Dunkirk: May 1940

The First Luftwaffe Defeat


"If England lost, America too would be encircled and beaten"

Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt's personal emissary to Winston Churchill

When summarising the contributions of the major allies to the second world war, Stalin declared that "the British gave time, the Americans gave money, and the Russians gave blood". This is of course a generalisation; all the allied contributors gave considerable amounts of blood and treasure as a contribution to final victory. Britain was certainly effectively bankrupt by 1942 having liquidated virtually all of its foreign holdings to pay - cash & carry - for war material prior to the advent of lend-lease. The American willingness to accept casualties was shown graphically in the Pacific, at Omaha Beach, and later in many other bloody battles in Normandy. However, the essence of the generalisation is true; without the engagement of the vast and growing resources of the American economy, there could have been no victory. Without the vast and bloody battles on the endless Russian steppe, the German military machine would not have been first checked, and then ground relentlessly down. But what of that particular British contribution noted by Uncle Joe?


"German military circles here tonight put it flatly. They said the fate of the great Allied army bottled up in Flanders is sealed."

William Shirer's Berlin Diary 25th May 1940


June 1940 was the most dangerous month in the recent history of the world. The defeat of France, and the loss of her hitherto apparently impregnable continental position behind the Maginot Line, her mighty army and considerable navy, was nothing short of a catastrophe to the Allied cause. This disaster scarcely appeared in any British planning for the worst case. The German navy and especially the U-Boats would now have bases along the French channel and Atlantic coasts from which they could operate against British sea-routes in the Atlantic. Britain depended on those routes for her war effort and her very life: imports of food, raw materials, arms and equipment; communications with the Dominions, the Empire, and the only nascent armouries in the USA. In such adverse circumstances there was serious doubt as to whether Britain could continue the war against Germany, or would to make peace. Only with those French forces mustered could the Allied powers come near to anything looking like a fighting chance against Germany, and Italy with her considerable modern navy across Britain's other lines of communication in the Mediterranean. The Grand Alliance was as yet a Churchillian fantasy. In the Summer of 1940 the Soviet Union was regarded at least as a tacit ally of Germany proving her with much important goods and materials and at worst another enemy against whom military measures were already being planned. Any significant practical assistance from a still neutral America was not yet possible.

It should not therefore be seen as surprising that the British refusal to compromise with a apparently victorious Germany, was seen by many world opinion makers as a quixotic absurdity that one way or another would soon be corrected. Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, the American Ambassador in London, gave Britain just four weeks. Even senior British politicians accepted, in the words of Quintin Hogg, that "on paper, the war was lost".

Hitler's assumption as he went sight-seeing in Paris, was that of virtually all Germans from leader to street cleaner, that the war had been won and this time they were the victors! British acceptance of that blood and iron reality was simply a matter of time, and possibly a little encouragement from the Luftwaffe.


"Once I'm beaten here, Britain won't wait a week before negotiating with the Reich"

General Weygand to De Gaulle 8th June 1940


Marshall Petain, General Weygand, and Admiral Darlan, shortly to be the new Vichy authorities, confidently expected Britain either to make a deal (and feared that it would, of course, be at the expense of France), or to have its neck wrung "like a chicken", never seriously considering that Britain would actually fight on alone, let alone be able to stand alone.

In the fighting in Flanders the division between the Fighting French and the collaborators was already apparent. The collaborators were more than willing to sup with the Nazi devil to see the demise of their republican political enemies. They saw the German invasion and occupation as an inevitable, if not actually welcome result of 20 years of democratic iniquity. It was the purging fire out of which a new France, reborn in their own authoritarian image would be born. So it was that Petain and Darlan regarded the Army and Navy respectively as more of bargaining chip to get better armistice terms than as a fighting instrument to avoid the need for one. Petain, who was fond of accusing his British allies of deception, was already with Weygand organising a coup d'etat against a Government and political system they despised. Petain's own aims were not to allow evacuation but to use an encircled BEF to enmesh the British Government in his own schemes for negotiation and collaboration. To Churchill's offer of a Franco-British Union to continue the fight, he responded that "it would be like handcuffing oneself to a corpse". His supporters in the cabinet explicitly preferred to become a Nazi province. Elsewhere the defeatist refrain was "Better Hitler than Blum". The efforts of DeGaulle and others to organise an effective defence, and a fighting retreat either to a Breton redoubt, or at the very last to Algeria - not a colony but part of Metropolitan France - were sabotaged at every turn. The defeatists and collaborators were happy to see the demise of a democratic system they despised, happy to appeal to French patriotism to defend their position.


"Peace and security in Europe were equally our main object, and we should naturally be prepared to consider any proposals which might lead to this."

Lord Halifax to the War Cabinet 26th May 1940

"It was best to decide nothing until we saw how much of the Army we could re-embark from France"

Churchill to the War Cabinet 26th May 1940

"I thought Winston talked the most frightful rot"

Lord Halifax's diary for 26th May 1940


France was not alone in having defeatists at the top table. A significant strata of the British establishment also believed that the position was untenable, and that the country should get out of the war on the best terms available. Or at least, on any terms that preserved the British Empire and their position in it. Aware of his lack of support amongst the powerful, Churchill allowed the compromise proposals of his possible rival Lord Halifax, to be discussed in cabinet. Halifax advanced the same dangerous arguments with which the French defeatists were seducing the waverers in Reynaud's French cabinet - "let's see at least if Mussolini could persuade Hitler to acceptable compromise terms - if not we'll fight on". It seemed very reasonable, and Halifax always presented himself as a man of reason, in contrast to Churchill's "dangerous emotionalism". But that position was not reasonable. It was a slippery slope as Churchill pointed out, which would ruin the integrity of Britain's fighting position. With the support of the junior ministers Churchill saw off Halifax and his supporters. He never seriously considered compromise. Churchill was always quite sure that Britain must fight on, whatever the consequences were to be to country and Empire, and ultimately those consequences were to be enormous.

Churchill's stance became credible because against all expectation, the fighting core of the British Army, not to say significant numbers of French and other allied troops from Belgium and Poland, a third of million men in all, were rescued from the inferno of Dunkirk.

Had the British forces in Northern France been overwhelmed and carried off into captivity the pressure on Churchill's only days-old government would have been immense, perhaps more than it could have borne. There would then have been little realistic answer to Lord Halifax's proposal that Benito Mussolini be invited to broker a compromise peace. The consequence of that would have been that the second great war, or whatever history would have chosen to call this European conflict, would have ended there in June 1940. There would have been no unsinkable aircraft carrier, no arctic supply convoys to Russia, and no base for DeGaulle. German forces would be in effective command of the whole Atlantic seaboard, and within their control two of the largest naval fleets in the world, with incalculable consequences for Russia and the United States.


"A critical time in the attack came just as my forces reached the channel. It was caused by the British counterattack at Arras … for a short time it was feared that our armoured divisions could be cut off before the infantry divisions could come up to support them"

Field Marshall Von Rundstedt


After the fall of Calais on 26th May, and with the disintegration and likely capitulation of the Belgian forces on his left flank, only Dunkirk was left as a possible source of either resupply or evacuation. Which was it to be? It became clear to Lord Gort, commander of the BEF, that for either purpose Dunkirk had to be secured. However, the BEF could not both strike south to counterattack in accordance with Weygand's tenuous plan, and strike north to secure Dunkirk. It was also becoming clearer to Gort that there was no chance of any significant French advance from the south and therefore any attack by BEF in that direction would be a final suicidal charge into defeat and captivity. The French commanders in Flanders accepted the logic of this, but believed that Dunkirk should become a fortified bridgehead, which after resupply should be used as basis for counterattack. On the 27th May the French and British Governments both agreed that the armies should fall back on Dunkirk, but the French commanders refused for some five days to allow French troops to be evacuated.

Some have argued that Hitler deliberately let the BEF escape, to encourage those in Britain who would give Germany the free hand in Europe it believed it had already effectively seized. This is pure hindsight. When Field Marshall Von Rundstedt with the concurrence of Hitler ordered the panzers to halt before Dunkirk, he did because he believed that the German lines of communication were already dangerously overextended, and vulnerable in the face of an expected heavy Anglo-French counterattack, although for public consumption the not entirely untrue excuse was given that the terrain before Dunkirk was not amenable to armour, with large parts of the canalised area already deliberately flooded. The panzers would certainly be required for the final battle to the south, against the most important enemy France - and in any event, Von Rundstedt and Hitler believed the French northern armies and the BEF had already been forced against the coast into a pocket from which there was no escape. They could be dealt with at leisure.


"For the first time now, enemy air superiority has been reported by Kleist ... Apparently a very unpleasant interview with the Fuehrer At 20.20 a new order is issued cancelling yesterday's order and directing encirclement to be effected in areas Dunkirk-Estaires-Lille-Roubaix-Ostend. The left wing, consisting of armour and motorised forces which has no enemy before it, will so be stopped dead in its tracks upon direct orders from the Fuehrer. Finishing off the encircled army is to be left to the Air Force..."

Diary of General Halder 24th May 1940

"This is a wonderful opportunity for the Luftwaffe, I must speak to the Fuehrer at once! Get me a line!"

Herman Goering 24th May 1940


Seeing the sea coast as the end of their world, it did not occur to Hitler or Goering that any substantial part could be rescued by a naval operation. Hitler in particular never understood the flexibility of sea power. These were the circumstances in which Goering volunteered the services of the Luftwaffe to settle the matter and force an allied surrender. Not everyone was pleased. It was clear to those directing the Luftwaffe in France that it too was already overextended, tired, and had suffered significant attrition.


"General Albert Kesselring, Chief of Air Fleet Two, telephoned him from Brussels to protest. Surely Goring realised that three week's air war had reduced some Luftwaffe units by 50 per cent? That most available bombers were still based at airfields 300 miles from Dunkirk? At last, convinced that Goering's desire for vainglory overrode all other factors, Kesselring, with a curt 'Nicht Iosbar' ("It won't work") slammed down the phone."

Richard Collier "The Years of Attrition 1940-41"

"Battle plan ruined. Now political command has formed the fixed idea that the battle of decision must be fought not on Flemish soil but rather in northern France. To camouflage this political move the assertion is made that Flanders, criss-crossed by a multitude of waterways, is unsuited for tank warfare. Accordingly all tank and motor transport will have to be brought up short on reaching the line St Omer-Bethune ... The Air Force, on which all hopes are pinned, is dependent on the weather."

General Halder's Diary 25th May 1940


On 26th May the "halt order" was actually rescinded and the Panzers joined in the attack on the still consolidating Dunkirk perimeter. Despite the publicity given to the halt order, and Guderian's fierce opposition, little attention is given to the fact that three days later 29th May, just as the fiercest part of the battle was beginning, battle his own Corps HQ withdrew his panzers from the battle of the Dunkirk perimeter for much the same reasons as originally given by Von Runstedt, leaving it in the hands of a motorised infantry division. The XIX Corps Diary notes that this was done to avoid "further useless sacrifice after the severe casualties suffered".

That ill-equipped, and short of ammunition and rations as they were, the BEF and the French 1st Army held the Dunkirk perimeter for seven days against the best efforts of the Luftwaffe and two German Army groups refutes firstly the oft-made criticism of their fighting ability, and secondly the commonly held idea that the German forces met no serious opposition in Flanders. It was a supreme pity that these fighting abilities had been restrained by poor intelligence and incompetent strategic direction until it was too late.

From the British viewpoint, the prospects were bleak. At Dover, Admiral Ramsay had been considering the possibilities of evacuation since matters in France and Belgium took a turn for the worse in mid-May. It must be remembered that Dunkirk was just one among a number of evacuations from France and the low countries in those weeks, albeit the largest. Ramsay's own assessment was that without proper harbour facilities, and in the face of consistent air attack, perhaps some 35,000 to 45,000 men at most might be lifted from Dunkirk. Others, including the Government were not even that optimistic.

The task given to the RAF was therefore to cover this scratch operation which the Navy proceeded to launch. Air Chief Marshall Park's 11 Group of Fighter Command was required to mount standing patrols over the area, and he did this in a way that may be a surprise to those familiar with later controversies. Out of the harsh experience of the first few days, and his own personal experience as he flew his own Hurricane over the Dunkirk beaches, he ordered patrols in wing strength, of which the most famous was the Hornchurch Wing of 19, 65 and 17 Squadrons. The air battles over Dunkirk saw the debut of the Spitfire as a fighting aircraft. It had not taken part in the previous air fighting in France, a burden stoutly borne by the Hurricane.


"An important part was played by our bombers, especially the Wellingtons, between 27th May and 4th June, while Operation Dynamo ... was proceeding. They laboured night after night to put down a curtain of bombs round that port, and their efforts were particularly vigorous towards the end, when the French Northern Army was being taken off. The Royal Navy were finding it very difficult to carry on in the face of the enemy's heavy artillery bombardment and asked for bomber support"

The Official Historian " Bomber Command" HMSO 1941


Fighter Command was not the only RAF formation involved in the battle, though as with the Battle of Britain, is often the only formation many historians can perceive. The surviving aircraft of the Advanced Air Striking Force, sent to France with the BEF optimistically as an advanced front of strategic bombers with German industry as their assigned targets, and kept in France after the Air Component of the BEF was evacuated in late May, were reassigned against the German forces moving against the Dunkirk pocket. The AASF had already retreated once to scratch fields around Troyes as its original bases were in the line of the German advance. After their disastrous losses earlier in daylight missions in the first days of the German invasion, the Battles were ordered to fly only at night, though this was not always possible, and daylight missions continued to be flown in support of the retreating allied troops with the support of exhausted Hurricanes of 67 Wing flying five or more missions a day.

From their bases in East Anglia, 2 and 3 Groups of Bomber Command also flew their Wellingtons, Whitleys, and Hampdens by night to attack the German rear and to attempt to disrupt the German advance. RAF Coastal Command flew offensive patrols by bomb carrying Hudsons and Ansons, attacking the German front lines, and keeping a watch for any attempt by the Kriegsmarine to interfere. In fact both E-Boats and coastal U-Boats sortied against the evacuation fleet, and both the Fleet Air Arm operating under Coastal Command control and the French Aeronavale mounted attacks. The Fleet Air Arm flew Swordfish, Skuas and Rocs from Coastal Command airfields. Aeronavale Squadron AB-1 based temporarily at Lympne with the MB152s of GC II/1, flew its V-156 Vindicators against these naval targets, and against German armour and artillery. Also temporarily based at Lympne were the recce/light bombers Potez 63.11 which in the thick fog of war flew essential spotter missions with French and British escorts

Fighting against the incompetence or political treachery of its own command, as well as the Germans, the remaining effective units of the French Armee de L'Air continued to fly against the invaders with almost suicidal bravery. Just coming into service in Spring 1940 were some very fine aircraft indeed, none finer than the ground attack Breguet Bre 693, and the LeO 453 and Amiot 451 medium/heavy bombers, the squadrons equipped with which flew missions against the advancing German forces until the end.

The Luftwaffe discovered that far from forcing a surrender, or short of that, annihilating the trapped forces, their task was now to prevent the escape of the BEF and French and allied troops in the Dunkirk pocket, and the full force of Luftflotten 2 and 3, with their offensive strength of Stukas, He111s, Do17z, and Ju88s were deployed in bombing and strafing the beaches and ships, with its Bf 109E and Bf110C fighter and destroyer forces prowling for RAF interceptors and bombers. Above the land battle the ubiquitous Hs126 provided the eyes for the advancing German forces, often lifted en masse by large numbers of Ju52s transports, on one occasion taking a forward airfield from the allies by simply flying in and disgorging its Luftwaffe paratroops onto the airstrip.


"I don't give a damn who you are! For all the good you chaps seem to be doing you might just as well stayed on the ground!"

British Army Officer encountered by Al Deere shot down over Dunkirk


After a ragged start, the 11 Group wing strength patrols were able to obtain temporary local air superiority, something bitterly complained of by the German forces who were not used to such obstruction. However, such superiority evaporated when each patrol returned to its various bases, and the attacks on the beaches and ships resumed. It was unfortunate for myth and legend that most of the RAF operations were not visible to the men on the beaches, and their officers, who subject to bombing and strafing complained most vociferously about the "failure of the RAF to protect them". Although the story of how the BEF managed to deliberately destroy virtually its entire stock of anti aircraft guns is almost unknown, their complaints about the RAF have passed into history, and there is even now a reluctance in most historical treatments of the Dunkirk evacuation, to deal with the air battle much beyond the complaints of the men on the beaches, or to give any credit to the RAF. This perhaps illustrates the basic problem with the contemporary preoccupation with "oral history". The same fate has met the French pilots, whose bravery is an almost unknown story, even to most French historians.


"From the British fighters we met heavy resistance"

Stuka pilot Rudolf Braun

"The enemy pounced on our tightly knit formation with maniacal fury"

Do17 Staffel leader Major Werner Kniepe

"A bad day ... with sixty-four aircrew missing, seven wounded and twenty-three aircraft gone today's losses exceed the combined total of the last ten days."

Luftwaffe II Air Corps War Diary 27th May 1940

"Well Richthofen, I suppose you have taken Dunkirk from the air?"

Field Marshall Von Kluge to the Commander of VIII Air Corps


The fact is that it was only over Dunkirk, and for the first time, that the Luftwaffe faced determined opposition in aircraft which were equal to their own. In Poland and France the Luftwaffe had faced enemies who did not want for bravery, determination, and skill, but whose planes were generally if not hopelessly outclassed. Over Dunkirk and the channel the Luftwaffe met sustained and effective opposition, and for the first time it was not only checked, but its strategic objective was defeated, although it failed to draw the correct conclusions about the use of bombers and Stukas, a lesson it had to relearn during the renewed struggle with the RAF later that Summer. The Air battle in France and over the Dunkirk beaches is the prehistory of the Battle of Britain, though it is almost completely disregarded in the mountain of books that deal with the events of September 1940.

Without the sustained opposition of the RAF fighters flying four or more missions a day, and the support of the bombers and attack aircraft, it is unlikely that the Dunkirk evacuation could have succeeded in the way which it did, and for the want of this particular nail, Britain could not have bought time for the allied cause to gather. Stalin was right. With its Army secure, and its refusal to reach a negotiated peace, Britain ensured that that the war would go on, and that there would be a comprehensive struggle against the Axis powers, and not in due course disconnected conflicts in Eastern Europe, in which the German forces would have had clear superiority, and in the Pacific, where the USA would have concentrated its full attention before having to face its ultimate enemy across the Atlantic. The air battle at Dunkirk was therefore not only the first defeat of the Luftwaffe, but the first stage of one of the pivotal air battles of the second world war.


"I realised how heavy was the demand to be made on the Royal Air Force for the remainder of the operation, and how impossible it would be to expect that they could succeed completely in preventing air action on the beaches. Yet they did succeed in intercepting a large part of the enemy attacks, and those which arrived, though at times serious, were never able to impede our embarkation for long"

Final Report of Lord Gort VC, Commander of the BEF

"Nearly every British soldier who got safely back to England after passing through the ordeal asked the same question: "Where were our fighters?" It was an injustice to the RAF testified to by German bomber pilots over Dunkirk-from bitter experience".

Bekker The Luftwaffe War Diaries

"On the beach our war weary soldiers felt that British aircraft were conspicuous by their absence. At a time when the remnants of the British Army were being subject to continuous and seemingly undefended attacks from enemy aircraft, that is understandable ... As well as being able to watch the little ships save an army, from my Swordfish I was able to watch the RAF do the same from the air out of sight of the beaches. Armed with bombs we ranged from the Dunkirk beaches in the smoke and flame of the battle down to Calais and up to Ostend, and then out into the North Sea, attacking the pockets of E-Boats wherever we could find them before they could close on the floating armada for the kill... I have no doubt that had it not been for the superb efforts of the RAF - out of sight of the men they were fighting to save - the 335,000 men who were safely rescued would have perished on the beaches as Hitler planned."

Commander Charles Lamb DSO DSC "War in a Stringbag"

"their salvation was not gained through any qualities of leadership that had been displayed in Britain in the years before the war or in the months of quiet that preceded the blitzkrieg; it lay in the geographical situation of the United Kingdom, whose separation from the continent of Europe was the outcome of the glacial pressure of the last European ice-age thirty thousand years before, when the Strait of Dover was carved out of chalk. That situation, and the time it permitted the British people to awake to a sense of the reality of the epoch they lived in ..."

Norman MacMillan "The Royal Air Force in the World War"


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