Dunkirk on Friday, May 17, 1940

German 4th Panzer Division in France

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk:

This same day Winston Churchill for the first time began thinking of the possibility of evacuation. No one was more offensive-minded than Churchill—nobody prodded Gort harder—but every contingency had to be faced, and his visit to Paris on the 16th was a sobering experience. Now he asked Neville Chamberlain, former Prime Minister and currently Lord President of the Privy Council, to study “the problems which would arise if it were necessary to withdraw the British Expeditionary Force [BEF] from France.”

Lord again, on the humble origins of Operation Dynamo, as the Dunkirk evacuation would come to be code-named:

When W. Stanley Berry reported to the London offices of Admiral Preston on the morning of May 17, he didn’t know quite what to expect. A 43-year-old government clerk, he had just been engaged as the Admiral’s assistant secretary, and this was his first day on the job.

Admiral Preston was Director of the Navy’s Small Vessels Pool, a tiny blob on the organization chart that supplied and maintained harbor craft at various naval bases. Useful, but hardly glamorous…. Berry had no reason to suppose that he faced anything more than mundane office work.

He was in for a surprise. Six sacks of mail were waiting to be opened and sorted. These were the first answers to a BBC broadcast May 14 calling on “all owners of self-propelled pleasure craft between 30 and 100 feet in length to send all particulars to the Admiralty within 14 days. …”

Stanley Berry dived into the job of processing the mountain of replies to the BBC announcement. He and the Admiral’s Secretary, Paymaster Lieutenant Garrett, sorted them out by both type of vessel and home port. Garrett, a Newfoundlander, found himself getting a crash education in British geography.

Here is a summary of the WWII events of this day:

French 4th Armoured Division with 200 tanks including the formidable Char B (under Colonel Charles De Gaulle) attacks Guderian’s Panzer Corps at Montcornet. They take 500 prisoners but make little ground against improvised German defenses and then withdraw. German tankers are shocked by the French lack of aggression.

The dominos begin to fall in Belgium. Instead of attacking the German salient into Allied territory, British Expeditionary Force commander General Lord Gort sees the danger of encirclement in the Panzer thrust to his South and orders a retreat to the Scheldt River. This allows German 6th Army under General Reichenau to enter Brussels. Churchill, likewise worried by the panic in the French command, begins to think about saving the British Army. Churchill also considers recalling troops from Narvik.

Finally an entry from the diary of Eleanor Roosevelt on May 17, 1940:

WASHINGTON, Thursday—…. No one reading the news today can fail to realize that this is a crucial moment for the world. The President is asking today for a great increase in our national defenses. Of course, it is vital as the picture develops before our eyes, for us to understand the need of the ability to produce mechanized weapons of war in order to protect our manpower. One has but to read the record of what happened to Holland’s Army—one-fourth wiped out—to realize why we must have modern weapons of war. This, of course, we must face and must pay for….

We need a united front here as well as the more tangible front of creating war materials. It requires greater cooperation and it will require greater self-sacrifice really to make democracy something for which every citizen will feel he will willingly die, because with its loss, will go economic as well as intellectual freedom.

Much has been said in this country about not wanting to participate in foreign wars and people who have said it, must now face the fact that foreign wars come very close to our own shores. We will always have not only the religious groups, but many groups who feel that war is wrong. I cannot imagine how anyone could feel otherwise with the picture before them today. But when force not only rules in certain countries, but is as menacing to all the world, as it is today, one cannot live in a Utopia which prays for different conditions and ignores those which exist….

For years I have hoped that we could stop war as an instrument for settling any national and international difficulties. I have worked for it and shall continue to work for it. However, one has to face the world as it is and, without discarding one’s ideals, meet the realities of the day and keep on working for what one hopes will be a better future.

About Jorge Costales

- Cuban Exile [veni] - Raised in Miami [vidi] - American Citizen [vici]
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