Dunkirk: Victory or Defeat?

Patrick Wilson assesses the importance of Operation Dynamo.

Isle of Man Steam Packet Company vessel Mona's Queen shortly after striking a mine on the approach to Dunkirk. 29 May 1940.


‘So long as the English tongue survives, the word Dunkirk will be spoken with reverence. In that harbour, such a hell on earth as never blazed before, at the end of a lost battle, the rags and blemishes that had hidden the soul of democracy fell away. There, beaten but unconquered, in shining splendour, she faced the enemy, this shining thing in the souls of free men, which Hitler cannot command. It is in the great tradition of democracy. It is a future. It is victory.

New York Times, 1 June 1940

‘For us Germans the word “Dunkirchen” will stand for all time for victory in the greatest battle of annihilation in history. But, for the British and French who were there, it will remind them for the rest of their lives of a defeat that was heavier than any army had ever suffered before.’

Der Adler, 5 June 1940


Few of the men in German Sixth Army, as they marched tentatively into the smoking ruins of Dunkirk on 4 June 1940, could have envisaged that the war would last another five years and that they would end up on the losing side. The British had capitulated and not even their subsequent remarkable evacuation could hide the scale of their defeat. Dishevelled, weary and weaponless, the men of the BEF arrived back in England. Britain’s material losses during the campaign had been astounding, with its army’s stores and equipment strewn around Northern France. The Navy too had paid a heavy price for its heroics. Six destroyers, five minesweepers, eight transport ships and a further 200 vessels had been sunk, with an equal number badly damaged.

British casualties amounted to 68,000, while French losses totalled around 290,000 with many more than that either missing or taken prisoner. German casualties, on the other hand, amounted to 27,074 killed and 111,034 wounded. The statistics tell the story. Hitler had reason to be pleased with his forces, whose tactics, skill and fighting prowess had led to such a rout. His Order of the Day on 5 June stated:

 ‘Soldiers of the West Front! Dunkirk has fallen … with it has ended the greatest battle in world history. Soldiers! My confidence in you knows no bounds. You have not disappointed me.’  

On the other side of the Channel Churchill, too, was praising the efforts of his forces whilst warning that ‘We must be very careful not to assign to this the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations’.

Nevertheless the fact remained that, though Germany had achieved a total victory, Britain had not suffered a complete defeat. Churchill had predicted that 30,000 men could be lifted off, whilst Admiral Ramsay had hoped for 45,000. To everyone’s astonishment the vast bulk of the army (around 330,000 men) had been rescued, and while Britain still had an army there was hope. The miracle of this deliverance lies in the number of extraordinary factors that made it possible. The decision of Gort (the commander of the BEF) to ignore Churchill and the French commanders and head to the coast, the halt order, the weather, the survival of the Eastern Mole (the pier from which the majority of troops were evacuated), and the incredible determination of the Royal Navy, all combined to save the BEF. General Guderian later reflected, ‘What the future of the war would have been like if we had succeeded in taking the British Expeditionary Force prisoners at Dunkirk is now impossible to guess.’

If Britain had Surrendered

It seems almost certain that, if the evacuation from Dunkirk had not taken place, Churchill, with a quarter of a million men in captivity, would have been left with little option but to bow to pressure for peace terms to be signed. Without a large amount of its professional army, it is hard to see how Britain could have recovered. In fact, Hitler never wished to enter into a war with Britain. He admired the country whose Empire he believed powerfully reinforced his ideas of racial domination, commenting that ‘To maintain their Empire they need a strong continental power at their side. Only Germany can be that power.’ After Dunkirk, however, he was stunned to find that his ‘sensible peace arrangements’ were continuously and categorically rejected. Even as late as 6 July Hitler insisted that the invasion of Britain would only be tried as a last resort ‘if it cannot be made to sue for peace any other way’.

If the evacuation attempt had failed and Hitler’s lenient peace treaty had been accepted, the outcome of the war would of course have been vastly different. Germany would have had extra resources – including the 40 divisions which Britain’s continued hostility required in Africa and on the Atlantic Wall, as well as the 1,882 aircraft, and their experienced pilots and bomber crews, which were lost over Britain in the coming months. Faced by a Germany buoyed with these additional forces, Russia almost certainly would have fallen. Indeed, even without them the Germans managed to reach the outer defences of an evacuated Moscow by the first winter of the campaign, and that was after the fateful decision to delay the start of Operation Barbarossa until June 1941.

American support

As significantly, Dunkirk aroused American sentiment. Epic accounts of the evacuation captured the public imagination and generated the first overt signs of popular and governmental support for Britain. The Washington Evening Star, the day after Dynamo’s conclusion, argued that ‘It is a matter of inestimable importance to our own security that we should instantly remove all restrictions on the rendering of realistic, material aid to the Allies’. If Dunkirk had failed, if Britain had signed peace terms or if it had shown any signs of having its spirit broken, then the USA would have been much less prepared to enter what was essentially a European war. As it was, the effects of Dunkirk were instantaneous, and by mid-June some half a million rifles were on their way across the Atlantic. The whole episode, and Britain’s reaction following it, had proved the resolve of the nation, which Churchill’s speech further highlighted when he promised that Britain would preserve ‘the whole world, including the United States’ from sinking ‘into the abyss of a new Dark Age’.

This was vital. As US Secretary of State Cordell Hull later commented, ‘Had we any doubt of Britain’s determination to keep on fighting we would not have taken steps to get material aid to her.’ If this is the case then one can be absolutely certain that the USA would not have later provided Communist Russia with vital supplies. Yet if Dunkirk was to help gain Britain one ally, it lost her another. At 8.50 am on 22 June France signed an armistice in the same wagon-lit at Rethondes, near Compiègne, where in November 1918 Marshal Foch had received the defeated German emissaries. Karl Heinz Mende summed up German feeling when he wrote home, ‘The great battle in France is now ended. It lasted twenty-six years’. The revenge was complete and, following General Huntziger’s signature, the site was razed.

A stunned French public could do little but bear witness to the speed of their country’s collapse. Yet France searched for a scapegoat. Dunkirk had left the French feeling abandoned and embittered towards their Entente partner and crude propaganda pouring out from Goebbels’ bureau in Berlin further fuelled the flames of resentment. Stories of British troops forcing French soldiers out of boats and off the Mole abounded. The fact that over 102,000 of the 123,000 French troops rescued were lifted off by British vessels was ignored.

Britain alone

Desperate attempts prior to the Armistice on 22 June were made to keep the Alliance together. Indeed on 16 June De Gaulle and Churchill had signed a ‘Declaration of Union’. It did little, however, to disguise the mistrust and disillusionment that both nations now felt for each other. Britain had learnt the lesson that it should never again rely on other people’s forces, and its post-war policy of building up an ‘independent deterrent’ of atomic weaponry reflected this. France, on the other hand, felt that Britain could not be relied upon militarily or economically if the going got tough. It was no coincidence that it was France, under De Gaulle, which vetoed Britain’s applications to join the Common Market in the 1960s.

In June 1940 Britain stood alone. For some, this was rather a relief. King George VI reflected such a sentiment in a letter to his mother, Queen Mary, on 27 June when he wrote, ‘Personally I feel happier we have no allies to be polite to and to pamper’. A number of Generals, after their experiences in France, felt the same way. Churchillian grandiloquence played upon this ‘Britain alone’ theme: ‘What has happened in France makes no difference to our actions and purpose. We have become the sole champions in arms to defend the world cause.’ His rallying cries made an instant impression. Dunkirk had proved, with its much publicised civilian participation, that the war was more than a conflict between armies on the continent, the outcome of which the public were powerless to determine. The threat of invasion, along with the necessary myth of an army saved by the ‘little boats’, brought a nation together. A sense of involvement that had been lacking since the declaration of war now burst forth. Britain had sleep-walked into the war and it took the reverses in France and the evacuation to wake her from the complacency and over-confidence that existed prior to those events. Essentially, Dunkirk provided Britain with a second chance that had to be seized.

Churchill’s reputation

Churchill’s leadership of the country had been doubted prior to the evacuation. Many, including Chamberlain, had favoured the less contentious Halifax. General Ironside believed that Churchill did not have ‘the stability for guiding others’. John Colville, a junior member of the prime ministerial staff, observed that:

 ‘The mere thought of Churchill as Prime Minister sends a cold chill down the spines of the staff at 10 Downing Street ... His verbosity and restlessness made unnecessary work, prevented real planning and caused friction. Our feelings were widely shared in the Cabinet Office, the Treasury and throughout Whitehall.’  

After Dunkirk his leadership was never questioned. The eloquence of his patriotic and determined rhetoric captured the mood of the nation and inspired the citizens of Britain to unwavering defiance of the Nazi peril.

Preparations for the defence of the island were instantaneous. By mid-July over a million men had enrolled in the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV). Roadblocks and pillboxes sprang up everywhere, signposts were rearranged or removed, barbed wire and beach fortifications were laid. This was total war. The country braced itself for imminent invasion. Copies of Hitler’s peace offer made no impression on a people determined that, as Churchill put it, ‘If the British Empire and its Commonwealth for last a thousand years, men will still say “This was their finest hour”.’

The Invasion of Britain

By 16 July Hitler had lost patience. In Directive No 126 he stated, ‘As England, in spite of the hopelessness of her position, has so far shown herself unwilling to come to any compromise, I have decided to begin to prepare for, and if necessary carry out, an invasion of Britain’. But Hitler had, to borrow Chamberlain’s earlier phrase, ‘missed the bus’. It seems highly unlikely that Britain could have resisted a German invasion in early June. Churchill knew this and after his ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech, reportedly covered up the BBC microphone and said, ‘but we’ve only got bottles to do so’. Certainly the BEF was in no position to fight. On their return, brigades existed as names only and the nation, dazed by recent events, had virtually no preparations in place. The recently created LDV units, with pitch forks and the odd shotgun, would have provided little more than a spirited but futile resistance.

The depleted Navy, as well as the RAF, was Britain’s only hope, but the numerical supremacy of the Nazi forces provided Germany with a massive advantage. Hitler’s decision to delay gave the country much-needed time to prepare. He refused to listen to his Generals. The only man who might have persuaded him otherwise was General Kurt Student, founder of Germany’s airborne forces, who had worked out a plan for an airborne assault on Britain well before the invasion of France had begun. However, Student had been seriously wounded in Rotterdam. In the end, Operation Sea Lion was never attempted. Years later Student remained convinced that it could have been successful if it had taken place immediately after Dunkirk: ‘Had we launched an airborne operation to occupy the ports where the BEF was disembarking, England’s fate would have been sealed.’

Hitler’s infallibility

An often-neglected consequence of the fighting leading up to Dunkirk was the effect it had on Hitler himself. His undeniably successful tactic of attacking through the Ardennes and his firm support of blitzkrieg tactics instilled a belief in him that as a military commander he was infallible. Hitler, the First World War Corporal, had proved that the caution of his Wehrmacht Generals was unfounded. Increasingly after Dunkirk, he made decisions that would have been best left to his commanders, and this was to have catastrophic effects during the Russian campaign.

The successful evacuation from Dunkirk was brushed aside. Had not the mighty France fallen? Hitler had defeated the great warrior nation with ease and, with the same ill founded optimism of Napoleon before him, he could see no reason why a similar lightning campaign in Russia would not have equal success. Such was his confidence that as Britain awoke to the reality and necessity of ‘total’ war following Dunkirk, Hitler actually began demobilising part of his own force and reduced his war productions.

The myth of Dunkirk

All too often people just think of Dunkirk as the time when scores of patriotic citizens leapt into their small craft to aid their army in its hour of need. Certainly this occurred, but the truth is that most of the small craft were in the hands of a wide assortment of Naval personnel. Rarely do people think about the defence of the soldiers on the perimeter and strongpoints; nor do they give enough credit to the Royal Navy and the larger vessels that were responsible for rescuing the massive majority of troops. Dunkirk became a necessary myth, but its importance in shaping the course of World War Two has been vastly underestimated. Dunkirk was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich.

Patrick Wilson teaches History at Bradfield College, Reading. His book Dunkirk - From Disaster to Deliverance is published by Pen & Sword.

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