HISTORY

Dunkirk, the last great mystery of World War II

Why did Hitler allow British troops to return home after their defeat in France in May 1940?

The battle of Dunkirk remains one of the great mysteries of World War II. Why did Hitler order his troops to stop attacking an army in retreat, and in many cases aboard unprotected ships? Historians still argue about this crucial episode in the conflict that consumed Europe between 1939 and 1945. The Germans began the war on September 1, 1939 when they invaded Poland. The Allies, France and the United Kingdom, opened hostilities, ushering in what was called the phony war.

Supposedly protected by the Maginot Line, France and Britain faced off against Germany, but there was no fighting. Then in May of 1940, German tanks launched an unstoppable offensive, cutting through the Allied defenses like a hot knife through butter. By June 11, Paris had been abandoned by the French authorities and was an open city.

Aware of the disaster about to overwhelm them, British forces began preparing to evacuate France toward the end of May. This is the subject of British director Christopher Nolan’s latest movie, Dunkirk. “The British government, anticipating these events, began to assemble a fleet, consisting of almost any boats and ships that could be found along the English coast,” writes Richard J. Evans in his 2008 book The Third Reich at War.

If we don’t continue, the English will transport what they like, under our very noses German Field Marshall Fedor von Bock

Despite attacks by the German air force, 700 boats reached the beaches of Dunkirk to help take as many soldiers back to Britain as possible. Some 340,000 troops made it home, thanks to Hitler personally ordering the offensive to halt, against the opinion of many of his generals. “If we don’t continue, the English will transport what they like, under our very noses,” said Field Marshall Fedor von Bock. When the Germans resumed the offensive, it was too late and the evacuation had been a success.

Did Hitler wish to save his troops so they could reach Paris as soon as possible? Was he over-confident of his powers after the successes of the blitzkriegs of 1939 and 1940? Did he intend to reach agreement with the British before beginning the next phase of the conflict with the invasion of the Soviet Union? Or did he once again reveal his incompetence as a strategist? We will never know. The reality is that on June 6, 1944, some of the soldiers who had been plucked from the beaches of Dunkirk landed in Normandy to defeat Germany once and for all and exact their revenge.

English version by Nick Lyne.

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