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 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.

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Mick

    The writer brings to light an interesting topic to be debated.
    I thought Yiannis may have offered thought or reasons as to why they didn’t continue to attack, so i’ll offer and out of the box theory to add to the debate. Considering the acknowledgement of many war historians as to the intelligence of the commanders in the Germans army, shouldn’t we consider the reason for not attacking wasn’t one of missed opportunity or poor decision making, rather an integral part of there plan. ie (this would include losing WW2 ) sometimes you lose to win , america has not removed there war footing since the end of WW2 , and has helped israel (jewish people) back to there home land were they are now even more disliked by the world because of there current actions and behavior , than they were during WW2 with some people even suggesting that america behaves in a more controlling and fascist way than Hitler ever did. Both these countries could be on the verge of collapsing economically (america) or been attacked an annihilated (Israel) by the Arab nations. So by not annihilating the British and french back in WW2, this may of been because they had there eyes on a bigger prize. WW2 may of been just a battle in there eye’s and the real war which was the basis of Hitlers agenda to wipe out the Jewish people. (hence ” we may of lost the battle today but we will win the war “). The two biggest Jewish populations in the world are the USA and Israel…
    You may scoff at this idea as it is extremely lengthy , however remember the USA is still on the same war heading it enacted in WW2 so you could say in there eye’s that war still hasn’t ended. This would back up all WW2 Historians who think that Germany had masterful tacticians and generals in there Army…..and explain the thinking behind not defeating the British or the french as they only wanted to destroy the Jewish people , and that it wasn’t a missed opportunity that no one could explain.
    Hitler may of acted and pretended to be a mad man and for all accounts I hope that’s all he was , otherwise he may of out smarted the world…….Let the Debate Begin !!!!

  2. E.C. Wahrheit

    Hitler sought peace not war, the halt order was offered as a sign of friendship to the Allies. He had offered peace numerous times up to this point, but the Allies wanted the war to continue. Perhaps Hitler felt that by allowing the Allies to see his mercy, despite being sucked into the war would finally persuade them to acknowledge German sovereignty in Europe and stay out of their internal affairs. The answer to this question is pretty simple really when you have a broader understanding of the war, that is a perspective outside of the court historian view of events

  3. Mike Morgan

    Karl-Heinz Frieser in his book ‘The Blitzkrieg Legend’ answers this question about the ‘Halt Order’ pretty convincingly. He examines eight possible explanations for the halt and concludes that it was Hitler asserting his dominance over his senior staff that allowed it to stay in place long enough for the evacuation to happen.

    He says that the order to stop had already been given by von Runstedt, who was paranoid about his flanks being left exposed. This order was the subject of a major argument between Runstedt on the one hand and his superiors Halder and von Brauchitsch on the other. To stop him halting the tanks they ordered Runstedt to hand over command of his divisions to Army Group B. When Hitler found this out, he backed Runstedt to show his senior generals who was really in command and demanded that every future alteration in the command structure be subject to his personal decision.

    Heinz Guderian (Panzer Leader Book) worte: Hitler’s Momentous Order to Stop: On this day (May 24th) the Supreme Command intervened in the operations in progress, with results which were to have a most disastrous influence on the whole future course of the war. Hitler ordered the left wing to stop on the Aa. It was forbidden to cross the stream. We were not informed of the reasons for this. The order contained the words: “Dunkirk is to be left to the Luftwaffe.” Fierce enemy air activity met little opposition from our air force. On May 26th we attempted once again to attack towards Dunkirk and to close the ring about that sea fortress. But renewed orders to halt arrived. We were stopped within sight of Dunkirk! We watched the Luftwaffe attack. We also saw the armada of great and little ships by means of which the British were evacuating their forces. It was not until the afternoon of May the 26th that Hitler gave permission for the great advance on Dunkirk to be resumed. By then it was too late to achieve a great victory. What the future course of the war would have been if we had succeeded at that time in taking the British Expeditionary Force prisoner at Dunkirk, it is now impossible to guess. In any event a military victory on that scale would have offered a great chance to capable diplomats. Unfortunately the opportunity was wasted owing to Hitler’s nervousness. The reason he subsequently gave for holding back my corps – that the ground in Flanders with it’s many ditches and canals was not suited to tanks – was a poor one. The worst order of all was the order not to advance across the Aa, outside Dunkirk If our panzer forces had been allowed a free hand we would, so far as it is possible to tell, certainly have reached Dunkirk before the Englishmen, who would, as a result, have been cut off. The resultant blow to English morale would have made an appreciable difference to the prospects of a successful German landing in England and might even have led to our enemies being willing to discuss peace terms despite Churchill. Pages 117 to 119 and page 439 – Classic Military History – Panzer Leader Book.

  4. Tireminnanzi

    There is to be considered that the german troops that surrounded allies in France territory were in the same condition of the dunkirk corridor soldiers, they had enemies all around and in same danger. This should have been another reason to rejoin the German army asap, didn’t happen and this can tell us something about the fact that the history that is told us is not “all the history”. Remember that from some sources nazi party was financed and help by us business people.

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