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.

About Jorge Costales

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