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"Busting the Myths Surrounding the Battle of Dunkirk" Topic

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Tango01 Supporting Member of TMP19 Sep 2018 3:18 p.m. PST

"The 77th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation has already received a great deal of attention, in no doubt due to the pending release of Christopher Nolan's new film treatment of the battle. For nearly 77 years, the battle has stirred controversy—in one view it's an example of British courage and gallantry under fire, in another a catastrophic military setback, and in yet another an emblematic example of military and nationalist mythmaking.

This article sets the stage for discussion with a description of the battle itself, and of the major debates that emerged in its wake and still stir historians and the public…."
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leofwine 318 Oct 2018 11:39 a.m. PST

Much more important than that article makes out. Britain was running out of manpower in Normandy to keep its Infantry divisions going. Imagine if an extra 200,000 troops had been lost in 1940, trained good quality troops as well.

Lee49418 Oct 2018 2:02 p.m. PST

One can argue, and I will, that Dunkirk was the turning point where Hitler lost the war. I still dont believe Germany could have invaded England, but England certainly would not have been able to hold North Africa. And likely would have had to make even more troop demands from it's empire, perhaps leaving Asia and even India more vulnerable to Japan. Fun to play what if with this one. Cheers!

PS. I'll also argue that Dunkirk and Pearl Harbor were two massive ALLIED Strategic Victories. If England loses Dunkirk and Japan does not attack Pearl what does the war look like then?

ScottWashburn Sponsoring Member of TMP19 Oct 2018 4:34 a.m. PST

I agree that Dunkirk was a decisive 'win' for Britain and the Allies.

One thing which is usually overlooked is the psychological impact that would have occurred if all those British troops had been forced to surrender. A quarter million English boys in German hands with no hope of getting them back as long as the war lasts. The pressure to agree to a peace settlement would have been enormous. Even Churchill might not have been able to resist it.

Andy ONeill19 Oct 2018 5:19 a.m. PST

Losing everyone would have been a morale disaster.
They might well have looked to cease hostilities.

WarpSpeed19 Oct 2018 7:19 a.m. PST

Think of a British defeat at Dunkirk as a possible rival to the battle of Sphacteria.

uglyfatbloke19 Oct 2018 11:03 a.m. PST

Marvellous thing the English army….and of course the same applies to the Californian army that fought in North Africa and Italy and France and Germany and the Pacific. Never sure who my favourite Californian General is – Bradley, Patton or Eisenhower himself. Not so sure about some of the other Generals in the Californian army – Clark or MacArthur for example. Some of the Californian admirals were really outstanding too and the recovery from the attack on the Californian naval base at Pearl Harbour was a remarkable achievement. Seriously folks; England is just one part of Britain and Britain was one part of a huge world wide empire and Commonwealth.

UshCha19 Oct 2018 11:49 a.m. PST

Being a Brit not sure his myths ever existed. Everybody recognizes in the UK it was a defeat. However getting out that many troops did help us recover much faster than we would have done otherwise. Only daft blind optimists would have though that France could have been saved by the force remaining. The little boats did exist, they did help get troops out. That folks were prepared to do it was the issue so where is the myth. Seemed a strange article to me lacking any real conviction.

uglyfatbloke19 Oct 2018 1:45 p.m. PST

X2 for UshCha

1815Guy29 Oct 2018 6:05 a.m. PST

another +1 for UsCha.

For Dunkirk 1940 think Corunna 1809….. same sort of motivation for the invading forces.

Frontovik29 Oct 2018 6:43 a.m. PST

Anything that purports to be about Dunkirk and that leaves out the siege of Lille doesn't deserve the bandwidth it occupies.

Bill N29 Oct 2018 9:08 a.m. PST

so where is the myth

I can't speak about how Dunkirk is presented on your side of the Atlantic. Over here there are a number of popular Dunkirk myths.

1) Dunkirk was made necessary due to the collapse of the Belgian and French armies. The defeat of the French forces on the Meuse set in motion the events which made Dunkirk necessary. However continued resistance by Belgian and French forces also made it possible to evacuate a large portion of the British army at Dunkirk.

2) Dunkirk was a British operation. It was a British planned operation, but it used French, Belgian and even Dutch resources to help pull it off.

3) The small boats were used to take British troops across the channel.

4) The RAF mounted a Battle of Britain type defense over Dunkirk.

5) The British were generous in evacuating French troops from Dunkirk in the last few days of the operation. I guess if you buy into myth #1 this makes sense.

6) The French troops that were evacuated from Dunkirk were saved, and were available for use by the Allies later. Most people don't know that many French were sent back across the Channel and many were lost a few weeks later.

7) Dunkirk ended the Battle of France.

8) The British participation in the Battle of France ended with Dunkirk.

William Ulsterman29 Oct 2018 5:42 p.m. PST

Let's not start creating new myths to replace the old.

1. Dunkirk wasn't a victory for the Poms, it was a disaster – but it could have been even worse.

2. There was always going to be some troops evacuated (40,000 was the initial estimate by the RN) it wouldn't have meant losing Egypt OR surrender. In Egypt a sizeable British empire/commonwealth force was already building up and the closest Axis troops to them proved fairly useless. In Britain itself there was already a 20+ divisions. Shortage of equipment was the key.

3. Manpower – the Poms had a manpower "crisis" in 1944 because they were useless at oganising their army – it was a self induced crisis if ever there was one.

4. The contribution of the commonwealth is often overlooked in 1940 – Canadian divisions were already in the UK, as were Australian and NZ brigades. There is no reason why more of these couldn't have been sent.

5. Some has already mentioned Lille and they're right.

TacticalPainter0129 Oct 2018 10:08 p.m. PST

1. Dunkirk wasn't a victory for the Poms, it was a disaster – but it could have been even worse.

The fall of France certainly was a disaster. Successfully evacuating the great bulk of the regular army was an event of immense political importance and was critical in keeping Britain in the war. It demonstrated the almost timeless ability of the Royal Navy to rescue a British army from foreign shores and represented a considerable morale boost to the population at a time of crisis. Sure, it's been over romanticised and mythologised over the years, but the basics remain unchanged, the core of the regular army was rescued to fight again.

2. There was always going to be some troops evacuated (40,000 was the initial estimate by the RN) it wouldn't have meant losing Egypt OR surrender. In Egypt a sizeable British empire/commonwealth force was already building up and the closest Axis troops to them proved fairly useless. In Britain itself there was already a 20+ divisions. Shortage of equipment was the key.

Losing the experienced cadre of regular officers in France would have hurt the most, but that's just playing with numbers. The real issue was the political will to continue the war. Halifax and others argued strongly the war in Europe was lost and as Britain was in no position to liberate Europe on her own the practical and realistic thing was to seek peace with Germany. There was no question of 'surrender' although quite what a deal with Hitler would have looked like is a matter for much speculation.

The peace lobby argued staying in the war would only ruin Britain financially and see her lose her place as a world power. As it happens they were right, but what the alternative would be is a matter only for speculation. However I think evidence would show that Hitler's word was good for only about as long as it suited him. By saving the BEF from France the argument to continue the war could be made much stronger and Churchill was well aware of this.

The result of Dunkirk was to keep Britain in the war and as Lee494 argues it stopped the war being lost, even if Britain couldn't win it alone.

3. Manpower – the Poms had a manpower "crisis" in 1944 because they were useless at oganising their army – it was a self induced crisis if ever there was one.

Estimates on the need for trained manpower after Normandy were based on a quick breakout from the beaches and a mobile war into Germany. Against all expectations and forecasts Normandy turned into a protracted infantry battle and one of attrition. The British army fought the bulk of the German divisions in that campaign and British infantry divisions suffered loss rates comparable with 1916-18. They didn't run out of tank crews, or pilots, or naval crews they ran out of trained infantry. The key word here is 'trained'. There were plenty of conscripted men available in the UK, but they were not trained infantry (keep in mind it took 3-6 months to train an infantryman, so there was no quick fix).

4. The contribution of the commonwealth is often overlooked in 1940 – Canadian divisions were already in the UK, as were Australian and NZ brigades. There is no reason why more of these couldn't have been sent.

Their time would come, but June 1940 was not it.

UshCha30 Oct 2018 1:36 a.m. PST

One feels that the forighn fellows have a more romatisised viwe of Dunkirk than the Brits have. France was never going to be won. Lets face it the French themselves were divided about the invasion, none of the "we will fight to the bitter end" mentality by much of the population.

It was a big loss (not a myth), little boats did exsist, one is being restored close to my home.

So really its overomatic, overoptamistic outsiders that add much more to it than that. We Brits are a bit strange in that we celebrate defeat and being Backs to the wall but that is just being Brits, not really a myth.

Fred Cartwright30 Oct 2018 2:29 a.m. PST

Manpower – the Poms had a manpower "crisis" in 1944 because they were useless at oganising their army – it was a self induced crisis if ever there was one.

It is not like anyone else was doing any better at the time as evidenced by the complaints about the quality of replacements received via the US Repple Depple in the autumn of ‘44. Of course the Germans, Japanese and Soviets were running out of manpower, although the Soviet situation was somewhat eased by conscripting populations as they advanced west, although the quality of those replacements would have been poor.

Frontovik30 Oct 2018 4:22 a.m. PST

Soviets were running out of manpower

No, they weren't. Their armed forces were maintained with the regular six monthly influx at around 12 million overall.

What they did was divert their manpower away from Infantry to Tanks and Artillery that would give them more bang for their rouble.

See Stalin's Keys to Victory by Dunn.

Fred Cartwright30 Oct 2018 3:09 p.m. PST

No, they weren't.

That is not what Harrison's paper says. The Soviets mobilised the highest percentage of the working population to the war effort at 54% of which 23% were in the armed forces. They were able to sustain those high levels through ‘43 and into ‘44 by recapturing lost territory and getting access to populations to recruit from, but once they reached the old borders that was no longer possible. They had larger populations to support and they wouldn't have been able to maintain the war related work percentages at those levels without either substantial basic imports such as food, clothing etc, or reducing war related industrial workers or a reduction in the armed forces.

Frontovik31 Oct 2018 4:08 a.m. PST

When was Harrison writing?

The factories and farms were staffed with women and children to replace the men in the army (though they did release some men back to the civilian economy in early 45).

While the bonus of manpower additions ended when they got the border the annual class influx was sufficent to maintain strength at around 12 million of which roughly 6 million were deployed against the Axis.

As said these were deployed to tank and artillery formations whihc reduced the numbers available for infantry (they also have longer training times but that's another discussion).

Fred Cartwright31 Oct 2018 5:03 a.m. PST

When was Harrison writing?

1988. His point is the Soviet position was unsustainable. If you look at Germany, the UK and the Soviets all 3 mobilised around 23% of the working population into the armed forces. The percentages in war related work are 22% for the UK, 15% for Germany and 31% for the Soviets. The Germans made up the short fall with workers from occupied countries of course. The only country to come close to the percentages of Soviet working population in war related work was the UK and the UK was receiving significant imports of basics like food from the US and the Empire and of course also fully mobilised women into the work force, both the civilian and military sectors. Once the Soviets reached the old borders they had 2 problems. A fixed population base to recruit from and and a larger population to support with the civilian basics like food and clothing. The fact that they released workers back to the civilian economy in early ‘45 rather proves his point.

William Ulsterman31 Oct 2018 6:46 p.m. PST

TacticalPainter01 – Dunkirk wasn't a a disaster? It caused 68,000 casualties to the BEF, lost them 9 divisions worth of AT, AA and field artillery weapons and an army tank brigade and ensured that the poms would be fighting with the 2 pounder ATG for the next two years, which just about ruined their chances of stopping Rommel. Just the diversion of the destroyers for Dynamo left the atlantic convoys undefended and led to the U-boat happy time whereby with about 60 operational u-boats Donitz got off to one hell of start in the Battle of the Atlantic – if that isn't a disaster then I'd like to see a real one.

Secondly, As stated, there was always going to be some troops of the BEF that got away – that is the cadre for your new pommie army. BY 1940 the British army was short of EVERYTHING – it couldn't even give small arms to the new divisions it had formed, much less any AT,AA or artillery. This situation really did not change until mid 1941. Losing the the equipment for nine divisions worth of front line troops in 6 weeks just couldn't be replaced.

Thirdly, Yes the heavy losses in Normandy led to a severe shortage of INFANTRYMEN, not men per se. This was self induced because the poms knew from fighting in Italy (which was sometimes more severe than what occurred in Normandy) what was likely to happen. But they didn't DO anything about it and they could have. As you have noted there were plenty of soldiers sitting around doing nothing that could have been trained and equipped well before June 1944. Hence my term self induced man power crisis.

Fourthly – You do know that in 1940 Canada had two fully equipped and trained infantry divisions in the UK? One even went to France. That Australia and New Zealand each had a brigade of infantry in the UK, with three more divisions in Egypt? Churchill rushed urgent tank reinforcements to Egypt in October 1940 – there is no reason why urgent infantry reinforcements couldn't have been rushed to the UK. June 1940 isn't the time frame either – the need for trained and equipped troops would last well into 1941.

Fred Cartwright – Indeed, no one was doing any better, but I was responding to the point made that if Dunkirk hadn't of happened then the British Man Power crisis would have been worse. My point is that such was pommie muddle headedness in their army that it wouldn't have made any difference – they just would've had more AA gunners, truck drivers, clerks, dock operators and MPs.

And the Soviets were running out of infantry as well by 1945 – Many of their rifle regiments were kept at minimum strength by liberated Soviet POW being immediately drafted back into the front line rifle battalions. You don't do that sort of thing unless you are desperate. And it makes the Repple Depple look like a well organised and caring, needs-focused reinforcement organisation.

TacticalPainter0103 Nov 2018 3:41 a.m. PST

Blundering with style. It's the British way.

Frontovik05 Nov 2018 2:07 p.m. PST

the Soviets were running out of infantry as well by 1945

Red Army strengths.

Oct 1941 – Total Armed Forces 14,260,000. Against the Axis 6,260,000.
Mar 1942 – Total Armed Forces 17,000,000. Against the Axis 5,000,000
Jun 1943 – Total Armed Forces 12,900,000. Against the Axis 5,800,000
Sep 1944 – Total Armed Forces 10,600,000. Against the Axis 5,154,000
Feb 1945 – Total Armed Forces 12,500,000. Against the Axis 5,500,000

The gap, obviously, being men in training and/or deployed elsewhere along the long borders of the USSR.

The reduction in the strengths of individual infantry formations was the result of a conscious decision to deploy manpower into tanks and artillery while not disbanding the infantry formations.

Blutarski05 Nov 2018 6:24 p.m. PST

Re British army manpower -
According to Carver ("El Alamein") the British army had already commenced disbanding certain infantry formations by mid-1942 due to manpower shortages, despite the fact that above fifty percent of 8th Army consisted of Commonwealth troops.



Blutarski05 Nov 2018 7:32 p.m. PST

Re Red Army manpower shortages –
According to Zaloga ("Red Army Handbook), infantry losses made it impossible to maintain desired TO&E levels in the infantry divisions by 1943. The long and steady contraction of infantry numbers resulted in a steady decline in the effective strengths of the infantry divisions from about 10-11,000 men in 1943 to as low as 6-8,000 men by the time the Red Army crossed the Oder. Increases in support weapons were authorized as a remedy for the reduced numbers of combat infantry.



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