On May 10th 1940 Hitler launched his blitzkrieg (a violent surprise offensive) against the Low Countries and France. By the second week of May the French defences had been broken. Rommel and his 7th Panzer Division with lighting speed advanced across France and Belgium. Very soon the British Expeditionary Forces found themselves encircled at Dunkirk.
The German High Command on the 27th May announced that ‘The British Army is encircled, and our troops are proceeding to its annihilation.’ No doubt this boastful prediction was encouraged by their incredibly swift advances and the relatively quick defeat of those who stood before.
The advancing German Army had trapped the British and French armies on the beaches around Dunkirk. More than 330,000 men were trapped and were sitting targets for the Germans. Admiral Ramsey, based in Dover, formulated Operation Dynamo to get from the beaches as many men as was possible. The British troops, led by Lord John Gort, were professional soldiers from the British Expeditionary Force; trained men that Britain could not afford to lose.
Back in Britain Winston Churchill feared the worst, that it could become the greatest military disaster in their long history. Churchill said in The Second World War: ‘I thought – and some good judges agreed with me – that perhaps 20 or 30,000 men might be re-embarked . . . the whole root and core and brain of the British army . . . seemed about to perish upon the field or be led into ignominious and starving captivity.’
All therefore seemed about to be lost. But they had to desperately try to save some of their trapped men from slaughter and imprisonment. The British Expeditionary Force lost 68,000 soldiers during the French campaign. From May 26th 1940, small boats transferred soldiers to larger ones which then brought them back to a port in southern Britain.
Evacuation from Dunkirk was a problem: the beach sloped so no large boat could get near to the actual beaches where the men were. Therefore, smaller boats were needed to take on board men who would then be transferred to a larger ship based further off shore. Some 800 of these legendary “little ships” were used. Many of these boats were sailed by members of the public who volunteered to help their fellow countrymen.
But what did happen? A miracle is mentioned in most reports and even in the movies Dunkirk and The Darkest Hour they reported the miracle. Could there be another answer?
Despite intermittent attacks from German fighter and bomber planes, the Nazi Army never launched a full-scale attack on the beaches of Dunkirk. Panzer tank crews awaited the order from Hitler, but it never came.
In his memoirs, Field Marshall Rundstadt, the German commander-in-chief in France during the 1940 campaign, called Hitler’s failure to order a full-scale attack on the troops on Dunkirk his first fatal mistake of the war. That 338,000 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk would seem to uphold this view.
Tuesday 28th May saw a storm of unprecedented fury break over the Flanders grounding the German Luftwaffe. The grounding of the Nazi planes allowed more armed formations to advance to Dunkirk with little or no attacks.
Three days after the High Command had so proudly boasted of the coming annihilation of the British Army, General Halder, Chief of the German General Staff was obliged to write in his diary on the 30th May. He wrote that ‘Bad weather has grounded the Luftwaffe, and now we must stand by and watch thousands of the enemy getting away to England right under our noses.’
As Flanders was battling the fury of a violent storm, a quite extraordinary calm, such as has rarely been experienced, settled over the English Chanel. This allowed a multitude of small and large craft to evacuate the soldiers.
Sir Douglas Bader, the legless Spitfire ace, recorded in his book ‘Fight for the Sky’ ‘The sea from Dunkirk to Dover during these days of the evacuation….was solid with shipping…One felt one could walk across without getting one’s feet wet . . . there were naval escort vessels, sailing dinghies, rowing boats, paddle steamers, indeed every floating device known in this country’.
The evacuation from Dunkirk to Dover in terms of human life was an exceptional success. However, the loss of tanks, trucks, guns and army equipment left behind in France this created an environment of extreme vulnerability for Britain. War strategists asked the question, why did Hitler not attack England after the loss of so many weapons? His hesitation through June allowed the British armies time to regroup.
There were no official Australian contingents in Dunkirk but there were a number of Australians working with the British. One that could be tracked down was Captain Emile Frank Verlaine Dechaineux who was born on 3rd October 1902 in Launceston Tasmania.
He served in the British Admiralty’s Tactical and Minesweeping divisions until April 1940 and made five trips to assist in the evacuation at Dunkirk as the commander of the destroyer HMS Vivacious.
A reason for the miracle?
One of the reasons put forward for Hitler not ordering an attack was that he believed that Britain had suffered from the might of the blitzkrieg once and that this experience would be sufficient for Britain to come to peace terms with Hitler.
The total destruction of the British Expeditionary Force might have created such a climate of revenge in Britain that their involvement would be prolonged. We simply cannot know the real reason why Hitler did not order a full-scale attack on the beaches of Dunkirk and destroy the British forces.
If one studies the big picture of the Dunkirk saga there could be another answer to how and why this incredible miracle unfolded.
Britain had a godly sovereign, His Majesty King George Vl. In a stirring broadcast to his people, and the people of the British Empire, he requested that they set Sunday 26th May aside as a National Day of Prayer and commit their cause to God.
Together with members of the Cabinet, the King attended Westminster Abbey. The scene outside Westminster Abbey was remarkable – as photographs show long queues of people who could not get into the 2,000 seat Abbey. Throughout the British Isles and the Empire, millions of people responded. The following morning the Daily Sketch exclaimed ‘Nothing like it has ever happened before.’
So grateful was the nation for this mighty deliverance that Sunday 6th June 1940 was appointed a Day of National Thanksgiving. The Daily Telegraph reported that ‘the prayers of the nation were answered’, and that ‘two great wonders stand forth, and on them have turned the fortune of our troops’. ‘The first was the ferocious storm over Flanders . . . and the second was the great calm on the English Channel during the days following.’ ‘Officers of high rank do not hesitate to put down the deliverance of the British Expeditionary Force to the fact of the nation being at prayer two days before the ferocious storm and the great calm.’
Could this be the real reason for the ‘miracle’ of deliverance, that God did answer the prayers of his people?
Graham McDonald is the President of The DIDUNO Network. Major reference ‘The Trumpet Sounds for Britain’ written by the Rev David Gardner.
Graham McDonald is the President of Diduno