Thursday, April 6, 2023

Guest Post: Dunkirk Halt Order Countermanded

This post originally appeared on Today in Alternate History.

24 May, 1940

With the Wehrmacht in complete mastery of the Western Front, Colonel-Generals Gerd von Rundstedt and G√ľnther von Kluge recommended a three-day pause outside the Dunkirk pocket. Approximately four hundred thousand troops comprising the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French 1st Army were bottled up in this corridor to the sea. A flooded fenland with partial fighter cover from Kent and extra artillery support from the Royal Navy, British Commander Lord Gort fully intended to make a desperate last stand here. There was a compelling argument for avoiding such a costly struggle, taking Paris and forcing a French surrender. From a purely military perspective, the Colonel-Generals' justification was perfectly sound: the terrain was unsuitable for armour, the troops were exhausted, and their vehicles and equipment urgently needed maintenance.

Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering concurred with their reasoning, but he had his own secret agenda: a vainglorious victory for his air force made possible because the RAF had largely been withdrawn for the defense of the home islands. He asked for the chance to destroy the forces in Dunkirk. Hitler actually wanted "to help the British," avoiding a Battle of Britain altogether by signing a peace deal. This would allow the Heer to prepare for the forthcoming invasion of the Soviet Union, which Hitler considered to be the main prize.

In these command circles, it seemed almost certain that a consensus would be reached. But these specious arguments were swept aside by Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch, who managed to convince Hitler that the best bargaining chip was a defeated and captured BEF. He won the argument, stating that the scale of British losses in the Battle of France demonstrated steely determination to fight on afterwards. He believed that the British required a "brutal beating," a final moment of violent closure to convince them that they were as roundly defeated as their fellow Allied nations.

Having studied the advanced plans for Operation Sealion, Brauchitsch had anticipated a reverse invasion, an evacuation attempt of the scale actually being considered for Operation Dynamo. The fruit of his labour was Hitler's proceed order for Army Group B of the Germany Wehrmacht's permission to assault Dunkirk. With the BEF and French surrounded, and the Belgians gone, the Battle of Dunkirk ended swiftly. In the biggest military disaster since Yorktown, the British lost three hundred thousand men trapped in France.

The scale of Churchill's folly now became abundantly clear. His main critic in the cabinet Lord Halifax was way ahead of Brauchitsch, having issued a defeatist warning about "fighting to the end after Europe was lost," which proved to be prescient. The coalition government in office less than three weeks fell to a vote of non-confidence; Halifax took office as Prime Minister promising to end the war through negotiation.

However, von Rundstedt and von Kluge's fears of overextension were also proven right. In his post-war diary, Halder would note "[Hitler] was constantly oppressed by a feeling of anxiety that a reversal loomed..." He dismissed Brauchitsch abject with the new fear that the Soviet Union would take advantage of the severely weakened state of the Wehrmacht. In fact, Stalin had already prepared Operation Icebreaker, his maniacal plan for the conquest of Western Europe.

Author's Note:

In reality, Churchill hailed their rescue as a "miracle of deliverance". While more than 330,000 Allied troops were rescued, the British and French sustained heavy casualties and were forced to abandon nearly all their equipment; around 16,000 French and 1,000 British soldiers died during the evacuation.

Provine's Addendum

Though the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact that had divided Poland between Germany and the USSR promoted non-aggression, its defined spheres of influence in the Baltic states proved to be hardly realistic. Lithuania was a particular question as Germany wanted to hold it as a frontier for the historic East Prussia region. Finland, too, became a quasi-battleground as Germans supported Finnish independence against Soviet incursion, especially after Finland proved itself by holding off Soviet attack for two months in the Winter War of '39-40. It was only a matter of time, international commentators thought, that one side invaded the other, especially after Stalin began to restrict raw material exports to Germany in August 1940. In September 1940 when Germany joined with Italy and the Soviets' eastern nemesis Japan in the Tripartite Pact, the fate of war was sealed. Molotov and Ribbentrop met again in October and November of 1940, and the message was clear: the USSR must join Hitler's Axis or face a two-front war. Stalin, refusing Hitler's offer to shift Soviet influence southward to Iran and even India instead of a warm-water Baltic port, chose war. Soviet troops moved into Bulgaria, and Hitler ordered his armies westward. Japan followed suit with a surprise attack on Vladivostok before marching back into Mongolia, where they had been ousted in 1939.

Meanwhile, the United States stood by, enjoying an economic surge by supplying both countries as a neutral party, though the bulk of the material did sell to German interests. The UK also remained neutral and more nervous, wondering what would become of its empire when the giants wore themselves out fighting in Asia and the winner began to look abroad.

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