During the Battle of France, which takes place from May 10 to June 25, 1940, the German army wedges the British Expeditionary Force and parts of the French army into the Channel area at the northern coast of France. The Germans’ rapid invasion of France is the result of a “sickle-cut attack”, from the north through Holland, coordinated with thrusts through the weak points of the Maginot Line in Belgium, and advancing through the Ardennes up to northern France.
Upon the defeat of the Allied armies in the north, the BEF and parts of the French army are evacuated through the Port of Dunkirk. This is known as the Battle of Dunkirk and takes place between May 26 and June 4, 1940. Northern France is left unprotected and the Germans are able to continue almost unchallenged towards the French capital, successfully occupying Paris on June 14, 1940.
On May 22, the German newspaper Der Führer writes: “In just a few days, the Germans have taken the enemy by surprise, divided and confused them. The enemy armies are surrounded in Northern France and Belgium – meanwhile, the Germans are advancing to Paris. England is alone and the entire south-east coast is placed on defence alert. Children are being evacuated, defence positions are being set up at the mouth of the Thames and the English are expecting the worst”.
On the same day, the German troops break through to the Channel coast. The ports of Ostende, Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne and Dieppe have been successfully attacked by the Luftwaffe. On May 24, the German newspaper NSZ Rheinfront reports that Boulogne has fallen, Calais is surrounded and prisoners are so numerous that they can no longer be counted. The Luftwaffe is attacking troops in Belgium and Northern France, as well as bombing the Channel ports. Destroyers and transporters are also being bombed and heavily damaged.
The German army is simply far superior to the French, who are unprepared, maintains the NSZ Rheinfront. In addition, the French believed they could conduct this war in the same way as the 1914/18 conflict, on the basis of trench warfare. German military command, however, has developed in a far more sophisticated manner than the French since the Great War.
It is on May 24 that the mysterious “Halt Order” is issued by the Germans. Instead of destroying the forces trapped at Dunkirk, the Germans halt the advance of tank divisions for three days, during which time the Luftwaffe continues to attack, battling against the RAF. The German infantry has not yet reached the coast. The three days’ respite also give the Allies time to organize the evacuation at Dunkirk. Whether Hitler intends to establish diplomatic peace with Britain or whether his plan is to conserve the strength of the German army for “Case Red” – operations to the South – is unknown. This is considered one of the great turning points of the war.
May 29 sees heavy artillery fire on Dunkirk and Ostende is taken. The newspaper Der Führer reports that the air corps under Generals Grauert and von Richthofen attacked warships in the ports and waters of Dunkirk and Ostende which were to transport the BEF home. The locks of the port of Dunkirk are completely destroyed, the inner dock has spilled out. May 30 sees an annihilating strike against the British transport fleet at Dunkirk.
“Since May 29”, reports the NSZ Rheinfront, “the BEF is in complete disintegration. It has simply deserted all its vehicles and equipment and is fleeing to the sea. Swimming and on small boats, the enemy tries to reach ships lying on roadsteads, at which our Luftwaffe aims”.
“The retreat is like an escape”, writes Der Führer of May 31. “There are no rules, no more military order. There’s only one command: save yourself if you can. The British have experienced a lot in their military history on the continent, but never this completely hopeless stranglehold and total destruction. Dunkirk will remain a bad memory for proud Albion for hundreds of years. The French are now completely alone”.
A reporter in a speedboat unit writes in Der Führer of June 1: “A mass of transport steamers, destroyers, luggers, coastal yachts and fishing boats have been populating the English Channel for days to save the soldiers and materials of the British Expeditionary Force and take them to the island. Fighter planes attack the embarkment points of the fleeing British Army. Our little fleet of speedboats continues the attacks at night. For the English, the German speedboats are the “Stukas of the sea”. ‘We should have built the Channel Tunnel, then we wouldn’t have this mess every night’, said our Head Engineer after the last attack”.
On June 3, Der Führer reports: “Numerous ships have been sunk, including small boats, and troops on the beaches of Dunkirk successfully bombed. English soldiers report that the Channel water is full of oil from the sunken ships. The quays at the port of Dunkirk have been pulverized by bombs. The French Army has not been able to recover from the terrible blow of the Wehrmacht and in Paris the last hope seems to be gone. There is a complete lack of initiative”.
The stronghold of Dunkirk is taken on June 4, with over 400,000 prisoners and an incredible amount of spoils. Altogether almost 500 enemy planes have been shot down in the battle. Urban warfare with the French and the escape of the English soldiers is still ongoing, reports Der Führer on June 5.
Oberstleutnant Matthaei gives a report on the Battle of Dunkirk on June 19. He is in a Silesian infantry division approaching Dunkirk. “The English retreat over the sea turned into an unimaginable escape. For over 12 kilometres, the streets were so packed with batteries of vehicles and materials left by the English that the German troops could hardly get through. Dunkirk is the port of escape for the BEF, and the French have the task of protecting their escape. Finally, the sea port is taken. On the horizon, the sky is glowing from the burning of the fort of Dunkirk and lights up the gruesome battle and the downfall of the British military”.
Find out more about the Dunkirk evacuations in this IWM article
Read Katherine's article about the Blitz, The Enemy is Listening, here