Dunkirk-The Differing Perspectives.

The British Perspective 

The relieved nation welcomed the returning members of the BEF as conquering heroes, "The unbeaten BEF", as the media hailed them. A form of divine deliverance, a triumph out of disaster, with the 'Dunkirk spirit' and the 'Dunkirk Little Ships' being woven into the fabric of the nation's folklore. The sense of Britain standing alone, no longer encumbered by the need to sustain its soured alliance with France, was exhilarating to many. Unhelpful national stereotypes emerged; the 'stiff upper lip, never say die, British Tommy' and 'cowardly Frenchmen'. One foreigner, upon asking his English friend whether he was discouraged at the loss of so many allies, was met with the rather confident reply,

"Of course not, we're in the finals and we're playing at home."

Given the stark facts, it was perhaps surprising that Dunkirk became such a rallying point for the nation. Yes, the British had 'pulled it off' and almost 225,000 British troops had been rescued. However, the Army was in a state of exhaustion and disorganization and had lost almost all of its heavy guns, tanks and transport. In June 1940, the only fully-equipped division in Britain was Canadian and there were virtually no effective anti-tank weapons in the country to resist the predicted invasion. British losses in aircraft and ships had also been heavy. Many foreign observers thought Britain incapable of withstanding German invasion and thought that Dunkirk had only postponed the inevitable. Even Churchill was honest enough to admit that the campaign in France and Belgium had been "a colossal military disaster" and warned the British public "that wars are not won by evacuations." The simple reality was that Germany was for the time being the dominant European power.

The triumph of Dunkirk was that Britain, with the rescue of its army, was able to stay in the war against Hitler. Such resistance allowed Britain time to recover and with its allies, exploit later German military blunders, such as the invasion of the Soviet Union and the declaration of war on the United States.

The French Perspective 

For the French, the loss of Dunkirk was a national disaster and the prelude to the end of the Third French Republic. The newly established 'puppet régime' in Vichy France was quick to seek out scapegoats for the defeat. Senior political and military figures such as Petáin and General Weygand were quick to promote the view that the British had deserted the French at Dunkirk and abandoned France to its fate. This view was amply displayed in the Vichy French propaganda posters and leaflets of the time and was eagerly re-enforced by the Nazi propaganda machine in its newspapers and broadcasts. Furthermore, the British position was not aided by its aggressive actions against the Vichy French fleet in North Africa and its colonial interests in Senegal. Unfortunately, the French loss of perspective was to result in a feeling of bitterness and anti-English sentiment which lasted long after the end of WW2.

Most French historians now view the British withdrawal from Dunkirk and France in a more balanced way. It is accepted that by the time of Dunkirk, the French High Command and its armed forces were already broken beyond repair and that if Britain was to stay in the war, an evacuation from Dunkirk and ultimately, a withdrawal from continental Europe was a necessary step.

The German Perspective 

Hitler described Dunkirk as "the greatest German victory ever." The British had been chased into the sea and within three weeks its historic foe, France, would be forced to sue for peace. Germany now effectively controlled continental western Europe and believed that Britain was more or less beaten.

The triumph appeared complete. But it was a pyrrhic victory. The British Army had escaped destruction, her Navy and Empire remained intact and British public opinion, confidence and morale meant that she was not going to be easily subdued. The rapid conquests of Poland, Scandinavia and western Europe convinced Hitler and the German people that he was a military 'genius' and that the German Wehrmacht was invincible. These misconceptions conveniently ignored that German war industry was hampered by a shortage of raw materials and that the Wehrmacht lacked the manpower and equipment to wage a sustained war on multiple fronts. From 1940 onwards, Hitler's interference and influence in military matters increased, often ignoring advice from, or even completely sidelining, his most able military commanders. Such factors were to be cruelly exposed once Hitler made the decision to invade the Soviet Union in 1941 and would ultimately lead to the destruction of the Third Reich.

The German view, summed up in official propaganda. To hear this, click here.

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