Dunkirk on Sunday, May 26, 1940

A summary of the WWII events this day:

  • Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • Halt order issued on May 22nd to 10th German Panzer Division, is rescinded.
  • FDR addresses Americans in a fireside chat about the war in Europe.

After learning in greater detail how Dunkirk unfolded, I’m left with the impression that only those exposed to terrible hardships can have an appreciation of just how miraculous the rescue was. To so desire an outcome beyond all reason.

Beyond the unimaginable stakes involved, beyond the German halt order on the 22nd, beyond the calm English Channel across the next nine days of Dunkirk, beyond the low ceiling skies on the three days following Luftwaffe all-out assaults on Dunkirk that prevented effective follow-up, beyond all that, the human error within the fog of war and untrained civilians tossed into the mix. Its almost like Providence can work around any biped-based obstacles.

From Walter Lord’s book, The Miracle of Dunkirk; How the evacuation began:

The time had come to act. At 6:57 p.m. this Sunday, May 26, the Admiralty signaled Dover: “Operation Dynamo is to commence.”

At this point Admiral Ramsay had 129 ferries, coasters, skoots, and small craft to do the job, but more were on the way and the staff in the Dynamo Room was clicking smoothly. Still, it was a monumental task. The Admiralty itself did not expect to lift more than 45,000 men in two days. After that, the evacuation would probably be terminated by enemy action.

“I have on at the moment one of the most difficult and hazardous operations ever conceived,” Ramsay wrote Mag late that night (actually 1:00 a.m. on the 27th), “and unless the bon Dieu is very kind there are certain to be many tragedies attached to it. I hardly dare think about it, or what the day is going to bring. …”

Yet the biggest crisis at the moment lay beyond Ramsay’s control. The crucial question was whether more than a smattering of men could get to Dunkirk at all. Hitler’s “halt order” had been lifted; the German armor was rolling again; thousands of Allied soldiers were still deep in France and Belgium. Could the escape corridor be kept open long enough for these troops to scramble to the coast? What could be done to help the units holding the corridor? How to buy the time that was needed?

Again from Lord’s book; Gort’s decision to ignore orders to attack south on May 25th, turned out to be a non-issue. The War Office concluded the same and telegrammed him early that morning:

When [Gort] received Eden’s telegram he had just returned from a morning meeting with General Blanchard [commanding the French First Army]. There he reviewed his decision to cancel the attack south; he won French approval for a joint withdrawal north; he worked out with Blanchard the lines of retreat, a timetable, a new defense line along the River Lys—but never said a word about evacuation. In fact, as Blanchard saw things, there would be no further retreat. The Lys would be a new defense line covering Dunkirk, giving the Allies a permanent foothold in Flanders.

For Gort, Dunkirk was no foothold; it was a springboard for getting the BEF home. His views were confirmed by a new wire from Eden that arrived late in the afternoon. It declared that there was “no course open to you but to fall back upon the coast. … You are now authorized to operate towards the coast forthwith in conjunction with French and Belgian armies.”

So evacuation it was to be, but now a new question arose: Could they evacuate? By May 26 the BEF and the French First Army were squeezed into a long, narrow corridor running inland from the sea—60 miles deep and only 15 to 25 miles wide. Most of the British were concentrated around Lille, 43 miles from Dunkirk; the French were still farther south.

On the eastern side of the corridor the trapped Allied forces faced Bock’s massive Army Group B; on the western side they faced the tanks and motorized divisions of Rundstedt’s Army Group A. His panzers had reached Bourbourg, only ten miles west of Dunkirk. It seemed almost a mathematical certainty that the Germans would get there first.

“Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now,” British General Brooke noted in his diary as the pocket took shape on May 23.

“We shall have lost practically all our trained soldiers by the next few days—unless a miracle appears to help us,” General Ironside wrote on the 25th.

“I must not conceal from you,” Gort wired Anthony Eden on the 26th, “that a great part of the BEF and its equipment will inevitably be lost even in the best circumstances.”

Winston Churchill thought that only 20,000 or 30,000 men might be rescued.

Roosevelt’s fireside chat on May 26, 1940

My friends:

At this moment of sadness throughout most of the world, I want to talk with you about a number of subjects that directly affect the future of the United States. We are shocked by the almost incredible eyewitness stories that come to us of what is happening at this moment to the civilian populations of Norway and Holland and Belgium and Luxembourg and France.

I think it is right on this Sabbath evening that I should say a word in behalf of women and children and old men who need help-immediate help in their present distress—help from us across the seas, from us who are still free to give it.

Tonight over the once peaceful roads of Belgium and France millions are now moving, running from their homes to escape bombs and shells and fire and machine gunning, without shelter, and almost wholly without food. They stumble on, knowing not where the end of the road will be. I speak to you of these people because each one of you listening to me tonight has a way of helping them. The American Red Cross, that represents each of us, is rushing food, clothing and medical supplies to these destitute civilian millions. Please—I beg you—please give according to your means to your nearest Red Cross chapter, give as generously as you can. I ask this in the name of our common humanity.

Let us sit down together again, you and I, to consider our own pressing problems that confront us.

There are many among us who in the past closed their eyes to events abroad-because they believed in utter good faith what some of their fellow Americans told them—that what was taking place in Europe was none of our business; that no matter what happened over there, the United States could always pursue its peaceful and unique course in the world.

There are many among us who closed their eyes, from lack of interest or lack of knowledge; honestly and sincerely thinking that the many hundreds of miles of salt water made the American Hemisphere so remote that the people of North and Central and South America could go on living in the midst of their vast resources without reference to, or danger from, other continents of the world….

To those who have closed their eyes for any of these many reasons, to those who would not admit the possibility of the approaching storm—to all of them the past two weeks have meant the shattering of many illusions….

In some quarters, with this rude awakening has come fear, bordering on panic. It is said that we are defenseless. It is whispered by some that only by abandoning our freedom, our ideals, our way of life, can we build our defenses adequately, can we match the strength of the aggressors.

I did not share those illusions. I do not share these fears….

Recap of our Road to Dunkirk:

  • 1940.05.26 – Operation Dynamo ordered to commence.
  • 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]
This entry was posted in Books & Reading, History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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