Dunkirk on Sunday, May 19, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

The situation in France was unravelling fast. The Germans had now secured their breakthrough in the gap they had forced north of the Maginot Line. The great bulk of the French Army was still confined to these great fortresses and there was neither the means, nor seemingly the will, to bring them into the battle. A plan was drawn up to cut off the German Panzer thrust by the French driving north and the British driving south at the base of the German advance. It was the logical thing to do but it never materialised.

The British Cabinet was now informed that the British Army might have to be evacuated from the north French coast in order to save them – it was just over a week since they had gone forward into Belgium so confidently.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk, BEF Commander Gort’s moment of truth, follow clearly mistaken orders or begin plotting an alternate course:

[The morning following General Billotte’s meeting at Gort’s Command Post], Gort’s senior officers met to begin planning the retreat. It turned out that the Deputy Chief of Staff, Brigadier Leese, had already been doing some thinking; he had roughed out a scheme for the entire BEF to form a hollow square and move en masse to Dunkirk, the nearest French port.

At 11:30 [Gort] Chief of Staff, Lieutenant-General H. R. Pownall, telephoned the War Office in London and broke the news to the Director of Military Operations and Plans, Major-General R. H. Dewing. If the French could not stabilize the front south of the BEF, Pownall warned, Gort had decided to pull back toward Dunkirk.

In London it was a serenely beautiful Sunday, and the elegant Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, was about to join Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax for a quiet lunch, when he received an urgent call to see General Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Ironside, a hulking, heavy-footed man (inevitably nicknamed “Tiny”), was appalled by Gort’s proposed move to Dunkirk. It would be a trap, he declared.

Decorated WWI veterans, Commanders Gort and Ironside

Ironside’s consternation was evident when at 1:15 p.m. a new call came in from Pownall. Dewing, again on the London end of the line, suggested that Gort was too gloomy, that the French might not be as badly off as he feared. In any case, why not head for Boulogne or Calais, where air cover would be better, instead of Dunkirk? “It’s a case of the hare and the tortoise,” Pownall answered dryly, “and a very simple calculation will show that the hare would win the race.”

Dewing now put forward Ironside’s pet solution: the BEF should turn around and fight its way south to the Somme. It was a theory that totally overlooked the fact that most of the British Army was locked in combat with the German forces to the east and couldn’t possibly disengage, but Pownall didn’t belabor the point. Instead he soothingly reassured Dewing—again and again—that the Dunkirk move was “merely a project in the mind of the C-in-C [Commander in Chief]” … that it was just an idea mentioned only to keep London informed of Headquarters’ thinking … that any decision depended on whether the French could restore their front. Since he was already on record as saying that the French were “melting away,” London was understandably not mollified.

Dewing took another tack: Did Pownall realize that evacuation through Dunkirk was impossible and that maintaining any force there was bound to be precarious? Yes, Pownall answered, he knew that, but heading south would be fatal. The conversation ended with Pownall feeling that Dewing was “singularly stupid and unhelpful,” and with the War Office convinced that Gort was about to bottle himself up.

Ironside urged that the War Cabinet be convened at once. Messages went out recalling Churchill and Chamberlain, who had each gone off for a quiet Sunday in the country, and at 4:30 p.m. the Cabinet assembled in what Churchill liked to call “the fish room” of the Admiralty—a chamber festooned with carved dolphins leaping playfully around.

Churchill agreed with Ironside completely: the only hope was to drive south and rejoin the French on the Somme. The others present fell in line. They decided that Ironside should personally go to Gort—this very night—and hand him the War Cabinet’s instructions.

At 9:00 p.m. Ironside caught a special train at Victoria Station and would be in France the following morning to meet with Commander Gort.

In his first broadcast as Prime Minister to the British people on the BBC on Trinity Sunday 1940, Winston Churchill’s speech noted the following:

… We must expect that as soon as stability is reached on the Western Front, the bulk of that hideous apparatus of aggression which gashed Holland into ruin and slavery in a few days will be turned upon us. I am sure I speak for all when I say we are ready to face it; to endure it; and to retaliate against it — to any extent that the unwritten laws of war permit. There will be many men and many women in the Island who when the ordeal comes upon them, as come it will, will feel comfort, and even a pride, that they are sharing the perils of our lads at the Front — soldiers, sailors and airmen, God bless them — and are drawing away from them a part at least of the onslaught they have to bear….

Our task is not only to win the battle – but to win the war. After this battle in France abates its force, there will come the battle for our Island — for all that Britain is, and all the Britain means. That will be the struggle. In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce and the last inch of effort of which they are capable….

Having received His Majesty’s commission, I have formed an Administration of men and women of every Party and of almost every point of view. We have differed and quarreled in the past; but now one bond unites us all — to wage war until victory is won, and never to surrender ourselves to servitude and shame, whatever the cost and the agony may be. this is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain. It is also beyond doubt the most sublime. Side by side, unaided except by their kith and kin in the great Dominions and by the wide empires which rest beneath their shield – side by side, the British and French peoples have advanced to rescue not only Europe but mankind from the foulest and most soul-destroying tyranny which has ever darkened and stained the pages of history. Behind them – behind us- behind the Armies and Fleets of Britain and France – gather a group of shattered States and bludgeoned races: the Czechs, the Poles, the Norwegians, the Danes, the Dutch, the Belgians – upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend, unbroken even by a star of hope, unless we conquer, as conquer we must; as conquer we shall.

Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: “Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

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About Jorge Costales

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