The Germans put into effect the invasion of Holland, Belgium and France on the 10th May 1940. The United Kingdom sent the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to aid in the defence of France in September 1939.
During the 1930s the French had constructed as a series of fortifications along the French –German border known as the Maginot Line. The area to the north of the Maginot Line, was the Ardennes Forest which was considered to be impassable and therefore was only lightly defended.
The Luftwaffe was the dominant air force, with the French Air Force too small to resist and most of Britain’s RAF Fighter Command at home awaiting the inevitable attack on Britain. German air forces attacked towns in Holland, Belgium and Northern France on the 10th May 1940.
The German Army attacked through the Ardennes establishing bridgeheads along the Meuse River and rapidly drove toward the English Channel. The BEF advanced to meet the German Panzers but were overwhelmed and ordered to begin a fighting retreat to the Scheldt River on 14th May 1940, after the Belgian and French position on the flanks failed to hold.
On his visit to Paris on the 17th May 1940 English Prime Minister Winston Churchill was astonished to learn that the French had no reserve forces as they had committed all their troops to the ongoing engagement, and there were no troops between the Germans and the sea. By the 21st May 1940 German forces had the Allied Armies trapped along the Northern coast of France. Evacuation across the channel was seen as the best course of action. Dunkirk was the closest port for evacuation and a withdrawal was planned.
Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsey headed the planning from his naval headquarters below Dover Castle, with Churchill being informed of every step. Ships began gathering at Dover. Brigadier Gerald Whitfield had been sent to Dunkirk to begin the evacuation and he found the area to be in utter chaos. On the 22nd May 1940, Churchill ordered the BEF to attack southward in co-ordination with the French First Army to reconnect with the remaining French forces. On the 25th May 1940, the BEF had abandoned any hope of achieving this objective and withdrew behind the Lys Canal. The canal sluice gates had been opened to create a barrier against the German advance.
By the 24th May 1940, the Germans had captured the port of Boulogne and surrounded Calais. German engineers built five bridges over the Canal Line and only one British battalion barred the way to Dunkirk. With Adolf Hitler’s endorsement the panzer units were ordered to halt. Air Marshall Hermann Göring urged Hitler to let the Luftwaffe finish off the British. Later that day, Hitler issued a directive to that effect. At 15.30 pm on the 26th May 1940, Hitler ordered the panzer groups to continue their advance, but most of the units took another sixteen hours to attack. The delay gave the Allies time to prepare defences vital for the evacuation.
Just before 19.00 pm on the 26th May 1940, Churchill ordered Dynamo to begin, by which time 28,000 troops had already departed. Initial plans called for the recovery of 45,000 men from the BEF within two days, at which time German troops were expected to block further evacuation. Only 25,000 men escaped during this period, including 7,669 on the first day. Abandoned vehicles with floods of refugees heading in the opposite direction created chaotic conditions for the retreat. On the 27th May 1940, the first full day of the evacuation, one cruiser, eight destroyers and twenty six other craft were active. Admiralty officers combed nearby boatyards for small craft that could ferry personnel to larger craft in the harbour. An emergency call was put out for additional help, and by the 31st May 1940 nearly four hundred “little ships” were voluntarily taking part in the effort.
Both the town and dock installations of Dunkirk were heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe on the same day. The Luftwaffe was met by RAF squadrons of fighters who inflicted considerable damage to the German bombers. The troops on the beaches were mostly unaware of the RAF efforts to protect them, as they were generally fought inland. The troops accused the airmen of doing nothing to help them when German aircraft were bombing and strafing the beaches. By the 4th June 1940 over 338,000 Allied troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. A flotilla of ”little ships” ferried the troops from the beaches to the larger vessels anchored offshore. Nearly 700 British ships were involved in the evacuation of which 226 were sunk.
In a speech to the House of Commons on the 4th June 1940, Churchill made a point that the evacuation had been made possible through the efforts of the RAF during his we shall fight the on the beaches speech. He also reminded the nation that “wars are not won by evacuations”. This speech was delivered to counteract the British press headlines of a “disaster turned to victory”.
After the Dunkirk evacuations, south of the Somme, three British divisions together with logistic and labour troops were cut off by the Germans. In order to try establishing a Second BEF further troops were moved to France. The BEF were forced to retreat to the coast where almost 192,000 Allied personnel were evacuated through various French ports from the 15th to the 25th June 1940 under the codename Operation Ariel. The 51st Highland Infantry Division became separated and were forced to surrender, in order to avoid more unnecessary losses, on the 12th June 1940.
The Germans marched into Paris on the 14th June 1940 and France surrendered eight days later.
Why did Hitler order his forces to halt, and was it a major German mistake on the Western Front? Many discussions by historians suggest that Hitler was convinced that once Britain’s troops left continental Europe, they would never return.