Dunkirk and the Aftermath

Rare photographs from the Wartime Archives

Last week I featured ‘The Shetland Bus - Transporting Secret Agents across the North Sea in WW2’ and someone suggested that we look at another Stephen Wynn book published in 2021. ‘The Aftermath of Dunkirk’ ( published in Britain as ‘Dunkirk and the Aftermath’) is from the popular Pen & Sword Images of War series which are predominantly collections of contemporary images with some informed commentary.

There are quite a few well known images from Dunkirk in this book - but some have left me thinking. Rather than review ‘Dunkirk and the Aftermath’, I prefer this week to just feature some of the images with captions from this volume, along with a short excerpt.

Comments are welcome - as usual - and I have a few complimentary subscriptions of a couple of months each to give away, to those contributing well informed comments.

1.A unit of German soldiers waiting patiently for the orderto move forward and continue their attack, although the image is more akin to a scene from the trenches of the First World War, with soldiers nervously waiting to go "over the top". These troops have the added support of a tank. Notice the man second from right who is wearing a white helmet, possibly indicating he is a medic.

2. Dunkirk was a strange affair for German forces, who had pushed the BEF, French and Belgian forces all the way back to the French coast at Dunkirk, and were about to finish the job off when the Halt Order came through from Hitler. Although this was largely aimed at his Panzer tank units, it also had an effect on the German infantry as well. French and British units were fighting a rear guard action so the German infantry units never quite knew what they were up against.

3. A British vehicle passes a destroyed armoured vehicle on its way to Dunkirk. it would appear from the dead body at the front of the vehicle that it had been attacked from the air.

During their meeting with Hitler on 24 May, von Rundstedt and von Kluge suggested to him that it might be prudent for German forces to cease their advance on Dunkirk so that they could re-group and consolidate their current positions in order to prevent an Allied breakout. Having listened to and considered the advice, Hitler agreed and sanctioned the Halt Order the same day.

Part of the reason for Hitler’s decision was down to the fact that the terrain in and around the Dunkirk area was not felt suitable for heavy armoured vehicles such as tanks. Despite this, confusion and conjecture still exist about this decision, with different theories having been expounded as to why the Halt Order was given:

1. Hermann Goring, a leading Nazi figure and the Supreme Commander of the Luftwaffe, asked Hitler for the chance to destroy the BEF on the beaches of Dunkirk. Hitler acquiesced to Goring's request, which had the added bonus of allowing the infantry element of Army Group B to rest and re-organise themselves.

The obvious question to be asked here is did Hitler agree to Goring's request for sound military reasons, or because the pair had been friends and colleagues since the early days of the Nazi Party and its rise to power? Consequently, if Goring and his Luftwaffe were successful in their attempts at destroying the men of the BEF, it would have also reflected well on the Nazi Party.

2. The planning by the German High Command for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, began in July 1940, when it was known by the codename Operation Otto. Hitler had previously authorised this plan and one of the suggestions put forward as to why the German Panzer tanks stopped outside of Dunkirk was that they were being saved for Operation Barbarossa. However, this is unlikely given the knowledge that the planning for the operation didn't begin until July 1940, after the evacuation of Dunkirk

3. It has been suggested that Hitler decided against sending his Panzer tanks into Dunkirk as he ultimately wanted to make peace with Britain rather than humiliate her with such a savage defeat.

However, this theory makes little sense due to the fact that if Hitler had defeated the British at Dunkirk by either killing or capturing the BEF, then the war would effectively be over at that point and Britain would have had no other option but to surrender in lieu of feeing an imminent German invasion. With Britain out of the war, the Soviet Union would then have been up against a much bigger force during Operxlior- Barbarossa, most likely resulting in its defeat. Meanwhile, Germany simply would have been free to go on a whistle stop tour of Europe picking off any country it choose to at will.

4. The crew of a German tank, along with infantry soldiers, wait impatiently on the outskirts of Dunkirk. The tank will literally have been stopped in its tracks by Hitler's famous Halt Order.

5. The five crew members of a Panzer tank wait patiently on the outskirts of Dunkirk for Hitler’s Halt Order to be rescinded so that they can continue on their way. They are clearing posing for an official photograph and appear somewhat nervous in their mannerisms. The man second from right and wearing glasses has been awarded the Iron Cross.

6. German soldiers and a solitary tank make their way through the rubble-strewn streets of Dunkirk. This was a relatively easy process for the troops, but not such an easy one for the tank.

7. This was more than just an inquisitive look at a captured enemy tank: it was a way of working out if the British had more superior fire power than they did.

This excerpt from The Aftermath of Dunkirk: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives (Images of War) appears by kind permission of the publisher, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, copyright remains with author. The above images and captions are from this volume, although the book’s reproduction quality is somewhat better than above.