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LAURENCE REES: How crucial was the decision made by the Germans not to advance immediately into Dunkirk?

ROBERT CITINO: After the war there’s a school of historiography which grows up which attempts to attribute every problem the German Army had in the war to some defective decision of Adolf Hitler’s. Now that literature was largely being written by his former officers and so they were having their say. Hitler was not around any longer to defend himself, and very few people would want to step in to argue Hitler’s brief in 1950 or 1960 or frankly here in the 21st Century.  Hitler did order the army to halt before Dunkirk and there’s a number of reasons that are usually adduced for this. One is that he wished to allow Goering and the Luftwaffe to take care of the British Army by aerial bombing, another is his hesitance to strike that final blow against the British because that would then have blocked political settlement between Germany and Britain, and the fact that the Panzers were running out of gasoline as they made that lunge across Northern France. I think really we have here a case of a kind of perfect storm of hesitancy that was shared by both Hitler and the staff. To this we might also add some of the field commanders as well.

Actually the first halt order came not from Hitler but from one of the army group commanders, Rundstedt, who ordered a kind of closing up operation, that is for the long stretched out columns to come up to the frontline and present the full battle array rather than a thin crust of fighting elements and large marching columns behind them. When Hitler heard that he also found out that there was a disagreement within the Staff on that, amongst the field commanders. Hitler more or less conferenced with all of them, as he always did, saw disagreements among his underlings as a way to increase his own authority and own influence over them. He sided with Rundstedt on this - that probably coincided with his own feelings by now that the French had been smashed, and at the very least the British were fleeing, so how could they ever come back? And of course they wouldn’t be back for a very, very long time: 3-4 years, and then they would require coalition assistance at the time to get back. So seen from the perspective of 1940 what was, by any stretch of the imagination, a smashing victory for the Wehrmacht, I guess it becomes easier to understand why a Dunkirk happened, even though later we look back and say well clearly the Germans missed an opportunity to smash the British Army and the British would have had a very difficult time reconstituting that army.

I believe that as historians what we’re called upon to do is to go back to the time and try to understand decision making at the time and criticise it where we see it as being wrong and praise it when we see it as being right. But our job as historians is not to tell the Wehrmacht how they could have won World War Two, and I think too much of the Dunkirk literature does just that.

LAURENCE REES: But it was still a serious mistake not to advance immediately into Dunkirk, wasn't it? Can we criticise it in those terms?

ROBERT CITINO: There would have been a mess. There’s no doubt that the Panzer’s armoured formation - tanks - by and large don’t drive down to the water’s edge, they don’t drive out to the beach. It certainly would have been a messy operation and it certainly would have caused many more casualties than the British suffered in the course of evacuating. So once again we can in hindsight, by some standards of what the eternal and perpetual laws of war are, say that it was a mistake to call a halt before Dunkirk. At the same time I think we can look into the decision making traditions of the German army, also the curious command hierarchy and decision making mechanisms of the Third Reich and explain why it happened, which is to me a far more interesting question.