With the ability of British collective memory to turn abject failure into heroic myth, the 1940 campaign, which eventually saw the Royal Navy fulfil one of its traditional roles of removing a beaten army to be used somewhere else, has become the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’. Dunkirk has given rise to a great many books and films, some total nonsense propagating legends constructed at the time to avoid shattering civilian morale, others taking a more accurate view. To date, however, there has been little in English which examines the campaign from the German viewpoint. Now, and not before time, this has been rectified in Dünkirchen 1940.
As a former professional soldier who attended the German staff college, spent two years seconded to the Bundeswehr, speaks fluent German and is now a respected historian, there can be no one better qualified to analyse the 1940 campaign from the German perspective than Colonel Robert Kershaw. In making use of a vast array of sources, mainly German but British, French and Belgian too, Kershaw demolishes much contained in the British-accepted versions of the campaign. The Germans did not find the Belgian Army to be cowardly and useless, although the author considers that an opportunity to take the Dunkirk pocket was lost when the Belgians surrendered; they found the French defence of the Dunkirk perimeter to be stoutly conducted and the stop order of 24 May was not ‘the saviour of the BEF’, rather it was the inability of the Panzers to swiftly cross the network of canals and drainage ditches that gave time for the BEF to escape.
The whole question of the stop order is examined in detail, and the author shows that it was a combination of exhaustion (despite drivers having been issued with stimulants to keep them awake), track mileage, the need for the foot-born infantry divisions to catch up, the nature of the terrain and British naval gunfire support that influenced von Rundstedt, supported by Hitler, to order a pause. Tensions between OKW, the headquarters of the armed forces, and OKH the headquarters of the army are well described and far from being an all-conquering, totally organised and coordinated fighting machine, the German forces are shown to have had their share of doubts and confusion at all levels.
One of the best aspects of the book is the direct quotations of participants from general to private soldier, which give an insight into how those taking part thought at the time, and illustrates that all soldiers have a great deal in common, whatever their race or nationality. While the account concentrates on the battle for Dunkirk, the events at the other channel ports are well described. The maps are excellent (a particular bugbear of this reviewer) and the plates well chosen. All in all this is an excellent book and adds considerable value to the study of the dark days of 1940.
Dünkirchen 1940: The German View of Dunkirk by Robert Kershaw is out now and published by Osprey.
Gordon Corrigan is a former army officer and the author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock: Britain and the Great War.