Commentary: In May 1940, on this beach and in the area nearby, more than 300,000 Allied troops were trapped against the sea, with the Germans closing in on them. Here at Dunkirk it would take what Churchill called a miracle of deliverance to save them. But how did they ever come to be in this potentially disastrous situation in the first place? Well, one reason was that on the 10th May 1940, German tanks had done something many thought impossible, and had advanced through a forest. The armoured vehicles of German Army Group A launched a surprise attack on France through the forest of the Ardennes. The panzers and their support vehicles rushed forward, scarcely even stopping to hold the territory they conquered. It was one of the greatest gambles in military history.
Professor Geoffrey Wawro: The panzers of Army Group A would slice through the Ardennes and then make this race west to cut off a large fraction of the French army and the entire British army, and then annihilate it. But the risks were tremendous. I mean, you’re talking about seven armoured divisions against this large French army and this large British army racing to the coast, exposing a flank three hundred kilometres long with no supporting infantry behind them - tremendous risk. But the German generals - Manstein, Rundstedt, Guderian - they were confident that the shock and awe of that kind of an approach would so disable the French and the British that they’d win.
Professor Adam Tooze: This is an operation of unprecedented logistical risk and gives the opponents of Germany - Britain, France, Belgium, Holland - the chance, if they’re sufficiently well organised, to mount a devastating counter-attack on Germany and on the pincer moving across northern France. And for this reason the Germans fully understand that if this plan fails they’ve lost the war.
Commentary: Whilst Germany Army Group A made their rush to the coast, other German units attacked through Belgium, aiming to trap massive numbers of British and French soldiers between them. The operation was a huge success.
Words of General Erwin Rommel (Panzer Commander, May 1940): It was hardly conceivable. Now we had broken through and were driving deep into enemy territory. It was not just a beautiful dream. It was reality.1
Commentary: The Germans concentrated their firepower on one narrow area whilst the Allies, who outnumbered them, were thinly spread across the whole front.
Words of Captain Beaufre (French High Command, May 1940): I must confess that the morale of the French High Command was very quickly broken. In fact, the night when we happened to know that the front had been broken through at Sedan, at that time the feeling was that everything was lost. I saw General Georges, who was commanding the north-eastern front. I saw him sobbing and saying, ‘There have been some deficiencies.’2
Commentary: The original German plan had been to concentrate more forces in the north, but that had been altered when it was thought that the Allies had discovered Nazi intentions. Hitler had approved the change in strategy, and so now announced that he was a military genius.
Professor Robert Citino: I don’t think there’s any doubt, early in the war one can say that Hitler’s decisions, at least some of them, were just unconventional enough to be effective. I think we all recognise the beauty of thinking outside the box, or outside the envelope - there’s a number of different metaphors for this today, the corporate world tries to encourage it. And certainly Hitler thought outside the box on a number of occasions.
Commentary: Only ten days after they had launched their attack, the Germans reached the coast of France, here, at the River Somme. Enormous numbers of British and French soldiers were now trapped north of them, falling back on the channel port of Dunkirk.
1 Originally published in B. H. Liddell-Hart (ed.), The Rommel Papers, 1953 [www.eyewitnesstohistory.com, 'Blitzkrieg, 1940']
2 André Beaufre, Le Drame de 1940, Paris, 1965, p. 183