Disaster at Dunkirk: A Nightmare Fantasy

A fictional reimagining of one of Hitler’s most fateful decisions.

By Ian Kershaw

Abandoned British military vehicles on the beach of Dunkirk, France, 1940.

Abandoned British military vehicles on the beach of Dunkirk, France, 1940.

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.

Back in London, the war cabinet, in session almost continuously in recent days, held tense debates about Britain’s next move. Despite the odds, Churchill remained defiant, arguing that it was better to go down fighting than to capitulate cravenly. This made little sense to the other politicians present—Neville Chamberlain, the former prime minister and current leader of the Conservative Party; Lord Halifax, the foreign secretary; and Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, leader and deputy leader, respectively, of the Labour Party. Dismissing Churchill as overly emotional, the war cabinet seized on an opening that had arisen three days earlier, on May 25, when Lord Halifax had been approached by Signor Bastianini, the Italian ambassador in London. Well aware of the hopeless British plight on the channel coast, Bastianini had raised the possibility of a negotiated end to the war brokered by Benito Mussolini. Although Churchill remained reluctant, Lord Halifax’s argument convinced the other members of the war cabinet. The army was lost, the air force still weak. No help could be expected from the United States. Continuing hostilities would probably result in pointless destruction, quite possibly in a German invasion of Britain. A negotiated end could prevent the relentless bombing of British cities and a potential German occupation. Not least in Lord Halifax’s considerations was the thought that the empire might still be salvaged. Chamberlain’s voice was decisive in support of Lord Halifax. Attlee and Greenwood, new to the government, fell into line. Isolated, Churchill considered resigning but, unwilling to reveal the split in the government, agreed to Halifax’s proposal with the heaviest of hearts. He knew it meant the end of everything he had stood for, his own political demise, and, most likely, disaster for his country. 

Mussolini lost no time in orchestrating a conference in Brussels on June 2 and 3. The four powers that had met at the Munich Conference at the end of September 1938, when Britain and France had chosen to cede part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler instead of deciding to fight him, returned to the negotiating table. While Mussolini preened with self-importance in brokering the peace deal, he had mixed feelings about its potential outcome. He was sure of some territorial gains for Italy at the expense of Britain’s presence in the Mediterranean, but he would owe these gains to German strength, not to Italian victories in the Europe-wide war he had wanted. The triumph was entirely Hitler’s. And the victor, bestriding the conference in Brussels, left no one, least of all Mussolini, in doubt of his achievement—and his total mastery of Western and Central Europe.

Before the Brussels Conference, Hitler had stipulated three preconditions for acceding to negotiations. Churchill must be replaced as prime minister and denied participation in the peace talks. Forced to hand in his resignation, Churchill and his immediate family fled into exile to Canada the following day. Secondly, neither the British nor French navies were to be moved from their present positions. The third condition demanded the signing of the peace agreement in two locations. The British would sign at the war memorial on the Somme, where Hitler had fought and been wounded in 1916, while the French would sign in the same railway carriage in the forest of Compiègne, where the armistice to end the Great War—the ultimate German humiliation from Hitler’s point of view—had been approved in 1918. On the other hand, the German dictator was prepared to provide assurances in advance that, with territorial adjustments, the British Empire and French colonial possessions would be allowed to remain in existence.

Hitler drove a hard bargain in the negotiations. Despite Halifax’s reassurances, once Britain entered negotiations, there was no way back. Morale at home had sunk drastically following Dunkirk. The nation had lost its fighting spirit. Halifax and newly reinstated Prime Minister Chamberlain, Britain’s representatives in Brussels, bowed to the inevitable. Significant territorial concessions were unavoidable. Even the Channel Islands and the Shetlands, close to the British mainland, now passed into German possession. The free state of Eire, nominally still neutral, agreed to the stationing of German troops in Dublin and granted use of Irish airfields to the Luftwaffe, which meant that Britain was no longer militarily defensible. 

Although Hitler permitted the British Empire to survive, he reduced it to a mere semblance of what it had once been. British rights in the oil fields of the Middle East were to be ceded to Germany, along with the mandated territories in the region and control over the Suez Canal. Backed by his bellicose foreign minister, Ribbentrop, Hitler insisted on acquiring a swathe of British, French, and Belgian colonies in Africa, establishing German rule over much of the African continent. With Malta, Gibraltar, Algeria, and Tunisia in Mussolini’s hands—his part of the spoils from the Brussels Conference—the Axis powers now dominated the entire Mediterranean.

The complete subservience of the defeated Western democracies to the German Reich was most unmistakably advertised with the disbandment of the French and British navies. France was divided into two zones: the northern part of the country placed under direct German supervision, the southern part left nominally independent under a puppet government based in Vichy. The French had initially walked out of the Brussels Conference and attempted to rally an already battered army to return to the fight, but German troops had easily quashed the short-lived military resistance and occupied Paris. At that, the French had fully capitulated.

Hitler claimed to be treating Great Britain, a country he said he much admired, more generously. There would be no German occupation. Britain would remain independent—at least nominally—and retain her (truncated) empire. But he insisted on a government sympathetic to German interests. Immediately following the Brussels Conference, Chamberlain pleaded illness—he would indeed become seriously ill and die of cancer later in the year—as a pretext for stepping down. The former prime minister David Lloyd George, who had presided over Britain’s victory in the Great War, was persuaded to form a puppet government. (Lloyd George had admired Hitler upon first meeting him in 1936.) Halifax remained as foreign secretary; Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader recently freed from prison, accepted the newly created post of Minister of the Interior. Other German sympathizers filled the remaining cabinet posts. Ribbentrop advocated forcing the abdication of King George VI and the restoration of his brother, the pro-German Edward VIII, to the throne. The ceremonies took place at the end of June when George VI was placed under house arrest at Balmoral. By the end of the summer of 1940, Great Britain had become a satellite of Germany. 

The momentous changes imposed lasting consequences on the balance of world power. Churchill tried, but failed, to set up a government in exile in Canada. For the maneuver to have had any chance of success, Churchill would have needed not only the support of the Canadians, but also that of the Americans. The Roosevelt Administration, under increasing pressure from an expanding isolationist lobby, let it be known in Ottawa that it was not prepared to back Churchill. Soon it became abundantly plain that U.S. interests would be confined to the American hemisphere. Staying out of the war was the crucial task. The United States continued its rearmament in case a German-dominated Europe should at some point seek to attack America. But with Britain and France defeated, American interests lay squarely at home. There was to be no provocation of Hitler, no attempt to engage in a conflict in the Atlantic. Roosevelt looked to secure a naval agreement with Hitler that provided for the demilitarization of the western Atlantic, leaving the American navy to concentrate on the looming danger from Japan in the Pacific.

The prospect had become more menacing since Japan’s leaders had seized the moment of British and French collapse in Europe to launch military strikes to the south, subjugating Indochina, Thailand, and the Dutch East Indies in only six weeks. The offensive gave Japan control over precious oil resources and deprived Britain of the power to protect its route to India. 

In Berlin, Hitler lost no time. With his western flank secured, he turned his attention to the project that he’d had in mind for almost twenty years: a war to destroy the Soviet Union and with it what he saw as its wellspring of “Jewish Bolshevism.” His military leaders dissuaded him from an immediate attack: an invasion in August and September was judged too risky in view of a possibly early onset of winter. In any event, assembling and mobilizing the army would simply take too long; after the western offensive, many of the motorized units needed an extended period of repair. The invasion was therefore postponed until the following spring. 

German planners worried that the chance of upheaval in the Balkans might disrupt preparations for the eastern operation already known as “Barbarossa.” But by the autumn of 1940, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey had fallen under the sway of the Axis powers, and when the German invasion of the Soviet Union began in May 1941, the Wehr­macht advanced so rapidly on all fronts that it soon captured Leningrad, Ukraine, and the industrial region of the Donets Basin. By early August, German forces reached Moscow. Stalin fled from the city, leading to the complete demoralization of a Soviet population further threatened by the news that Japanese forces attacking through Mongolia and into Siberia had prompted the Red Army’s headlong retreat from its eastern front. Forced back on the Central Asian republics, the Stalin regime saw no other option but to sue for terms. The subsequent territorial subtractions made the calamitous concessions of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 look like minor losses. Most important, the oil of the Caucasus now fell to Germany. So did the granary of Ukraine. Added to the enormous resources that Germany already controlled and ruthlessly exploited in Western Europe, the Russian acquisitions placed in its hands the economy of the defeated European continent.

Japan also had greatly extended its material resources by virtue of its brutal occupation of much of Southeast Asia. Deprived of assistance from the Allies, Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek felt compelled to accept the harsh terms that the Japanese sought to impose. These included China’s joining the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, the euphemism chosen by Japan to designate the huge area of its newly captured “living space.”

By this time—the spring of 1942—the United States had accelerated its rearmament program. Aware that a showdown with the dominant Axis powers could not be indefinitely postponed, Roosevelt nonetheless continued to do everything necessary to avoid confrontation, both in the Atlantic and in the Pacific. The President had to prepare his nation’s defenses and to try to persuade an isolationist public that war would eventually visit the United States. American scientists meanwhile worked feverishly on a project that the country’s military chiefs considered decisive in the coming war—so long as the United States could develop it faster than the Germans. But with their newly won resources, the Germans were making rapid progress toward the making of both atomic weapons and the long-range interballistic missiles that could deliver them. Before much longer, New York and Washington would stand in the shadow of Germany’s nuclear weapons.


May 1945: It is now five years since Hitler overrode Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt’s advice. In Germania (the former Berlin), British leaders, along with dignitaries from the entire European continent, have recently attended the celebration of Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday on April 20, which included the largest military march ever witnessed on the Charlottenburger Chaussee. In Tokyo, Emperor Hirohito and Prime Minister Matsuoka Yosuke—mastermind of the triumphant conquests of 1940 and 1941—welcome the state visit of Wang Ching-wei, the leader of the puppet Chinese administration that has been in place for the last four years. A number of Indian princelings—viceroys installed by Japanese arms in the former heart of the British Empire—are additional guests of honor.

In both Southeast Asia and on the European continent, millions of once free people are reduced to slavery, forced to labor for their Japanese and German masters. The degradation of the humiliated Chinese defies description; tens of thousands of Slavs in Europe have been transported in cattle wagons to huge slave labor camps within the Arctic Circle and on the borders of Siberia. What has happened to the Jews remains unclear. They have completely disappeared from sight, rounded up by the Germans and their collaborators in the occupied territories of Western Europe and shipped off eastward—most likely, it seems, to the northernmost outreaches of the former Soviet Union. No one is sure of their subsequent fate. Terrible rumors circulated by underground resistance movements and intercepted by American intelligence indicate that up to eleven million have been exterminated. A few remarkable reports suggest that they have been killed in specially designed gas chambers, their bodies incinerated in industrial-style complexes built for that purpose in the region of Minsk, Kowno, Riga, and the woods outside Moscow. But no one credits such stories. They are too fantastic to be believed.

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