Historians are often insistent on amending imprecise accounts and replacing mythologized events with substantiated facts. Professional and amateur historians emphasize that in the study of history, the people and events are sufficiently interesting to not require amplification, especially if the result is inaccuracy. In that vein, Matt Broggie takes on the well-known WWII story of the evacuation of Dunkirk and corrects some common misperceptions.
The Dunkirk Evacuation Myths
By Matt Broggie
Historians have work to do dispelling three ubiquitous myths about Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of 338,226 soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force and its allies from France in May-June 1940. These misperceptions originated soon after the event took place and have been perpetuated the past 80 years by unscholarly publications, magazine articles, and more recently, television shows, YouTube videos, and Hollywood adaptations. The historicity of many World War II operations has suffered at the pens of amateur, lazy historians and screenwriters; the falsehoods of the “Miracle of Dunkirk” are among the most persistent.
The first myth states the embarkation of the BEF and its allies to England depended on hundreds of small civilian vessels to ferry them from the beach to naval ships offshore because Dunkirk’s harbor was completely destroyed by Luftwaffe bombers. Second, the Royal Air Force was unable, or unwilling, to protect Allied ground forces trapped by German panzer divisions in the pocket around Dunkirk. And lastly, perhaps least pervasive but no less egregious, on May 24 Hitler ordered the famous “halt order” to his lead panzer divisions due to racial sympathy for the Aryan-descended British soldiers and the hope of an Anglo-German peace agreement.
Dunkirk Myth #1: Evacuation of BEF and Allies to England Depended on Civilian Vessels
As Allied soldiers fled the German blitzkrieg in late May 1940, a defensive perimeter formed around the beaches near the port city Dunkirk. The port included an east pier and west pier at its mouth, capable of docking destroyers and cruisers. The interior of the harbor had numerous smaller piers, docks, and slips appropriate for small boats. During the nine days of Operation Dynamo (May 26-June 4), Dunkirk Harbor received extensive damage from Luftwaffe fighters and bombers. Despite the damage (and despite popular belief), the east and west piers and many of the smaller docks remained functional throughout the evacuation. In fact, 239,446 soldiers were lifted out of France through Dunkirk Harbor, and an additional 98,780 from the surrounding beaches.
Thus, the miraculous feat of the Dunkirk evacuation has less to do with the hundreds of brave civilians volunteering their services to ferry soldiers off the beach and more to do with Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay and his staff officer corps successfully executing the equivalent of a spontaneous Operation Overlord in reverse. Like Overlord, Dynamo included ironing out mountains of logistics. Even though Dunkirk Harbor was the primary place of embarkation, coordinating the array of ships entering and exiting the port became increasingly hazardous as the operation wore on. The continual threat of the Luftwaffe eventually halted daylight evacuation efforts from the harbor, forcing embarkation to take place under the cover of darkness. This further complicated the organizationof harbor traffic. Ships sunk or disabled by German planes required scuttling or towing to keep the harbor clear of wrecks. Meanwhile, thousands of allied soldiers steadily streamed into the Dunkirk pocket, hoping for passage to England.
The civilian volunteers and their “little ships” played an essential role in making Dynamo a success, but it’s time to also recognize that over 70 percent of the soldiers were lifted out of France from Dunkirk Harbor thanks to the efforts of the Royal Navy.
Dunkirk Myth #2: RAF Abandoned the Soldiers Awaiting Embarkation
Soldiers awaiting embarkation on the piers and docks in the harbor or on the beaches around Dunkirk endured strafing and harassment from German fighter pilots who seemingly held complete domination of the skies. However, because soldiers did not see the Royal Air Force overhead does not mean British pilots were not working tirelessly to protect their army counterparts. According to the Royal Navy’s official study of Dynamo, “there is no doubt that the R.A.F. carried out, as far as their available resources permitted, all the tasks which they were asked by the Navy to undertake.”
The reason why many soldiers felt abandoned by the RAF, and likely the source of the myth, was the fact that the majority of objectives assigned to British pilots were located miles from the Dunkirk pocket in order “to prevent or break up enemy raids before these reached the beaches and ships,” according to the naval study. Furthermore, as the evacuation got underway, British fighters were also tasked with protecting sea lanes used by ships transporting evacuated soldiers to England. The RAF committed patrols over Dunkirk as often as possible, but as indicated by the naval study, limited resources constrained airspace coverage. Nonetheless, the RAF flew hundreds of sorties each day of the operation and the RAF even deployed fighters from its Metropolitan Air Force, England’s last reserve air defense.
Whether soldiers on the ground realized it or not, the entire force of British airpower fought to get them home. Throughout the nine days of Operation Dynamo, the RAF shot down 240 Luftwaffe aircraft while losing 177 of their own.
Dunkirk Myth #3: Hitler Issued May 24 Halt Order Out of Sympathy for British and in Hopes of a Peace Agreement
Like the myths about the destruction of Dunkirk Harbor and the Royal Air Force, the historians must put to rest the myth that Hitler issued his May 24 halt order for his panzer divisions out of sympathy for the British and in hopes of a peace agreement.
When the offensive began on May 10, German armor acted as the tip of the spear. On May 23, Hitler received reports from Generals Gerd von Rundstedt and Paul von Kleist expressing the need to rest and refit their panzer divisions. As Allied forces were being corralled and pushed north towards the coast, French divisions established strong defensive positions that, so far, repelled all German thrusts into the pocket. Rumors also spread among German ground commanders of an impending Allied counterattack.
Rundstedt met Hitler in person on the morning of the 24thand expressed his concern about pushing his tanks into the Allies’ defensive perimeter and recommended the task be assigned to infantry forces, thereby preserving the tanks for future operations. Additionally, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring, had been requesting a chance for his pilots to make their impact in the battle and possibly destroy the retreating Allies with airpower. Making one of the most fateful mistakes of the war, Hitler agreed to hold his panzer divisions for 48 hours and granted Göring’s request. The plan failed thanks to RAF pilots who protected Allied ground forces and helped ensure the success of Dynamo.
Despite the misconception, Hitler’s halt order had nothing to do with racial sympathy or hope of a peace agreement; Hitler and many of his generals simply failed to recognize the reality of the situation on the battlefield, which led to a disastrous decision that allowed the Allies to escape to England.
Famous Battles Often Suffer Most From Neglectful, Exaggerated, and Misinformed History
Like all famous battles, Operation Dynamo has received extensive attention from World War II historians—professional and amateur alike. Unfortunately, it’s often famous battles that suffer the most from neglectful, exaggerated, and misinformed history. In the case of Dynamo, the narrow focus on the civilian contribution has dominated the history for 80 years, overlooking the Royal Navy’s contribution, which indisputably saved the British Expeditionary Force. Likewise, the belief that soldiers on the beach were abandoned to their fate by the RAF is an insult to the British pilots that fought and died protecting the Dunkirk pocket day after day throughout the operation. The halt order of May 24, 1940 is one of many misunderstood decisions made by Hitler during the war. Where the idea of Hitler’s racial sympathy for the British originated is unclear. In reality, the decision to stop the advance of the panzer divisions came from Rundstedt and Kleist, Hitler simply agreed with his generals’ concerns.
About Historian Matt Broggie
Matt Broggie has been working with Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours since the 70thAnniversary of D-Day in 2014. He has extensive knowledge of WWII battlefields and has been published in WWII History Magazine. Matt earned his B.A. in History from California Lutheran University and his M.A. in Military History from Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee. At Austin Peay he focused his study on WWII and wrote his thesis on the D-Day invasion of Utah Beach and the ensuing campaign to capture the port at Cherbourg. Matt graduated with honors and earned the distinguished graduate award in his class. He is a U.S. and World History professor at Austin Peay where he also teaches soldiers of the 101stAirborne Division through the university’s campus at Fort Campbell.