The first week of June, 1940, was a truly perilous time for the Allies in World War II. The German invasion of France a month earlier had torn apart the over-matched, poorly-led Allied army and drove the remnants back toward the English Channel, to the beaches of Dunkirk. Not only was France about to be lost, but 400,000 soldiers and thousands of tons of equipment were at risk as well. If those men couldn’t be rescued, Britain would be left with virtually no army, and would be defenseless against the coming German landings.
On May 25th, the British made the difficult decision to evacuate their army and for the next two weeks, almost anything in England that could float, from warships to private yachts (though the role of the “Little Ships of Dunkirk” has been overstated), went back and forth between England and France ferrying troops, often under enemy fire. With the help of the Royal Air Force covering the beach and French troops fighting desperate rearguard actions, 338,000 men were rescued from certain captivity – men who would return to France four years later to liberate it from the Nazi boot.
The courage of the sailors on those boats and the troops fighting to get out saved the day at Dunkirk, but the Allies had help from none other than Adolf Hitler himself. On the day before the evacuation began, Hitler ordered his army, which was on the verge of a breakthrough, to halt its drive to the coast and stand down for 48 hours in order to rest, refuel and repair their tanks. This pause, which was loudly protested by German generals, gave the Allies precious time to dig in and organize a defense of the evacuation beaches. It also left German troops, some who were just ten miles from the beach, watching as their enemy slipped away. By June 3rd, the last British soldier was off the beach, and less than a day later, Dunkirk was in German hands. But Hitler had missed a stunning opportunity to deliver a crippling blow to the British, a moment which changed the course of the war and gave hope to the beleaguered Allies.
The reasons Hitler gave this “Halt Order” have never been fully agreed on, either by those living through the battle or historians after the fact. On the surface, it seemed like a halfway logical concept. The German troops had been fighting for two weeks straight without a break, something that an old Great War soldier like Hitler knew all too well. They needed time to rest, replace their losses and reorganize their forces, which had taken heavy losses in France. The German armor had outrun their infantry and supplies, having advanced much faster than expected, and were running out of fuel and ammunition. Also, the ground around the Dunkirk area wasn’t ideal for tank operations, full of the marshes and canals that had bogged down German soldiers in the First World War. The pause made sense to Hitler for another reason: Luftwaffe head Herman Goring had assured him that air power could wipe out the British on the beaches, and Hitler was all too happy to give him a chance.
Whatever the reasons it was issued, the German halt was deliverance to the desperate Allies. With the additional time they received, a huge evacuation was organized, larger and faster than anyone anticipated. Also, the Allies had luck on their side, as the Luftwaffe was mostly kept out of the fighting by bad weather and the outstanding performance of the Royal Air Force. The evacuation was a stunning success, and while countless vehicles and guns were left behind, along with huge amounts of ammunition and fuel, the bulk of the British army lived on to fight another day.
That the Allies were given the time they needed to organize their evacuation and get almost 340,000 men out safely has, inevitably, led a conspiracy theory to emerge: that Hitler gave the halt order to purposefully let the British troops escape certain doom at Dunkirk, in order strengthen his bargaining position for peace talks.
Mainstream historians don’t give much credence to this, and most dismiss it out of hand. Indeed, there’s no evidence of it anywhere in the record of the war, and it makes no sense from a logistical standpoint. Nevertheless, the idea of a merciful Hitler letting the British go as a sporting gesture or so they’d “owe him one” has a strong foothold among historical revisionists, white supremacists and Hitler apologists who see the dictator as a brilliant general and all-powerful mastermind.
They allege that Hitler allowed the evacuation to secure better peace terms with Britain and look like a magnanimous gentleman, rather than a psychotic despot. He would need the British for the coming struggle against Communism, so the theory goes. Others allege a racial component to the decision, as Hitler sought to avoid killing numerous Anglo-Saxons, whom he believed were superior to his other enemies. Then there are the claims that are simply bizarre, such as that Hitler wanted to prolong the war at the behest of “European bankers” or the Illuminati, or that he was secretly a deep cover British agent. Don’t laugh.
There is an undeniable element of coincidence to Hitler’s pause. But coincidence is not evidence of conspiracy. And there is no evidence from any element of the German military bureaucracy. In fact, the Guardian recently revealed the contents of a letter from May 28th written by the German High Command to the German Labor Minister, which assumed the British army would be wiped out at Dunkirk:
“Most esteemed Labour Führer of the Reich! Everything that has happened since May 10 seems even to us, who had indestructible faith in our success, like a dream. In a few days four fifths of the English Expeditionary Army and a great part of the best mobile French troops will be destroyed or captured. The next blow is ready to strike, and we can execute it at a ratio of 2:1, which has hitherto never been granted to a German field commander…”
There is absolutely no logical reason why the Germans would have wanted the bulk of the British armed forces to escape. If the Germans had been able to collapse the Dunkirk pocket, it would have weakened the Allies immeasurably, possibly bringing them to the negotiating table. Britain was terrified of a German landing on the home islands, and while Germany never had the capacity to pull it off, the general feeling around Winston Churchill’s government was that it was only a matter of time before the invasion came. And with no army to stop it, that fear might have taken hold and led to peace negotiations.
There was also far more involved in the Allied escape than Hitler ordering his tanks to stop. German soldiers didn’t simply stand around and watch the British being evacuated. They were fighting to reach the beaches the entire time the Allies were fighting to get off them, with artillery and aircraft shelling, bombing and strafing the troops there without mercy. And Hitler’s pause order certainly didn’t influence the weather in France. Even the most ardent white supremacist has to acknowledge that Adolf Hitler couldn’t make clouds appear.
Finally, the idea that Hitler ordered a grand stand down of his troops is deflated by one simple fact: the pause order didn’t actually originate with Hitler. It was first given by General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A, which was the large force fighting in western France. In turn, the pause was requested by von Rundstedt’s tank unit commander, who had lost 50% of his armored forces and needed time to regroup.
The order went, to von Rundstedt, who thought the Luftwaffe could deal with the British while he turned toward Paris and won heroism for himself. He passed it up to Hitler, who rubber stamped it, and the order was given. German generals vociferously blamed Hitler for the British miracle after the war, including von Rundstedt, who placed the whole debacle at Hitler’s feet.
Dunkirk was a stunning victory pulled out of the jaws of defeat. The massive losses in material that the Allies suffered were quickly replaced, and soon, the same British troops that had escaped one beach would be landing on other Nazi-held beaches across Europe. And they escaped disaster at Dunkirk through tenacity, courage and a little luck, not through any gracious gesture of Adolf Hitler.