had never been in the open sea before. They were manned mostly by volunteers, men who, without being given the details, had been told that they and their vessels were urgently needed to bring back soldiers from France. Most were experienced sailors — professional or otherwise — but many were fledglings who knew nothing about maritime hazards. Had the weather been bad, some would not have risked going; neither their experience nor their craft would have been up to it. Some mariners would forever be convinced that the extraordinary uncharacteristic calm which ruled the sea during most of the ten days of Dunkirk, permitting the evacuation to proceed — “the water was like a millpond” — was literally heaven-sent because “God had work for the British nation to do.”

Again from Lord’s book; Why the “millpond” conditions were more than needed:

Traveling in company, usually shepherded by an armed tug or skoot, the little ships moved across a smooth, gray carpet of sea. The English Channel has a reputation for nastiness, but it had behaved for four days now, and the calm continued on May 30. Best of all, there was a heavy mist, giving the Luftwaffe no chance to follow up the devastating raids of the 29th.

“Clouds so thick you can lean on them,” noted a Luftwaffe war diarist, as the Stukas and Heinkels remained grounded. At Fliegerkorps VIII General Major von Richthofen couldn’t believe it was that bad. At headquarters the sun was shining. He ordered Major Dinort, commanding the 2nd Stuka Squadron, to at least try an attack. Dinort took his planes up, but returned in ten minutes. Heavy fog over Dunkirk, he phoned headquarters. Exasperated, Richthofen countered that the day was certainly flyable where he was. If Herr General major didn’t believe him, Dinort shot back, just call the weather service.

But cloudy weather didn’t guarantee a safe passage for the little ships. Plenty of things could still go wrong. The Channel was full of nervous and inexperienced sailors.

…. [one boat] was almost run down by a destroyer that mistook her for a German S-boat. The skipper, Sub-Lieutenant Peter Bennett, managed to flash a recognition signal just in time. A little later he ran alongside an anchored French cargo ship, hoping to get some directions. “Où est l’armée britannique?” he called. The reply was a revolver shot. These were dangerous days for strangers asking questions.

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.30 – The sea was like a millpond during days of Dunkirk. Almost 54,000 evacuated.
  • 1940.05.29 – Glimmer of hope, Operation Dynamo succeeding beyond expectations.
  • 1940.05.28 – Under Churchill’s leadership, UK commits to fight, unlike the French and Belgium governments.
  • 1940.05.27 – Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with only 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.
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Dunkirk on Wednesday, May 29, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Day 3 saw 47,310 evacuated from Dunkirk, with the total evacuees now at 72,783.
  • Extensive Luftwaffe raids on beaches of Dunkirk as soldiers wait to evacuate.
  • Germans capture Ostend & Ypres in Belgium & Lille in France.
  • British destroyers Grafton, Grenade and Wakeful were sunk during the evacuation.

During May and June of 1940 at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing’s team–building upon the work of Polish cryptologist’s–succeeded in breaking six days of naval traffic, 22–27 April 1940. Those messages were the first breaks of Kriegsmarine (Nazi Navy) messages of the war. However, they weren’t able to provide actionable intelligence as of yet. Can you imagine the pressure felt, as news of Dunkirk and destroyers being sunk filters in.

Can you spot the likeliest candidate for the most interesting man alive?

The desire to break Enigma was widespread. An Intelligence officer who worked directly for British Naval Rear Admiral Godfrey, would soon devise an unorthodox plan. The idea was to “obtain” a German bomber, man it with a German-speaking crew dressed in Luftwaffe uniforms, and crash it into the English Channel. The crew would then attack their German rescuers and bring their boat and Enigma machine back to England.

Much to the annoyance of Alan Turing and Peter Twinn at Bletchley Park, the mission was never carried out. The plan was named Operation Ruthless and the officer’s name was Ian Fleming.

While 007 might first come to mind when you think of unrealistic movies, it might take 2nd place in comparison to the Imitation Game as a standard bearer for inaccuracy. Unexpectedly, the use of the phrase ‘Heil Hitler’ at the end of every encrypted message was one of the few accurate details in the movie. See the explanation of the cryptology behind the use of the phrase at end of post.

How the Poles gave the Brits and Betchley Park invaluable aid, from The Essential Turing by Alan Turning:

…. The result of the addition of the new wheels was that the Poles were able to read German Army and Air Force messages on only those days when it happened that wheels I, II, and III were in the machine—on average one day in ten.

In July 1939 the Poles invited members of the British and French intelligence services to a meeting at Pyry near Warsaw. Denniston and Knox represented GC & CS [British Government Code and Cypher School]. At this meeting, Rejewski relates, ‘we told everything that we knew and showed everything that we had’—a replica Enigma, the bomba [name for Polish code-breaking machine, Brits referred to theirs as bombe], the perforated sheets, and of course the all-important internal wiring of the wheels, which Knox still had not been able to work out. Without the Poles, Knox and Turing might not have found out the wiring of the wheels until May 1940, when the British captured several intact Enigma machines from the German Army in Norway.

Knox’s first question to the Poles was ‘What is the QWERTZU?’ The answer was almost a joke—the connections were in alphabetical order, with the A-socket of the plug-board connected to the first terminal inside the entry plate, the B-socket to the second, and so on. Knox was ecstatic to know the answer at last, chanting in a shared taxi ‘Nous avons le QWERTZU, nous marchons ensemble’ (‘We have the QWERTZU, we march along together’).

At Pyry the Poles also undertook to supply their British and French allies with two replica Enigma machines. The replica destined for GC & CS was couriered from Paris to London on 16 August 1939 by two men, Gustave Bertrand, head of the codebreaking section of the French Intelligence Service, and ‘Uncle Tom’, a diplomatic courier for the British Embassy in Paris.

I am free-basing on some high quality confirmation bias with the Dunkirk movie reviews I’ve read so far. One of my favorite writers John Podhoretz, cited Walter Lord’s book, in a criticism of the approach Christopher Nolan choose for the film. An excerpt below, the complete review is copied at end of post:

….You would know none of this from Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is both an astonishing filmmaking achievement and an epic narrative failure. Nolan, who wrote and directed Dunkirk, made a deliberate choice to tell the story almost exclusively from the close-up perspective of individual sailors, soldiers, and pilots. This relatively short, blindingly sharp, and painfully vivid feat of impressionistic moviemaking gives one a rare sense of the horrors of war as experienced by those whose country is losing the fight. Nolan is a great director. What he is not, in this picture, is a great storyteller. His view of the events at Dunkirk is nearsighted. He misses the forest for the trees….

By making his dramatis personae so generic, Nolan’s Dunkirk becomes the story of any battle and every battle—or rather, of any and every retreat from battle with the enemy in pursuit. But the real Dunkirk was anything but generic. Walter Lord’s 1982 account, The Miracle of Dunkirk, is loaded from first page to last with colorful anecdotes of ordinary seamen and soldiers improvising to keep themselves alive, often in the most comically British of ways. Every bit of human eccentricity in the face of unimaginable peril Lord recounts in his wonderful book actually occurred. Nolan would have you believe the hundreds of thousands of men on that beach were as silent and well behaved as, well, extras in a war movie.

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.29 – Glimmer of hope, Operation Dynamo succeeding beyond expectations.
  • 1940.05.28 – Under Churchill’s leadership, UK commits to fight, unlike the French and Belgium governments.
  • 1940.05.27 – Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with only 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.

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Dunkirk on Tuesday, May 28, 1940

Dear future insomniacs and internet addicts,

Unbeknownst to you, but knownst to concurrent infovores, I blew my deadline to be done with the Dunkirk blogging by the time the movie opened. I will be seeing the movie next week. But my goal of satisfying my own curiosity about how the evacuations, upon which only the outcome of WWII likely hinged, remains.

As expected for Churchill admirers as myself, the lack of historical context in the movie itself is a bit of a letdown. In effect, the early criticisms of the movie lend itself to audience members having to go elsewhere to satisfy any strategic curiosity about Dunkirk. Good for books, audiobooks, podcasts and blogs.

On the Wall Street Journal editorial page–lets all pause while I genuflect–gloriously delicious shots were taken against Christopher Nolan and his choices. Excerpt below, entire article at end of post:

… To the very end no image of Churchill defiles the sanctity of this film’s safe space. One of the final scenes does present an exhausted evacuee returned from Dunkirk, reading aloud to himself from a newspaper of Churchill’s most famous address, of June 4, 1940. The “We shall never surrender” speech is spoken by a young soldier, making it all reassuringly relevant—no trace of the man himself.

It’s possible of course that a director less apprehensive about appearing old-fashioned might have risked an actual clip of the prime minister without undue harm to the audience.

In the bleak days of 1940, Churchill told his cabinet: “If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking on his own blood on the ground.” If Batman ever said anything remotely as interesting, he’d have our devoted attention.

“This film’s safe space,” puts Nolan’s choices in the context of the current culture battles. It nicely captures the reason for my life-long love affair with the Wall Street Journal editorial page.

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Day 2 saw 17,804 evacuated from Dunkirk, with the total evacuees now at 25,473.
  • Allies learn that Italy will soon enter the war.
  • FYI – if you were born in 1959, you are closer in time to Dunkirk than the Iranian Hostage crisis.

To this point, Churchill has barely had time to react to the increasingly deteriorating position of the Allies which precipitated his becoming Prime Minister less than three weeks ago. Now is when Churchill will make momentous decisions and communicate them in a way that sets the standard for leadership in a crisis. Here’s when he becomes the Churchill that western civilization owes a debt of gratitude to for our freedoms to this day.

Churchill’s War Cabinet consisted of the following–there were other Govt ministers referred to as “Constant Attenders” who were allowed, but were not members:

  • Prime Minister & Minister of Defence: Winston Churchill (Conservative)
  • Lord President of the Council: Neville Chamberlain (Conservative)
  • Lord Privy Seal: Clement Attlee (Labour)
  • Foreign Secretary: Lord Halifax (Conservative)
  • Minister without Portfolio: Arthur Greenwood (Labour)

Numerous meetings took place between May 25th and May 28th in which it had to be decided if they were amenable to any overtures of negotiated surrender. Halifax believed that given the imminent fall of France and the encirclement of British forces at Dunkirk, the United Kingdom should explore the possibility of a negotiated peace settlement with Hitler, with Mussolini brokering the agreement.

At the War Cabinet meeting at 4pm on 28 May, Halifax pushes for a decision and had been threatening to resign if Churchill wouldn’t agree to some sort of negotiation. Aside from the obvious dire circumstances, Halifax has legitimate concerns about what the German air superiority portended for their chances going forward.

Churchill reasons for resisting were the following:

Signor Mussolini, if he came in as a mediator, would take his whack out of us. It was impossible to imagine that Herr Hitler would be so foolish as to let us continue our re-armament. In effect, his terms would put us completely at his mercy. We should get no worse terms if we went on fighting, even if we were beaten, than were open to us now. If, however, we continued the war and Germany attacked us, no doubt we should suffer some damage, but they also would suffer severe losses. Their oil supplies might be reduced. A time might come when we felt that we had to put an end to the struggle, but the terms would then be no more mortal than those offered to us now.

Halifax responded that he still could not see what Churchill found so wrong with “trying out the possibilities of mediation”. Churchill replied that “nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished”.

No decision was finalized and Churchill asks for an adjournment until 7pm, to attend a previously scheduled meeting with his 25-member Outer Cabinet, many of whom he had not seen since the formation of the Government on May 10th.

Here is how Churchill began that Outer Cabinet meeting on May 28th:

I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man [Hitler]. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms than if we fought it out. The Germans would demand our – that would be called disarmament – our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up – under Mosley or some such person. And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side we have immense reserves and advantages. And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.

Halifax had his answer and the UK had its leader and direction. Churchill would later write about that meeting:

There occurred a demonstration which considered the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran though our Island from end to end.

The following 7 minute clip from the HBO movie Into the Storm, captures these very moments:

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.28 – Under Churchill’s leadership, UK commits to fight, unlike the French and Belgium governments.
  • 1940.05.27 – Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with only 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.

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Dunkirk on Monday, May 27, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • Germans take Calais.
  • Allies learned that King Leopold III of Belgium was formally surrendering, which would create a 20 mile gap in Allied flank, threatening their ability to reach coast.
  • FBI receives 2,900 reports of espionage and sabotage after President Roosevelt’s fireside chat warning about “fifth columnists” the night before.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; Examples of why the logistical challenges of Operation Dynamo were so daunting:

At 11: 00 a.m. on the 27th the first convoy— two transports, two hospital ships, and two destroyers— left Dover and arrived off Dunkirk nearly six hours later.

The extra effort was largely wasted, for at the moment Dunkirk was taking such a pounding from the Luftwaffe that the port was practically paralyzed. The Royal Daffodil managed to pick up 900 men, but the rest of the convoy was warned to stay clear: too much danger of sinking and blocking the harbor. With that, the convoy turned and steamed back to Dover.

During the evening four more transports and two hospital ships arrived by Route Y. The transport Canterbury picked up 457 troops at the Gare Maritime, but then the Luftwaffe returned for a nighttime visit, and it again looked as though the harbor might be blocked.

As Canterbury [transport] pulled out, she received a signal from the shore to turn back any other vessels trying to enter. She relayed the message to several ships waiting outside, and they in turn relayed it to other ships. There was more than one inexperienced signalman at sea that night, and garbles were inevitable. By the time the warning was flashed by a passing ship to the skoot Tilly, coming over by Route Y, it said, “Dunkirk has fallen and is in enemy hands. Keep clear.”

Tilly was one of six skoots that had sailed together from the Dover Downs that afternoon. Her skipper, Commander Clemments, had no idea why he was going to Dunkirk. His only clue was a pile of 450 lifejackets that had been dumped aboard just before sailing— rather many for a crew of eleven. Now here was a ship telling him to turn back from a trip he didn’t understand anyhow. After consulting with the nearest skoot, he put about and returned to Dover for further orders….

This chain of mishaps and misunderstandings explained why the men waiting on the beaches saw so few ships on May 27. Only 7,669 men were evacuated that day, most of them “useless mouths” evacuated by ships sent from Dover before Dynamo officially began. At this rate it would take 40 days to lift the BEF.

As the bad news flowed in, Admiral Ramsay and his staff in the Dynamo Room struggled to get the show going again. Clearly more destroyers were needed—to escort the convoys, to fight off the Luftwaffe, to help lift the troops, to provide a protective screen for the longer Route Y. Ramsay fired off an urgent appeal to the Admiralty: take destroyers off other jobs; get them to Dunkirk.…

Again from Lord’s book; How Allied forces bought time for troops to retreat to Dunkirk and how some dealt with Nazi propaganda – great example of unintended consequences:

Propaganda that confirmed that a path to coast was real

Le Paradis … Festubert … Hazebrouck—it was the fight put up at villages like these that bought the time so desperately needed to get the trapped troops up the 60-mile corridor to Dunkirk. The British 2nd Division, supported by some French tanks, took a merciless beating, but their sacrifice enabled two French divisions and untold numbers of the BEF to reach the coast. As the battered battalions swarmed up the corridor, the Luftwaffe continued to roam the skies unopposed. Besides bombs, thousands of leaflets fluttered down, urging the Tommies to give up. The addressees reacted in various ways. In the 58th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, most men treated the leaflets as a joke and a useful supply of toilet paper.

Some men in the 250th Field Company, Royal Engineers, actually felt encouraged by a map that featured the Dunkirk beachhead. Until now, they hadn’t realized there was still a route open to the sea so near at hand.

A sergeant in the 6th Durham Light Infantry carefully read another leaflet with explicit wording and images, then observed to Captain John Austin: “They must be in a bad way, sir, to descend to that sort of thing.”

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.27 – Evacuation from Dunkirk begins with only 7,669 rescues, one-third of the total hoped for.
  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.
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Dunkirk on Sunday, May 26, 1940


A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • Halt order issued on May 22nd to 10th German Panzer Division, is rescinded.
  • FDR addresses Americans in a fireside chat about the war in Europe.

After learning in greater detail how Dunkirk unfolded, I’m left with the impression that only those exposed to terrible hardships can have an appreciation of just how miraculous the rescue was. To so desire an outcome beyond all reason.

Beyond the unimaginable stakes involved, beyond the German halt order on the 22nd, beyond the calm English Channel across the next nine days of Dunkirk, beyond the low ceiling skies on the three days following Luftwaffe all-out assaults on Dunkirk that prevented effective follow-up, beyond all that, the human error within the fog of war and untrained civilians tossed into the mix. Its almost like Providence can work around any biped-based obstacles.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; How the evacuation began:

The time had come to act. At 6:57 p.m. this Sunday, May 26, the Admiralty signaled Dover: “Operation Dynamo is to commence.”

At this point Admiral Ramsay had 129 ferries, coasters, skoots, and small craft to do the job, but more were on the way and the staff in the Dynamo Room was clicking smoothly. Still, it was a monumental task. The Admiralty itself did not expect to lift more than 45,000 men in two days. After that, the evacuation would probably be terminated by enemy action.

“I have on at the moment one of the most difficult and hazardous operations ever conceived,” Ramsay wrote Mag late that night (actually 1:00 a.m. on the 27th), “and unless the bon Dieu is very kind there are certain to be many tragedies attached to it. I hardly dare think about it, or what the day is going to bring. …”

Yet the biggest crisis at the moment lay beyond Ramsay’s control. The crucial question was whether more than a smattering of men could get to Dunkirk at all. Hitler’s “halt order” had been lifted; the German armor was rolling again; thousands of Allied soldiers were still deep in France and Belgium. Could the escape corridor be kept open long enough for these troops to scramble to the coast? What could be done to help the units holding the corridor? How to buy the time that was needed?

Again from Lord’s book; Gort’s decision to ignore orders to attack south on May 25th, turned out to be a non-issue. The War Office concluded the same and telegrammed him early that morning:

When [Gort] received Eden’s telegram he had just returned from a morning meeting with General Blanchard [commanding the French First Army]. There he reviewed his decision to cancel the attack south; he won French approval for a joint withdrawal north; he worked out with Blanchard the lines of retreat, a timetable, a new defense line along the River Lys—but never said a word about evacuation. In fact, as Blanchard saw things, there would be no further retreat. The Lys would be a new defense line covering Dunkirk, giving the Allies a permanent foothold in Flanders.

For Gort, Dunkirk was no foothold; it was a springboard for getting the BEF home. His views were confirmed by a new wire from Eden that arrived late in the afternoon. It declared that there was “no course open to you but to fall back upon the coast. … You are now authorized to operate towards the coast forthwith in conjunction with French and Belgian armies.”

So evacuation it was to be, but now a new question arose: Could they evacuate? By May 26 the BEF and the French First Army were squeezed into a long, narrow corridor running inland from the sea—60 miles deep and only 15 to 25 miles wide. Most of the British were concentrated around Lille, 43 miles from Dunkirk; the French were still farther south.

On the eastern side of the corridor the trapped Allied forces faced Bock’s massive Army Group B; on the western side they faced the tanks and motorized divisions of Rundstedt’s Army Group A. His panzers had reached Bourbourg, only ten miles west of Dunkirk. It seemed almost a mathematical certainty that the Germans would get there first.

“Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now,” British General Brooke noted in his diary as the pocket took shape on May 23.

“We shall have lost practically all our trained soldiers by the next few days—unless a miracle appears to help us,” General Ironside wrote on the 25th.

“I must not conceal from you,” Gort wired Anthony Eden on the 26th, “that a great part of the BEF and its equipment will inevitably be lost even in the best circumstances.”

Winston Churchill thought that only 20,000 or 30,000 men might be rescued.

Roosevelt’s fireside chat on May 26, 1940

My friends:

At this moment of sadness throughout most of the world, I want to talk with you about a number of subjects that directly affect the future of the United States. We are shocked by the almost incredible eyewitness stories that come to us of what is happening at this moment to the civilian populations of Norway and Holland and Belgium and Luxembourg and France.

I think it is right on this Sabbath evening that I should say a word in behalf of women and children and old men who need help-immediate help in their present distress—help from us across the seas, from us who are still free to give it.

Tonight over the once peaceful roads of Belgium and France millions are now moving, running from their homes to escape bombs and shells and fire and machine gunning, without shelter, and almost wholly without food. They stumble on, knowing not where the end of the road will be. I speak to you of these people because each one of you listening to me tonight has a way of helping them. The American Red Cross, that represents each of us, is rushing food, clothing and medical supplies to these destitute civilian millions. Please—I beg you—please give according to your means to your nearest Red Cross chapter, give as generously as you can. I ask this in the name of our common humanity.

Let us sit down together again, you and I, to consider our own pressing problems that confront us.

There are many among us who in the past closed their eyes to events abroad-because they believed in utter good faith what some of their fellow Americans told them—that what was taking place in Europe was none of our business; that no matter what happened over there, the United States could always pursue its peaceful and unique course in the world.

There are many among us who closed their eyes, from lack of interest or lack of knowledge; honestly and sincerely thinking that the many hundreds of miles of salt water made the American Hemisphere so remote that the people of North and Central and South America could go on living in the midst of their vast resources without reference to, or danger from, other continents of the world….

To those who have closed their eyes for any of these many reasons, to those who would not admit the possibility of the approaching storm—to all of them the past two weeks have meant the shattering of many illusions….

In some quarters, with this rude awakening has come fear, bordering on panic. It is said that we are defenseless. It is whispered by some that only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors.

I did not share those illusions. I do not share these fears….

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.
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Dunkirk on Saturday, May 25, 1940

Dunkirk positions on May 25 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • English Channel port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • BEF Commander Gort orders all BEF troops north towards the coast, Dunkirk.
  • British Air Force [RAF] defends the beachhead.
  • Sporadic Luftwaffe bombings in England.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; Churchill’s reaction to Brigadier Nicholson being informed that “the Calais harbour was of no importance to the BEF:”

When Winston Churchill saw [Eden’s initial] message on May 25, he exploded in indignation. To him, the role of Calais was to tie up as many Germans as possible. The French said no evacuation, and that could well mean no escape. If so, “Allied solidarity” and calling Calais harbor “of no importance” were not the arguments to use to make troops fight to the end.

Churchill now drafted the kind of message he felt was needed. It was full of ringing phrases, which Anthony Eden deftly edited into a strong personal appeal from himself to Nicholson.

Nicholson understood [Eden’s message] without being told. At the very moment when [he was receiving that] message—2:00 p.m. on the 25th—a Lieutenant Hoffmann of the 10th Panzer Division was being escorted under a flag of truce into the British lines by a French officer and a Belgian soldier. They guided Hoffmann to Nicholson’s headquarters, now at the Citadel. The Lieutenant came to the point immediately: unconditional surrender, or Calais would be destroyed.

Nicholson was equally quick in writing his reply:

The answer is no, as it is the British Army’s duty to fight as well as it is the German’s.

Historian Jon Latimer’s perspective on the importance of Calais once Boulogne had fallen:

When the English Channel port of Boulogne fell to the Germans on May 25, 1940, the troops defending Calais a little to the north were the only line of defense between the German panzers and the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), desperately hoping for evacuation from Dunkirk.

At 9 p.m. that evening, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent the following communiqué to the British commander at Calais, Brigadier Claude Nicholson:

“Every hour you continue to exist is of the greatest help to the BEF. Government has therefore decided you must continue to fight. Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for above purpose are to return to Dover….” Churchill wrote later, “One has to eat and drink in war, but I could not help feeling physically sick as we afterwards sat silently at the table.” As he did so, the defenders clung grimly to their positions, fighting until the following evening when their heroic resistance finally petered out. If one episode might be said to have permitted the miracle of Dunkirk to succeed, then it is probably the defense of Calais.

Again from Lord’s book; Why Gort finally ignored standing orders to attack towards the south:

[As a way of getting the War Office to grasp how the situation actually was] Gort had asked London to send over Lieutenant-General Sir John Dill. Until April, Dill had been Gort’s I Corps Commander. If he could see for himself how bad things were, he might take back a little sanity to London.

“There is no blinking the seriousness of situation in Northern Area,” Dill reported an hour and ten minutes after his arrival on the morning of May 25. His wire went on to describe the latest German advances. He assured London that the Allied drive south was still on, but added, “In above circumstances, attack referred to above cannot be important affair.”

…. Starting around 7:00 a.m., reports began coming in from the east that the Belgian line was cracking just where it joined the British near Courtrai. If this happened, Bock’s Army Group B would soon link up with Rundstedt’s Army Group A to the west, and the BEF would be completely cut off from the sea.

There were no Belgian reserves. If anyone were to stop the Germans, it would have to be the British. Yet they too were spread dangerously thin. When Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke, commanding the endangered sector, appealed to headquarters, the most that Gort could spare was a brigade.

Not enough. The news grew worse. The usually reliable 12th Lancers reported that the enemy had punched through the Belgian line on the River Lys. A liaison officer from the 4th Division said that the Belgians on his front had stopped fighting completely; they were just sitting around in cafés.

By 5:00 p.m. Gort had heard enough. He retired alone to his office in Prémesques to ponder the most important decision of his professional career. All he had left were the two divisions he had promised for the attack south tomorrow. If he sent them north to plug the gap in the Belgian line, he would be ignoring his orders; he would be reneging on his understanding with Blanchard; he would be junking not only the Weygand Plan but the thinking of Churchill, Ironside, and all the rest; he would be committing the BEF to a course that could only lead to the coast and a risky evacuation.

On the other hand, if he sent these two divisions south as promised, he would be cut off from the coast and completely encircled. His only chance then would be a last-minute rescue by the French south of the Somme, and he had no faith in that.

His decision: send the troops north. At 6:00 p.m. he canceled the attack south and issued new orders: one of the divisions would join Brooke immediately; the other would follow shortly. Considering Gort’s utter lack of faith in the French, it was a decision that should have required perhaps less than the hour it took. The explanation lay in Gort’s character. Obedience, duty, loyalty to the team were the mainsprings of his life. To go off on his own this way was an awesome venture.

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.25 – Port of Boulogne falls to the Germans.
  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.
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Dunkirk on Friday, May 24, 1940

Position of various armies on the evening of 24 May 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • With no alternative, 400,000 Allied troops lay pinned against the coast of Flanders near the French port of Dunkirk.
  • The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais, begun on May 22, continues.
  • Hilter accedes to Göring’s desire that the Luftwaffe be given a prominent role in combating the cornered Allied forces and preventing evacuation; German Army generals protest to no avail.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; How the BEF’s 30th Infantry Brigade ended up at Calais and then informed to defend at all costs:

That afternoon Brigadier Nicholson reached Calais with the rest of the 30th Infantry Brigade. He too had orders from General Brownrigg to head west for Boulogne, but while his troops were still unloading, the War Office ordered him to head east for Dunkirk (the opposite direction) with 350,000 rations for Gort’s army. During the night of May 23-24 the convoy set off, but soon ran into the inevitable panzers. In a slam-bang night action three of the escorting tanks broke through to Gort’s lines, but the rest of the convoy was destroyed or thrown back to Calais.

Clearly the town was cut off. Whatever Brownrigg or the others ordered, there would be no forays in any direction. Nicholson would have his hands full holding Calais itself. This he proposed to do, deploying his own three battalions, plus the 21 remaining tanks, plus some scattered units to form an “outer” and “inner” perimeter defending the port.

Nicholson’s plan was to stand fast as long as possible. When enemy pressure became too great, he would gradually pull back toward the harbor. He would then be in position for a fast getaway, since a new message sent by the War Office at 2:48 a.m. on the 24th said that evacuation had been agreed on “in principle.”

During the day Churchill had agreed to the appointment of French General Fagalde as overall commander of the defense of the Channel ports. Adhering to Weygand’s idea that these ports should be held indefinitely as fortified bridgeheads on the Continent, Fagalde forbade any evacuation of Calais. Normally British commanders were given some loophole in such a situation, but not this time. At 11:23 p.m. on the 24th, the War Office sent Nicholson new instructions:

In spite of policy of evacuation given you this morning, fact that British forces in your area now under Fagalde who has ordered no repeat no evacuation, means that you must comply for sake of Allied solidarity. Your role is therefore to hold on, harbour being for present of no importance to the BEF.

Again from Lord’s book; Commander Gort’s maneuvering to ensure the BEF was in position to evacuate whenever the War Office came to their senses:

Commander Gort was doing his best. The attack south—his part of the Weygand Plan—was still on, although the BEF contribution had been cut from three to two divisions. The German pressure in the east left no other course. As an extra precaution, Colonel Bridgeman had also been told to bring his evacuation plan [Dunkirk] up to date, and the Colonel produced a “second edition” on the morning of the 24th.

Finally, Gort asked London to send over the Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lieutenant-General Sir John Dill. Until April, Dill had been Gort’s I Corps Commander. He was more likely to understand. If he could see for himself how bad things were, he might take back a little sanity to London.

To have perspective at critical moments is unusual. The excerpt below is from George Orwell’s book review of Mein Kampf in March of 1940:

[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all “progressive” thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain. In such a view of life there is no room, for instance, for patriotism and the military virtues. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do.

Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth-control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice, not to mention drums, flag and loyalty-parades. However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life. The same is probably true of Stalin’s militarised version of Socialism. All three of the great dictators have enhanced their power by imposing intolerable burdens on their peoples. Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people “I offer you a good time,” Hitler has said to them “I offer you struggle, danger and death,” and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.

“Tin pacifists just won’t do.” In terms of making an effective argument, that feels like the hammer landed flush against the nail. Inspired, I would go on to replace “hedonistic” with “secular,” but perhaps that is due to the fact that I do not share a similar level of perspective as my namesake.

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.24 – 400,000 Allied forces increasingly trapped towards the coast.
  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for U.S. involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.
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Dunkirk on Thursday, May 23, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • Kirchner’s 1st Panzer Division had pushed to the outskirts of Bourbourg—just ten miles from Dunkirk in an attempt to cut off the Allied troops in Belgium.
  • General Lord Gort withdraws BEF from Arras, where they had previously stopped Rommel’s Panzers.
  • 1st great dogfight between Spitfires and Luftwaffe at Boulonge.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; The German mindset at the time which surprisingly halted the German panzer assault:

Spirits were sky-high. Prisoners poured in, and the spoils of war piled up. An elated entry in the division’s war diary observed, “It’s easier to take prisoners and booty than to get rid of them!”

Higher up there was less elation. The Panzer Group commander General von Kleist fretted about tank losses—there was no chance for maintenance, and he estimated that he was down to 50% of his strength. The Fourth Army commander General Colonel von Kluge felt that the tanks were getting too far ahead of their supporting troops. Everybody was worried about the thin, exposed flanks; and the faster and further they marched, the more exposed they became. The British [RAF] sortie from Arras had been repulsed, but it caused a scare.

No one could understand why the Allies didn’t keep attacking these flanks. To commanders brought up on World War I—where successes were measured in yards rather than scores of miles—it was incomprehensible. Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill had very little in common, but in this respect they were as one. Neither appreciated the paralyzing effect of the new tactics developed by Guderian and his disciples.

It was the same at army group and army levels. At 4:40 p.m. on the 23rd, as the 1st Panzer Division rolled unchecked toward Dunkirk, the Fourth Army commander General von Kluge phoned General von Rundstedt at Army Group A headquarters in Charleville. Kluge, an old-school artilleryman, voiced his fears that the tanks had gotten too far ahead; “the troops would welcome an opportunity to close up tomorrow.” Rundstedt agreed, and the word was passed down the line. The panzers would halt on the 24th, but no one regarded the pause as more than a temporary measure—a chance to catch their breath.

Again from Lord’s book; Churchill’s initial meeting with new Allied Commnder Weygand on the 21st, resulted in a new plan of attack which was received by Gort on the 23rd:

That morning, after Churchill wired his enthusiastic approval for a new plan of attack to the south, Gort’s Chief of Staff Pownall’s reaction when the wire reached him the morning of the 23rd was, “The man’s mad.”

The military situation was worse than ever: in the west, Rundstedt’s Army Group A was closing in on Boulogne, Calais, and Arras; to the east, Bock’s Army Group B was pushing the lines back to the French frontier. Churchill, Ironside—all of them—clearly had no conception of the actual situation. Eight divisions couldn’t possibly disengage … the French First Army was a shambles … the Belgian cavalry was nonexistent—or seemed so.

…. [However], London and Paris dreamed on. After the meeting with Churchill, General Weygand issued a stirring “Operation Order No. 1.” In it he called on the northern armies to keep the Germans from reaching the sea—ignoring the fact that they were already there.

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast.
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the *Low Countries and France. Cynics talk of Phoney War officially ends.
    • *Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.
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Dunkirk on Wednesday, May 22, 1940

Calais May 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • A halt order is issued by the German High Command, with Adolf Hitler’s approval, to a German Panzer Division rapidly approaching the French coast.
  • Britain passed the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1940 putting banks, munitions production, wages, profits and work conditions under the control of the state.
  • Netherlands Premier De Geer begins cooperating with Nazis. Queen Wilhelmina calls him a traitor and deserter to the Dutch cause and promised that he would be put on trial after the liberation.

The way to think of Calais is that it made the coming miracle of Dunkirk possible. Historian Jon Latimer’s perspective:

The German forces that crossed the frontiers of the Netherlands, Belgium and France on May 10, 1940, so completely succeeded in their aim of cutting through the Allies’ defenses that within 10 days they had reached the Channel coast and cut the BEF and a French army off from the rest of France. On May 19, the commander in chief of the BEF, General Gort, warned the British War Office that it might have to consider evacuating the BEF. The same day, discussions began between the War Office and the Admiralty under the code name “Dynamo” about the “possible but unlikely evacuation of a very large force in hazardous circumstances.”

Following an enforced day of rest, the panzers were on the move again on May 22. Having reached the coast near St. Valéry two days earlier, they were now instructed to swing northeast toward the Channel ports. Resistance was patchy and disorganized, and by the evening they had reached the gates of both Boulogne and Calais. The next day, the 1st Panzer Division was moved from the gates of Calais to attack the British toward the line of the Aa Canal to the east, and the 10th Panzer Division was brought in to mop up the defenders of the famous old port.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk, how BEF Commander Gort covered his bases and continued to keep his focus on evacuation:

[While Gort had agreed with Ironside during their meeting on the 20th] … that didn’t make him a true believer. Once back at [headquarters] following that meeting, [Chief of Staff] Pownall was immediately summoned. The purpose, it turned out, was not to plan the drive south [as per the Ironside plan]. Rather, he was to draw up a plan for retiring north [in the likely event the drive south failed].

[Gort’s] Operations Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bridgeman worked on those plans for withdrawing the whole BEF to the coast for evacuation. … and decided that the best bet was the 27-mile stretch of coast between Dunkirk and the Belgian town of Ostend. By the morning of May 22 he had covered every detail he could think of. Each corps was allocated the routes it would use, the stretch of coast it would hold.

Finally, as per Lord’s book, how the evacuation planning continued to evolve at the War Office in London:

[The prior day’s plan was] 10,000 men would be lifted every 24 hours from each of the three ports—still Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk. The ships would work the ports in pairs, no more than two ships at a time in any of the three harbors. To do the job, Ramsay had allotted 30 cross-Channel ferries, twelve steam drifters, and six coastal cargo ships.

By the following day, the 22nd, everything had changed again. Now the panzers were attacking Boulogne and Calais; only Dunkirk was left. There would be no more of these meticulous plans; no more general meetings of all concerned. Ramsay, an immensely practical man, realized that the battlefront was changing faster than meetings could be held. By now everybody knew what had to be done anyhow; the important thing was to be quick and flexible. Normal channels, standard operating procedures, and other forms of red tape were jettisoned.

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.23 – German Panzer Division drive towards the coast stops.
  • 1940.05.22 – The Battle of Boulogne and the Siege of Calais began.
  • 1940.05.21 – Planning for evacuation ramped up, but still no urgency.
  • 1940.05.20 – London-based General Ironside, with Churchill’s approval, pushes BEF to attack towards the south.
  • 1940.05.19 – London War Office fails to grasp degree to which British and French positions have deteriorated.
  • 1940.05.18 – Belgium falls. British and French troops retreat north towards coast.
  • 1940.05.17 – Churchill begins considering evacuating BEF troops from France.
  • 1940.05.16 – BEF Commander Gort begins pulling troops back towards coast [NW direction].
  • 1940.05.15 – Churchill begins to realize that England might stand alone vs Nazi’s and continues his appeals to Roosevelt for US involvement.
  • 1940.05.14 – The Blitz of Rotterdam [Belgium].
  • 1940.05.10 – German Blitzkrieg begins into the Low Countries and France.
    • Also known as the Benelux Countries, aka Belgium, Netherlands [aka Holland] and Luxembourg.
      • If it’s all Dutch [and/or Deutsch?] to you – here’s a great primer on how the varied country names came about.
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Dunkirk on Tuesday, May 21, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • French PM Reynaud appeared before his parliament and blamed the military disaster on incredible faults in the French high command that he said would be punished.
  • Churchill’s 1st meeting with new Allied Commander General Weygand.
  • BEF evacuations from French coast, planned at 10,000 per day from 3 ports.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk, the evolution of evacuation planning:

On May 19 General Riddell-Webster presided over a meeting at the War Office, taking up for the first time the possibility of evacuation. There was no feeling of urgency, and a representative from the Ministry of Shipping felt that there was plenty of time to round up any vessels that might be needed.

Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk would all be used, the meeting decided. The basic plan had three phases: starting on the 20th, “useless mouths” would be shipped home at a rate of 2,000 a day; next, beginning on the 22nd, some 15,000 base personnel would leave; finally, there was just possibly “the hazardous evacuation of very large forces,” but this was considered so unlikely that the conferees did not waste their time on it.

Next day, the 20th, when Ramsay called a new meeting at Dover, events had changed everything. The panzers were pointing for the coast … the BEF was almost trapped … Gort himself was talking evacuation. “The hazardous evacuation of very large forces” no longer sat at the bottom of the agenda; now “the emergency evacuation across the Channel of very large forces” stood at the top.

The situation was still worse when the same group met on the 21st, this time in London again. Another plan was hammered out; more neat, precise figures. Ten thousand men would be lifted every 24 hours from each of the three ports—still Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; After British Army Chief Edmund Ironside got BEF Commander Gort to agree to attempt to attack going south, instead of retreating north [Dunkirk], the following happened:

At 2:00 p.m., May 21, a scratch force under Major-General H. E. Franklyn began moving south from Arras. If all went well, he should meet the French troops heading north in a couple of days at Cambrai. But all didn’t go well. Most of the infantry that Franklyn had on paper were tied up elsewhere. Instead of two divisions [10,000 soldiers per division] he had only two battalions [845 soldiers per battalion]. His 76 tanks were worn out and began to break down. The French support on his left was a day late. The new French armies supposedly moving up from the Somme never materialized. The Germans were tougher than expected. By the end of the day Franklyn’s attack had petered out.

This was no surprise to General Gort. He had never had any faith in a drive south. Midafternoon, even before Franklyn ran into trouble, Gort was giving his corps commanders a gloomy picture of the overall situation. Franklyn’s attack was brushed off as “a desperate remedy in an attempt to put heart in the French.”

Meanwhile, at another meeting of staff officers, Gort’s Adjutant-General, ordered rear Headquarters to move from Boulogne to Dunkirk; medical personnel, transport troops, construction battalions, and other “useless mouths” were to head there at once. Later, at still another meeting, a set of neat, precise instructions was issued for the evacuation of these troops: “As vehicles arrive at various evacuation ports, drivers and lorries must be kept, and local transport staffs will have to make arrangements for parking. …”

[Gort’s Chief of Staff] Pownall summoned the acting Operations Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bridgeman. The purpose, it turned out, was not working on the drive south. Rather, he was to draw up a plan for retiring north … for withdrawing the whole BEF to the coast for evacuation.

Bridgeman worked on it all night. Starting with the premise that an evacuation could take place anywhere between Calais and Ostend, he had to find the stretch of coast that could most easily be reached and defended by the three corps that made up the BEF. Which had the best roads leading to it? Which had the best port facilities? Which offered the best chance for air cover? Which had the best terrain for defense? Were there canals that could be used to protect the flanks? Towns that could serve as strong-points? Dykes that could be opened to flood the land and stop those German tanks?

This same morning Winston Churchill again flew to Paris, hoping to get a clearer picture of the military situation. Reynaud met him at the airport and whisked him to Grand Quartier Général at Vincennes, where the oriental rugs and Moroccan sentries lent an air of unreality that reminded Churchill’s military adviser, General Sir Hastings Ismay, of a scene from Beau Geste.

Here the Prime Minister met for the first time Maxime Weygand. Like everyone else, Churchill was impressed by the new commander’s energy and bounce (like an India rubber ball, Ismay decided). Best of all, his military thinking seemed to parallel Churchill’s own. As he understood it, the Weygand Plan in its latest refinement called for eight divisions from the BEF and the French First Army, with the Belgian cavalry on the right, to strike southwest the very next day. This force would “join hands” with the new French army group driving north from Amiens. That evening [21st] Churchill wired Gort his enthusiastic approval.

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