“BBC Who Do You Think You Are”

I was flattered to be asked to provide expertise for the episode of Who Do You Think You Are for Richard Osman. This is an example of the kind of work I do for personalised pilgrimages. Its about interpreting the documentary evidence to uncover something about an individual. You can see the episode here

More about personalised Pilgrimages here

How did the Allies evacuate so many soldiers at Dunkirk under the German threat??

TAG: 1940

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In May 1940 the Germans decisively defeated the Franco-British armies and their Belgian and Dutch allies.  By the 15th the French high command admitted that they had lost the battle. By 20th May  German Panzers had reached the coast, splitting the allied armies in Belgium from France.  On 22nd May German armour was poised to capture the ports of Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk.  Yet two weeks later around  325,000 troops got away from encirclement by an enemy with air superiority.  How did so the British and 125,000 Frenchmen get away? Where can you find the evidence today?

The French

The French fought with greater skill, determination and courage than is given credit by Anglo-Saxon accounts. Although French senior leadership was weak and indecisive, many British accounts  mention small groups of  Frenchmen and tanks turning up at the right moment to save the day. The Germans spent time reducing the pocket of French troops around Lille.  The French army also were the rearguard for Dunkirk.   

Fort des Dunes, at Leffrinckoucke was the command post of the French 12th motorised infantry division and defended until after the end of the evacuations. The fort is a museum with probably the best exhibition on the part played by French troops in 1940.

The British rearguard actions

The British fought several rearguard actions to protect the flanks of the corridor through which troops withdrew to Dunkirk. 

  •  Mount Cassel, the highest point south of Dunkirk, was held by a British brigade which was sacrificed to deny this key ground to the Germans.
  • The town of Hazebrouck and the villages of Wormhout, Hondeghem were all held by British troops who put up a stubborn resistance.
  •   The first world war battlefields of Ieper and Messines were part of the BEF’s defences. 
  • K Battery RHA at Hondeghem, one of the  actions on the flank of the BEF’s route to Dunkerque
  • The stubborn defence of Wormhoult was followed by a massacre of British prisoners
  • Cassel after the battle
  • The hilltop town of Cassel dominated the southern approach to Dunkerque
  • Cassel town square bordered by restaurants and tea rooms 

The German Halt Order

The German high command ordered its Panzer divisions to halt on the 23rd May, and only released them three days later.  The Bundeswehr historian Frieser identified nine different explanations for the Halt Order.  The order did not originate with Hitler, but with some German officers concerned about the threat to their flanks. Higher command disagreed about the riskiness of the panzer advance. Hitler sided with the risk averse and the Panzers were halted.  The British Official history denies that this was a significant factor.

The threat to the German advance appeared more real on the maps in Hitler’s HQ in the western border of Germany, than to the tactical commanders in France.   The key decisions were taken in Hitler’s command bunker, which still exists as a ruin, but is on private land.

  • Hitler at the Felsennest (Rocky Crag)
  • The Felsennest – in the Munster Eifel forest
  • There are ruins on private land
  • Hitler with his Generals May 1940

The Air War

The apparent success of the Luftwaffe masked the heavy losses suffered by the German air force during the three week campaign. Many German aircraft were still based in Germany. By the time that the Germans reached the channel coast, the Germans were further way from their bases than the  RAF based in Britain.  There are few traces of the air war over Dunkirk, except for the graves of the airmen lost in the battle.

  • RAF Graves in Dunkerque area
  • German bombers like there like these JU88s were still based in Germany
  • Coastal Command aircraft like these Lockheed Hudsons flew over Dunkerque
  • The Spitfire first saw combat over Dunkerque
  • The Ju87 Stuka posed the main threat to ships

The Arras Counter Attack

On 21st May the Allies mounted a counter attack south from Arras. This was the only attack mounted from the main allied armies north of the German penetration.  Although British histories focus on the role of British troops, French armour also played an important part in the battle.

The battle took place over the 1915-17 battlefields of Artois among the cemeteries and memorials from that conflict.  There are few memorials from 1940 apart from the war graves.  There is a memorial to the Royal Tank Regiment in Arras and a second at Beaurains with a tank track theme. The graves of three men in Wailly communal cemetery are a reminder of the attack famously halted by Rommel in person. Two are British and one French.   

  • Grave of  Lieutenant Roy 
  • Rommel’s view of the battlefield
  • RTR Memorial Arras
  • RTR Memorial Beurains
  • Rommel’s situation map 

The Royal Navy

The evacuation at Dunkirk could not have taken place without the brilliant and courageous operations of the Royal Navy, expertly commanded by Admiral Bertram Ramsey.  Ramsey was appointed to plan the naval and  masterminded the operation from what had been the dynamo room  in the fortress under Dover castle, and gave it’s name to operation Dynamo.

Operation Dynamo was planned and commanded from the tunnels under Dover Castle, managed by English Heritage and open to the public. This shows the Anti Aircraft Operations Room in Hellfire Corner.

Perfidious Albion – British Determination

There was some truth in the image of British troops denying escape for the French rearguard

After the failure of the Arras Counter attack, the British were single minded about evacuating the maximum number of British Troops. The French might have thought that the withdrawal to the coast was to form a defensive bastion. The British did not disabuse them of this until later. Alexander, the British commander on the ground, ignored a directive from Churchill that the British should provide half of the rear guard. There is truth in the claims the British extracted the maximum number of British troops at the expense of the French who were left on the beaches. The memorials to the French rear guard at Bray Dunes is a reminder of this.

The memorial to the 12th (Motorised) Infantry Division at Bray Dunes is a reminder that the French were left to conduct the rearguard alone.

Fortunes of War

Luck played a significant part.

  • The poorly planned and executed Arras counter attack hit the passing 7th Panzer Division at its weakest spot. Erwin Rommel the German divisional commander defeated the attack brilliantly, but  exaggerated the size of the force he faced, which lead to a scare in the Germans HQ and the armour being halted. 
  • The weather was kind to the Allies.. Rain in late May hampered the Germans, while the sea was never too rough to prevent an evacuation.  Three days of gales of the sort that delayed D Day would have left much of the British Expeditionary Force on the beaches.

Was Montgomery to Blame for the failure to take Caen?

On 15th May General Bernard Law Montgomery, the British commander of the Allied land forces told the assembled allied commanders that the allied troops would press on inland south of Caen, securing airfields and providing a shield for a American breakout towards Brittany.  But that did not happen.  Instead, after brief battles on D Day and D+1 there was no further attempt to take the city until July.   To some  American and British air force, commanders it seemed that the British were not trying hard enough and that Montgomery was making excuses for failure. 

General Bernard Law Montgomery is a controversial figure. A good Dunkirk and an outstanding record training soldiers troops took him to Army command in North Africa at El Alemein.  He was the talisman of success for the British, inspiring soldiers to believe in victory.  Monty was also arrogant, abrasive and undiplomatic, and far from universally popular even within the British Army.  A Time Magazine article dated 10 January 1944, says that British staff officers circulated the description “Indomitable in defeat, indefatigable in attack, insufferable in victory!” attributed to Churchill. 

The Phase lines – originally drawn  by staff officers as logistic estimates became benchmarks 

The delay in capturing Caen strained relationships between soldiers and airmen and between Montgomery and his boss Eisenhower.  Some members of Eisenhower’s staff even tried to get Montgomery dismissed.  Americans started to think that they were bearing an unfair share of the fight and casualties. Its an idea that has persisted: the only mention Stephen Spielberg included about the British in Saving Private Ryan was that the British were “drinking tea in front of Caen”.   But is that fair?  To what extent was Montgomery to blame?  Is there anywhere on the modern day battlefields of Normandy that can provide an insight.    

Failings in the 3rd British Division

The task of the assaulting divisions is to break through the coastal defences and advance some ten miles inland on D Day. Great speed and boldness will be required to achieve this. …As soon as the beach defences have been penetrated not a moment must be lost. 

1st British Corps Operation order No 1 5 May 1944
Sword  Sector, inland from the beaches D Day

There were questions about the performance of the 3rd British Infantry Division tasked with capturing Caen.  This Division landed on a single brigade front on Sword Beach.  At H+295 (12.30pm) the 185th infantry Brigade Group scheduled to have landed and assembled its infantry tanks and artillery to  d dash for Caen.  But this did not happen.  

The brigade landed roughly on schedule, with the infantry ashore around 10.00 but congestion on the beaches meant that none of the armour or supporting vehicles were off the beach by 12.30, when Brigade commander started the advance with infantry only on foot, partially by a circuitous route.  The assault brigade had also met unexpected resistance at a German position south of Coleville-sur-Mer which  imposed a further delay.  By late afternoon the leading infantry battalion had reached the edge of Lebisey wood, on the ridge just north of Caen.   Around the same time the   German 21st Panzer Division launched the only German armoured attack in D Day.  By the time this was stopped there would be no further advance towards Caen on D Day.   

The next day, D+1, 7th June, 185th Brigade mounted an attack with a single battalion.  This turned into a disaster as unsupported infantry tangled with German tanks.  The Brigade commander K P (Kipper)  Smith was dismissed.  

Post war there has been much criticism of the Sword beach plan.   Why land on a single brigade front?  In rehearsals there were questions the performance of the brigade commander. Why was he given a critical role in the assault? 

Staff college studies have also pointed to the 3rd Division becoming overloaded with tasks.  Besides capturing Caen they were to protect their own beachhead, link up with the Canadians to their west and provide artillery and armour to support the  airborne troops to their east.

Retired British General Mike Reynolds book “Eagles and Bulldogs” (2003) compares the fortunes of 3rd British and 29th US Divisions in Normandy.  His chief criticism are of the divisional and brigade commanders, whose performance was found wanting,. and the failure of the British Army to train its infantry divisional and brigade commanders combine armour and infantry effectively. 

Some historians such as Max Hastings have argued that man for man and unit for unit the Germans were better than the British, and Americans, who could only advance through brute force.  However, historians such as John Buckley and Terry Copp have challenged this interpretation.     

As God once said, and I think rightly.

Bernard Law Montgomery

 Poor Allied Intelligence and Unrealistic expectations

Allied Intelligence had not picked up the  
infantry, anti tank guns and artillery of the 21st Panzer Division inland from Sword Beach. The red crosses show the targets for the Allied fire plan

One of the myths of D day is that the allies had supremely good intelligence.  The Code breakers read the Germans communications. The Invasions maps showed every detail of the German defences, prepared from aerial photographs and with the aid of the gallant French Resistance.  All true, – up to a point.  There were a few things wrong with the Allied Intelligence brief.   During the early months of 1944 the Germans moved several formations much closer to the coast as part of Rommel’s plan to defeat the allies on the beaches.  Allied intelligence missed  the presence of soldiers from the 352nd Infantry Division doubling the number of defenders at Omaha Beach.  They also missed reinforcements to the 716th Division sector North of Caen, including half of the infantry and the anti tank battalion of the 21st Panzer Division. (The 21st Panzer Division was an incredible organisation commanded by an extraordinary figure – General Edgar Feuchtinger.)    By 15th May, the day of Montgomery’s briefing, there could not be a dash inland to seize Caen.   The Germans  were already there in force. 

When Caen was set as an objective, back in mid 1943 the planners based their assumptions on Germans forces  in France consisting of between a best case of 20 divisions and a worst case of  50 divisions.  By 6th June the Germans had 60 divisions in France, and chosen to deploy them as close to the coast as possible.  It may be that a ten mile advance ashore after an assault landing was not achievable objective 

The Germans did a good job of defending Caen.

This situation map drawn by German senior Prisoners for US Army historians shows the German reinforcements heading for Caen 7-9 June 1944   

War is a kind of democracy: The enemy gets a say.  The biggest single reason why the British and Canadians advance was so slow was because the Germans committed the necessary resources to stop them.  German doctrine required the commander to determine a point of main effort.  In summer 1944 in Normandy the Germans decided that they would put their main effort against Caen.  On D Day itself the German local Commander General Marcks organised the armoured counter attack from Caen. In the following days two more Panzer Divisions were brought up between Caen and Bayeux.  The Germans would continue to reinforce the Caen sector through out June, bringing a whole SS Panzer Corps and about 100 heavy Tiger tanks to face the British and Canadians. 

Montgomery Vindicated?  This German situation map 23 July 1944 :shows that 48 hours before the successful US breakthrough at St Lo the German effort and attention is focused on the Anglo Canadian force at Caen

To be fair to the Allied commanders and their staff, they had studied German doctrine and predicted that the Germans would strike at the British and Canadian forces.   This knowledge drove the allied strategy for the British and Canadians to act a s a shield was the basis for the role outlines as the British and e Germans who needed to throw the allies into the sea. 

Eisenhower should take some of the Blame.  

Inside Southwick House where the decision to go on 6th June  was made

By and large Eisenhower is praised by everybody for taking the decision to launch D Day in marginal weather, while Montgomery takes the blame for failing to achieve the objectives.  This isn’t wholly fair.  Launching D Day in poor weather had consequences.

  • High sea states caused many problems.  Some landing craft had to turn back to England and others were swamped. Few of the Amphibious DD Tanks swam ashore.   Difficulties operating Rhino ferries slowed the landings. 
  • The aerial bombardment was curtailed reducing the fire suipport on the beaches.
  • There were problems clearing obstacles and getting vehicles off the beach

This is an argument put forward by Stephen Badsey in “Culture Controversy, Cherbourg and Caen”  a chapter in “The Normandy Campaign 1944 Sixty Years on”  

Was Montgomery Over Cautious?

“The commander must decide how he will fight the battle before it begins. He must then decide who he will use the military effort at his disposal to force the battle to swing the way he wishes it to go; he must make the enemy dance to his tune from the beginning and not vice versa.”

Bernard Law Montgomery
Montgomery: Drinking Tea in front of Caen?

One of the major criticisms of Montgomery is that he was overcautious and  relied on overwhelming firepower. Behind this criticism is the suggestion that the British were not pulling their weight and that America was bearing a disproportionate proportion of the effort and cost of the Normandy Campaign,   It is true that the  USA suffered higher losses than the British and Canadians 125,847 compared to 83,825, but more American were landed.  Expressed as a proportion the casualty rates for both allied forces was just over 10%  of the troops landed by the end of August. 
(10.29% of US and 10.1% for the British)

Montgomery’s style was a series of methodical attacks supported by as much fire power as possible following as closely as possible his script for the battle.  This was key to winning the confidence and loyalty of his men.  For the first half of the war the British had tried to do too much with too little in too much of a hurry.  There was also the shadow of the Somme.  The men who served in Normandy grew up with the tales their fathers told of ill prepared attacks and huge losses.  My father, a Normandy veteran, told me that if Montgomery was in charge, everything possible had been done to make sure that  the operation would be successful.

The methodical approach suited the British Liberation Army.  The experience of the 3rd  British Division on D Day suggests that it wasn’t very good at improvised combined arms operations. This was a failing that would be shown up during the campaign.

There was a further reason for British caution.  In 1944, after nearly five years of war, the British had few men to spare to replace casualties. Casualty rates in Normandy were much higher than the allies expected.  The US Army could draw on infantry replacements from formations still in the USA. The British would have to reduce thew size of their army. 

What Can we Blame Montgomery for?

Ike on Monty: Good to work for, difficult to work with and  impossible to manage (Attributed) 

Montgomery probably didn’t give much thought to the 15 May phase lines that would cause so much trouble. According to Lieutenant Colonel Kit Dawney, Montgomery’s Military Assistant, who drew them, the intermediate lines were spaced equally. According to Dawney, Montgomery did not care groundwise where he would be between D+1 and D+90 as he was confident we would beat the Germans in three months. He was not going to capture ground. He was going to destroy the enemy. (From Hamilton Montgomery Master of the Battlefield)

Arguably Montgomery had a point.  As long as the Germans could not throw the allies into the sea, and the Allied forces ashore continued to expand  the Allies would achieve the aim of Operation Overlord.   The conduct of the battle rest was to wear down the Germans as efficiently as possible, even if it occasionally meant giving up ground. 

Soldiers needed to be given clear geographic objectives  even if the aim was to provoke an attritional battle – what Montgomery described as the “dogfight.”  Military history is full of examples of troops being ordered to do “Capture X”  with the commander fairly certain that the enemy won’t let them.   

Those that have followed the accounts of British operations so far will have realised that General Montgomery’s named intentions were clearly stated, that in no case were their geographical objective reached; yet when each operation concluded with its stated object unrealised, he asserted he was satisfied with the result.   To observers… the satisfaction he professed was incomprehensible.

Ellis Victory in The West Volume 1: The Battle for Normandy  p355

The report lines came to be the focus of criticism.  While he could structure his plans around destroying the enemy. the media and public associated success with conquering ground. Montgomery’s blindness to this did not help Eisenhower  manage expectations at a time when there was pressure for progress and a growing fear that operations had bogged down.

Among the traits that irritated and infuriated Montgomery’s claims of infallibility particularly grated – and was easily disproved by critics.  Eisenhower remarked that plans always change, and good commanders adapt. But Montgomery would claim that battle had played out as he had always predicted.  To see examples, read “Decision in Normandy”. Carlo D’Este documented the backtracking by Montgomery.   

Why did the British put up with Montgomery?

Montgomery was probably the most influential British field commander of the Second World War.  He stood out in 1940 as the only  divisional commander to use the phoney war of 1939-40 to train his division for mobile war. After Dunkirk his training methods influenced the whole of the Home Army, and still shape the modern British Army. In 1942 in North Africa he restored the morale of British army and confidence in their ability to beat the Germans.  That wasn’t trivial.  By 1942 British soldiers had begun to lose confidence in their commanders after a long run of disasters. A contemporary joke was that the initials BEF, (British Expeditionary Force) really stood for Back Every Friday – which is why the British in 1944 were the British Liberation Army.  Montgomery’s  methods are analysed in Stephen Hart’s “Colossal Cracks”  (2007) which is a text book at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. 

Where to see this story in Normandy?

Battle damaged Centaur Tank at Sword Beach. It was one of 100 extra tanks manned by Royal Marines scheduled to land at H Hour on D Day.

Sword beach is not as heavily visited as Omaha beach. There is no Interpretation centre or commemorative preserved battlefield.   There is evidence of the battle, but dotted around the resort villages that stretch from Ouestrhem to Lion-sur-Mer.  Some of the concrete emplacements remain along the coast and inland, but most were removed.

The village of Colleville-sur-Mer changed its name to Colleville-Montgomery in honour of the British commander.  There is a fine statue of him in on the road from the beach to the village.  For many years this is where the British Normandy Veterans Association held their annual parade.  

The Hillman Bunker complex that delayed the advance 

The Hillman fortified position that caused so many problems has been preserved by local volunteers and dedicated to the Suffolk Regiment.

There is nothing to interpret or commemorate the defeat of the German armoured counter attack  on D Day.  But the landscape south of Periers Ridge is still open countryside.  The city of Caen  has expanded north and villages such as Lebesiy and Epron are now suburbs.  Enough of Lebisy wood is left for a battlefield visitor to see where the Germans  halted 3rd ambushed 185 Brigade on D+!. 

3rd Division memorial Caen

There is an exhibition on the post D Day battles for Caen at the museum at Bayeux just down from the Commonwealth Bayeux War Cemetery. The main memorials of the inland battles are the war cemeteries, each a reminder. The Canadians have done more than the British to explain their role with a series of interpretation boards. There are a few unit memorials to mark particularly grim battles.