Historians are fond of selecting moments in history which stand out as pivotal when viewed against the whole of an historic event. Looking back from the vantage point of the here and now upon the gigantic and sprawling landscape of World War II, there are dozens of such “moments”; strategic decisions, the fortunes of battle or entire campaigns which can be seen as “turning points”; events which – while not alone determining the outcome – signaled a significant change in momentum or direction. Some of these moments were not so much of military as political and social importance. One of the most ignominious Allied defeats of the entire war in fact was to become the rallying point which would galvanize the English people and ultimately, their American cousins.
In May 1940, a year of inaction known as the Phony War in Europe came to an explosive conclusion as Nazi Germany launched its Blitzkrieg (or Lightening War) against the West with the invasion and swift conquest of Belgium and The Netherlands. It took Hitler’s mechanized armies only 43 days to race across France, dividing and emasculating a superior (on paper) force of French, Belgian, Polish and English defenders. By the end of May, the whole of the surviving British Expeditionary Force (BEF) together with some of their allies had been driven into a small pocket north of Calais on the French channel coast.
After the surrender on May 24th of most French and Belgian forces outside the “pocket” British General Lord Gort saw an evacuation from the beaches of Dunkirk as the only way of saving his men from capture and death. Two German Panzer Divisions were poised to challenge any such hope however, and the picture for embattled England was grim. To complicate matters even further, British warships already sunk in the harbor approaches to Dunkirk effectively blocked the waiting Destroyers from reaching the beach-bound troops.
For reasons scholars and military historians still can’t agree on, Hitler issued orders holding back for four crucial days the waiting Panzer Divisions from what should have been an easy tactical coups. He may have succumbed to Reichsmarshal Goering’s claim that the fabled (but over-rated) Stukas of his Luftwaffe could make easy work of victory with their bombing and strafing attacks on the beaches. More likely, he realized the tanks and armored vehicles of the Panzers were badly in need of repairs and refueling, and were close to exhausting a supply line which they had badly outdistanced in their five-week Blitzkrieg. What is doubtful, but still believed by some, is that Hitler was still hoping to offer an “olive branch” to Churchill in favor of a negotiated end of hostilities with England. What actually took place was Operation Dynamo, the mass evacuation of 338,600 fighting men from Dunkirk’s shallow sandy beaches, and the salvation of Great Britain’s war-making potential.
A large part of what turned a major debacle into Churchill’s proclaimed “Miracle” was an endless convoy of mostly-civilian-owned shallow-draft boats and vessels, from sailing skiffs and private motor yachts, to fishing trawlers and barges ferrying thousands of men either to waiting Destroyers or all the way across the channel. On May 30-31, a record 121,000 made that one-way trip, despite the constant harassment of strafing aircraft.
Not so much mentioned by England’s enthusiastic media was what had been left behind: 200,000 guns, 60,000 trucks, 76,000 tons of ammunition and 600,000 tons of fuel and supplies. On the other hand, what had been saved was a cadre of experienced and savvy fighting men who would help to forge a victory which was still five years distant, and the fighting spirit of the English people themselves.
What If. What if Hitler had not held back those Panzer Divisions? What if Dunkirk had become an unmitigated disaster? What if Parliament had thrown out the newly and reluctantly-appointed Prime Minister, and Churchill had been replaced by the negotiation-minded Lord Halifax?
Hitler would have been able to give up the perceived necessity of invading and occupying Great Britain as he did France. With England – and with it America– removed from the “world chess board” as an immediate threat, he would have been able to invade Russia and the Soviet Republics a full year earlier, with only a one-front war, and with weather conditions more in his favor. Today’s world would look very different.