Dunkirk: Victory or Defeat?

By Wilson, Patrick | History Review, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Dunkirk: Victory or Defeat?


Wilson, Patrick, History Review


Patrick Wilson assesses the importance of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of allied forces from the beaches at Dunkirk.

`So long ax 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 crated 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 tact 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 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.

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