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.

About Jorge Costales

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