Dunkirk and Golden Bridges December 13, 2011Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
Dunkirk is one of those moments in recent history that you have to look at sideways to have even a modest chance of understanding and still then there is something that defies analysis. How was it that the British Expeditionary Force, demoralized, bloodied and on the run, with the greatest army of the twentieth century snapping at its heels was allowed to slip away to Britain? (For the sake of present arguments we will forget the hundred thousand Britons, a third of those who had gone to France, who didn’t make it home.)
How indeed? Churchill called it a ‘miracle’, which is one way of ending the debate. Others were just left scratching their head. Lieutenant General Henry Pownall (who given his exalted position in the BEF should have known) was still worrying over the question in Burma four years later: ‘I shall not ever forget my feelings during the black fortnight in May, 1940, when the capture or annihilation of the entire BEF seemed almost inevitable. I do not yet know how that came to be avoided.’
There are numerous factors: the desperation and the skill of the Allied troops defending the perimeter; the unbelievable calm on the Channel; the long history of the Royal navy getting British troops out of jams (‘five years to build a ship, five hundred years for a tradition’)… But among these there is only one that matters and that is Hitler.
On 24 May Hitler ordered a ‘halt order’ to his armour crashing into France. For three days German armour remained immobile, recuperating before pushing on to finish the job. The BEF escaped because of Hitler’s decision. The question, of course, is why Hitler called a halt to his army at just the point the sword had been swung back to finish off the Allies?
Here there are different theories but they might be summed up as follows:
(i) ‘That idiot Goering’: Goering convinced Hitler, 21 May, that his Luftwaffe could finish off the BEF, trapped in the pocket. He was wrong as it happened, but Hitler believed him.
(ii) ‘That idiot Hitler’: Hitler just couldn’t believe his luck. Something was going to go wrong. The British and the French were about to violently counter attack. Best consolidate.
(iii) ‘Stabbed in the Arras’: A notable British counter attack 21 May had unnerved the Germans and particularly Hitler: an exaggerated report from Rommel helping. The Allies seemed stronger than the Germans had believed.
(iv) ‘Golden Bridge’: Our real war is with France not with Britain. Whip the British and then let them get away. It will be easier for the British to negotiate their way out of the war and to have cordial relations with us afterwards if their army has not been annihilated.
The conventional answer is point (i) and (ii) and probably in the end the larger part of the truth is there: of course, all four of these could be reduced to ‘That idiot Hitler’. (iii) has become more popular in British histories over the last years for obvious reasons: again though it is just an aspect of (ii). Most intriguing though is the question of (iv). Is it possible that, on some level, Hitler wanted the British to escape destruction?
Perhaps the pertinent words here are ‘on some level’. The human mind is complex and even something as simple as Beachcombing waking up at 4.00 am this morning has about fifty different causes, most impossible to separate from each other. How much more then were Hitler’s motives likely to be mixed and complicated as he decided the destiny of a continent? Perhaps even Hitler himself would have had problems sorting them out: though a predatory weasel like AH would not, in any case, have wasted much time on these kind of reflections.
Certainly, there are clues that Hitler might have, in part, wanted the British to get away. Some of these clues come too late to be taken entirely seriously: Hitler, for example, in 1945 talked of how Churchill had not appreciated the ‘sporting chance’ he had given the British. But this could so easily be Hitler rearranging the past to better write his obituary: that was, at that date, fast approaching…
Other comments from his secretary and a Luftwaffe general suggest though that at the time Hitler said similar things. Were these perhaps comments that came after the BEF had escaped and so were a similar rationalization? Was this Hitler, the expert manipulator, saying different things to different peoples as he so often did?
Most contemporary historians have no time for these kinds of arguments, but as John Lukacs argues in his excellent Five Days in London (the seed for much of what is written here) there might just be something to the Golden Bridge. If so it is the most striking example of Hitler completely misunderstanding the British.
Any other explanations for the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
16 Dec 2011: Louis writes ‘There is, as far as I can see, a good explanation for this Inhis book: The Blitzkrieg legend: the 1940 campaign in the West von Karl-Heinz Frieser,John T. Greenwood, Mister Frieser gives his analysis of what happened during 23 and 24 May. Von Runstedt gave a halt order on the 23rd, (probably because he either very anxious about his flanks, or jealous of von Manstein and his Sichelschnitt plan and wanted it to fail), and was sidelined by the GeneralHQ (OKH), and deprived of the Panzer Army group. When Hitler came to von Rundsteds HQ, he was appalled, because he did not know of this decision to deprive von Rundstedt of the Panzer army group. And Hitler then made a political decision. He confirmed the halt order of von Rundstedt, and chastised the GeneralHQ (OKH) for not informing him (of the change in command of the Panzers), and not waiting for his input on this. HE, Hitler, was the master of Germany and he did not want an independent army that could take decisions like that without his knowledge and OK. The way it is stated in the book, and with all the rest of the “Options” more or less unlikely (both militarily and political) this looks to me the only viable option. Below is the paragraph from the German Wiki about the Battle of Dunkirk, which more or less says the same thing, about this being a political decision, and not a military one. Die Gründe für den Haltebefehl vom 24. Mai werden noch heute kontrovers diskutiert. In der Regel wird der Haltebefehl Hitlers auf dessen eigene Autoritätsdurchsetzung zurückgeführt. Da er während des bisherigen Westfeldzuges als militärischer „Führer“ völlig außen vor gelassen wurde, nutzte er den Haltebefehl dazu aus, seine eigene Autorität zu festigen. Andere Gründe, beispielsweise die eingeschlossenen britischen Truppen könnten als Unterpfand für eventuelle Friedensverhandlungen mit den Briten dienen, werden allerdings als Erklärungsversuche häufig zurückgewiesen. But whatever the reason, it did save a lot of British, and also lots of French, troops from going into captivity’. KMH writes, meanwhile, ‘I am in favor of the last idea because I don’t believe Hitler wanted war with his equals or superiors. According to his master race theory, he was completely justified in conquering and enslaving the inferior races such as the Poles, Slavs, etc., mostly in the East. Engaging Britain, if necessary, should have only come after all other objectives had been achieved, not at the beginning. The suspicious flight of Hess to Britain supposedly to discuss ending the hostilities may support this argument. However, the vainglorious visions of Hitler ended in a two-front war he originally vowed never again to be caught up in. For what it is worth, even the witches in England were devoutly praying for calm weather to rescue the BEF in addition to the customary believers. Philosophically, without these initial disasters such as Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor, the later true successes such as decoding the enigma machine, and new inventions such as the proximity fuse may not have come as quickly.’ Several readers wrote in to say that the golden bridge is a way to dampen British and French heroism at Dunkirk. Thanks Louis, KMH and others!
24 July 2015: Jamie writes in and quotes from Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Dunkirk, 604-605: The 24 May entry in the Army Group A War Diary states that the halt order proposed by von Rundstedt and approved by Hitler was confirmed at ‘12.45 hours’. This is probably German time, which is 11.45 am. French time. Pownall, Diaries, p. 337 states that the order was given at 11.32 am, the time mentioned in GHQ’s war diary, in NA/PRO WO 167/29. A copy of the order that was given by Army Group A to the 4th Army is on p. 103, in BA-MA RH 19 1/38; it states that the canal line running between Lens, Béthune, Aire, St Omer and Gravelines should not be passed. All sorts of theories have been advanced to explain why the halt order was given. One has suggested that Hitler wanted to let the BEF off the hook so that he could negotiate a peace settlement with Britain, but it has never been backed up with conclusive evidence. It seems like that, as expressly mentioned in the Army Group A war diary for 24 May, the Fuhrer ordered the halt for the following specified operational reasons: (a) to let the infantry catch up; (b) so as not to make life more difficult for the Luftwaffe, which would have a smaller target area if the tanks had been sent in; (c) to preserve the armour for the coming battles south of the Somme.