Sometimes history chooses not to repeat itself. In 1914 Britain sent a relatively small expeditionary force—six infantry divisions and one of cavalry—to the European continent, to defend Belgium and France against a German invasion. Whether this force was decisive is debatable, but the combined effect of British, Belgian, and—above all—French resistance sufficed to stem the German tide. Twenty-five years later the British once again sent a relatively small expeditionary force, called Operation Dynamo (initially four and then another six infantry divisions), to the European continent. The ensuing debacle at Dunkirk brought Hitler closer to outright victory than at any other time in World War II.
Thanks to the pause, or “phony war,” in Western Europe that followed the German attack on Poland in September 1939, the British forces sent to France and their hosts had more time to prepare to repel the Germans than their predecessors in 1914. Yet once the Germans finally unleashed their western offensive on May 10, 1940, it was a blitzkrieg as swift and as devastating as the one they had launched against Poland eight months before. After less than four weeks, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had effectively ceased to exist. According to the official British figures, just over 193,000 British soldiers were evacuated from the beaches near the French port of Dunkirk, along with 122,000 Frenchmen. The figure of 193,000 should be compared with the total number of British soldiers sent to France, which was around 387,000, of whom 237,000 were combat troops.1
In the House of Commons on June 4, Churchill called the evacuation “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.” That is not how the event was portrayed in German newsreels at the time, which showed the shoreline strewn with British corpses and immense piles of discarded materiel, much of it burning. Though the rout of the British was not, as Churchill had feared a week before, “the greatest military disaster in our long history,” it was still a defeat quite unlike any Britain had suffered in living memory. The testimony of survivors, who were effectively put into quarantine after their return to Britain for fear that they would undermine civilian morale, is replete with tales of horror and humiliation: of drunken members of the British Pioneer Corp firing on their comrades while awaiting evacuation from Boulogne; of the “bitter agony of defeat” when the King’s Royal Rifle Corps laid down their arms at Calais; of exhausted men going “wackers” as Stukas screamed down to bomb their defenseless positions on Dunkirk’s eastern jetty; of British and French soldiers desperately fighting one another to get aboard the rescue boats.
Some regiments were simply smashed. Fewer than one in seven of the members of the 6th Royal West Kents made it home to England, to give just one example. The loss of equipment was almost total: 2,472 out of 2,794 artillery pieces were destroyed, damaged, or left behind…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.