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Dunkirk – Defeat, Deliverance or Victory

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The Second World War, soon named ‘Hitler’s War’, was one of the largest-scale wars the world had ever seen. It has been described as the most devastating war in history that involved practically every large nation with an army. It began in 1939 between Germany and the Anglo-French-Polish. Germany’s troops were trained in effective art of ‘Blitzkrieg’ in which the German Panzer tanks and divisions would simply plough through countries leaving only rubble, death and destruction in their path. In April 1940, Poland had fallen and by the 27th of May Czechoslovakia, Denmark and Norway had been occupied by the Axis.

Hitler next planned to use the Panzer group and the Blitzkrieg tactic to make their way to France by simultaneously going through Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg. For the Allies they had little way of reaching their northern and southern forces. The Germans were rapidly surrounding what was left in Europe of the northern armies. British commanders considered drawing the troops back but instead orders from the forward looking London generals gave instructions to try and attack the right flank of the Germans.

This might have been very successful if backed up with heavy artillery, but it only startled the Germans and was quickly stopped. Despite France having the fighting Political leadership from Paul Reynaud, its government remained very divided and with little confidence. Many of its leaders were defeatists, which is probably why the French decided put all of its efforts into defence. France had never had any powerful allies and knew it had very little hope in defeating Germany. The B. E. F were sent to France to help out, even when it was a very small force compared to France’s 1,000,000-troop army.

Britain was in the depths of a large-scale nationalistic mood, which believed it had a strong chance against Hitler’s mighty ‘Luftwaffe’ (airforce). An alliance was formed between Britain and France to help defend against the powerful German army. The Axis had advanced through the French port of Boulogne, and then Calais, leaving only one port left for any British Troops or remaining French troops to get away-Dunkirk. Instead of carrying on the Blitzkrieg tactic, the German army paused for a few days (Historians still argue about why) leaving the British Expeditionary Force to organize a last minute evacuation.

Some say that German commanders believed that the tanks be saved for the coming operations south of the river Somme, others say that Hitler believed the Dunkirk area was unsuitable for a large military invasion. Also, people say that Hitler was planning to try and make peace with Britain by sparing the B. E. F. People have different views about the true circumstances that took place at Dunkirk. The British say that it was a morale boosting victory for the B. E. F, yet others contradict that by saying that the B. E. F were simply running away.

Was Dunkirk a possible defeat? While many see Dunkirk as a great triumph psychologically, it is quite possible that Dunkirk was a complete defeat in more than one way. Dunkirk after all, was the evacuation of troops. They were being forced to run away and people cant see how this can be a sign of victory. Germany did not really see Dunkirk as important so it wasn’t really a victory for Germany, but it could definitely be linked to the temporary defeat of the British. The basic facts of defeat are, most importantly, the surrender or retreating of demoralized troops.

Another is the loss of equipment or military warfare that can do severe damage to Britain as an army. Finally, the killing and casualties of troops that will directly affect Britain’s World War effort. A panicked evacuation that results in mass demoralization and fright is an important factor that is strongly linked with defeat. After all, the Germans had already tricked the B. E. F and the French army in fooling the allies into thinking they would attack from the north as they did in World War I, but this time they came from the south.

German morale was at an all time high, and a retreating B. E. F wasn’t exactly going to harm this. The first defeatist source is a picture taken at the beaches of Dunkirk in which trucks are built onto the sea to facilitate the evacuation, some may see it as brilliant improvisation but I prefer to see at as a burst of desperation. To actually use trucks as a way of boarding ships quicker shows lack of organization and severe panic. They must have been very short of time, and very rushed to resort to the use of very expensive trucks to simply be sacrificed in order to save these men.

However, it does show the way in which the B. E. F were coming together in Dunkirk spirit, but nevertheless retreating to boats is defeat, whether by foot or vehicles. It does show that they were doing the best they could in a deteriorating situation, but obviously each soldier was returning demoralized with very little feeling of a victory. These pictures in the source are primary evidence and are photographic, which makes them very reliable in comparison to writing, since a photograph cannot lie. However in some respects, it does lie. There are only 2 photos, and is a very narrow view of one day.

It may be biased and only show the worse aspects of Dunkirk, a German took it and I’m sure they might have been using this as both propaganda and to demoralize their opposition. The British were known for their high morale and the German Army were desperately trying to eliminate their opponents in body and mind. A former soldier named W. B. A Gaze writes the second source. This source suggests panic and desperation during the evacuation. He recollected what he saw on the beaches on the night of 27 May 1940. He describes how bombers constantly bombed them every ten minutes and soldiers would simply have to crouch in minute holes they had dug.

He also mentions Naval officers shooting their revolvers to gain order and soldiers fighting for boats in a mass fright. There is not even an element of victory in his words, but there is not even the famous Dunkirk spirit that is recalled by even the most negative sources. The B. E. F were clearly frightened, tired, and desperate. They saw this as the only way they could get home and they didn’t care if they were demoralized or panicked, they just wanted to get on those boats to have at least one attempt at getting home.

I know that a huge number of soldiers died at Dunkirk, and these surviving members of the B. E. F had probably witnessed countless killings and captures at the hands of Adolf Hitler. Only a few thousands were rescued on the first days of Dunkirk so it probably was chaotic. This source would be slightly biased in that the evacuation was probably a lot more orderly once the retreat was further underway. Also, this memory is recollected a significant time after the event, and his memory might be blurred, but I don’t think this would have a notable effect on his interpretation.

This is very reliable though since it is first hand from someone who was there, and he was an ordinary soldier who had no reason to lie. Also most of the troops were actually evacuated from the harbour, not the beaches, maybe this is why. The third source that also has connotations to defeat and panic is an account of an RAF pilot. He was shot down during the time and he witnessed many bombings from the German Fighters. He describes how men simply dived for cover under the water and desperately shot their rifles at the passing planes. He recalls the morality as exhausted and that many of the soldiers were killed.

This brings me onto the next aspect of defeat, this source is unique since it directly mentioned the men killed during Dunkirk which makes it much less biased or one sided. He doesn’t say a few troops died, he says a number of troops wouldn’t be going home after each raid. As well as being panicked, Dunkirk was a sign of a military defeat of a large scale and that soldiers fired rifles as a last attempt to do anything to help the evacuation. This is an eye-witness account so it’s very reliable and is generally very unbiased since it is an allied point of view, but admitting defeat.

We don’t actually know who wrote the source and when exactly during the evacuation it was written, the last day might have been very treacherous due to continuing bombing. The casualties and loss of men suffered by the British on the beaches of Dunkirk cannot be ignored. An account of a German Pilot gives things from another perspective, without having to be aware of British government propaganda. It is the first of it’s kind and the pilot recalls how he mercilessly killed thousands of soldiers by spraying them with bullets over and over again. He describes it as mass killing but still not very important in the eyes of Germans.

Firstly this says that Dunkirk was no victory for the British, even if it was it wasn’t a very important victory at all. If all this death took place in the hands of one pilot, not including bombing, then Dunkirk must of been a complete disaster. This source is first hand from an eyewitness who took a direct part in the killing of the B. E. F. This makes it very reliable and is one of very few German accounts available. It is very well informed and sheds some light on the truth of Dunkirk. However, it is from a German perspective and could therefore make it slightly distorted.

It is significant that he regrets what he did, which means that he is most likely to be telling the truth if he expresses regret. I already know that a large number of French and British troops were killed at Dunkirk whilst apparently in the thick of their ‘Dunkirk Spirit’. After many of Churchill’s inspiring and patriotic speeches, his letters to General Weygand revealed the truth behind Dunkirk. He mentions how six troop-filled ships were sunk by German bombing. Keeping in mind that a ship could hold near a 1000 troops, that is up to 6000 men killed in one bombing session.

The source is a draft letter (unedited), which was written in 1940, and later published in 1982. This suggests that the material in the letter was too sensitive to be revealed too close to the time. It is far from the confident tone featured in Churchill’s speeches, and shows the Government panicking on the brink of defeat. In reality, Dunkirk was a defeat for the British and it seems obvious that Churchill secretly knew this. I know how positive and forward looking Churchill was, but this source contradicts any of his memoirs.

The way Churchill talks about the loss of troops so freely is an obvious element of defeat, and he seems to be concentrating on how he can keep his men alive rather than concentrating on their morale’s. The source seems to be very unbiased, but the way it contradicts previous Churchill sources, makes his other sources very unreliable. It is a primary piece of evidence and it shows us two sides of Churchill. He is worried about offending the French, which suggests that many of the French soldiers died on the Dunkirk beaches along with the British. As well as the loss of men, the British Army suffered heavy machinery losses.

It’s loss of equipment, ammunition, ships and planes all made Dunkirk a greater loss for the British. Source 3 is a collection of pictures taken during Dunkirk. The photographs show sunken vessels and abandoned heavy equipment. Dunkirk is described as a deserted landscape. These photos emphasize how defeated the B. E. F really were. It mentions the people killed in air raids and equipment such as trucks simply sitting on the beaches like litter. This portrayed the image that many soldiers recalled afterwards. There was no spirit in these scenes, and soldiers’ lying dead on a beach is not what Churchill had had in mind for his brave men.

To the Germans it seemed like an unimportant, free for all massacre of their opponents, and they took advantage of this as seen in the images. This is one of few pictures taken by the Germans of Dunkirk, but if pictures were taken the Germans must have seen it as slightly important or just an opportunity to use the images as propaganda and to exploit the British. It cannot be far from the truth since it was indeed taken at the time but it only seems to exploit the worst areas of Dunkirk, after all 330,000 troops did escape that coast.

The South Wales Echo newspaper reported on all of the events in the war, since so many Welsh soldiers were out there fighting the war. On the 5th June 1940, Dunkirk made the front page. The article is still quite nationalistic, but there is no doubt that is portraying an image of defeat. In this source Dunkirk is described as a ‘Colossal Military Disaster’. This supports the argument that Dunkirk was a heavy defeat in terms of land lost and equipment lost, and is against Churchill saying that there was deliverance inside this defeat.

This does not mention death as the defeating factor but the loss in ‘military’ terms, possibly due to Government censorship, especially when they have to be sensitive to families of soldiers. This is the first British piece of government evidence to be close to honesty in its writing. It quotes Churchill and seems to be very well informed, and was written shortly after the event, which could still have connotations to government propaganda or censorship. Despite men being saved, Dunkirk was one of Britain’s first major defeats in its history and this cannot be denied.

The amount of machinery lost certainly strengthens the argument that Dunkirk was a complete disaster for Churchill but he realized the situation could have been worse if 330,000 men were massacred on those beaches. It must be mentioned that a significant amount of French troops were rescued on those beaches and ports and they are also mentioned to add to the propaganda.

This suggests that Churchill himself was in a panic and was trying his best to keep his army together, and this is the first evidence to begin to question Churchill. 0,000 men were killed or injured, tons of ammunition lost, hundreds of vehicles abandoned, 330,000 troops simply running away, we begin to question where exactly this deliverance originated from. When a third of a million troops are retreating no normal soldier can retreat with some sort of spirit. Nothing but lowered morale, and their closest friends simply shot down next to them by German planes that were unopposed in the air. The British realized that defeat was upon them and all they could gain out of it would be to keep as many of their men alive, and this was done successfully to a certain extent.

Nevertheless, the B. E. F did not return with anything gained but their friend’s identity tags. Dunkirk Was Dunkirk a possible Victory? What happened during the Dunkirk evacuation can be interpreted as a great triumph for the British Army. The key factors being that almost the entire remaining British army was evacuated in the space of a week and that the whole nation could continue the war effort against Nazi Germany. After all, a victory would be defined as most of the troops escaping from certain death and capture.

For that many troops to be evacuated in such a short time, it must have been quite well organized and especially important if it boosted the morale of soldiers and civilians alike during the retreat. This would be described as a psychological victory. A well-ordered and calm evacuation could be an aspect of victory in itself. Also if the Troops emerged with an increase in morale, this could also be incorporated into the psychological aspects of a victory. The most important aspect, which would have the greatest effect on the war, would be the number of troops rescued.

I know that if it wasn’t for the mass rescue of British (and some French) soldiers, it would not of been possible to continue the fight against Germany. Britain would have been forced to withdraw from the war, and sign some sort of treaty with Hitler. Another very important aspect for Dunkirk to be a victory would be that the troops would have to emerge from the event with higher morale and some sort of ‘Dunkirk Spirit’, this links with the psychological victory aspect of Dunkirk. Any event that could possibly strengthen Churchill’s leadership will have a positive effect on how the civilian population looked upon Dunkirk and their leader.

Many historians look upon Dunkirk as a great morale boosting victory. They do not mind what else happened as long as the majority of troops escaped and they escaped with smiles on their faces. Dunkirk was a great victory in one sense, because so many troops were evacuated so quickly. AJP Taylor’s interpretation of the events in Dunkirk describes how ‘338,226 men were saved by over 860 ships and small vessels’, The basic message in this is that Operation Dynamo was an order for as many men as possible to be evacuated, and that’s what happened.

It also mentions the amount of equipment lost, but in the eyes of the British and AJP Taylor, this did not matter. The evacuation of Dunkirk was the evacuation of the B. E. F and French troops, not the evacuation of 500,000 tons of ammunition. This is a very important note relating to the psychological aspect of Dunkirk, the British did exactly what they planned to do, and Germany failed to stop it. The source should be unbiased since AJP Taylor is a very well known historian. It is written for a well-informed textbook and the use of primary statistics is used to back up his ideas.

However he fails to mention the number of casualties at the Dunkirk beaches and fails to mention that more than 2/3’rds of the troops evacuated were evacuated from the port of Dunkirk. Again, he fails to talk about the mass panic and desperation on the beaches for the first few days, which suggests slight bias towards the allies. The British or French troops may have been poorly prepared, but the B. E. F certainly seemed to have enough morale to carry on fighting until they were killed, and this psychological edge was simply added to by having another small victory. ‘Hitler and Stalin’ is a book written by a famous historian-Allan Bullock.

It explains the importance of Hitler’s delay in stopping the B. E. F escaping, and how essential this escape was for Britain. If it wasn’t for the halting of the Nazi tanks, I sincerely doubt that Britain would of organized themselves enough to hold off the Nazi troops for nine days. Allan Bullock makes an important point that Hitler only realized the significance of Dunkirk afterwards that implies he acknowledged Dunkirk as a victory. I believe that the most important aspect of victory would be for troops to escape and to continue the war; this significance is strongly stressed in the source.

Despite this source being written for a generalized textbook, he makes very important references to the reasons why the Germans halted. Mainly placing the blame on Hitler for not noticing the importance of Dunkirk. The source should be reliable, but seems to take the sides of the Allies and doesn’t account for any German gain from Dunkirk. This was published in the 1980’s so censorship of press would have been lifted by that time. Admiralty Records from the ‘Winston Churchill, Volume II Their finest hour’ gives in simple terms the true victory of Dunkirk.

It shows the number of troops evacuated from the Harbour and Beaches of Dunkirk, in the form of a table. Nobody can argue, no matter which side you take, the number of troops evacuated cannot be argued about. More troops were evacuated each day as Dunkirk went on, until about May 31, where the number of troops picked up from the beaches and harbour started to decrease. However the figures indicate more troops were evacuated from the port than the actual beaches. Yet most of the talk about ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ seems to suggest most troops were evacuated from the beaches in some glamorous rescue operation.

Nevertheless, the table shows that almost the entire B. E. F were evacuated so quickly, which indicates victory and a strong, well-improvised evacuation. These figures some up the rescue operation that took place in Dunkirk, and show fully what a victory it was. These are well-informed statistics, and primary evidence. However they are selective figures and give no indication into the casualties from Dunkirk, or how much equipment was lost. The title of the source already shows bias toward the allies. Its all very well rescuing most of the B. E.

F, but for Dunkirk to be more of a success the B. E. F had to be willing to fight on against the Germans and go back to the front lines. The British government used propaganda and various other moral boosting tactics to help spur on their tiresome men, and urged them to keep their heads up. This is where Dunkirk became a psychological victory over the Germans, and marked the climax of Dunkirk. Source 17 is taken from Churchill’s memoirs, the very conversation he had with his Ministers ‘There was a white glow, overpowering sublime, which ran through our Island’.

This is a typical example of the way Churchill described Dunkirk at the time; these very words were used in a speech to millions as government propaganda. The Dunkirk spirit during 1940 became a phenomenon, all sorts of vessels from home were sent to the beaches to bring home ‘their’ soldiers. The source is very brief, but is direct primary evidence from the priminister of the time, although it does not admit any sort of defeat. It seems to contain some patriotic exaggeration and may have been used as self-publicity to boost Churchill’s reputation.

Yet from what is said, this speech was made to his ministers so it should really contain the real truth. Another source that makes very clear references to the spirit of Britain is from a popular speaker during the war named, J. B Priestley. He was known (afterwards) for his propaganda speeches and would talk on the radio every Sunday. He comments that ‘snatching glory out of defeat’ and ‘little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious’. This is referring to the pleasure boats used by normal people wanting to do their part in the war by sailing out to Dunkirk.

This propaganda was used so often in Wartime-Britain. The way he describes our later generations to look back on the rescue gives a great sense of pride for the public and ‘snatching’ victory, seems to imply the victory was not ours to have, and by getting it Britain should be proud. I know that most of the Dunkirk soldiers were rescued mainly by military boats, and only the minority were actually rescued by the small vessels, but it’s the fact that these small vessels made this voyage makes the whole situation so important.

Deliberate emphasis on small vessels rescuing people from the beaches was the main propaganda picture created by the British of the time. This propaganda purpose makes it very unreliable as a source and has no mention of casualties or military losses. However, this is first hand evidence from a well-informed speaker, which gives some strength to the source. Most of the propaganda used by the British came in the form of speeches, another section from Churchill’s memoirs says ‘glory came to the island people, united and unconquerable’. In this source we realize how important it was that Britain helped build the Dunkirk spirit.

The war could be continued, and this was a typical example of the way Churchill and most people from the time, thought that this uniting of a nation would make the difference between winning the war and losing the war. Churchill specifically mentions ‘The tale of Dunkirk Beaches’, I know from the statistical evidence previously released by the same person that most of the men were evacuated from the harbour, but there is no spirit in mass troops being picked up in military ships in the harbour. This self-contradiction makes it biased but its obvious he used these glamorous images to boost his post-war elections that he so much wanted.

This is still however a well informed, near enough primary source. If Dunkirk were a true victory, the evacuation of all these troops would have to be quite organized and calm. For Dunkirk to be a strategic victory then this improvised evacuation must have had some clever organization for a third of a million troops to be taken off Dunkirk in a matter of days. Source 6 is a picture (photograph) of British troops in an orderly line walking through the water calmly. There is no evidence of casualties or bullet fire, and it simply shows them walking towards their vessel as if there is no threat at all.

I assume this picture is from mid-way through Dunkirk since the Germans hadn’t organized a notable attack, and the British had had time to organize themselves out of there. The way the British troops are sticking together shows the way in which the soldiers used team spirit to show they were not taking this as a defeat. The source is very accurate and cannot be misinformed since it is a primary photograph. It also fits in with my knowledge of team spirit. However, the source seems very partial and selective, I doubt that this was the situation on the first day of evacuation, when the B. E. F knew the Germans were closing in on them.

This picture was probably used as a propaganda piece and shown to the people back home, to show them that they were fine. Charles Lightoller was one of those people who took his small vessel to aid the evacuation. He was a retired sailor and assumed he could do the best he could in bring their troops home. He mentions asking them how much room was left and getting a cheerful reply of ‘Oh, plenty of room yet’. He says exactly how many troops were on his vessel and doesn’t describe any of them as injured. This suggests that the troops got away unharmed and in high morale.

He seems to suggest there was a high ‘Dunkirk spirit’ atmosphere and there is no sign of troops desperately trying to climb onto his vessel. 130 soldiers were taken aboard on that ship which suggests very few of the smaller vessels actually picked up many soldiers, but it does show that for all these ships to be picking up a hundred or so, there must have been some organization in the whole process. We do not know whether this took place on the beaches or the harbour, I’m sure if this was the harbour; the allies would have been less under fire and more orderly.

The statistics from previous evidence show that more troops were evacuated from the harbour anyway. The account is very short and in only one area, so it is hard to say if this is the general truth of the evacuation. But from what is does show, it seems quite bias, and doesn’t mention any fighting or losses. The source is primary and is a first hand eyewitness account that gives it an edge over many of the other sources. It seems the source has gaps in it relating to the downside of Dunkirk, perhaps the Dunkirk spirit was still flowing through him when he wrote the extract.

The final source I have studied which suggests an orderly evacuation and victory at Dunkirk is a clipping twenty years after Dunkirk. Written by General Sir Harold Franklyn (Divisional commander at Dunkirk). He describes all reports of merciless bombing and ‘the hell of Dunkirk’ as ridiculous and basically a complete lie. He says that he walked up and down the beaches on several occasions and never saw a corpse. The source suggests that Dunkirk was nothing but an ‘easy getaway’. I believe that if he had gone to certain places at certain times, maybe this is the image that might have been portrayed to him.

The source is very brief, and gives no mention of any downside of Dunkirk. He simply contradicts a lot of other evidence, in two sentences. It is written twenty years later and he only remembers what he wants to remember. It is strongly biased and written in his own interest, since the writer is a General and he had a direct part in the evacuation. So if Dunkirk were poorly organized he would be partly liable. This concludes the victorious aspect of Dunkirk. It is clear that without this mass evacuation Britain would have been a victim of German rule and their troops would have very low morale.

The use of Dunkirk spirit played almost a bigger role than the evacuation itself and really cheered on its troops. The majority of historians have realized that this evacuation directly influenced the result of World War II and without the rescue of these 340,000 troops then Britain as an army would have been destroyed. The sheer speed this evacuation was put together will always make this a victory, and the pause in German advances was a very harsh mistake made. Operation Dynamo can be seen as an utter success, which should be recognized in years to come.

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