On May 24, 1940, the Germans had the opportunity to annihilate the British Expeditionary Force in France, the 1st French Army and the Belgian army at Dunkirk. If they had done so, there would be no more World War II, as England would have been left defenseless and easy to invade and conquer, France would no longer have any forces with which to fight, and Hitler would have been able to concentrate all his forces to operation Barbarossa and crush the Russians.
And then the famous “Halt Order” came through the German forces. An order by which they were instructed to halt for three days. For many of the historians that have studied World War II, this is the most critical moment. It is the order that actually changed the outcome of the war, allowed for the Allied victory and cost the lives of 61,000,000 people.
The brilliant (strategically speaking) strategy of Field Marshal Manstein and the execution by General Guderian of an attack through the Ardennes and Sedan, bypass the famous Maginot Line and within 10 days split the French Army in two, could have resulted in a pincer move that would have encircled almost 600,000 allied soldiers, who would have no recourse other than surrendering or be exterminated, if ir wasn’t for that order.
Instead, 330,000 allied soldiers were allowed to organize the famous Dunkirk pull out and continue the fight. It is indicative of the gloomy speculations of the British, that they had already begun talking about offering a conditional surrender to the Germans, if the withdrawal had failed.
Why this order was given remains a mystery. Many explanations have been offered, but none makes sense. Winston Churchill later said that it was just a silly military error. But everyone doubts that. Germany, at that time, had some of the greatest military strategists to its side, to make that kind of mistake. Among the explanations offered:
- Hitler succumbed to the wishes of Field Marshal von Rundstedt and General von Kluge who wanted the German forces to consolidate. For the military tacticians this is unbelievable, unless both top generals had no idea what was really happening in the front lines.
- Hitler wanted to persuade the British to surrender and was aiming to hold these soldiers as leverage in the negotiations. For those who have studied Hitler’s personality this is most unlikely. It would be far more likely to first annihilate the military forces and then ask for an unconditional surrender, which would have allowed him to extract a revenge for the humiliating German surrender at Compiègne at the end of World War I.
- Hitler feared that the speed of the advance of his forces, as well as the collapse of the opposing armies, was “too good to be true” and that either the French or the British had some kind of plan in place to capture or annihilate his forces. That would mean that he had no real idea of the specifics of the Manstein Plan that his forces executed.
- Rundstedt, Jodl and Keitel persuaded Hitler to reserve his panzer forces for future operations and not expose them to the swamps of Flanders were they would lose their tactical advantage over the allied forces. Future operations in the brink of a move that would end the war?
- Air Marshal Goering persuaded Hitler that the Luftwaffe forces would be enough to exterminate the allied soldiers through constant bombardment and, therefore, there was no need to deploy ground troops. It is well known that Hitler believed in the power of the Ju-87 (stukas), Ju-88 and He-111 bombers that he had at his disposal at the beginning of the war. But could he really have relied that much on their power? Furthermore, according to General Halder, the Luftwaffe was grounded due to bad weather!
Some historians support the idea that it was all of the above combined that led to the halt order. But they all concur that all these reasons meant that the German High Command had no clear picture of the battlefield.
Could indeed Rundstedt, Jodl, Keitel and Kluge not have known that the allied forces were completely surrounded by German forces? Did generals:
Kleist (1st Panzer Army)
Guderian (2nd Panzer Army)
Hoth (4th Panzer Army)
Reichenau (6th Army)
Kuchler (18th army)
Rommel (4th army)
provide false or inaccurate reports of the situation? Most unlikely. Especially for Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian. Neither Kleist, nor Hoth, Kuchler and Reichenau were of their caliber.
Why didn’t anyone listen to the foremost battlefield commander (general von Brauchitsch) who kept sending messages to the high command to allow him to close the pincer and capture the allied forces? Was there any tampering with the messages sent to Berlin by British intelligence agents? Unlikely. The Enigma Code had not yet been broken.
Why didn’t any of the generals on the field assume the initiative and take charge of the situation? Discipline was a trait of the German forces, but it is also well known that generals earned their field marshal rank, by showing their initiative. The most famous example for this concept, was Erwin Rommel. And it makes people wonder why HE didn’t take charge of the situation. Isn’t it always best to ask for forgiveness after a huge military success?
General Halder notes in his diary that the order was a result of Hitler’s lack of military schooling and envy for the greater military brinkmanship of his generals. If that was the case why did he promote Kleist, Manstein and Rommel to the rank of field marshal AFTER Dunkirk? The failure would have given him reason to dismiss them. It would also have given him reason to dismiss Rundstedt, Guderian, Hoth, Reichenau, Kuchler, Goering and Brauchitsch and place in their shoes people he trusted.
Could there have been another reason behind this order? Some economic reason? That would make more sense if Hitler wanted England to capitulate and take advantage of its resources. It could explain why he did not bomb certain areas at all. Or could it be that someone told him that Dunkirk could end the war and that would be against the financial interests of the German industrialists? It would certainly make more sense than a silly military error.
The mystery may never be sold. But it’s a mystery that cost a lot of human lives, property, infrastructure and unnecessarily so.