In the month following the Norway campaign of April 1940, the speed of the German advance through the Low Countries and France revived the concept of a British invasion. By 20 May the panzer force led by General Heinz Guderian, the pioneering tank commander and one of the architects of blitzkrieg warfare, had reached Abbeville at the mouth of the Somme. This remarkable dash to the English Channel had brought German troops within sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. Concerned that the Führer, fired by his success on land, might impulsively want to send his victorious divisions across the sea, Raeder sought a private meeting with him. As he later explained: ‘The time had come when I had to raise the question of an invasion with Hitler. I was afraid that otherwise some irresponsible person would make the obvious suggestion to invade. Hitler would take up the idea, and the Kriegsmarine would then suddenly find itself faced with an insurmountable problem.’ Hitler agreed to Raeder’s request. The next day the grand admiral travelled to the Felsennest (or ‘rocky eyrie’), the Führer’s remote, craggy headquarters in the Eifel mountain range of western Germany.
Some of Hitler’s generals remember him as hesitant and anxious at this time. As Halder wrote in his diary for 16 May, ‘An unpleasant day. The Führer is terribly nervous. Frightened by his own success, he is afraid to take any chances and so would rather pull the reins on us.’ In another entry, Halder recorded that Hitler ‘rages and screams that we are about to ruin the whole campaign and that we are leading up to defeat’.
At the meeting, Raeder set out his deep reservations about the possibility of invading England, stressing the strength of the Royal Navy, the lack of open ports and the need for absolute command of the air. He also put forward another argument that had not previously been aired. ‘The diversion of a huge percentage of Germany’s ocean, coastal and river shipping for transport of the invasion troops, I pointed out, would greatly impair Germany’s domestic economy.’ Adopting a non-committal, almost indifferent attitude, Hitler seemed to accept this, telling the grand admiral that once France had fallen, he would strangle England through the submarine war and aerial bombardment. It was wise to get ready for a long war, the Führer said, although he believed that England ‘would soon come round to peace’. To Raeder’s relief, he ordered that no preparations for an invasion should be made for the time being.
At the very moment when the Felsennest meeting was under way, in England invasion fever was reaching new levels of intensity, as reflected in the surge of recruits to the LDV, the round-up of enemy aliens, the creation of makeshift roadblocks, the establishment of coastal batteries and the spread of barbed wire across the beaches. Little did the British military staff and politicians know that the idea of invasion was far from the Führer’s mind, which was then wholly focused not on a future campaign in Britain but the present one in France. To Hitler, so aggressive yet so paranoid, the sheer speed of the German attack brought its own dangers and doubts. From his deliberations with a few of his generals emerged one of the most extraordinary decisions of the early war, one that was to have a huge influence over Britain’s ability to survive.
By 21 May, with the leading German units surrounding them at the coast, the British Expeditionary Force was isolated and facing defeat. Churchill’s private secretary John Colville noted in his diary, ‘The situation in France is extraordinary. Owing to the rapid advance of armoured troops, the Germans are in many places behind the Allied lines,’ adding ominously, ‘Preparations are being made for the evacuation of the BEF in case of necessity.’ Ironside, in his last week as Chief of the Imperial Staff, thought that the only hope was for the BEF to counter-attack by moving southwards. However, during a visit to see General Gort, the commander of the BEF, he was disturbed by the lack of fighting spirit among the French, writing in his diary on 21 May, ‘Situation desperate … God help the BEF, brought to this state by the incompetence of the French.’
On that same day, due to the Allies’ disorganisation and poor communications, a planned major counter-offensive against the Germans fizzled out after a brave strike near the north-eastern French town of Arras by two divisions and a tank brigade under Major General Harold Franklyn. But the Germans soon regrouped, forcing the BEF into headlong retreat towards the Channel ports of Calais and Dunkirk. Trapped in the northernmost corner of France, short of supplies and air cover, Gort’s force looked doomed as the panzer divisions seized the port of Boulogne on 23 May just south of Calais, thereby depriving the Royal Navy of a vital facility for any evacuation. ‘I cannot see that we have any hope of getting the BEF out,’ wrote Ironside that night, an opinion shared by Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, the Commander of II Corps, who recorded, ‘Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now and the end cannot be far away.’
Yet just as disaster appeared to be inevitable, the British were to be given a glimmer of hope by Hitler and some of his generals, who were suddenly gripped by uncertainty. That evening, Generals Heinz Guderian and Paul von Kleist were leading their panzer forces in a blitzkrieg-style pursuit of the BEF towards Dunkirk when they suddenly received an order from Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the head of Army Group A, to halt for thirty-six hours. Guderian was furious, believing that a chance to annihilate the BEF was being thrown away. After the war, he wrote, ‘My repeated protests went unheard. On the contrary, the cursed order became repeated. The order allowed the British army to escape for if we could have continued our rush on Dunkirk, we would have probably been there before the British.’
Von Rundstedt’s decision was driven by concerns about overextended supply lines, the strain on the panzer divisions, the risk of exposing his divisions at the rear and the need to conserve his armour for the final push south against the French. His stop order was endorsed by Hitler, who visited Army Group A headquarters the following morning, 24 May.
After the war, it became common among the surviving German generals to heap all the blame on Hitler for the move. He had acted entirely against their wishes, they said, which just indicated how poor he was as a military strategist. General Wilhelm von Thoma, head of the tank section, said that he ‘begged for permission to let the tanks push on’, but his appeals were fruitless because of the Führer’s influence. As he wrote in 1950, ‘You can never talk to a fool. Hitler spoilt the chance of victory.’ The panzer commander von Kleist, who was just 18 miles from Dunkirk when the stop order was issued, argued that the BEF were able to reach Dunkirk ‘only with the personal help of Hitler’. Similarly the operations officer of Army Group A, General Günther Blumentritt, claimed that ‘Hitler was quite alone in his decision to give the order to stop.’ Senior officers, said Blumentritt, ‘remonstrated strongly but in vain’.
Two vital factors played on Hitler’s mind. The first was the role of the Luftwaffe, whose chief Hermann Goering was Hitler’s closest ally. Revelling in his pre-eminence but jealous of the army’s success in France, he told his leader that, rather than put the German armoured divisions at further risk, given the soft terrain around Dunkirk, the job of annihilating the BEF should be given to the Luftwaffe. The British, he claimed, would be easy prey for his fighters and bombers, declaring grandly, ‘The great mission of the Luftwaffe is imminent: to wipe out the British in northern France. All the army has to do is occupy.’
Hitler’s willingness to indulge Goering’s vanity was partly driven by the second, more political, reason for the stop order, one that highlighted his ambivalence towards the war against Britain. Believing that the British government was anxious to reach a peace deal, he was reluctant to waste his valuable armour in the treacherous Flanders marshes in what he perceived as a pointless fight. Whether the BEF surrendered in the Pas de Calais or returned to Britain as the bedraggled remnant of an army, he was certain that Churchill would have to negotiate terms once France fell, telling his generals at one point, ‘It’s always good to let a broken army return home to show the civilian population what a beating they’ve had.’
On a deeper level, because of his respect for Britain, for a moment he lacked the ruthlessness that he usually showed towards his enemies. Blumentritt later claimed that he and his planning staff had been amazed at their leader’s attitude on 23 May. ‘He astonished us by speaking of his admiration for the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence and of the civilisation that Britain had brought to the world.’ This was also the recollection of von Rundstedt, who said that, at their Charleville meeting, Hitler had explained his hopes to ‘make an earlier peace with the England’ by letting the BEF escape. According to the general’s testimony, written in 1949 with the benefit of hindsight, the Führer said, ‘The British empire could not be destroyed even in 100 years. England must only keep her hands off the European continent and return our colonies to us.’
Whatever its justification, the order had a crucial impact on the BEF’s chances of survival. By the time it was lifted on 26 May and the German tanks began to move again, much of Lord Gort’s force had managed to reach Dunkirk. Added assistance was given to the retreat by the heroic resistance put up by the British garrison at Calais, where units of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps and the 30th Motor Brigade under Brigadier Claude Nicholson tied up a large number of panzers and troops. Essentially, Nicholson’s brave band was sacrificed in order to protect the BEF, since he was instructed by Churchill not to withdraw but to fight to the bitter end. General Pug Ismay, Churchill’s aide, witnessed the prime minister’s anguish at this moment. ‘It is a terrible thing to condemn a body of splendid men to death or captivity. The decision affected us all very deeply, especially perhaps Churchill. He was unusually silent during dinner that evening, and he ate and drank with evident distaste. As we rose from the table, he said, “I feel physically sick.” ’
That same evening, as the first Germans came within artillery range of the British and French troops now based in Dunkirk, the War Cabinet agreed to order the start of the evacuation, code-named Operation Dynamo. The following morning Churchill wrote to Gort, his letter revealing his sense of foreboding. ‘At this solemn moment, I cannot help sending you my good wishes. No one can tell you how it will go. But anything is better than being cooped up and starved out.’ It seemed a forlorn hope at the beginning of Dynamo that many of the BEF troops would indeed be rescued from Dunkirk. Ironside predicted that no more than 30,000 would be saved, little more than a tenth of the entire BEF.
Nor were spirits high among the exhausted and surrounded British troops, their mood darkened by what they perceived to be the lack of air cover, although in reality the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command were engaged in ferocious aerial battles with the Luftwaffe high in the sky over northern France. Sandy Frederick, serving in the 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry, left a vivid description of his struggle to reach Dunkirk aboard his unit’s Bren gun carrier: ‘It was frightening to be under air attack. We didn’t seem to have any defence. We were in a real panic. There was no control whatsoever. Wrecks of British vehicles were everywhere. We were getting fired on from every side. By now I had about 20 men hanging on to my Bren carrier as we retreated.’
For Lieutenant General Alan Brooke, the commander of II Corps, the scenes of chaos on the road to Dunkirk were all too indicative of the madness that gripped France as she faced collapse under the German onslaught. Passing through a heavily bombed town, he came across a group of inmates from a mental asylum that had been demolished. ‘With catastrophe on all sides, bombarded by rumours of every description, flooded by refugees and a demoralized French army, and now on top of it all lunatics in brown corduroy suits standing at the side of the road, grinning at one with an inane smile, a flow of saliva running from the corner of their mouths and dripping noses! Had it not been that by then one’s senses were numbed with the magnitude of the catastrophe that surrounded one, the situation would have been unbearable.’
Brooke’s sense of despair would have been all the greater had he known that, at the very moment the BEF was trying to reach safety, back in London a faction within the heart of the British government was plotting to give up the fight and negotiate a settlement with the Reich. For all the retrospective condemnation heaped on him by some of his generals, Hitler had been partially correct: there was indeed one very senior British politician who was all too anxious to reach a peace deal. Convinced that the BEF was lost, that the triumph of Germany was inevitable and that Churchill was hopelessly deluded, this self-styled realist believed that the continuation of war would ultimately destroy the empire. The retreat to Dunkirk was his opportunity to strike. While the British troops hoped for salvation, one of their political masters plotted surrender. And it took all of Churchill’s skill and determination to outmanoeuvre him.