The rapid advance of the German army through Belgium and France in May 1940 stranded hundreds of thousands of British, French, and Belgian troops at the port of Dunkirk on the coast of northern France. On May 24, with his enemies encircled, Hitler ordered a halt to the attack. This provided the British with enough time to organize a massive evacuation, using every available civilian craft alongside naval vessels to evacuate 198,000 British and 140,000 French and Belgian troops. The operation’s success gave a significant boost to the morale of the British population and helped harden the resolve to fight on.
But what if Hitler had ordered his tanks to destroy the Allied forces at Dunkirk on May 24? How might his decision have affected the course and outcome of the war?
Adolf Hitler was in fine spirits and good humor on the morning of May 24, 1940. His Panzer divisions were within fifteen miles of what was left of the defeated British Army trapped near the French port of Dunkirk. He believed that decisive victory was at hand. But at Charleville, in the headquarters of Army Group A, which had carried out the advance, he was astonished to learn that his commander in chief, Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt, wasn’t planning to continue the attack. The general assumed that the British had nowhere to go and that bombardment by the Luftwaffe would soon compel its surrender. He wanted his tanks in good repair for their deployment south against the French.
Hitler momentarily wavered. He decided to speak with the commander in chief of the army, Walther von Brauchitsch, and the chief of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder, both of whom disagreed with Rundstedt. They advised Hitler to destroy the British Army without hesitation. Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s designated successor, agreed. His mind made up, Hitler overruled Rundstedt and ordered the tanks into Dunkirk. It was a one-sided contest. The British and their Allies had left most of their heavy armor behind in the headlong retreat. They had few munitions, little food, and no hope of relief or of holding out.
On May 28, Lord Gort, commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, sought permission to surrender from the small war cabinet summoned by Winston Churchill, the new prime minister. Churchill reluctantly gave his permission. That same day, Belgium capitulated to Germany and soon afterward, devoid of allies and its own forces disintegrating, so did France. At midnight on May 28, the guns fell silent as a temporary armistice took effect on the Western Front. The Allied troops not killed or seriously wounded in the last, fruitless defense of Dunkirk were herded into long, miserable columns and marched into German captivity. It was a defeat unparalleled in British history.
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