I asked you to go without sleep for forty-eight hours. You have gone for seventeen days. I compelled you to take risks… You never faltered.
General Heinz Guderian to XIX Panzer Corps, May 1940
For a quarter of a century it had been the collective assumption that the plan to destroy France in 1914 had failed only because, between the plan’s inception by Count Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905 and its being put into operation nine years later, too many troops had been drawn off its powerful right flanking movement and instead assigned to the weak left flank. So when in October 1939 the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (German General Staff, or OKW) planners were instructed by Hitler to create a new blueprint to destroy France, they produced Fall Gelb (Plan Yellow) which comprised a far stronger right-flank attack, by Army Group B spearheaded by all ten of Germany’s Panzer divisions, and an even weaker left, stationed behind the Siegfried Line. Yet everyone knew that such a mass assault through Belgium and northern France was precisely what the Allies – given their identical experience of the autumn of 1914 – would expect.
Nevertheless when on 10 January 1940 a German courier aircraft flying from Münster to Cologne got lost in fog and was forced to crash-land at Mechelen-sur-Meuse in Belgium, and Major Helmuth Reinberger, a Staff officer of the German 7th Airborne Division, was unable to destroy his copy of Plan Yellow, either behind a hedge before he was captured or by attempting to fling it into a stove afterwards, Hitler was forced to consider entirely altering the OKW plans.1 In fact, because the neutral Belgians passed on only a two-page synopsis to the British and French military attachés the next day, refusing to say how they came by it, leading the Allied High Command initially to suspect a German deception operation, the alteration was probably unnecessary. The Belgians knew the plans to be genuine, however, since they had placed microphones in the room where the German air attaché subsequently met Reinberger, and his first question had been whether he had destroyed the documents. Yet still they and the Dutch did not revoke their neutrality and join the Allies, fearing it might ‘provoke’ the Führer.
‘If the enemy is in possession of all the files,’ Major-General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations of OKW, wrote in his diary on 12 January, ‘situation catastrophic!’2 Fearing Plan Yellow to be compromised, Hitler approved an alternative entitled Operation Sichelschnitt (Sickle Cut), the brainchild of Erich von Manstein, chief of staff to Gerd von Rundstedt, who was to command Army Group A in the centre. This comprised taking seven Panzer divisions from the right flank and positioning them in the centre, while keeping the left (Army Group C) as weak as before. After Army Group B in the north had attacked Holland and Belgium, it was hoped that the Allies would move into those countries to meet it, and then at the key moment Army Group A in the centre would burst out of the Ardennes Forest, strike at the Schwerpunkt (point of maximum effort), the fulcrum in the Allied line, pierce it, and race forward to the English Channel, thus cutting off one-third of the Allied armies from the other two-thirds.
Hitler, who from the early hours of 10 May was based at his Felsennest (cliff nest) command post in the Eifel forest 20 miles south-west of Bonn, was later given personal credit for Manstein’s new plan. Keitel described the Führer as ‘the greatest field marshal of all time’, and even six years later he admitted to his Nuremberg psychiatrist: ‘I thought he was a genius. Many times he displayed brilliance… He changed plans – and correctly for the Holland–Belgium campaign. He had a remarkable memory – knew the ships of every fleet in the world.’3 Keitel also regularly told the Führer he was a genius. Dr Goebbels’ propaganda was at that period putting out the message that Hitler was ‘the greatest warlord of all time’, but at least Hitler knew that was state propaganda. To be told by one’s chief of staff the same thing could not but induce hubris.
Hitler’s sheer knowledge of matters military was undoubtedly impressive, and has certainly bowled over modern apologists such as Alan Clark and David Irving, with the former stating that ‘His capacity for mastering detail, his sense of history, his retentive memory, his strategic vision – all these had flaws, but considered in the cold light of objective military history, they were brilliant nonetheless.’4 It was true that Hitler had a phenomenal recall for the technical details of weaponry of all kinds. Of his original 16,300-book library, 1,200 volumes can be found in the Library of Congress in Washington and they include nearly a dozen almanacs on naval vessels, aircraft and armoured vehicles, such as the 1920 edition of The Conquest of the Air: A Handbook of Air Transport and Flying Techniques, a 1935 copy of Hiegl’s Handbook of Tanks, a 1935 edition of The Navies of the World and their Fighting Power, and a well-thumbed 1940 edition of Weyer’s Handbook of War Fleets.5 ‘There are exhaustive works on uniforms, weapons, supply, mobilization, the building-up of armies in peacetime, morale and ballistics,’ wrote the Berlin correspondent of United Press International who was allowed into the Führer’s libraries in Berlin and Berchtesgaden before the war, ‘and quite obviously Hitler has read many of them from cover to cover.’6 Hitler’s press secretary, Otto Dietrich, was deeply impressed with his boss:
He had an exceptional knowledge of weaponry. For example, he knew all the warships in the world insofar as they were listed in… reference works. He could give in detail from memory their age, their displacement and speed, their armour strength, their towers and weaponry. He was thoroughly informed about the most modern artillery and tank construction from every country.7
Instances when Hitler displayed his technical interest in weaponry during the war are legion. When not asking pointed questions at his Führer-conferences with senior OKW figures and military commanders, he liked nothing better than showing off his detailed knowledge. Subjects upon which he would dilate included the horsepower needed for wheeled tractors to pull heavy field howitzers (85hp); gearshift problems in the Tiger tank; the ricochet hazards associated with the 15cm anti-tank gun; hollow-charge projectile technology for anti-tank weaponry; the night-flying capabilities of the Heinkel He-177; the lowest altitudes at which elite paratroopers can jump; the percentages of ferries in Italy and Germany that were fully operational; altitudes at which Mosquito fighters could fly; the top speed of electric submarines (18 knots); the size of underwater bombs necessary to blow up submarine-base sluice gates (3,000 kilograms); the advantages of flame-throwers over grenades over 30 yards, and so on.8 Yet knowing the calibre of a weapon or the tonnage of a ship is far removed from being a strategic genius, and Keitel confused the two, unforgivably for someone with his role and responsibilities. Because a train-spotter can take down the number of a train in his notebook, it doesn’t mean he can drive one.
Of course Churchill also took a close interest in the minutiae of war-making, especially in tactics, but not so much in the technical side of weaponry unless there were problems associated with it. Whereas Hitler paid little or no heed to his troops’ material comforts, Churchill was constantly interesting himself in such matters. Would there be brass bands playing when they returned home? Were they getting their post on time? On 17 July 1944, he referred the Secretary of State for War, P. J. Grigg, to a Daily Mailarticle about the way the troops were ‘tired of compo [rations]’ and lacked bread. Grigg answered that six out of the Army’s twelve bakery units were in France. ‘Should not put up with it,’ replied Churchill. ‘Ought to get decent cooked bread and meat.’ He instructed the War Office to accelerate the movement of mobile bakeries to France.9 Such an exchange would have been unthinkable at a Führer-conference, not least because the German equivalent of the Daily Mail would not have dared to criticize the Wehrmacht over its rations.
Manstein correctly identified the Schwerpunkt as the 50-mile-wide sector of the Meuse river between Danant and Sedan. Once that was crossed, the Channel reached and forty Allied divisions in the north surrounded and captured, the rest of France to the south could be attacked from across the Somme and Aisne in a separate operation, entitled Fall Rot (Plan Red). Speed was vital, and this would be gained by close co-operation between the Luftwaffe and advanced Panzer units, as had worked so well in Poland. The Panzer divisions would be grouped closely together to hit the Schwerpunkt simultaneously, taking advantage of the fact that despite the lessons of the Polish campaign the Allies had spread out their armour widely across the whole front. Though the Germans were actually outnumbered by the Allies in terms of men and tanks, and used not significantly better equipment, their superior training, generalship, surprise and especially Manstein’s strategy would deliver the defeat of France. That strategy had come about as the result of a chance crash-landing of a nondescript courier plane caught in fog.
Manstein’s plan, which Hitler approved in early February, contained significant risks. The Ardennes is a heavily wooded, mountainous region of narrow roads which was considered virtually impassable to heavily armoured vehicles; the left flank of Army Group A would be wide open to Allied counter-attack from the south as it raced across northern France towards Abbeville on the Somme river and then northwards to Boulogne, Calais and eventually Dunkirk; there was a limited number of bridges over the River Meuse, which had to be captured quickly; the weak left flank guarded by the unarmoured twenty divisions of Army Group C on the Siegfried Line would be vulnerable to the forty French divisions facing it behind the Maginot Line. Over the last issue the Germans need not have worried unduly. The Maginot Line was as much a state of mind as a line of fortifications, and there was no likelihood of the French surging forward from it to engage Army Group C. Named after a French defence minister of the 1930s, André Maginot, the Line had been built between 1929 and 1934. Stretching from Pontarlier on the Swiss frontier all the way along the Franco-German frontier to Luxembourg, it was 280 miles long, comprised 55,000 tons of steel and 1.5 million cubic metres of concrete, and was connected by an underground railway, which still works today.
After Belgium short-sightedly re-established her neutrality after the Great War, the Line should have been continued all the way along the Belgian border to the Channel coast, and some extra fortification did take place; however, there were several difficulties. The technical ones a higher water table in the east, and the heavily industrialized areas of Lille and Valenciennes through which the Line needed to pass might have been dealt with, but the huge financial cost threatened to break the French military budget.10Moreover the Belgians somewhat hypocritically complained that an extension of the Line to the coast would effectively sacrifice them to Germany, a factor that the French might understandably have taken in their stride considering Brussels’ repudiation of the defensive treaty on the basis of which the Line had been built in the first place.
As it turned out, although the majority of the Wehrmacht skirted round to the west of the Line, the German First Army breached it south of Saarbrücken on 14 June despite its lack of tanks, finding its shallowness meant that it was relatively easy to attack with grenades and flame-throwers.11 What had been originally intended merely to slow the Germans down and deny them the element of surprise had instead engendered a defensive mentality in the French that had – along with their 1870 defeat and the terrible bloodletting of 1914–18 – robbed them of offensive spirit. An all-out attack on the Siegfried Line in September 1939 was the French High Command’s best hope, as officers such as General André Beaufre readily admitted, after it was too late.12 At the outset of war, neither France nor Britain was politically prepared for such action.
What the Allied plans, drawn up during the Phoney War, did propose was a swift movement into Holland and Belgium as soon as Germany invaded those countries, just as Manstein had predicted. Under Plan D, three French armies under Generals Giraud (Seventh Army), Blanchard (First Army) and Corap (Ninth Army), as well as most of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) under Lord Gort, would move from their entrenched positions along the Franco-Belgian border up to a line between Breda and the Dyle river, in order to cover Antwerp and Rotterdam. To allow these vital Channel ports – invaluable for U-boats to threaten shipping – to fall into German hands was unthinkable. Yet, as the Panzer strategist and historian Major-General Frederick von Mellenthin acutely observed, ‘The more they committed themselves to this sector, the more certain would be their ruin.’13
The Wehrmacht comprised 154 divisions in May 1940 and the western attack employed no fewer than 136 of them.14 The Allies, once Belgium’s twenty-two and Holland’s ten divisions were belatedly added to the total, numbered 144 divisions in the theatre. Both sides had around 4,000 armoured vehicles, with the German forces heavily concentrated in ten Panzer divisions of 2,700 tanks, supported by mechanized infantry. The 3,000 French tanks were hopelessly disseminated in a linear manner, as they had been in attack during the Great War, while the British had only around 200 tanks in all. ‘By dispersing their armour along the whole front,’ argued Mellenthin, ‘the French High Command played into our hands, and have only themselves to blame for the catastrophe that was to follow.’ It was true: the Allies had ignored the lessons of Poland.
In the all-important sphere of air superiority, whereas the Allies had 1,100 fighters and 400 bombers in the region, the Luftwaffe had 1,100 fighters, 1,100 horizontal bombers and also 325 dive-bombers, of which the Allies had no equivalent.15 Allied planes were committed to aerial reconnaissance and defence, but not to close support of troops on the ground, a tactic which the Germans had perfected in pre-war manoeuvres and in the Polish and Norwegian campaigns, and which was greatly aided by the sophistication of ground-to-air communications. Much French heavy, field and anti-tank artillery was actually better than the Germans’ – except for the Wehrmacht’s superb 88mm anti-aircraft gun, which could double as an anti-tank weapon – and the British Matilda tank’s 2-pounder gun was also a match for the German Mark III Panzer’s 37mm gun. Yet this campaign was to prove once again how much more important psychology, morale, surprise, leadership, movement, concentration of effort and retention of the initiative are in warfare than mere numbers of men and machines and quality of equipment. The German concept of Auftragstaktik (mission-orientated leadership), developed over the previous decade, was to deliver victory just as surely as any piece of weaponry they deployed.
Early on the morning of Friday, 10 May 1940, Captain David Strangeways of the BEF, whose regiment was stationed near Lille in northern France, was woken by the battalion’s orderly room clerk shouting, ‘David, sir, David!’ It was only as he was about to rebuke the man for addressing an officer by his Christian name that Strangeways remembered that ‘David’ was the codeword for the event that the Allies had been waiting for since September.16 Hitler’s assault on the West had begun.
Considering that the Allies had been at war with Nazi Germany for over eight months it is astonishing that the Wehrmacht achieved such surprise as it unleashed Blitzkrieg on the West, especially as only one month earlier it had equally suddenly invaded Denmark and Norway. The day before the quadruple invasion of France, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, the Belgian Army had increased the amount of leave from two to five days per month, and in one strategically vital Belgian fort on the Albert Canal the warning gun was discovered to be out of order. As many as 15 per cent of France’s front-line troops were on leave and General René Prioux, commander of her Cavalry Corps, was 50 miles behind the lines engaged in target practice.
Army Group B under General Fedor von Bock made what Mellenthin called its ‘formidable, noisy and spectacular’ attack on Belgium and Holland at 05.35 hours. Many Dutch and Belgian aircraft were destroyed in their hangars, for very light losses by the Luftwaffe. Paratroopers captured strategic points near Rotterdam and The Hague, including airfields, although fierce resistance the next day allowed Queen Wilhelmina and the Dutch Government to escape capture. In Belgium eleven gliders, towed by Ju-52 transport planes, landed on the roof of the great fortress of Eben Emael, which covered the advance of Reichenau’s Sixth Army into the country. A mere eighty-five German paratroopers debouched from them and destroyed the fortress’s massive gun emplacements from above with specially designed hollow charges, while its 1,100 defenders withdrew to defensive positions beneath the fortress. Later that day, Hitler told the German people that a battle had begun that ‘will decide the fate of the German people for the next thousand years’.17
The French Commander-in-Chief, General Maurice Gamelin, ordered the French and British armies to the Dyle–Breda Line, where they advanced largely unhampered by 12 May, for, as Mellenthin recorded, the OKW ‘was delighted to see the enemy responding to our offensive in the exact manner which we desired and predicted’. When Giraud advanced too far into Holland, however, he was flung back at Tilburg. Some Allied generals, such as Alan Brooke commanding the British II Corps, Alphonse Georges of the French North-West Army, and Gaston Billotte of the 1st Army Group, deeply disapproved of Plan D, but Gamelin’s mind was made up.
The lack of preparation by the Belgians for an eventuality they had known was probable ever since the Mechelen crash-landing in January, was illustrated by their not having removed the roadblocks into Belgium from France, which took an hour to demolish. Nor were there any trains on hand to transport French troops and equipment to the Dyle, as King Leopold III of the Belgians complained to Major-General Bernard Montgomery when British troops went through Brussels.18 ‘All the Belgians seem to be in a panic from the higher command downwards,’ noted Gort’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Henry Pownall, on 13 May. ‘What an ally!’ Bad communications, mutual suspicion and, later on, mutual recriminations characterized the relationships between the Allies during this disastrous campaign.
Matters were made worse by the way in which the physical organization of Allied command was ridiculously decentralized: Gamelin’s headquarters were as far back as Vincennes, virtually in the Paris suburbs, because the Commander-in-Chief felt he needed to be closer to the Government than to his own Army. His field commander, Alphonse Georges – who had never truly recovered from being wounded during the assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in Marseille six years earlier – was based at La Ferté, 35 miles east of Paris, but spent much of his time at his residence 12 miles from the capital. Meanwhile, the French General Headquarters was at Montry, between La Ferté and Vincennes, except for the Air Force which was at Coulommiers, 10 miles from La Ferté. Even in the land of châteaux this was taking château-generalship ludicrously far.
The attack of General Wilhelm List’s Twelfth Army, part of Army Group A, through the Ardennes was a masterpiece of OKW Staff work. Panzer Group Kleist, under General Paul von Kleist, comprising Heinz Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps and Georg-Hans Reinhardt’s XLI Panzer Corps, arrived at Sedan and Montherme on the Meuse on 13 May, at the perfect time and place to effect the Schwerpunkt against General André Corap’s Ninth Army. After fierce fighting along the Meuse, especially at Sedan, the far heavier concentration of German armour, closely supported by the Luftwaffe, broke the French force. Kleist ordered the crossing of the Meuse on 13 May without waiting for artillery support, because surprise and momentum were key to the success of Blitzkrieg. ‘Time and again the rapid movements and flexible handling of our Panzers bewildered the enemy,’ recalled a triumphant Panzer commander years later.19 Colonel Baron Hasso-Eccard von Manteuffel agreed: ‘The French had more, better, heavier tanks than we had but… as General von Kleist said, “Don’t tap them – strike as a whole and don’t disperse.” ’20 The battle of Sedan had a moral and historical as well as a strategic significance for Frenchmen: it had been there in 1870 that Napoleon III had been crushed by Bismarck in the decisive battle of the Franco-Prussian War. When General Georges heard about Corap’s defeat at Sedan, he burst into tears. ‘Alas, there were to be others,’ wrote Beaufre of the generally lachrymose French High Command. ‘It made a terrible effect on me.’21
Guderian was at Montcornet by 15 May, Saint-Quentin by the 18th, and his 2nd Panzer Division reached Abbeville on the 20th. ‘Fahrkarte bis zur Endstation!’ (Ticket to the last station!) he called to his Panzer troops, telling them to go as far as possible.22 At one point Guderian was temporarily relieved of his command for going too fast, leaving his superiors fearful of a co-ordinated counter-attack from the north and south, one that he intuitively guessed would never come. Liddell Hart, an admirer of Guderian, described how the German tank commander had long been a proponent of ‘the idea of deep strategic penetration by independent armoured forces – a long-range tank-drive to cut the main arteries of the opposing army far back behind its front’.23 This was Guderian’s moment to prove his pre-war theorizing right and his detractors correspondingly wrong. By stretching the meaning of ‘using his initiative’ to its limits – ignoring orders he disliked and taking the wording of others far beyond their normal meaning – Guderian effected the sickle cut faster than anyone could have imagined possible.
‘I was conscious of a profound sense of relief,’ Churchill later wrote of his feelings when he finally got to bed at 3 a.m. on Saturday, 11 May 1940. ‘At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.’ On 13 May, he gave his first speech as prime minister in the House of Commons, conscious that Neville Chamberlain received a greater cheer than he when the two men entered the chamber separately. ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat,’ he told parliament and soon afterwards the nation. To the question ‘What is our policy?’ Churchill answered that it was ‘to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime’. Morale was a vital factor in the Second World War, and Churchill’s oratory was invaluable in focusing British pride and patriotism. Stalin once cynically asked how many divisions had the Pope: Churchill’s larynx was worth the equivalent of an army corps to Britain, as radios were switched on in the nation’s homes at 9 p.m. to hear the Prime Minister’s words of inspiration. Drawing on English history, mentioning figures such as Drake and Nelson, he pointed out that the British had been in dire peril before, but had prevailed.
‘The hammer-blows… in May began to descend upon us almost daily,’ the military historian Michael Howard recalled, ‘like a demolition contractor’s iron ball striking the walls of a still-inhabited house.’24 On 15 May the Dutch capitulated, even though the Dyle-Breda front had not yet been broken by Army Group B. The bombing of Rotterdam had destroyed a large part of the city and left 80,000 people homeless, so the Dutch Commander-in-Chief, Henri Winkelmann, broadcast the Dutch surrender on Hilversum Radio before any other cities were subjected to a similar fate. Although only 980 people died in the raid, it became a stark symbol of Nazi terror-tactics. The fear of such bombing caused an exodus of between six and ten million terrified French refugees from Paris and the areas behind Allied lines, who clogged the roads southwards and westwards. Ninety thousand children were separated from their parents in the process, and the ability of the Allies to respond to the German invaders was severely hampered.
On 18 May the French Prime Minister, Paul Reynaud, reshuffled his Government and High Command. He appointed the eighty-four-year-old Marshal Philippe Pétain, the symbol of resistance during the battle of Verdun in 1916, as vice-premier, and himself took over as minister of war from the ex-premier who had signed the Munich agreement, Edouard Daladier, who became foreign minister. Two days later Reynaud sacked Gamelin and replaced him with the seventy-three-year-old Maxime Weygand, who had never commanded troops in battle and who arrived from Syria too late to affect the struggle that was developing around the Channel port of Dunkirk.
Charles de Gaulle, at forty-nine the youngest general in the French Army, commanded a spirited counter-attack at Laon on 18 May, but was forced back, and a brave attempt was made by the British 50th Division and 1st Tank Brigade south of Arras on 21 May to break through the sickle cut and reconnect with the French forces to the south. If successful this would have isolated Guderian and Reinhardt, but in the event it came to nothing in the face of Major-General Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division and 88mm anti-aircraft guns being used as artillery. Rommel had won fame at the battle of Caporetto in 1917 when, not even a captain, he captured 9,000 Italians and eighty-one guns. An instructor at the Infantry School at Dresden from 1929, he wrote textbooks on infantry tactics and was commandant of the War Academy in 1938, before going on to command Hitler’s bodyguard. A believer in remorselessly taking the offensive, Rommel understood Blitzkrieg and had a superlative sense of military timing.
With the French armour divided between three armoured cavalry divisions, three heavy armoured divisions (initially all held in reserve) and more than forty independent tank battalions supporting infantry units, other than General René Prioux’s Cavalry Corps no French motorized formations acted in concert during the campaign.25 Having failed to break through southwards, the BEF and French First Army fell back towards Dunkirk. Gaston Billotte died in a car crash on 21 May, an accident that led to a ‘feeling of inexorable Fate’ overcoming the French High Command, whose morale, in Beaufre’s view, was never to recover from Corap’s defeat at Sedan.26 The next day, 22 May, the RAF lost Merville, its last airfield in France, so that henceforth every British plane that flew over the Allied armies had to come from across the Channel, severely limiting the amount of time they could spend engaging the Luftwaffe.
A full week before the evacuation from Dunkirk began on 26 May, no fewer than 27,936 men who were not central to the functioning of the BEF were evacuated, in an operation organized by Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Bridgeman of the Rifle Brigade on the Continent and Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsay, the Flag Officer in Dover.27 Cartographers, bakers, railwaymen and other ‘useless mouths to feed’, as they were accurately if rather uncharitably described by Bridgeman, were shipped back, a clear indication that things were not expected to go well. Nor did they: on 24 May Army Group A and Army Group B joined forces to push the Allies into a rapidly diminishing corner of France and Belgium, by then stretching only from Gravelines to Bruges and inland as far as Douai.
Then something astonishing happened. With Kleist’s Panzers only 18 miles from Dunkirk, indeed closer to it than the bulk of the Allied forces in the Belgian pocket, they were given an order to halt by Hitler that countermanded the Wehrmacht Commander-in-Chief Brauchitsch’s order to take the town. This specified that the line of Lens–Béthune–Saint-Omer–Gravelines ‘will not be passed’.28 For reasons that are still debated by historians, Hitler’s so-called Halt Order of 11.42 hours supported Rundstedt’s request to halt Kleist’s Panzers at the front line on 24 May and not move into the pocket.29 To the amazement and immense frustration of commanders like Kleist and Guderian, the coup de grâce that might have scooped up the entire northern Allied force was not put into operation, giving the Allies a vital forty-eight-hour breathing space which they used to strengthen the perimeter and begin the exodus from the beaches of Dunkirk. General Wilhelm von Thoma, chief of the tank section of OKH, was right up forward with the leading tanks near Bergues, from where he could look down into Dunkirk itself. He sent wireless messages to OKH insisting that the tanks push on, but was rebuffed. ‘You can never talk to a fool,’ he said bitterly of Hitler (after the Führer was safely dead). ‘Hitler spoilt the chance of victory.’30 When Churchill later spoke of a ‘miracle of deliverance’, it was one performed by the grace of Rundstedt and Hitler, as well as by Gort and Ramsay. It was the first example of very many cardinal errors that were to cost Germany the Second World War.
‘I must say that the English managed to escape that trap in Dunkirk which I had so carefully laid’, recalled Kleist afterwards,
only with the personal help of Hitler. There was a channel from Arras to Dunkirk. I had already crossed this channel and my troops occupied the heights which jutted out over Flanders. Therefore, my panzer group had complete control of Dunkirk and the area in which the British were trapped. The fact of the matter is that the English would have been unable to get into Dunkirk because I had them covered. Then Hitler personally ordered that I should withdraw my troops from these heights.31
Kleist was underestimating Rundstedt’s important role in the initial decision-making, but with Hitler willing to take the ultimate glory for the campaign, he must also take the ultimate blame for not allowing Kleist to scoop up the BEF outside Dunkirk. When Kleist met Hitler on the airfield at Cambrai a few days later he had the courage to remark that a great opportunity had been lost at Dunkirk. Hitler replied: ‘That may be so. But I did not want to send the tanks into the Flanders marshes – and the British won’t come back in this war.’32 Another excuse Hitler gave elsewhere was that mechanical failures, and the subsequent offensive against the rest of the French Army, had meant that he wanted to build up strength before passing on.
Flying over Dunkirk in September 1944, Churchill told André de Staerke, private secretary to the Prince Regent of Belgium, ‘I shall never understand why the German Army did not finish the British Army at Dunkirk.’33 The answer might be that by the morning of 24 May the troops had fought continuously for nearly a fortnight, and from his own time in the trenches in the Great War Hitler knew how exhausting that could be. Moreover the ground around the Dunkirk pocket was not ideal for tanks. The infantry needed time to catch up, considering the startling amount of ground the tanks had crossed since Sedan, and as Franz Halder wrote in his diary: ‘The Führer is terribly nervous. Afraid to take any chances.’ Too much had been achieved already to take the risk of falling into an Allied trap at that late stage, and there were still large French forces and reserves to deal with south of the Somme and Aisne rivers. Street fighting in Warsaw had also shown the vulnerability of tanks in built-up areas, such as Dunkirk was. Furthermore, Hermann Göring was confidently promising that the Luftwaffe could destroy the pocket without any need for the Wehrmacht to do much more than conduct mopping-up operations afterwards.
‘He was mistrusting of his generals,’ Jodl’s deputy General Walter Warlimont recalled years later of Hitler:
thus at Dunkirk he delayed the main aim of the whole campaign, which was reaching and closing the Channel coast before any other considerations. This time he was frightened that the clay plains of Flanders with their many streams and channels… according to his memories of World War One would endanger and possibly inflict heavy losses on the Panzer divisions. Hitler failed to follow up the overwhelming success of the first part of the campaign, and instead initiated the steps for the second part before the first had been accomplished.34
Rundstedt himself, who was credited with issuing the Halt Order that the Führer later rubber-stamped, vehemently denied having done so. ‘If I had had my way the English would not have got off so lightly at Dunkirk,’ he later recalled with bitterness:
But my hands were tied by direct orders from Hitler himself. While the English were clambering into the ships off the beaches, I was kept uselessly outside the port unable to move. I recommended to the Supreme Command that my five Panzer Divisions be immediately sent into the town and thereby completely destroy the retreating English. But I received definite orders from the Führer that under no circumstances was I to attack, and I was expressly forbidden to send any of my troops closer than ten kilometres from Dunkirk… This incredible blunder was due to Hitler’s idea of generalship.35
This claim can be safely disregarded, since the order was given by Hitler at a meeting at Army Group A’s headquarters in the Maison Blairon, a small château at Charleville-Mézières only after Rundstedt himself had said he wanted to conserve the armour for a push to the south, to Bordeaux, where he feared the British would open another front soon, and anyway the numerous canals in Flanders made it bad country for tanks. Hitler merely concurred, but as his Luftwaffe adjutant Nicolaus von Below recorded: ‘The British Army had no relevance for him.’36
One theory that must also now be safely discarded was that Hitler did not expect or want to capture the BEF because he hoped for peace with Britain. Not only is it illogical – his chances of forcing peace on Britain would have been immensely strengthened by eliminating the BEF – but there is a piece of hitherto overlooked evidence that proves that the OKW assumed the Allied force would be destroyed despite the Halt Order. A handwritten note from Alfred Jodl, written at Führer-Headquarters and now in private hands, to the Reich Labour Minister Robert Ley and dated 28 May 1940, states:
Most esteemed Labour Führer of the Reich!
Everything that has happened since 10 May seems even to us, who had indestructible faith in our success, like a dream. In a few days 4/5 of the English Expeditionary Army and a great part of the best mobile French troops will be destroyed or captured. The next blow is ready to strike, and we can execute it at a ratio of 2:1, which has hitherto never been granted to a German field commander… You, too, Herr Labour Führer of the Reich, have contributed significantly to this greatest victory in history. Heil Hitler.37
The hubris of the letter is undeniable, especially since the BEF had started to embark from Dunkirk on 26 May, but equally there is not the slightest sense that the OKW were holding back from attempting to ‘destroy or capture’ as much of the Allied force as possible; evidently they believed total victory to be in their grasp.
Although it was Rundstedt’s initial decision to halt Kleist’s Panzers outside Dunkirk on 24 May, it took the Führer’s influence to silence the opposition from Brauchitsch, Halder, Guderian and Rommel. ‘We could have wiped out the British army completely if it weren’t for the stupid order of Hitler,’ Kleist later recalled.38 Certainly, if the BEF had been captured wholesale – more than a quarter of a million POWs in German hands – there is no telling what concessions must have been wrung out of the British Government, or whether Churchill could have survived as prime minister if he had demanded a continuation of the war. Hitler knew how to use POWs as a bargaining tool, as he was soon to prove with his 1.5 million French captives. Kleist’s belief that after the capture of the BEF ‘an invasion of England would have been a simple affair’ is harder to accept, as the RAF and Royal Navy were still undefeated, and the Germans had no advanced plans for getting men across the Channel.
Although the Allied forces were overwhelmed at Boulogne and Menin on 25 May and at Calais on the 27th, Dunkirk was to hold out until the day on which all the Allied troops in the pocket who could embark to Britain had done so. Ramsay and the British Government initially assumed that no more than 45,000 troops could be saved, but over the nine days between dawn on Sunday, 26 May and 03.30 on Tuesday, 4 June, no fewer than 338,226 Allied soldiers were rescued from death or capture, 118,000 of whom were French, Belgian and Dutch. Operation Dynamo – so named because Ramsay’s bunker at Dover had housed electrical equipment during the Great War – was the largest military evacuation in history so far, and a fine logistical achievement, especially as daylight sailings had to be suspended on 1 June due to heavy Luftwaffe attacks.
The Halt Order was finally rescinded by dawn on 27 May and heavy fighting took place along the shrinking perimeter, as the Allied rearguard – especially the French First Army near Lille – bought precious time for the rest of the troops to embark on several hundred ships and boats. That same day ninety-seven British prisoners of war from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment were massacred in cold blood by the 1st Battalion of the SS Totenkopf Division’s 2nd Infantry Regiment, machine-gunned in a paddock in the inappropriately named hamlet of Le Paradis in the Pas-de-Calais. The next day, ninety POWs from the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Warwickshire Regiment were executed by grenade and rifle-fire by the Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler Regiment in a crowded barn at Wormhout, near the Franco-Belgian border.39 On seeing two grenades tossed into the crowded barn, Sergeant Stanley Moore and Sergeant-Major Augustus Jennings leapt on top of them to shield their men from the blasts. These despicable, cold-blooded massacres give lie to the myth that it was desperation and fear of defeat towards the end of the war that led the SS to kill Allied POWs who had surrendered; in fact such inhumanity was there all along, even when Germany was on the eve of her greatest victory. Although the officer responsible for Le Paradis, Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Fritz Knochlein, was executed in 1949, Hauptsturmführer Wilhelm Mohnke, who commanded the unit that carried out the Wormhout atrocity, was never punished for this war crime and died in 2001 in a Hamburg retirement home.40 Already perilous as the Dunkirk perimeter came under full-scale assault, the Allies’ situation worsened at 11.00 on 28 May when, with minimum warning, King Leopold III of the Belgians agreed his country’s unconditional surrender. This suddenly opened up a 30-mile gap in the Allied line which was swiftly, but necessarily only partially, filled by Alan Brooke’s II Corps.
As well as 222 Royal Navy vessels, some 800 civilian craft of every type were called upon by Ramsay to sail across the Channel to bring the troops home. Some refused to heed the call – including some lifeboatmen and much of Rye’s fishing fleet – but an armada of 860 vessels did take part, including pleasure steamers, liners, troopships, trawlers, barges, ferries and forty Dunkirk coasters. Larger ships sometimes towed smaller ones across, and many went back and forth several times. In this they were hugely helped by the weather in the Channel. ‘For days it suddenly remained calmer than a millpond,’ recalled Signalman Payne. ‘During the entire lift-off of that multitude not a ripple was seen. This allowed men to stand up to their shoulders in water and boats to operate within a few inches of freeboard, loaded to double and treble their safe carrying capacity. The calm sea was the miracle of Dunkirk. ’41 Pausing only to cut his many medal ribbons off a jacket he had to leave behind – he’d won the vc and DSO and was mentioned in despatches nine times in the Great War – ‘for of course he would take home nothing more than any private soldier’, Gort boarded with his troops.42
Of the fifty-six Allied destroyers that played a part in the operation, nine were sunk and nineteen damaged; of the thirty-eight minesweepers, five were sunk and seven damaged; of the 230 trawlers, twenty-three were sunk and two damaged; of the forty-five ferries, nine were sunk and eight damaged. Of the eight hospital ships – each of which was emblazoned with large Red Cross markings easily visible to the Luftwaffe – one was sunk and five damaged.43 It was quite untrue, as the BBC was to allege in 2004, that the British civilians who sailed to Dunkirk to save the BEF did it ‘because they were paid’. They were indeed paid for their service, as was the entire BEF for theirs, but there were far easier ways of earning a living during those nine days in May 1940.
For all the inspiring, Victoria Cross-worthy stories of men like Sergeant-Major Augustus Jennings or Lieutenant Dickie Furness of the Welsh Guards, who led a suicidal attack on a German machine-gun post, there were others who tried to rush the embarkation stations at Dunkirk in order to get home safely. ‘While a mixed party of men was forming up to embark,’ recalled Sam Lombard-Hobson, First Lieutenant of the destroyer HMS Whitshed, ‘a single soldier, unable to take any more, broke ranks and made a dash for the gangway. Without a moment’s hesitation, the subaltern in charge took out his revolver and shot the man through the heart, who lay motionless on the jetty. The young officer then turned to his section, and calmly told them that he wanted only fighting men with him. The effect was electric, and undoubtedly prevented a stampede by other troops awaiting evacuation.’44 Although there were occasional scenes of panic and drunkenness – ‘I saw chaps run into the water screaming because mentally it was too much for them,’ recalled Sergeant Leonard Howard – overall the long queues that snaked over the sand dunes, especially those officered by Regular Army regiments, were patient and orderly, despite the exhausted, defeated men occasionally coming under fire from German fighters and dive-bombers that broke through the RAF cordon. Captain E. A. R. Lang, a Royal Engineer who came off on 29 May, recalled that when the Navy – nicknamed ‘blue jobs’ – came to the rescue, ‘As soon as our Cockney boys met the sailors, a verbal battle started and the jokes were cracked in good taste and bad language… “Blimey, chum, what about a trip round the lighthouse?”, “Bye, bye china, where’s yer little boat?” ’
The RAF was less popular with the Army than the omnipresent Navy, because it was not so visible and was incapable of protecting the beaches from attack by the Luftwaffe round the clock, although it shot down 150 German planes during the operation, at the cost of 106 of its own. The RAF assigned sixteen squadrons to cover the Dunkirk evacuation; however, because of the distance from England, very few airfields could be used, allowing a maximum of only four squadrons to be engaged at any one time, and often only two. It did not help that the Royal Navy continually fired at RAF fighters, shooting down three, and the paramount need for home defence had anyway to be considered. Many of the dogfights took place far from the beaches, where the Army was unable to witness what the Air Force was doing for it, but when the German fighters and especially Stuka dive-bombers did get through to the embarkation points, massacres resulted. ‘I hated Dunkirk,’ recalled an unusually sensitive Flugzeugführer (pilot officer) called Paul Temme, who flew an Me-109. ‘It was just unadulterated killing. The beaches were jammed full of soldiers. I went up and down at three hundred feet hose-piping.’45
The experience of being dive-bombed by Stukas was never forgotten by a BEF lorry-driver, Tom Bristow: ‘They looked like filthy vultures, their undercarriage not being retractable so that their landing gear reminded one of the cruel talons in which they held their victims. What was held between the wheels, however, was not a victim but a big fat bomb. My eyes became riveted on that bomb… it held a strange fascination for me, it was my executioner. And I could do nothing about it.’46 The bomb missed Bristow, but Lance-Corporal John Wells of the South Staffordshire Regiment was not so lucky: ‘I was up on the prow of the ship when we were dive-bombed,’ he recalled years afterwards.
A Stuka dropped its bomb straight down the aft funnel. Direct hit. The ship literally folded in about three seconds. I was fortunate because being up in the front end, I just fell off. The fuel tanks had been ruptured, so the sea was a mass of diesel oil. I took an involuntary swim and managed to get ashore but I still twinge a bit with pain nowadays because I swallowed a lot of that diesel oil and most of the lining of my stomach’s gone west.47
Yet, for all the Luftwaffe’s successes, Göring could not make good his boast to destroy the BEF from the air, as Hitler discovered too late. ‘Even if the waters had parted, like the Red Sea before Moses, to allow the soldiers to walk home,’ one military historian has noted, continuing the miracle analogy, ‘the watching world could hardly have been more surprised.’48 Nonetheless the BEF lost 68,111 men in the campaign, of whom 40,000 were marched into five years of captivity.
As importantly for the Army in the short term, the British were also forced to leave behind 65,000 vehicles, 20,000 motorcycles, 416,000 tons of stores, 2,472 guns, 75,000 tons of ammunition and 162,000 tons of petrol. They destroyed as much as possible with petrol poured over food and grenades thrown down the barrels of artillery pieces, but essentially the soldiers of the BEF returned with little more than their rifles – indeed some officers said they would not be allowed to embark without them – and what they stood up in. The British Tommy of that period wore or carried a steel helmet of 2½ pounds in weight, a haversack of 5 pounds, an anti-gas cape of 3½ pounds, a respirator of the same weight, straps and belts ditto, two pouches containing sixty rounds each, weighing 10 pounds each, a bayonet and its scabbard of 1¾ pounds and boots of 4¾ pounds, and a rifle of nearly 9 pounds. Together these added up to 53½ pounds, or nearly 4 stone. The last man off the beaches at Dunkirk was Major-General Harold Alexander, commander of the 1st Division, who showed superb sangfroid throughout the evacuation. ‘Our position is catastrophic,’ a Staff officer told him there. ‘I’m sorry,’ he replied. ‘I don’t understand long words.’49
On 4 June, the day the operation ended, Winston Churchill told the House of Commons and the nation that they ‘must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.’ He did not deny that being expelled from the Continent was ‘a colossal military disaster’, but he did produce the most sublime passage of all his magnificent wartime oratory when he said:
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
The words that Churchill used in these short, punchy sentences were all but two derived from Old English. ‘Confidence’ derives from Latin and ‘surrender’ comes from the French. In November 1942, the Conservative minister Walter Elliot told Major-General John Kennedy that after Churchill had sat down he whispered to him: ‘I don’t know what we’ll fight them with – we shall have to slosh them on the head with bottles – empty ones of course.’50
Churchill’s public insistence on continuing the struggle represented a victory for him inside the five-man British War Cabinet, which for five days between 24 and 28 May discussed the possibility of opening peace negotiations with Hitler, initially via Mussolini.51The proponent of this course, the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, nonetheless always made it clear that he would not countenance any peace that involved sacrificing the Royal Navy or essential national sovereignty, but Churchill – eventually supported by the other three members, Neville Chamberlain and Labour’s Clement Attlee and Arthur Henderson – opposed holding any discussions, at least until it was seen how many troops could be evacuated from Dunkirk. Churchill was right; any public accommodation with Germany would have destroyed British morale, legitimized Hitler’s conquests, alienated American sympathy and allowed the Germans later to concentrate their entire might – rather than just the great bulk of it – against the USSR. Although the initial terms might have been favourable, in the long term a disunited Britain would have had to maintain an onerous level of defence spending for decades, or until such time as Germany was victorious in the east and turned to settle her scores against British bourgeois democracy. ‘The belief in the possibility of a short decisive war’, wrote the Irish literary essayist Robert Wilson Lynd, ‘appears to be one of the most ancient and dangerous of human illusions.’
Instead the Ministry of Information, in co-operation with the War Office and the Ministry of Home Security, put out a leaflet entitled ‘If the Invader Comes: What to Do – and How to Do It’. This began confidently enough, stating that if the Germans arrived ‘They will be driven out by our Navy, our Army and our Air Force,’ but because the civilian populations of Poland, Holland and Belgium had been ‘taken by surprise’ and ‘did not know what to do when the moment came’, certain instructions were laid down. (Of course the Ministries also meant French civilians too, but since France was still nominally in the war they could not be mentioned by name.) The first instruction was: ‘If the Germans come, by parachute, aeroplane or ship, you must remain where you are. The order is “Stay Put”.’ The High Command wanted to avoid the scenes of millions of refugees clogging the roads, as had happened on the Continent. ‘Do Not Believe Rumours and Do Not Spread Them’ was the next invocation, although identifying a rumour was left to the individual: ‘Use your common sense.’ Some of the other instructions amounted to just that – common sense – such as ‘Do Not Give Any German Anything.’
Dunkirk fell on 4 June to General Günther von Kluge, who marched in under a massive pall of acrid smoke from burning ships and oil installations, and the next day the Germans put Fall Rot (Plan Red) into operation, with Army Group A swinging south to try to break Weygand’s line of forty-nine divisions along the Somme and Aisne rivers. Despite their still healthy numbers, the French were in a hopeless situation. The BEF had disappeared, leaving only one infantry division and two armoured brigades on the Continent; the Belgians had surrendered; the French had lost twenty-two of their seventy-one field divisions, six of their seven motorized divisions, two of their five fortress divisions and eight of twenty armoured battalions.52 Furthermore, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding of RAF Fighter Command adamantly refused to send over any more Hurricanes or Spitfires to the battle of France, correctly assuming that the forthcoming battle of Britain would require every plane he could deploy. He had already committed the Advanced Air Striking Force squadrons at the start of the battle of France, but with Hurricanes being lost at the rate of sometimes twenty-five per day – when the factories were producing only four or five – he was right to threaten to resign rather than sacrifice any more.53
On Monday, 10 June, Mussolini declared war on the Allies, which seemed more serious at the time than in retrospect, coming at a bad moment psychologically. The Italian armed forces comprised 1.5 million men, 1,700 aircraft and a navy of six capital ships, nineteen cruisers, fifty-nine destroyers and 116 submarines.54 It was nonetheless an opportunistic and short-sighted move that was to cost Italy dear. That same night the French Government quitted Paris, with Weygand declaring it a demilitarized ‘open city’. Three million of the city’s five million inhabitants also fled, amid terrible scenes. Nurses gave lethal injections to patients who could not be moved; babies were abandoned; a tank commander preparing to defend a bridge across the Loire was killed by local inhabitants who wanted no bloodshed.55 Mayors were particularly desperate that the French Army should not make stands in their towns.
Churchill made the fourth of five trips across the Channel during the battle of France for a meeting of the senior Allied decision-making body, the Supreme War Council, on 11 June at the Château du Muguet near Briare, south-east of Orléans. Reynaud, Pétain, Weygand, the British War Minister Anthony Eden and General Charles de Gaulle were all present, as was Churchill’s personal representative to Reynaud, Major-General Louis Spears. Spears recorded in his autobiography Assignment to Catastrophe that ‘The Frenchmen sat with set white faces, their eyes upon the table. They looked for all the world like prisoners hauled up from some deep dungeon to hear an inevitable verdict.’ (By the end of the war, Reynaud, Weygand and Pétain had indeed all been imprisoned by one side or the other.) For relief from the woeful sense of defeatism emanating from Pétain and Weygand, the British turned to de Gaulle, whom Spears described as:
A strange-looking man, enormously tall; sitting at the table he dominated everyone else by his height, as he had done when walking into the room. No chin, a long, dropping, elephantine nose over a closely cut moustache, a shadow over a small mouth whose thick lips tended to protrude as if in a pout before speaking, a high, receding forehead and pointed head surmounted by sparse black hair lying flat and neatly parted.56
To this weirdly angular giraffe of a man was to be entrusted the honour of la France éternelle.
Churchill and de Gaulle tried to breathe fire into the Council, with the Prime Minister promising a second BEF that would fight in Normandy, reinforced by troops from Narvik, and hoping that France might survive until the spring of 1941 when a reconstituted British Army of twenty-five divisions would come to her aid. Yet it was patently clear that the fight had gone out of the French High Command, several of whose members saw the Dunkirk evacuation as a betrayal worse than that of Belgium. At Tours on 13 June – his final visit – Churchill refused to release France from her promise not to make a separate peace with Germany, and three days later he even proposed a scheme by which France and Britain would be fused into a single political entity, becoming one indivisible country. Pétain dismissed the idea, asking why France should wish to ‘fuse with a corpse’. Later in the war Churchill admitted that France’s refusal of the offer was ‘the narrowest escape we’d had’, because such a union ‘would have impeded us in our methods completely’.57 It nonetheless showed how desperate he had been for France to stay in the war.
Charles de Gaulle, who escaped from France with Spears on Sunday, 16 June, issued a proclamation to the French people two days later in which he said: ‘France has lost a battle. But France has not lost the war!’ Although few people heard this historic appeal, and even fewer had ever heard of him beforehand, once the inspiring words of the then obscure tank expert and now junior War Minister were disseminated widely, they formed the rallying cry for the Free French movement. ‘I ask you to believe me when I say that the cause of France is not lost,’ he said. ‘Whatever happens, the flame of French resistance must not and shall not die.’ A fortnight’s experience in a relatively junior government post, and a fortuitous surname that sounded more like a nom de guerre than a baptismal reality, were slim enough justifications for the proclamation that ‘I, General de Gaulle, a French soldier and military leader, realize that I now speak for France.’ For this magnificent act of treason, he was condemned to death in absentia by a Vichy court.
The speed with which France fell shocked everyone, even the Germans. On 14 June, General Bogislav von Studnitz led the German 87th Infantry Division through the streets of a largely deserted Paris. The next day, as Verdun fell, Panzer Group Guderian and Colonel-General Friedrich Dollmann’s Seventh Army surrounded near the Swiss border 400,000 Frenchmen of the Third, Fifth and Eighth Armies, who surrendered en masse. On 18 June – Waterloo Day – the Second British Expeditionary Force, commanded by Sir Alan Brooke, re-embarked for Britain. Brooke himself boarded the trawler Cambridgeshire at Saint-Nazaire, and he twice had physically to restrain the ship’s stoker, who was having a mental breakdown. In all 192,000 Allied troops arrived back in British ports from this second evacuation, so that, between mid-May and 18 June 1940, a total of 558,032 troops came to Britain from different ports of the Continent, 368,491 of whom – two-thirds – were British.58 The 110,000 French troops landing in Britain from Dunkirk were disarmed on arrival. ‘As we disembarked,’ reported an outraged Lieutenant Scalabre, ‘my revolver was taken from me and not returned despite my protests.’ Of these soldiers, who were sent back to Cherbourg and Brest only a few days later, fewer than half saw any active service before the armistice.59 They were the lucky ones; on 17 June the Cunard White Star liner Lancastria was sunk by five German planes, killing around 3,500 people. Survivors said that they continued to be strafed in the water as they tried to swim to safety. It remains the largest single maritime disaster in British history, and Churchill ensured that the story was not made public until after the war.
Once the Germans had broken through the French line at Reims, they covered vast areas of territory in astonishingly short periods of time. General Hermann Hoth’s XV Panzer Corps took Brest on 19 June, the same day that General Otto von Stülpnagel’s Second Army reached Nantes. The Second BEF had clearly re-embarked not a day too soon. Lyon fell to General Erich Hoepner’s XVI Panzer Corps on 20 June, the same day that a general ceasefire was declared. Immense numbers of French troops, more than 1.5 million, fell into German captivity. Frederick von Mellenthin crowed that the scale of his Führer’s victory had not been seen since the days of Napoleon, which can hardly be gainsaid. It was not bloodless for the Germans, however. They had lost 27,000 killed and 111,000 wounded, compared to France’s 92,000 killed and 200,000 wounded. Great Britain lost 11,000 men killed and 14,000 wounded – who were given the first spaces on the evacuation boats – as well as the 40,000 captured.
Before the armistice, General Weygand advised Reynaud against trying to fight on from France’s empire in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and no efforts were made to sail the powerful French fleet away from Toulon and other southern ports. Had the French Navy decided to fight on from outside metropolitan France, it could have been a major addition to the anti-Nazi forces that otherwise had to struggle on in the west without them. Instead, on 17 June Reynaud resigned in favour of Pétain, who asked the Germans for an armistice the following day. ‘People in all occupied countries were forced to co-operate but their governments were destroyed or fled,’ an historian has written of the French experience in 1940, ‘and in none – not even in tiny Luxembourg – did such a significant part of the political class agree to do the bidding of what they thought would be the winning side.’60 In response to de Gaulle’s call for continued resistance, Weygand said: ‘Nonsense. In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.’
The formal surrender took place shortly after 18.30 hours on Saturday, 22 June 1940, signed by the French General Charles Huntzinger in the same railway carriage at Compiègne, 50 miles north-east of Paris, where the Germans had themselves surrendered in 1918. Under its terms, all Free French fighters were subject to the death penalty; anti-Nazi refugees were to be handed over to the Germans; captured Luftwaffe pilots were to be returned; the French Army was to remain in captivity and three-fifths of France, roughly the northern and western parts including the whole Atlantic seaboard, were to remain under an occupation whose costs, set at 400 million francs per day, were to be borne by France. It was thus forcibly brought home to the French that this was not simply going to be a repeat of the 1870 defeat, when the Prussians had left France after three years. The disaster of 1918, which Keitel described at Compiègne as ‘the greatest German humiliation of all time’, had to be, in his words, ‘blotted out once and for all’.
After Hitler had viewed the granite memorial to the 1918 Armistice near the railway carriage, he ordered it to be destroyed. Spears was right to think that the French initially had ‘a conception of the old days of royalty when you just exchanged a couple of provinces, paid a certain amount of millions and then called it a day and started off the next time hoping you would be more lucky’, but they were soon to be vigorously disabused.61 There would be plenty of Nazi propaganda about France taking her honoured place in the ‘New Europe’, which would be ‘guided’ by Germany, but in fact she was only ever intended to be another satrapy of the thousand-year Reich, and a rich source of foodstuffs and slave labour.
Reynaud having resigned and been imprisoned in Germany, Marshal Pétain became the president of the rump of France, ruling from a hotel in Vichy, a spa town in the Auvergne that the Germans had captured on 20 June. Meeting in the main auditorium of the opera house there on 10 July, the Assemblée Nationale voted – by 569 to 80, with seventeen abstentions – to dissolve the Third Republic, which would be replaced with an Etat Français under le Maréchal. As his foreign minister Pétain initially chose the slippery former premier Pierre Laval. As one historian has put it: ‘The pre-war Third Republic had simply been turned inside-out like an old coat, and the New Order fitted straight into it.’62
On 19 July 1940, Hitler created no fewer than twelve field marshals – namely Walther von Brauchitsch, Albert Kesselring, Wilhem Keitel, Günther von Kluge, Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, Fedor von Bock, Wilhelm List, Erwin von Witzleben, Walther von Reichenau, Erhard Milch, Hugo Sperrle and Gerd von Rundstedt – in order to celebrate his victory over France.63 These represent almost half of the twenty-six field marshals created under the entire Nazi regime. Another sixteen generals were promoted in rank on that day, including four who subsequently became field marshals, namely Georg von Küchler, Paul von Kleist, Maximilian von Weichs and Ernst Busch. Hitherto the field marshal’s jewel-encrusted baton had been a rare sight in Germany; there were only four living field marshals, and of those only Göring was on the active list, Blomberg having been forcibly retired and the other two – Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and August von Mackensen – were of Great War vintage. (Only five had been created during the whole of the 1914–18 war.)
Of course the victory over France in a mere six weeks was the greatest in Germany’s history, and thus deserved marking, but the sudden multiplication of active field marshals from one to thirteen in one day had the effect of heavily diluting the status of field marshals in the Wehrmacht, thus reducing their authority vis-à-vis the Führer. One of those honoured, Wilhelm Keitel, was conscious of this, telling his Nuremberg psychiatrist: ‘I had no authority. I was field marshal in name only. I had no troops, no authority – only to carry out Hitler’s orders. I was bound to him by oath.’64 It is hard not to suspect that Hitler knew that his position as supreme commander would only be enhanced by having so many field marshals below him. The more the glory was shared, the more it really reflected on to him, for as Liddell Hart wrote of Hitler’s generals: ‘Their great contribution to history resulted, ironically, in a further weakening of their own position. It was Hitler who filled the world’s eye after the triumph, and the laurels crowned his brow, not theirs.’65
Explanations for the fall of France are many, with some reaching back to the national disunity of the late nineteenth-century Dreyfus Affair. ‘It was a period of decay, of very deep decay,’ considered General Beaufre, ‘caused by the excess of the effort during World War One. I think we suffered from an illness, which is not peculiar to France, that of having been victorious and believing that we were right and very clever.’66 The illness was not restricted to the French – though their strain of it was particularly chronic – because the British also failed to put the new military theories regarding tank warfare into effective operation early enough. As late as 1936, Alfred Duff Cooper, then Secretary of State for War, apologized to the eight cavalry regiments that were about to be mechanized by saying that it was ‘like asking a great musical performer to throw away his violin and devote himself in future to the gramophone’.
The tragedy of the Great War, in which France had lost proportionately more men than any other country, largely explained her fate in 1940. One of the reasons why Gamelin was so keen to march up to the Dyle–Breda Line, against the advice of several of his senior generals, was so that the next war would not be fought on French soil once again. The fact that in 1914–18 no fewer than 1.36 million French soldiers had been killed and 4.27 million wounded, out of a total force mobilized of 8.41 million, meant that, in Beaufre’s words, ‘Patriotism… had lost much of its magic.’67 The extreme polarization of French politics in the 1930s, with Fascist groups such as Action Française fighting street battles against their mirror-image opponents on the left, led to a badly fractured nation going to war in 1939. Spears, who knew the country very well indeed, believed that ‘The whole of the French upper and middle classes… preferred the idea of the Germans to their own Communists, and I think you can call that a powerful fifth column, and it was worked to death by the Germans.’68 Pétain, Weygand and Laval certainly felt that way. Yet it was the short-term factor of failing to learn the lessons of modern mechanized warfare, as exemplified by Guderian’s defeat of Corap at Sedan, that led directly to the fall of France.
The Nazis of course saw the fall of France in racial terms, as a Mediterranean and Latin race succumbing to the superiority of the Aryan master race, although where that left the racially Anglo-Saxon Britons was never satisfactorily explained. Hitler’s growing suspicion that he, rather than Manstein, had thought of the Sichelschnitt – ‘Manstein is the only general who understands my own ideas,’ he would say at military conferences – certainly helped induce the hubris that was ultimately to cost him the war.69Unfortunately, the Allies also tended to see the fall of France in national, if not also racial, terms. Much unnecessary animosity was subsequently caused by British personal criticism of General Corap, and by French criticism of the Dunkirk and Normandy evacuations. The French perceived – not altogether wrongly – that the British adopted a superior attitude towards them over the scale of their later collaboration with the German conquerors. Nonetheless, there could hardly have been very good Anglo-French relations after 3 July 1940, when Churchill permitted the Royal Navy to bombard the Vichy fleet at Oran in Algeria, in order to try to prevent it sailing for French ports and thence possible incorporation into the Kriegsmarine.
Churchill himself, a lifelong Francophile, stayed aloof from such anti-French sentiment. In June 1942 he complained to Sir Alan Brooke about the Foreign Office’s attitude. He pointed out that Britain had not supported French rearmament in the 1930s, had not rearmed herself, ‘and finally dragged France into the war in bad conditions’. The Director of Military Operations at the War Office, Major John Kennedy, reflected that ‘There is much truth in this. It should be remembered when we feel inclined to blame the French for their collapse.’70 All too often, however, Britons ignored such considerations.
The fate of France between her surrender on 22 June 1940 and the start of her liberation on 6 June 1944 – D-Day – was harsh and humiliating, but at least the country escaped what was called polonisation, the ghastly ethnic depopulation carried out by Hans Frank’s Government-General in Poland. France was the only country which was accorded the formality of an armistice, and until the Germans invaded the unoccupied part of France in November 1942 Pétain’s Government retained a good deal of autonomy. Their counter-espionage agencies even executed as many as forty Abwehr spies and detained hundreds more, four-fifths of them French.71 Of course in all essentials, France was run first by the Nazi Party ideologue and Ambassador to France, Otto Abetz, and then by the German Military Governor of France, General Karl von Stülpnagel (whose cousin Otto commanded the Second Army), from the Hôtel Majestic in Paris, but the appearance of independence was accorded to the Vichy client state of the Massif Central and Midi. This brought little solace to those whom the authoritarian Government there blamed for the catastrophe of 1940, principally socialists, intellectuals, Protestants, trade unionists, schoolteachers and, especially, Jews.
Vichy implemented anti-Jewish measures before it was even requested to do so by Berlin, partly in order ‘to keep the advantages of property confiscation and refugee control for itself’.72 Although it refused the German demand that Jews be forced to wear yellow stars, Vichy participated enthusiastically in sending non-French Jews to the death camps – principally Auschwitz – in a way that the Germans simply did not have the manpower or local knowledge to achieve.73 It did not deport French Jews, at least at first, especially if they had fought in the Great War. In the Occupied Zone, the story was worse, with the gendarmerie rounding up French and non-French Jews alike, taking them via Bordeaux to the notorious transit camp of Drancy outside Paris, and to the Vélodrome d’Hiver inside the city, then to almost certain death in the east, with the trains driven by Frenchmen and the logistics managed by French policemen and fonctionnaires such as René Bosquet and Maurice Papon. (When there were too few Jews to justify hiring a coach, Papon signed for the taxi fares.) The deportation to Auschwitz in 1942 of 4,000 Jewish children aged twelve and younger, after being forcibly separated from their parents at the Vélodrome and starved for a week, was done not by the Gestapo or the SS but by ordinary Parisian gendarmes acting under orders from French officials.
Although around 77,000 French Jews died in the Holocaust, this represented 20 per cent of the total number of French Jews, a lower percentage than for other countries such as Belgium’s 24,000 (40 per cent), quite apart from the Netherlands’ 102,000 (75 per cent).74 This had less to do with the authorities than with the ability of Jews to hide in a largely rural country; newcomers to inaccessible villages were often not denounced to the authorities. Many individual acts of heroism took place, such as teachers forging papers for Jews, or Gentile students of Paris wearing the yellow star in protest, or Catholic priests who protected Jews despite the intimate connections between the Church and the Vichy state.
There were also those French who collaborated willingly with the Germans – dining with them at restaurants such as Maxim’s and La Tour d’Argent – just as there were others who joined the Resistance. Some 30,000 people were shot as hostages and résistants, and 60,000 non-Jewish French were deported to concentration camps. Yet the vast majority of Frenchmen simply tried to get on with their lives. Between 300,000 and 400,000 French enrolled in various German military organizations and Fascist movements, a significant number but still only 1 per cent of the overall French population of forty million in 1945. ‘Long live the shameful peace,’ was Jean Cocteau’s pithy summation of the views of many. It was due to this that France could initially be held down by as few as 30,000 German troops in 1941.75 During the first eighteen months of the Occupation, no Germans were deliberately killed by any French in Paris, and only one French patriotic demonstration was held, during which all of the one hundred people involved were arrested. Everything reopened, except of course the Assemblée Nationale, whose building had been converted into German administrative offices with a huge banner hanging from it proclaiming Germany’s victories ‘on all fronts’.
‘I have been receiving politicians, town councillors, préfets, magistrates,’ reported Abetz back to Berlin in June 1940. ‘Out of fifty of these dignitaries, forty-nine have asked for special permissions of one sort or another, or for petrol coupons – and the fiftieth spoke of France.’76 When French intellectuals discussed the Occupation, they were all too often merely flip. ‘How do you respond to a young German soldier who politely asks you for directions?’ asked Jean-Paul Sartre, for example. There were tiny acts of resistance, it was true, such as painting a dog’s tail the colour of the tricolour, and in December 1940 a bookseller was arrested for placing portraits of Pétain and Laval in his shop window, between copies of Les Misérables.77 Overall, however, most of the French retreated into pursuit of their immediate material interests, hating the Occupation of course, but doing next to nothing to hasten its end. This was precisely what the Germans needed.
It was Philippe Pétain himself who made Vichy respectable. The most controversial Frenchman of the twentieth century, he always despised politicians and it was his tragedy – and that of France – that he decided to become one himself in 1940, thus mortgaging the reputation of the indomitable ‘victor of Verdun’ to a political situation that constantly moved faster than his failing powers were able to comprehend, let alone control. Born a peasant and rising through the ranks of the French Army through genuine ability, Pétain was about to retire as a colonel aged fifty-eight, but the Great War intervened and by the age of sixty-two he was commander-in-chief and a marshal of France. Despite having commanded the defence of Verdun for only the first two of its ten months of struggle from February to December 1916, his name was synonymous with the greatest French victory albeit largely pyrrhic – of the war.
Even if the octogenarian Pétain were not simply too old for the job of protecting France – he was forgetful, going deaf and inclined to fall asleep – he did not have the basic political skills necessary for the job. On 17 June 1940, for example, the day before France surrendered, he managed to make no fewer than three cardinal errors. He illegally arrested the patriotic politician Georges Mandel (who was then released), appointed the collaborationist Pierre Laval as foreign minister (who was later demoted) and made a radio broadcast ordering French troops to lay down their arms in the middle of a major offensive, thereby weakening his negotiating position over peace terms.
Pétain evinced the absurdly vain belief that he was the modern-day Joan of Arc, even reading speeches about the saint to his British liaison officer in June 1940. Even on the rare occasions when he did manage to get a reasonable deal for France, as when he met Adolf Hitler at Montoire in October 1940 and refused to declare war on Britain, he was unable to prevent photographs of himself shaking Hitler’s hand from being telegraphed around the world. It is true that he did keep lines of communication open to the Allies – including an offer to quit metropolitan France in 1943 – but he tended to agree with the last person who visited him, all too often an arch-collaborationist in his own Government such as Laval and Admiral Jean-François Darlan. He had few genuine friends, and for all his many gorgeous and besotted mistresses there were few people around him who gave unbiased advice. Although it was always going to be difficult keeping Vichy neutral between the Axis and Allied powers, Pétain deferred to the Nazis much more than he needed to, writing grovelling letters to Hitler about the ‘new hope’ that the Wehrmacht’s victories offered for the New Europe. Had he fled to North Africa with the powerful French fleet, he could soon have made the Axis position in Libya untenable, and the Germans would in 1940 have had to expend the divisions necessary to annex unoccupied France, as they were forced to do after the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942.
While it was always unlikely that an elderly soldier was going to lead a genuine movement for national revival, what was called la Révolution Nationale ended in mere reactionary authoritarianism. Pétain’s Government guillotined Marie-Louise Giraud for performing an abortion, the last woman to be so punished in France. Yet the marshal was personally very popular – more French took to the streets of Paris to cheer him when he visited Notre-Dame in April 1944 than when de Gaulle arrived at the same spot four months later – although his standing was damaged by staying on in office after the Germans had taken over Vichy in 1942.
What undermined the Vichy Government – it was not a ‘regime’, but the legally constituted Government of unoccupied France – and conversely helped de Gaulle in London more than anything else before D-Day, however, was the compulsory drafting of 650,000 French workers into German factories in 1943. The loathed Service de Travail Obligatoire was enforced by press-gangs, and many of those who escaped it were forced into the Resistance (known in rural areas as the Maquis) and the Free French almost out of a paucity of alternatives. ‘In general most French workers did not mind working for Germany,’ one historian has concluded, ‘as long as they did not have to go to Germany.78’ Before they were rounded up, many fled. It was often not the Germans who dealt the Resistance its heaviest blows, but Joseph Darnard’s Vichy paramilitary police, the Milice.79 As head of state, Pétain must take ultimate responsibility for the tortures and massacres perpetrated by the Milice death-squads in their vicious civil war against the Resistance. One of their commanders, Joseph Lecussan, carried a Star of David in his wallet made from the skin of a Jew, and in July 1944 he rounded up eighty Jews and had the men pushed into a well and buried alive under bags of cement. Pétain made regular bleating complaints to Laval about such horrors, but these were largely just for the record, and he certainly did nothing to end the atrocities.
The Vichy Government interned 70,000 suspected ‘enemies of the state’ (mainly refugees from the Nazis), dismissed 35,000 civil servants on political grounds and put 135,000 French on trial. ‘There was no other occupied country during the second world war which contributed more to the initial efficiency of Nazi rule in Europe than France,’ is the estimation of one distinguished historian.80 There were millions of Frenchmen who made their private accommodations with Hitler’s New European Order, in circumstances varying between sullen co-operation, compromise and outright collaboration, but as a British writer has put it: ‘We who have not known hunger have no idea how empty bellies debilitate and dominate.’81 We cannot know how the British would have behaved under the same circumstances, and tragically it seems that human nature is such that every society has enough misfits, fanatics, sadists and murderers to run concentration camps. Those few Jews who were living in the Channel Islands, the only British Crown territory to be occupied by the Germans during the war, were sent to the gas chambers, and the Channel Islands co-operated with the authorities, although their behaviour, with its lack of realistic alternative and orders from London not to resist, cannot in any way be treated as analogous with what the rest of the millions-strong British population might have done after an invasion. ‘Certain people behaved well, others badly,’ wrote Simone Weil, who survived Auschwitz, aged sixteen, ‘many [were] both good and bad at the same time.’ And many neither. For every saint and every sinner there were a dozen trimmers. A code of behaviour developed in France whereby it was considered widely acceptable to drink with Germans in a bar, for example, but not at home, and to cheat them financially, but not so badly that one’s community suffered later.
One who behaved well was Jean Moulin, the préfet of Chartres in 1940, who went on to create the Conseil National de la Résistance, an umbrella organization for the otherwise disparate anti-Nazi groups in France which covered almost the whole political spectrum. Growing up on the anti-clerical left, Moulin, at one point the youngest préfet in France, nonetheless embraced Gaullism by 1943. In circumstances that are still unclear, a CNR meeting in a doctor’s house in the Lyon suburb of Caluire was betrayed on 21 June 1943, and the handsome, brave, charismatic young Moulin was captured and afterwards tortured to death by Klaus Barbie of the Gestapo.82 He died without revealing any information, and although his body was never found, ashes that were thought to be his were in 1964 buried in the Panthéon in Paris among the greatest heroes of France.
The Communist Party – which might well have betrayed Moulin, for his apostasy – began to resist the Germans only after Hitler had invaded Russia in June 1941, but its members proved effective résistants due to their commitment and the already existing cell structure of their organization. They always had their own political agenda, of which expelling the Nazis was only the first part. After the fall of Paris they concentrated their efforts on plans to seize power, and even assassinated other, anti-Communistrésistantswhose local popularity they believed might threaten their success. When in 1945 the French Army pursued the Wehrmacht through Alsace all the way to Bavaria, the French Communist Party awaited Stalin’s call to rise up, which, for various strategic reasons to do with Soviet penetration of eastern Europe, never came.
A large number of French betrayed their country for what appear to be simply financial reasons. When 600 boxes of files captured from the Abwehr were finally released by the French authorities in 1999, it became clear that several thousand French had been willing to spy not only on foreigners but also on their countrymen, for relatively small amounts of money (although some could earn up to 10,000 francs per month).83 Among their number were a hairdresser, actor, brothel manager, Air France pilot and magician; even more minor figures included a woman who for a small monthly stipend simply allowed the Abwehr to use her mailbox. Furthermore, tens of thousands of anonymous denunciations were sent to the Gestapo, often to settle old scores or in the hope of wiping out financial debts, or very often out of sheer, inexplicable malice, alleging Resistance connections with little or no evidence. This period has been referred to as the Franco-French War, and found no parallel in other countries, except perhaps politically riven Yugoslavia. ‘While others united to fight against Hitler,’ Vichy’s foremost historian has written of the Dutch, Poles and Norwegians, ‘the French fought each other.’84
In Vichy, Anglophobia also reached its highest levels since the Napoleonic Wars. The Vichy Air Force actually bombed Gibraltar in July and September 1940, and its Navy Minister, Admiral Jean François Darlan, regularly expressed his personal desire to go to war with Britain. There were no fewer than fourteen military engagements that saw Frenchmen and Britons fighting against each other during the Second World War, as far apart as Dakar and Madagascar, Syria and of course Oran. There was some justification for this hatred; at 150,000, almost as many French civilians died in the Second World War as soldiers, two-thirds of them as a result of Allied military action. The air raids ‘softening up’ Normandy for invasion in 1944 alone killed tens of thousands of civilians.
‘Less sugar in their coffee and less coffee in their cup,’ opined André Gide of his countrymen, ‘that’s what they’ll notice.’ It was true that food and the threat of starvation played a central role during France’s ‘dark years’ of occupation. Germany requisitioned half of all the food produced by France between 1940 and 1944, and in some areas of production – especially meat and wine – even more. Around 80 per cent of the meat that came into Paris was effectively confiscated, and incidents are recorded of 2,000 people queuing up from 3 a.m. onwards in order to buy only 300 portions of rabbit. Parisian criminal gangs would pose as the Gestapo to extort food and fuel from their compatriots, and a judge’s daughter even married a peasant from the Loire, ‘lured by his pork chops and rillettes’.85 La France éternelle.
With 1.5 million French POWs working for years abroad (mostly in German factories), Wehrmacht soldiers, who seemed likely to be in situ for ever, charmed the impressionable shopgirls, waitresses and chambermaids they met, and there was a good deal ofcollaboration horizontale between 1940 and 1944, with as many as 200,000 babies being born as a result. (Considering the shame endured by the mothers in many communities, this must represent a tiny fraction of the sex that took place without such visible issue.) In the post-Liberation spate of purges and vengeance against collaborators, known as l’épuration, women who were accused of having slept with Germans were humiliated in public – enduring head-shaving, mud-pelting and even on occasion lynching – at the hands of crowds of self-righteous hypocrites who had almost all themselves made their own personal compromises with the enemy over the previous four years.
In Belgium, ‘the powerful forces of Belgian politics and society – the political leaders, the major industrialists, the Catholic Church, the legal and administrative elites and even the trade union bureaucracies – shunned both collaboration and resistance.’86 Only a small minority of Belgians – led by Léon Degrelle of the Rexist movement – worked as quislings for the Nazis. But neither did the terrain lend itself to active resistance, as the forests and hills of south-east France aided the Maquis. Although there were a few very brave Belgian résistants, overall ‘The lives of most Belgians were less clear-cut and less heroic.’87 The majority were in favour of their king making an accommodation in 1940, and of Allied liberation in 1944.
Denmark had brave resisters too, and between 28 September and 9 October 1943 more than 7,000 Danish Jews were ferried over to neutral Sweden, thus escaping the Holocaust. (The reason there were not more of them was that the Danes had restricted German Jewish immigration in the 1930s and actually closed the border to them in 1938.) There was a light touch to the German occupation of Denmark not only as a result of perceived shared ethnicity, but ‘also because the Germans did not want to disrupt the vital flow of food from Danish farms to German stomachs’.88 Denmark produced 15 per cent of the Reich’s food supply, and the entire system needed to be policed by only 215 German officials.
When Weygand predicted that Britain would have her neck wrung like a chicken, it certainly seemed that Germany had, to all intents and purposes, won the war. Yet on 18 June, in order to counter panic over the coming news of the French armistice, Churchill made one of the most stirring of all his wartime speeches. ‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties,’ he told the House of Commons, ‘and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.” ’ In fact the term ‘British Empire and Commonwealth’ officially lasted only another twenty-six years, but Churchill’s words will resonate down the ages for as long as the English tongue is spoken. With France’s fate now sealed, the eyes of the world turned to Britain to see whether the same 21-mile stretch of water that had saved her from invasion by Philip ii, Louis xiv, Napoleon and the Kaiser might now save her once again.