Where is Dunkirk in the UK

SECOND WORLD WAR: The miracle is preceded by a riddle

SECOND WORLD WAR: The miracle is preceded by a riddle

In the cinema, "Dunkirk" is about the famous evacuation of Allied soldiers in Normandy. Christopher Nolan's film does not see itself as a history lesson. What really happened And why did Hitler stop his tank units?

Arno Renggli

1940: It is the largest evacuation in history. Between May 26 and June 4, around 340,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk, France, to England. In Great Britain, what is actually a retreat is celebrated as a victory. The “miracle of Dunkirk” became moral support, even during the subsequent German air raids.

Less than a month earlier, on May 10, 1940, Adolf Hitler ordered the "Yellow Case", the attack on France and the Benelux countries. German tank units reach the French Channel coast within ten days, other troops overrun Belgium. Suddenly hundreds of thousands of British, French and Belgian soldiers are cut off from supplies. A situation that surprises Germans and allies alike.

The British government under Winston Churchill realized the gravity of the situation and commissioned the Royal Navy to plan a huge rescue operation: Operation "Dynamo". People in London are still hoping for a military turnaround and are waiting. But counter-offensives fail. Lord Gort, commander of the trapped British troops, suggests starting the evacuation. For days he left the French commander in the belief that the British soldiers would take part in further counter-offensives.

A momentous command to stop

On May 22nd, the German tanks began the advance towards Calais, and on May 24th they were only a few kilometers away from Dunkirk. And on that day something decisive happens: contrary to the opinion of his highest army commanders, who are pushing for a devastating attack on the allied allies, Hitler gives the order to stop. This gives time for the British and French to retreat to Dunkirk, where evacuation is possible.

When the Germans realized this intention, Hitler set the tank units in motion again. But the two days that have passed are enough for the Allied defense system to slow down the advance so that the evacuation succeeds. Hundreds of ships and boats of all kinds, ferries, merchant ships, excursion steamers, yachts, rowing boats, were transporting almost 340,000 Allied soldiers, including around 100,000 French and some Belgians, to the British mainland by June 4, despite constant German air raids.

When the Germans conquered Dunkirk on June 6th, they found Allied tanks, guns, a total of over 50,000 vehicles, plus tens of thousands of tons of ammunition and food. As well as thousands of helmets on the beach that the Allies left behind when they had to wade and swim through the water to the boats and ships. The material is lost, but the soldiers are largely saved.

But not all Allies can be evacuated: tens of thousands, especially French and Belgians, who have slowed the advance of the Germans, are taken prisoner of war. The same thing happens to thousands of French soldiers who are immediately transported back to France after being rescued to continue fighting against the Germans. In any case, despite the legendary evacuation, it should not be forgotten that tens of thousands of British, French, Belgian and also German soldiers died in the fighting over Dunkirk.

Hitler overestimated his Luftwaffe

One thing, however, remains a mystery to this day. What caused Hitler to stop on May 24th, which made the evacuation possible in the first place and prevented a military catastrophe for the Allies?

There are various possible reasons that historians are likely to argue about in the future. One statement said that Hitler considered the top of his tank units to be too exposed and therefore susceptible to Allied encirclement. Therefore, he wanted to wait for a wider move up. Perhaps he wanted to protect the tanks in general and therefore believed all the more readily the promises made by his air force chief Hermann Göring that the Allied troops could be eliminated by mere air raids.

As a result, it turned out that he had overestimated the power of the air strikes because the bad weather with low-lying clouds reduced their effectiveness and the soft sandy soil on the beach in Dunkirk dampened the bomb explosions. Perhaps at the same time he underestimated the fact that the British would defend the evacuating ships with warships and their own aircraft and inflict heavy losses on the German air force.

The power gesture of the military “natural talent”?

There are other attempts at explanation. Did Hitler hope to force the British, who were more sympathetic to his crude ethnic views than others, to peace negotiations or even to win them over as allies? Was that why he was reluctant to destroy the encircled troops? Did he even want to use it as a means of political leverage?

In recent years, another theory has emerged, which the German historian Karl-Heinz Frieser advocates: Hitler gave the stop order because he wanted to show his generals who is in charge of such decisions. And so he took exactly the opposite position of the army superiors who advocated the attack. So it should have been about power and prestige - psychologically speaking, perhaps about the fact that Hitler, the little private of the First World War, who saw himself as a military natural talent, wanted to assert himself against the established professionals.

From the German point of view, Hitler's order was probably a major military mistake. And so lucky for the Allies. It is obvious that he had a major influence on the further course of the world war. So one can surmise that the Churchill government would not have survived if the British army had been wiped out at Dunkirk. And how resistant would a new government have reacted to a possible peace offer by Hitler?

Instead, the “miracle of Dunkirk” strengthens the will to resist. For the French, however, Dunkirk is initially less “wonderful”. They are much more likely to feel abandoned by the British. Paris was conquered on June 14, 1940, and the French army surrendered on June 22. On the other hand, the British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk then become part of the units that took part in the decisive invasion of Normandy in June 1944.


The film “Dunkirk” has been in our cinemas since Thursday. We brought a detailed criticism last Saturday.