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Posted on Sep 27, 2006 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

The Day Hitler Blinked

By Carlo D'Este

There was another, perhaps overriding reason why Hitler had little interest in the BEF. His aim was the conquest of France and so far only its northern region had been taken. On paper, the French army still had 1.5. million troops under arms, consisting of some 65 divisions that had yet to be defeated. With Göring’s promise that “Only fishbait will reach the other side,” Hitler had reason to turn his attention to making France the latest German vassal state. (3)

When Hitler arrived at the field HQ of Army Group A the morning of May 24, its commander, Gen. Gerd von Rundstedt, was already contemplating a halt. (4) He proposed to Hitler that the spearheads of Gen. Ewald von Kleist’s Panzer Group be halted on the Aa Canal. Von Rundstedt’s rationale was that the network of canals in northern France would impede their forward movement and that they ought to be conserved for later operations to the south. Hitler immediately agreed and the panzers sat idle while the generals quarreled over the decision out of sight of Hitler. However, with willing allies like Göring and von Rundstedt, who was likewise more concerned with operations in southern France than he was with Dunkirk, the order remained in force for a crucial forty-eight hours. (5)

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There was a pessimistic side of Hitler that tended to emerge at key moments. Despite everything in his favor and a golden opportunity to annihilate the BEF (the nucleus of the British Army in 1940), Hitler ignored the pleas of both Gen. Franz Halder (Chief of the General Staff of the Army – Oberkommando des Heeres – OKH), and the Army commander-in-chief, Gen. Walter von Brauchitsch, to attack at once. Hitler remained unmoved, deeming the employment of the panzer force in southern France more important than possibly having his motorized forces bogged down by the canals and marshland of Flanders. “The British Army had no relevance for him,” said von Below. By the time Hitler permitted von Rundstedt to resume his offensive to capture the Channel ports on May 26, the decision to evacuate the BEF at Dunkirk had been taken and was already in motion. Despite permitting the resumption of operations toward Dunkirk, Hitler decreed that the panzers advance no closer than artillery range.

The halt of the panzers was one of the war’s great turning points and a stroke of extraordinary good fortune for Churchill and for Britain. Although unproven, and, if true, a masterpiece of delusion, “Hitler was alleged to have told his entourage a fortnight or so later that ‘the army is the backbone of England and the Empire. If we smash the invasion corps, the Empire is doomed. Since we neither want nor can inherit it, we must leave it the chance.’” (6) After the BEF had escaped, Hitler also remarked to von Kleist that, “he had no intention of sending his tanks into ‘the mud of Flanders. The English won’t show up again in this war, anyway.’” (7) “We were speechless,” said Gen. Heinz Guderian, whose spearheads would have led the charge on Dunkirk, particularly inasmuch as the German Army Intelligence Service had accurately predicted no threat from either the French or British. (8) Guderian’s assessment of the German failure to finish the BEF in Flanders is accurate. The mistaken belief by Hitler and Göring that the Luftwaffe would have prevented the evacuation of the BEF was “a mistake pregnant with consequences, for only the capture of the British Expeditionary Force could have influenced the English toward making peace with Hitler or could have created the conditions necessary for a successful German invasion of Great Britain.” (9)

Of all the World War II directives issued to German Army commanders, none provoked more controversy or outrage than this one. Some corps commanders were reported as resembling “a pack of hunting dogs that are halted at a dead stop, directly in front of the game, and that see their quarry escape,” while another officer summed up their anger and frustration. “What is this nonsensical order . . . supposed to mean? Do we want to build golden bridges for the English whose entire expeditionary army is being squeezed in around Dunkirk?” (10) After the war, a panzer commander, Maj. Gen. Wilhelm von Thoma, remarked scornfully, “You can never talk to a fool. Hitler spoilt the chance of victory.” (11) Hitler’s contempt for and distrust of his generals and his foolish belief that he knew better led to repeated misjudgments such as this one.

The belief articulated by some historians and theorists that war is too important to be left to its generals was never true with Hitler, who mismanaged his military countless times during the war, including, besides France in 1940, Stalingrad in 1942-43 and the Ardennes counteroffensive in December 1944. (12)

Other reasons have also been advanced, among them that Hitler did not want to humiliate Britain. “The Army is England’s backbone . . . If we destroy it, there goes the British Empire. We would not, could not inherit it . . . My generals did not understand this.” (13) Toward the end of the war, Hitler defended his decision by declaring that: “Churchill was quite unable to appreciate the sporting spirit of which I have given proof by refraining from creating an irreparable breach between the British and ourselves. We did, however, refrain from annihilating them at Dunkirk.” (14) The truth was that “Hitler and some of his generals were so fixated on preventing a repetition of the [1914] ‘miracle of the Marne’ that they conjured up the ‘miracle of Dunkirk.’” (15)

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The operation over, remaining British troops are
taken as POWs

The result was that the British were given an unexpected but precious forty-eight-hour window to begin organizing the evacuation and to deploy its protective screen. The BEF would be saved from destruction by Hitler’s decision of May 24, 1940. Moreover, the saving of more than 300,000 British and French soldiers had other historic consequences. Foremost, it undoubtedly saved Churchill his job. There was a strong element within the British government that believed the war was already lost and that Britain ought to discuss peace terms with Hitler. Only Churchill stood defiantly in their way. Thus, had the BEF been lost, he would have been ousted as prime minister and it cannot be ruled out that the hated swastika might eventually have flown over Parliament. Instead, Churchill survived to lead Britain to victory.

Hitler’s decision of May 24, 1940 was a major factor in the saving the BEF from destruction. Had their roles been reversed, Churchill would never have returned the favor. (16)

© Copyright pending. Although it is too early to establish a precise date, interested readers should look for the publication of Warlord circa the summer of 2008 by HarperCollins in the USA & Canada, and Penguin in the UK. Amazon.com, Barnes&Noble.com, and other Internet sources will always have advance information.

References

1. Walter Warlimont, Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, 1939-45 (London, 1964), p. 98.

2. Nicholaus von Below, At Hitler’s Side: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Luftwaffe Adjutant, 1937-1945 (London, 2001), pp. 60-1.

3. Derek Robinson, Invasion 1940 (New York, 2005), p. 33.

4. Von Rundstedt’s inclination to halt von Kleist’s panzers was strongly influenced by the fact that the infantry lagged far behind his armor, which he regarded as vulnerable without infantry support. In this regard, he was backed by Gen. Gunther von Kluge, the commander of 4th Army. (See Correlli Barnett [ed.], Hitler’s Generals [London, 1989], p. 450.)

5. Gen. Heinz Guderian, whose tanks had already gained a bridgehead over the canal, was incredulous at the order to halt. Col. Karl-Heinz Frieser, an acclaimed German military historian has written that the reasons lay in a conflict between the traditionalist and the progressives in the Wehrmacht. The panzer generals and high-ranking officers like Halder and von Brauchitsch were overruled by traditionalists like von Rundstedt, who later admitted, “I was worried that Kleist’s weak forces would be overrun by the fleeing English.” The cause of the crisis, notes Frieser, was what he terms “the flank psychosis,” a crisis that “can be traced not so much to an external threat from the enemy, but rather to the thinking of some high-ranking military leaders who, facing an incomprehensible victory, at the last moment lost their nerve.” (Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West [Annapolis, 2005], p. 292.)

6. Ian Kershaw, Hitler 1936-1945 Nemesis (New York, 2000), p. 295. As Kershaw notes, the German generals who made this claim, primarily and particularly von Rundstedt, may themselves have been justifying their agreement to this monumental blunder. Col. Frieser points out that, “Later, Rundstedt tried to put all the blame on Hitler, as if the latter had forced the halt order on him.” (The Blitzkrieg Legend, p. 295.) And, while Hitler certainly did not order the halt, neither did he countermand what suited him just as much as did Rundstedt.

7. Walter Goerlitz, History of the German General Staff (New York, 1967), p. 376.

8. Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend, p. 292.

9. Gen. Heinz Guderian, Panzer Leader (London, 1952), p. 120.

10. Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend, pp. 295-6. The first quote is from Hitler’s senior military aide, Lt. Col. Rudolf Schmundt and the second by Lt. Col. Adolf Heusinger, an operations officer on the Army General Staff.

11. Goerlitz, History of the German General Staff, p. 376.

12. Gen. Walter Warlimont noted that, “Daily, even hourly, Hitler was interfering in the conduct of operations . . . showing that he had no confidence in the leadership of the army. The influence he exerted at this moment was decisive for the outcome of the campaign, perhaps even for that of the entire war and it was not to the benefit of Germany.” (Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, 1939-45, p. 97.)

13. Luftwaffe Gen. Hans Jeschonnek quoted on May 26, 1940 in John Lukacs, Five Days in London, May 1940 (New Haven, 1999), p. 41.

14. Ibid., p. 42.

15. Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend, p. 292.

16. One evening in 1941 Churchill observed to the War Office Director of Military Operations (DMO), that, “Once you grab the enemy by the nose, he will be able to think of nothing else.” (Maj. Gen. Sir John Kennedy, The Business of War [London, 1957], p. 80.)

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