Dunkirk: Saving the British Expeditionary Force, but not France

Last week, AT contributor Steve Feinstein wrote about the British Supermarine Spitfire at Dunkirk.  He postulates that Air Marshal Lord Hugh Dowding made the decision to withhold deployment of Spitfires to the continent, feeling they would be needed for the defense of British Isles and would be wasted in a futile effort in the Battle for France.  (This point is debatable, considering that the vast majority of aircraft in Fighter Command was the sturdy and reliable Hawker Hurricane.)  However, evidence shows that this attitude was mirrored in the use – or not – of British ground forces during the battle, where they were perhaps withdrawn based upon a similar notion for saving these forces for a later fight.

First, I'll clear up some misconceptions.

The Campaign in Poland

The Germans' campaign to defeat Poland was completed not in a matter of a "few short weeks."  It was about five weeks of extremely tough fighting.  The Germans had already gained a positional advantage by having forces attack from the west and from the north out of East Prussia.  In addition, Slovak allies attacked from the south.  Then, on 17 September 1939, the USSR attacked from the east.  Yet, despite the maneuver advantage and outnumbering the Poles in tanks and planes, the fight against the Poles lasted only about one and a half weeks less than the campaign in France and the Low Countries.  Also, the Germans lost over 16,000 men and 900 tanks.  The Luftwaffe lost 285 aircraft with 279 more damaged, while the Poles lost 333 aircraft.

So the Blitzkrieg theory was still that: a theory.  The Germans realized that Blitzkrieg tactics as developed by JFC Fuller on the plains of Salisbury were not always applicable to all-terrain types against a determined foe.  It also didn't help that some German units were ill disciplined, with a few units even refusing to fight the tough Poles.  In retrospect, we see now why there was a Phoney War, or Sitzkrieg.  This was not the time to rush precipitously into France, since it was the time needed by the Germans to retrain, refit, and replace incompetent commanders in preparation for the Battle of France.  There were three things the Germans did to fix the Blitzkrieg theory that would translate into a war-winning doctrine: emphasize mobile combined arms rather than armor breakthrough theory, develop robust communications, and hone air-ground integration.  Nevertheless, the campaign in the Low Countries and France was a lot closer than many think.

The French and BEF in the Low Countries

When Germany invaded the Netherlands and Belgium on the 10th of May, the French and British Expeditionary Force (BEF) dutifully reacted according to the Dyle Plan and moved their best formations to counter what they thought was the main threat.  In spite of their period of fixing lessons learned, the German Army found tough going in the Low Countries for several reasons.  The Dutch, for example, had correctly assumed that the way to secure the country's bridges over the numerous water obstacles was by airborne assault.  So they wisely developed mobile anti-aircraft units, which wreaked havoc among the German transport aircraft and escorting fighters.  The German victories in securing airfields and bridges were some of the costliest in the campaign for the Luftwaffe and the Wehrmacht.  Despite having a largely intact army, the Dutch government surrendered on 15 May, fearing German terror bombing of its cities more than any German ground attacks.

In Belgium, German air superiority was guaranteed by destroying the Belgian Air Force on the ground thanks to Luftwaffe aerial photo reconnaissance flights.  On 12 and 13 May, the French and Germans fought the largest tank battle in history, at the time, at the Battle of Hannut, which disabled about 160 German tanks to a loss of about 120 for the French.  Even though the Germans retained control of the battlefield, the fight was considered a French strategic victory in that it gained time for Allied troops in Belgium to move into good defensive positions.  The next day, the Germans attempted the only frontal attack of their armor against well fortified Allied positions and were beaten back by the 1st Moroccan Infantry division, resulting in a further loss of 42 Panzers.

The Coup de Grâce

The Germans' efforts in the Low Countries were having mixed results, yet they achieved their purpose by luring the French First Army and the BEF into a trap.  However, the breakthrough at Sedan in the South by Heinz Guderian's Panzer forces was another close thing.  The French in this sector overmatched Guderian's troops in artillery and held the high ground.  Understanding the problem of getting artillery moved to the front through the Ardennes, maneuvering around units already experiencing massive traffic jams, Guderian relied on the Luftwaffe to blast his way through.  Over 4,000 level bomber and dive bomber sorties were flown to blow a hole in the French positions.  Even then, some German Panzer formations were repulsed by a stubborn defense, but enough French units broke under the sustained bombardment to create the needed gap in the lines.  After a series of furious attacks and counter-attacks in the Sedan area that subsided on 17 May, Guderian was free to turn his Panzers loose toward the coast.

The French defeat at Sedan was more of a failure of leadership at the top rather than lack of fighting spirit in the units, but the German victories at Sedan and the Low Countries were dependent upon gaining and maintaining air superiority for airborne drops and for massive bombing raids on troop positions and civilians.  If Air Marshall Dowding had committed the Spitfires to blunt the Luftwaffe's operations, the BEF and the best of the French units in the Low Countries perhaps wouldn't have had to conduct an evacuation.  At the minimum, enough of a delay in the Germans' complex timetable would have allowed the Allied leadership to recover its senses and maneuver units to establish a coherent defensive scheme.

The question of a planned withholding of the Spitfires has also been raised by some historians in relation to the ground forces of the BEF.  On the 16th of May, Winston Churchill flew to Paris to personally assess the situation and found the French High Command in total disarray.  He attempted to bolster their spirits but was unable to do so.  To the north in Belgium, the BEF and the French had seen little fighting after the initial assaults in the Low Countries. 

Critics charge that it took until 20 May for German light armored reconnaissance units to close off supply routes to Allied units in the north and that no movement was made to counter-attack to the south by the best units the allies had.  Lord Gort, the BEF commander, had not heard from his French commander for eight days but apparently was satisfied to sit and wait for a much delayed counterattack order.  After the failed counterattack at Arras, on 23 May, Gort ordered the evacuation to Dunkirk.  The lack of proactive decision-making was a disease that infected the commander of the BEF as much as the French high command in Paris.  That was a fait accompli that forced the BEF withdrawal to "save" the BEF for later battles, much as the Spitfires were withheld for fighting over the Britain.

We will perhaps never know the true nature of the leaders' perception of the battle or their decision-making, but the popular conception of French softness vis-à-vis the British courage in the evacuation at Dunkirk needs to be re-thought.  Let's not forget that the best units of the French Army were in the North with the BEF and covered the British withdrawal to the coast and were evacuated along with them.  Four years later, the French came ashore on D-Day to help liberate their country.  In the end, we must ask, who shortchanged whom?

John Smith is the pen name of a former U.S. intelligence officer.