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Why Hitler Let the British Escape at Dunkirk

1,474 words

[1]Editor’s Note:

B. H. Liddell Hart was a highly-acclaimed English soldier, military historian, and military theorist, and a prolific author. The following text is excerpted from his book The Other Side of the Hill: Germany’s Generals, their Rise and Fall, with their own Account of Military Events 1939–1945 (London: Cassell, 1948), chapter 10, “How Hitler Beat France—and Saved England,” pp. 13943. The title is editorial.—Greg Johnson 

Hitler’s Halt Order

On wheeling north, Guderian’s Panzer Corps headed for Calais while Reinhardt’s swept west of Arras towards St. Omer and Dunkirk. On the 22nd, Boulogne was isolated by Guderian’s advance, and next day Calais. That same day Reinhardt reached the Aire-St Omer Canal, less than twenty miles from Dunkirk — the only escape port left to the B.E.F. [British Expeditionary Force]. The German armoured forces were much nearer to it than the bulk of the B.E.F.

“At that moment,” Rundstedt told me, “a sudden telephone call came from Colonel von Grieffenberg at O.K.H. [German headquarters], saying that Kleist’s forces were to halt on the line of the canal. It was the Fuhrer’s direct order—and contrary to General Halder’s view. I questioned it in a message of protest, but received a curt telegram in reply, saying: ‘The armoured divisions are to remain at medium artillery range from Dunkirk’ (a distance of eight or nine miles). ‘Permission is only granted for reconnaissance and protective movements’.”

Kleist said that when he got the order it seemed to make no sense to him. “I decided to ignore it, and to push on across the Canal. My armoured cars actually entered Hazebrouck, and cut across the British lines of retreat. I heard later that the British Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gort, had been in Hazebrouck at the time. But then came a more emphatic order that I was to withdraw behind the canal. My tanks were kept halted there for three days.”

Thoma, who was chief of the tank side of the General Staff, told me that he was right up forward with the leading tanks, near Bergues, where he could look into the town of Dunkirk itself. He sent back wireless messages direct to O.K.H., begging for permission to let the tanks push on. But his appeal had no effect. Referring to Hitler’s attitude, he bitingly remarked: “You can never talk to a fool. Hitler spoilt the chance of victory ”

Meanwhile the British forces streamed back towards Dunkirk, and cemented a defensive position to cover their re-embarkation. The German tank commanders had to sit and watch the British slipping away under their very nose.

“After three days the ban was lifted,” Kleist said, “and the advance was resumed—against stiffening opposition. It had just begun to make headway when it was interrupted by a fresh order from Hitler—that my forces were to be withdrawn, and sent southward for the attack on the line that the remainder of the French Army had improvised along the Somme. It was left to the infantry forces which had come down from Belgium to complete the occupation of Dunkirk—after the British had gone.”


Hitler’s Reasons

A few days later Kleist met Hitler on the airfield at Cambrai, and ventured to remark that a great opportunity had been lost of reaching Dunkirk before the British escaped. Hitler replied, ”That may be so. But I did not want to send the tanks into the Flanders marshes—and the British won’t come back in this war.”

To others Hitler gave a somewhat different excuse—that so many of the tanks had fallen out from mechanical breakdowns that he wanted to build up his strength and reconnoitre the position before pushing on. He also explained that he wanted to be sure of having sufficient tanks in hand for the subsequent offensive against the rest of the French Army.

I found that most of the generals, including Kleist, had accepted these explanations with little question, though they were sore about the decision that had deprived them of complete victory. They felt that Hitler’s anxiety about the marshy ground was exaggerated, and were convinced that they could have easily avoided it. They knew that lots of fresh tanks had been arriving daily to replace wastage. Nevertheless, Hitler’s decision was assumed to be purely an error of judgment or excess of caution.

But certain members of Rundstedt’s staff regarded the excuses as thin, and believed that Hitler had a deeper motive for his halt order. They connected it with the surprising way he had talked when visiting their headquarters at Charleville on May 24th, the day after the armoured forces had been halted in their stride.

Hitler was accompanied by only one of his staff, and talked in private to Rundstedt and the two key men of his staff—Sodenstern and Blumentritt. Here is what the latter told me—”Hitler was in very good humour, he admitted that the course of the campaign had been ‘a decided miracle’, and gave us his opinion that the war would be finished in six weeks. After that he wished to conclude a reasonable peace with France, and then the way would be free for an agreement with Britain.

“He then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and of the civilization that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked, with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of its Empire had been achieved by means that were often harsh, but ‘where there is planing, there are shavings flying’. He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church—saying they were both essential elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany’s position on the Continent. The return of Germany’s lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere. He remarked that the colonies were primarily a matter of prestige, since they could not be held in war, and few Germans could settle in the tropics.

“He concluded by saying that his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.

“Field-Marshal von Rundstedt, who was always for agreement with France and Britain, expressed his satisfaction, and later, after Hitler’s departure, remarked with a sigh of relief—‘Well if he wants nothing else, then we shall have peace at last’.”

When Hitler continued to keep on the brake, Blumentritt’s thoughts ran back to this conversation. He felt that the “halt had been called for more than military reasons, and that it was part of a political scheme to make peace easier to reach. If the British Army had been captured at Dunkirk, the British people might have felt that their honour had suffered a stain which they must wipe out. By letting it escape Hitler hoped to conciliate them.”

This conviction of Hitler’s deeper motive was confirmed by his strangely dilatory attitude over the subsequent plans for the invasion of England. “He showed little interest in the plans,” Blumentritt said, “and made no effort to speed up the preparations. That was utterly different to his usual behaviour.” Before the invasion of Poland, of France, and later of Russia, he repeatedly spurred them on. But on this occasion he sat back.

Since the account of his conversation at Charleville and subsequent holding back comes from a section of the generals who had long distrusted Hitler’s policy and became more hostile to him as the war continued, that makes their testimony on this point more notable. They have criticized Hitler on almost every score. It would be natural to expect, that, in the present circumstances, they would portray him as intent on the capture of the British Army, and themselves as holding him back. Their evidence has the opposite effect. They very honestly admit that, as soldiers, they wanted to finish off their victory, and were upset at the way they were checked from doing so. Significantly, their account of Hitler’s thoughts about England at the decisive hour before Dunkirk fits in with much that he himself wrote earlier in Mein Kampf—and it is remarkable how closely he followed his own bible in other respects.

Was this attitude of his towards England prompted only by the political idea, which he had long entertained, of securing an alliance with her? Or was it inspired by a deeper feeling which reasserted itself at this crucial moment? There were some complex elements in his make-up which suggest that he had a mixed love-hate feeling towards England similar to the Kaiser’s.

Whatever be the true explanation, we can at least be content with the result. For his hesitations came to Britain’s rescue at the most critical moment of her history.