The Day Hitler Blinked
Here is another “sneak peek” from my forthcoming new book, Warlord, a biography of Winston Churchill’s astonishing military career – from his youth through World War II. Last month recounted one of Churchill’s first military decisions, resulting in the dramatic rescue of 299 British merchant seaman held in foul conditions for some three months as POWs aboard the German supply vessel Altmark. They were headed for captivity in Germany and a prize Hitler intended to trumpet to the world; however, thanks to Churchill and the initiative of the Royal Navy, the Altmark returned to Germany empty-handed.
In late May 1940 there was another unusual incident. In this one, Adolf Hitler snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in one of the war’s lesser-known incidents, one that had enormous consequences for both Germany and Britain.
When Hitler’s armies invaded the West on May 10, 1940, Denmark and most of Norway were under Nazi control. The massive German invasion in May was aimed at conquering the free nations of France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. Hitler never planned for a long war in the West nor did he particularly wish to have to fight Britain any longer than necessary. He envisioned a defeated Britain suing for peace, thus leaving a defeated Europe under Nazi control. Although the Germans planned for and were on the verge of executing an invasion of Britain (Operation Sealion) in September, Hitler was never enthusiastic at the prospect. However, when the Luftwaffe failed to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain and pave the way, Sealion was later called off. Had Hitler acted differently Sealion might well have taken place and Britain turned into another German conquest, but as Bevin Alexander has pointed out in his excellent article on Hitler in the September 2006 issue of Armchair General, two weeks before Sealion was to have taken place, he had already decided to forego the invasion and instead to invade Russia.
By May 25, 1940, German spearheads had reached the English Channel at several points. Boulogne fell and Calais was soon under siege by the 10th Panzer Division. Gen. Lord Gort’s British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French Fourth Army had been compressed into a rapidly narrowing sector of Flanders and were like toothpaste trapped inside a tube some sixty miles in length and varying from fifteen to twenty-five miles in width that was rapidly being squeezed shut by the combined might of two German army groups.
That evening, Gort decided on his own initiative to attempt to evacuate the BEF. With several panzer divisions closer to Dunkirk than the BEF, Gort rated the odds of successfully evacuating his force as very slim. Moreover, to successfully evacuate the BEF and French forces from Dunkirk, where the Luftwaffe had reduced most of the port facilities to rubble, required a covering force to hold open the corridor to the port.
With Churchill’s agreement, on May 26 the British War Office validated Gort’s decision that the BEF must be brought home. The only question remaining was could it even be saved. The conditions for its successful return to England could not have been more unpromising. No one, not Churchill, nor Gort, nor anyone else in a position of authority, believed that anything more than a fraction of the BEF could successfully be evacuated while under attack. Churchill thought 45,000 men was about the best that could be achieved.
The four divisions of Lt. Gen. Alan Brooke’s II Corps provided a shield as the rest of the BEF began retreating to Dunkirk. On the BEF flank, the French Fourth Army began a similar retreat. A disaster seemed inevitable. Then, there occurred one of those events that changed the course of the war.
During the crucial battles in May and early June 1940 both Hitler and Churchill made far-reaching, strategically important decisions that affected not only the current state of the war, but perhaps its eventual outcome. On May 24, with the entire BEF and thousands of French troops within his grasp, Hitler blinked and dithered, and thereby committed the cardinal sin of violating an important precept of war: never let up when you have your enemy by the throat. With the Germans on the verge of closing the trap at Dunkirk, all that remained was to continue squeezing shut the funnel. Amazingly, however, the unparalleled advance of his armies unnerved the Führer, who seemed unable to cope with the success of his panzers. To the dismay of some — but not all — of his commanders, Hitler pulled hard on the reins, convinced without any evidence to the contrary, that their rapid advance was somehow threatening. Although his spearheads were only some fifteen miles outside of Dunkirk, on the morning of May 24, Hitler halted them.
Weary British troops wade out from the Dunkirk beach
towards ships waiting to take them home
The decision to halt the panzers instead of attacking and crushing the BEF and French forces trapped in the cordon was, according to the Führer’s Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicholaus von Below, “strongly influenced by the manipulative Hermann Göring, who saw the chance for his airmen to strike a decisive blow against Britain. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the Luftwaffe. I must speak to Hitler at once,” he excitedly declared the afternoon of May 23 upon learning of the situation in Flanders. According to Gen. Walter Warlimont (the deputy chief of the Operations Staff of the High command of the armed forces, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht – OKW), when he reached him on the telephone Göring “used every sort of language to persuade Hitler that this was a unique opportunity for his Air Force. If the Fuhrer would give the order . . . he would be given an unconditional assurance that he would annihilate the remnants of the enemy; all he wanted, he said, was a free run; in other words, the tanks must be withdrawn sufficiently far from the western side of the pocket to ensure that they were not in danger from our own bombing.” Warlimont thought, “Hitler was quick as Göring to approve the plan without further consideration.” (1) Von Below has recorded that while Hitler was not altogether convinced by Göring’s arguments, “it suited his plans.” (2)
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