Retreat and Rearguard Dunkirk 1940Posted on Thursday 26th May 2016
Sitting today in the Grand Place with a cool beer in the hilltop town of Cassel, it is hard to imagine the battle that raged here during the last days of May 1940. However, walking around the former positions of the two infantry battalions that defended the town in those dark days of the Dunkirk evacuation, the ghosts of those men still occupy the perimeter. It was such a walk many years ago that led to my most recent book which tells the story of the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from the River Dyle to the channel coast of France from where Operation Dynamo began on 26 May 1940.
The extensive history of the France and Flanders Campaign of 1940 is well documented by numerous authors, and while all agree that the evacuation was a huge success and the numbers of men lifted from Dunkirk far exceeded expectations, they would also concur with Churchill’s view, expressed at the time, that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. Despite the brave words uttered by the GOC 5th Division, Harold Franklyn, that ‘the British Army suffered no defeat’ at Dunkirk, it was in fact the second occasion that British land forces had been defeated in Europe in as many weeks. Although Norway was a costly campaign for Germany in terms of surface shipping, like France and Flanders, it was a decisive victory for the German military machine.
There is also a general agreement amongst British historians that the campaign in France and Flanders was lost almost before it had started. It was not so much a case of Germany winning the battle but of France throwing it away by their willingness to fall into the trap of planning to fight the battle on the basis of the experience of the previous war of 1914–18. However, we cannot condemn the whole French Army for the disastrous events on the Meuse when the German Army Group A crashed through the French defences at Sedan. There are innumerable occasions when French divisions fought well and courageously, and we should remember that the Dunkirk bridgehead was defended between 29 May and 4 June by 8,000 soldiers of the French 12th Motorised Infantry Division which had been at Gembloux fifteen days earlier.
A British anti-tank crew at Louvain with their 25 mm Hotchkiss gun. The gun fired a 2-pound solid shot which could penetrate the armour of German light tanks
Their commanding officer, General Louis Janssen, was killed on 2 June during a rearguard action that is afforded little significance in British accounts of the fighting. Similarly in Lille, 35,000 French soldiers of the First Army held out against hugely superior German forces between 28 and 30 May, one regimental commander, Justin Dutrey, committing suicide rather than surrendering in an action that undoubtedly contributed to the successful evacuation at Dunkirk.
To some extent I am guilty of sidelining the French Army, but the story of Retreat and Rearguard: Dunkirk 1940 does not attempt to retell the complete history of the campaign. Instead it focuses on the tactical realities experienced by British rearguard units during their withdrawal to Dunkirk and places in print a number of first-hand accounts that have previously not been published or seen the light of day for decades.
As I did in my books about the 1914 Retreat from Mons, and the disastrous retreat of the Fifth Army in 1918, I have always sought to expose the emotions of war through the personal experiences of those who were there at the time. A task that continues to underline the frailty of man and to recognise that war is fought by individuals whose hopes and aspirations are no different from our own. Fortunately for us many of their personal accounts still exist and provide us with the soldier’s eye view of the fighting and consequently provide greater access to the soldier’s war.
I have confined my account of the Dunkirk fighting to the area north of the Somme for the simple reason that the vast majority of the actions I have described took place in Belgium and along the ‘Dunkirk Corridor’, an ‘escape route’ created by the British commander-in-chief through which the bulk of the British forces were able to reach the evacuation beaches at Dunkirk. The rearguard actions fought by those divisions in keeping this vital corridor open – in spite of determined assault by German forces – is perhaps the real story of the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’.
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