Debacle at Dunkirk – Hollywood can’t whitewash the shame

In the context of the titanic Second World War, Dunkirk is a mere footnote in history.

Some people in India will swallow any outrageous lie if it comes with a Western stamp of approval. The Battle of Dunkrik in 1940 was a massive and humiliating defeat suffered by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of 400,000 troops against Adolf Hitler’s powerful German Army, but in the Hollywood movie Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan has packaged the evacuation as a story of heroism. It is understandable why British and American audiences are flocking to the theatres – it glorifies their people. But what is truly bizarre is educated Indians fawning over the movie like sepoys and recommending it on Facebook and WhatsApp.

If the battle was really heroic, how come the British were forced to abandon the majority of their equipment and heavy weaponry, including over 2,000 guns, 60,000 trucks, 76,000 tons of ammunition and 600,000 tons of fuel? Why were 41,338 British soldiers left behind to be captured by the German Army? What about the 11,014 dead plus 14,074 wounded?

Dunkirk is a story of British capitulation and cowardice. According to the History Department of the United States Military Academy, “The British retreat to Dunkirk was controversial. But poor planning, intelligence, leadership, and communications had left the Allies in a desperate situation.”

Adrian Hamilton, whose father was a soldier in the French town, writes in The Independent:

“Out of this feat of human salvage (the guns, tanks, vehicles and ammunition were left behind), the British forged a propaganda triumph. It is something that the country, for all its martial qualities, has been good at. From the Battle of Hastings to the retreat at Corunna, we make as much from our defeats as our victories. Out of disaster was woven the image of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’, most assiduously by Winston Churchill with his great rhetoric of determination and defiance.”

In the official British narrative, the evacuation was a unique achievement in which the entire country came together to save the British Army in Europe from German panzers and aerial bombardment. But what is conveniently airbrushed is how this large force got into this situation.

Quick capitulation

In September-October 1939 Germany had stunned the world by steamrolling Poland in just five weeks. None of the countries of Europe had an answer to the German Army’s blitzkrieg – lightning war – tactics. Realising France was next, the British started moving troops into Europe for the defence of the country.

Eight months later, on May 10, 1940, the Germans attacked. Within a week German panzer divisions had punched through French and British and defences, trapping their troops in a small pocket around the port of Dunkirk. After a failed counterattack, the BEF decided to dig in around the town and prepare for an evacuation. Between May 27 and June 4, around 336,000 troops were evacuated by the Royal Navy and small craft.

At Hitler’s mercy

With the BEF trapped between the sea and the rampaging German tanks, it seemed Britain’s fate was sealed. It is important to mention that the 400,000 troops comprised virtually the entire British land forces. There was no second army back home. At this moment of extreme British vulnerability and weakness, a final German blow would have ensured Britain’s permanent exit from the war. However, Hitler ordered his generals to halt the panzers and instead asked the Luftwaffe, the German air force, to finish the task.

The German Fuhrer, who was just a corporal in the army before he became dictator, wasn’t exactly known for possessing a brilliant military mind. Among his shining achievements include the invasion of Russia, which wiped out the cream of the Wehrmacht, the German Army. Hitler’s decision to halt his panzers allowed the British to escape.

The dictator’s decision, which frustrated his army generals, is a baffling one. It is said that a mistake in strategy cannot be undone in the same war. The British Army lived to fight another day and five years later Britain would become the staging point for the American landings in Normandy, France, which led to the collapse of Germany’s western front.

Here are the most likely explanations for that strategic mistake.

Race factor

The German elites loathed the British. Among them was Cecil von Renthe-Fink, a Prussian aristocrat who joined the Nazi Party in 1939. In August 1943, he drafted a memorandum in which he described Britain as “the continent’s ancient enemy”. On the other hand, Hitler, misled by his racial theories, admired the English. He did not want to humiliate and destroy the British army which was of the same race as his own.

Hitler wanted the two nations to jointly dominate the world as the master race – while Britain would rule the seas, Germany would have primacy over land. According to History Today, Hitler never wished to enter into a war with Britain. “He admired the country whose empire he believed powerfully reinforced his ideas of racial domination, commenting that ‘To maintain their empire they need a strong continental power at their side. Only Germany can be that power’.”

British historian Basil Liddel Hart quotes German Army general Gunther von Blumentritt on Hitler’s halt order: “He (Hitler) then astonished us by speaking with admiration of the British Empire, of the necessity for its existence, and the civilisation that Britain had brought into the world. He remarked with a shrug of the shoulders, that the creation of the Empire had been achieved by means that were often harsh, but ‘where there is planning there are shavings flying’. He compared the British Empire with the Catholic Church — saying they were both essential elements of stability in the world. He said that all he wanted from Britain was that she should acknowledge Germany’s position on the continent. The return of Germany’s lost colonies would be desirable but not essential, and he would even offer to support Britain with troops if she should be involved in any difficulties anywhere.”

Louis Kilzer quotes Hitler in his 1994 book ‘Churchill’s Deception’: “The blood of every Englishman is too valuable to shed. Our two peoples belong together racially and traditionally. That is and always has been my aim, even if our generals can’t grasp it.”

British historian David Irving in his book ‘Hitler’s War’ says Swedish explorer Sven Hedin observed Hitler’s confusion about Britain’s refusal to accept his peace offers: Hitler “felt he had repeatedly extended the hand of peace and friendship to the British, and each time they had blacked his eye in reply”.

According to Hedin, Hitler said, “The survival of the British Empire is in Germany’s interests too because if Britain loses India, we gain nothing thereby.”

Just as Hitler underestimated the Russians, he overestimated the English. He had a high opinion of German war fighting skills and assumed the English were equally good. Simply put, Hitler’s racial beliefs did not permit him to humiliate a fellow Germanic nation.

Bargaining chip

Hitler was a lowly Austrian corporal with precious little understanding of geopolitics. He hoped the British would appreciate his gesture of not decimating their army and agree to a peace settlement. In his last statement before his suicide on April 30, 1945, the dictator said he had allowed the BEF to escape as a “sporting gesture” in order to induce Churchill to conclude an agreement with Nazi Germany.

Luftwaffe and party politics

The German political leadership delayed the siege of Dunkirk under the influence of Herman Goering, the chief of the Luftwaffe. Goering, who was the second most powerful leader in Germany after Hitler, assured the dictator that the Luftwaffe could prevent an evacuation and eliminate the BEF on the beach in a matter of days.

There are two possible reasons why Hitler listened to Goering and ignored the advice of his experienced career generals. Since air forces alone don’t win wars, Hitler knew Goering was bound to fail. After losing face in Dunkirk, the Goering was never in a position to pose a threat to Hitler’s leadership. It was just Nazi Party politicking.

Hitler had a high opinion of himself as a war planner although the reality was different. In fact, the plan for a lightning strike into France was originally proposed by German strategist Erich von Manstein, whose famous Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut) strategy was presented by Hitler as his own.

The German leader also suffered from an inferiority complex vis-a-vis the German Army’s elite career generals, who belonged to aristocratic families. By giving importance to his corpulent air force chief and Nazi Party flunkey in a matter of utmost importance, he wanted to humiliate the army generals – a fetish that cost Germany huge.

Panzer vulnerability

Some military historians have written Hitler didn’t want to get his tanks bogged down in the French coastal areas. Others say the German generals didn’t want to risk a British counterattack. But German engineers could have ensured safe passage for the tanks. Besides, the Germans knew the state of the British Army, especially their fighting skill, or the lack of it. “British doctrine – unlike that of the Americans, Germans and Russians – did not emphasise direct concentration of force,” writes John T. Correll, former editor in chief of Air Force Magazine. “From the Victorian era onward, the British had favoured limited engagements on the periphery of the empire, conflicts that were frequently protracted but which minimised risks and losses.”

German Army chief of staff Walther von Brauchitsch tried to repeal the order to halt the tanks, but faced with Hitler’s intransigence he couldn’t move them at all. General Heinz Guderian later reflected: “What the future of the war would have been like if we had succeeded in taking the British Expeditionary Force prisoners at Dunkirk is now impossible to guess.”

Sea Lion: Missed Opportunity

Dunkirk had a cascading effect on German war plans. Hitler not only allowed the British Army to escape but the Luftwaffe failed once again in the Battle of Britain soon after. German bombing killed 40,000 British civilians but the Luftwaffe couldn’t achieve air supremacy over Britain. Operation Sea Lion – the planned invasion of England – was canned.

General Kurt Student, the founder of Germany’s airborne forces, regretted the missed opportunity. Regarding Operation Sea Lion, he said it could have been successful if the invasion had taken place immediately after Dunkirk: “Had we launched an airborne operation to occupy the ports where the BEF was disembarking, England’s fate would have been sealed.”

According to History Today, it seems highly unlikely that Britain could have resisted a German invasion in early June 1940. Churchill knew this and after his ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ speech, reportedly covered up the BBC microphone and said, ‘but we’ve only got bottles to do so’.

“Certainly the BEF was in no position to fight. On their return, brigades existed as names only and the nation, dazed by recent events, had virtually no preparations in place. The recently created Local Defence Volunteer units, with pitch forks and the odd shotgun, would have provided little more than a spirited but futile resistance.”

If there was a positive outcome of Dunkirk it was that Hitler instead of invading Britain directed his army east, at Russia – the only country that had the military might, land mass, resources and generals who ran brilliant tactics to defeat Nazi Germany.

Disorderly retreat

The retreat at Dunkirk was anything but orderly or heroic. There were reports of British troops forcing French soldiers out of boats bound for England. This was sad because the soldiers of the French 1st Army had formed a perimeter around Dunkirk and fought till the end, allowing the British to escape.

Gerard Oram, Director of Programmes for War and Society, Swansea University, paints a vivid picture of the retreat: “Covered by rear-guard actions by both British and French units, exhausted troops converged on Dunkirk. Naturally, there was panic and chaos on the beaches. The town and port were bombed and time was running out. Discipline was often tested: historians have found anecdotal evidence that order was sometimes restored through the severest of measures, with guns being trained on troops by their own officers and men.”

In a report titled ‘Dunkirk: The Defeat That Inspired a Nation’, Alice Palmer of Wellesley College writes that the French viewed the evacuation of Dunkirk as an example of the “British tendency to abandon ship as soon as things became difficult”. The French even call it a betrayal.

“At the beginning of the evacuation, the Royal Navy had been given orders to preferentially evacuate British soldiers, and the French were understandably appalled. Even after the Navy began evacuating equal numbers of British and Allied troops, British and French leadership remained conflicted about whether or not the British had done enough to evacuate the French. While the French claimed that British ships had sailed away as French soldiers had been trying to reach them, the British claimed that their ships had been left in danger waiting for French soldiers who had failed to arrive when expected.”

Airbrushing Indians

While some Indian journalists have been gushing about the “otherwise brilliant” movie, there is also mild criticism by these sepoys that India’s “significant contribution” is missing from Nolan’s work. One of these reports quotes Lt Cdr Manish Tayal of the Royal Navy as saying that Dunkirk is a “missed opportunity to also tell the story of the Lascars”, the Indian sailors who operated merchant ships and other non-military vessels that came to rescue the stranded Allies.

Let’s get the record straight. India contributed 2.5 million soldiers to the British war effort. They fought in various campaigns – in North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Burma, Singapore and China. As many as 87,000 Indian soldiers died in World War II. Plus, Britain was able to commandeer the massive resources of its Indian Empire. It received untold billions of pounds worth of arms and ammunition manufactured in – and paid for by – India plus unlimited supplies of timber and food even as Indians were made to starve. The billions of pounds the British stole from the Indian exchequer also played a critical role in the war effort.

What was the Indian presence at Dunkirk? Out of the 400,000 BEF troops, only 1000 were Indian. These were men of four mule companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps. This group, which reached France in December 1939, was designated as Force K-6. While three companies were evacuated, one company was captured by the Germans.

Among those captured included Jemadar Maula Dad Khan who was awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal for gallantry. His citation reads: “On 24 May 1940 when approaching Dunkerque, Jemadar Maula Dad Khan showed magnificent courage, coolness and decision. When his troop was shelled from the ground and bombed from the air by the enemy he promptly reorganised his men and animals, got them off the road and under cover under extremely difficult conditions. It was due to this initiative and the confidence he inspired that it was possible to extricate his troop without loss in men or animals.”

Christopher Woolf and Amulya Shankar of Public Radio International point out that the Indian soldiers of Force K-6 were all Muslim. “This was a deliberate decision, to simplify logistic and spiritual support needs. Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims have different rules on food, so only one group was selected. They were mostly Punjabis, with a few Pashtuns, and most were from districts that became part of Pakistan at independence in 1947.”

(The British preferred to deploy Muslim soldiers in Europe while Hindu-Sikh regiments were stationed in the Middle East and North Africa. British experience in wars involving Muslims was that Muslim troops exhibited a tendency to rebel if the opposing army belonged to a Muslim country.)

Franz Stefan-Gady of The Diplomat points out that no Indian Army troops were specifically dispatched to Europe in 1940 and therefore played no significant role in Dunkirk.

The massive Indian mobilisation happened after the debacle of Dunkirk. Although it was with great reluctance that the British allowed Indians to fight at the frontlines, Indian soldiers won several major battles, terrorising German troops and winning hundreds of gallantry awards, including Victoria Crosses. But all this happened after Dunkirk.

Nolan’s movie doesn’t make a conscious effort to whitewash the Indian contribution. Considering their minimal presence in the beaches of Dunkirk, their absence in the movie shouldn’t disappoint or shock Indians. The Indian media has once again raised a ruckus over a non-issue, while missing the real picture, which is Nolan perpetuating the myth of Britain making a heroic and lone stand against the Germans.

Endgame

Dunkirk was no British Stalingrad. If there were any heroes, they were in the German Army which defeated such a huge British-French army in so short a time. With a dollop of hyperbole and a dash or irony, here’s what the German newspaper Der Adler (The Eagle) wrote on June 5, 1940: “For us Germans the word “Dunkirchen” will stand for all time for victory in the greatest battle of annihilation in history. But, for the British and French who were there, it will remind them for the rest of their lives of a defeat that was heavier than any army had ever suffered before.”

The irony is that just three years from that date, the German Army was going to suffer a series of defeats unparalleled in history – at Stalingrad, Leningrad, Moscow, Kursk and finally the gotterdammerung at Berlin. In the context of those titanic battles, on which depended the fate of the human race, Dunkirk is a mere footnote in history. Not even Hollywood can spin that.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

Rakesh is a journalist at New Zealand’s leading media house. He mostly writes on defence and foreign affairs.
His articles have been quoted extensively by universities and in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south; and by international defence journals.
Rakesh’s work has been cited by leading think tanks and organisations that include the Naval Postgraduate School, California; US Army War College, Pennsylvania; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; State University of New Jersey; Institute of International and Strategic Relations, Paris; BBC Vietnam; Siberian Federal University, Krasnoyarsk; Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; Institute for Defense Analyses, Virginia; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, Washington DC; Stimson Centre, Washington DC; Foreign Policy Research Institute, Philadelphia; and Institute for Strategic, Political, Security and Economic Consultancy, Berlin.
His articles have been published by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi; Foundation Institute for Eastern Studies, Warsaw; and the Research Institute for European and American Studies, Greece, among others.