From May 26 to Jun. 4, 1940, one of the largest evacuations in human history saved approximately 338,000 Allied troops and gave the Allies the strength to continue resisting Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.
The operation was more successful than the planners’ wildest dreams, partially because of the skill and bravery of boat crews and troops but also because of horrible decisions by the German high command.
The days leading up to the evacuation were characterized by one of the most effective German Blitzkriegs. British, Belgian, and French forces were falling back across France and a thrust by Germany through the Ardennes successfully cut the Allied force in half. By May 19, Britain was looking for ways to get its expeditionary force back across the channel.
A failed counterattack on May 21 sealed France’s fate but Germany’s advances made it appear impossible to stage a large evacuation. The Germans crossed the canals near Dunkirk by May 24 and were about to capture Dunkirk, the last port the British could feasibly use. Luckily, Hitler ordered his Panzers to stop advancing and to even fall back a short distance to the canals.
Hitler’s reasoning is a source of debate, but two main factors are thought to have been uppermost in his mind.
First, Hermann Goering may have been successful in his attempts to convince the fuhrer that the Luftwaffe could kill the troops on the beaches of Dunkirk . Also, there was a chance that Hitler believed that Britain was more likely to surrender if it hadn’t been embarrassed and didn’t have the slaughter of approximately 200,000 of its own troops to rally around.
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