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.

About Jorge Costales

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