I haven't seen the movie but know enough of the story to understand that Allied troops had fallen back to Dunkirk for evacuation but were trapped there until transport came.

I also understand that the German army called off the invasion/annihilation of these troops for some reason.

Why did Germany not pounce on this easy opportunity to wipe out large numbers of Allied troops?

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    William Shirer (so take with a pinch of salt) said that Hitler was persuaded by Goering to let the Luftwaffe break the retreating forces before sending the army in. Goering failed to deliver.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 8:35
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    They didn't because of the military genius of Adolf Hitler. I read that Churchill ordered that nobody should try to assassinate Hitler, because his military decisions helped the British war effort more than the best six British generals combined.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Sep 2, 2017 at 23:29
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    @gnasher729 Got a source for that claim? I can't find anything supporting it so far, and in fact according to the wiki, Operation Foxley was a planned assassination of Hitler that had Churchill's support. Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 8:52
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    @gnasher729 sounds like propaganda to me, which of course, was developed into a fine art over the course of WWII. Sing it with me, "Hilter, has only got one ball, the other is in the Albert Hall, his muvva, the dirty b***er cut it of when he was small!!! Ohhh!"
    – RemarkLima
    Commented Sep 3, 2017 at 11:37
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    @zibadawatimmy Somewhere buried, I have a book titled Hitler's Mistakes. Maybe there is a source in there somewhere … Commented Sep 4, 2017 at 5:35

5 Answers 5


Although we know a great deal about the events surrounding Hitler's "Halt Order" at Dunkirk, the truth is that the reasons behind it are not completely understood by historians, even now.

It is a mistake, however, to think that the German army just stood around, watching the British Expeditionary Force being evacuated. They were fighting to reach the beaches the entire time the Allies were fighting to get off them. German artillery and aircraft shelled, bombed and strafed the troops on the beaches there without mercy.

Adolf Hitler's "Halt Order" actually just confirmed an order given by General Gerd von Rundstedt, commander of Army Group A (the main German force fighting in western France). In turn, von Rundstedt had issued his order at the request of his tank unit commander, who had lost almost 50% of his armoured forces and wanted to regroup. However, Hitler's "Halt Order" was more specific than von Rundstedt's. It specified that the line of Lens–Bethune–Saint-Omer–Gravelines "will not be passed".

This meant that some of the more advanced German units actually withdrew from positions that they had already taken. In particular, General Wilhelm von Thoma, Chief of the tank section of the Army High Command, was with the leading tanks near Bergues, and could look down into Dunkirk. He sent radio messages, asking to be allowed to push on, but was rebuffed.

It is true that the tanks were in a commanding position, but they were low on fuel, and without infantry support. They were also within range of British naval guns in the channel. Even a Panzerkampfwagen IV (PzKpfw IV) would be outmatched by a 4.5 inch naval shell! The tanks withdrew as ordered.

Hitler's own experiences in the trenches of the First World War were almost certainly a factor. By 24 May the troops had been fighting continuously for nearly a fortnight. Hitler knew how exhausting that could be.

Also, it is certainly true that the ground around the Dunkirk pocket, with its network of canals, was not ideal for tanks. The infantry needed time to catch up. General Franz Halder wrote in his diary:

"The Führer is terribly nervous. Afraid to take any chances."

General Halder's diary is also the source of the claim that Goering had persuaded Hitler to allow his Luftwaffe to finish off the encircled troops. His diary entry for 24 May states:

Finishing off the encircled enemy army is to be left to Air Force!

Halder's diaries have been translated and digitised, with the relevant entries for 24 May 1940 in Volume IV.

General Paul von Kleist met Hitler on the airfield at Cambrai a few days afterwards. He is supposed to have remarked that a great opportunity had been lost at Dunkirk. Hitler apparently replied:

"That may be so. But I did not want to send the tanks into the Flanders marshes".

There was also the belief among the German High Command that the war was already effectively won. A handwritten note from Major-General Alfred Jodl, the deputy chief of Hitler's planning staff still survives. It is dated 28 May and was written at Führer Headquarters to the labour minister Robert Ley. It states:

"Most esteemed Labour Führer of the Reich! Everything that has happened since May 10 seems even to us, who had indestructible faith in our success, like a dream. In a few days four fifths 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..."

After the war, perhaps not surprisingly, German generals vociferously blamed Hitler for the British "miracle" at Dunkirk. Even von Rundstedt placed the whole debacle at Hitler’s feet. This has led to the many theories about why Hitler had "allowed" the BEF to escape:

  • He wanted to secure better peace terms with Britain and look like a magnanimous gentleman (rather than a psychotic despot).
  • He needed the help of the British in the coming struggle against Communism.
  • Hitler sought to avoid killing Anglo-Saxons, whom he believed were "superior" to his other enemies.
  • ...

These are, of course all utter nonsense and have been dismissed by all credible historians. Sadly, they still seem to be regularly trotted out by assorted Hitler apologists like David Irving, despite all the surviving evidence that should have condemned them to the dustbin of history years ago.

The truth is much simpler. Hitler didn't entirely trust his army commanders and was being cautious. He, together with his military commanders, believed that he had time to regroup his forces and attack with the combination of infantry, artillery, armour, and air power that had already brought the German army success in France. The details of that build-up are set out in General Halder's diaries.

Even after the "Stop Order" was issued to the army on 24 May, the Luftwaffe continued to attack the troops on the beach at Dunkirk. Whether this was to allow Goering's Luftwaffe the final "glory" of defeating the BEF remains just speculation.

We should also remember that on 24 May the surrender of France was not yet assured. Neither Hitler, nor his high command, were prepared to risk unnecessary losses (as they saw it) that might put the next phase of their operation in jeopardy.

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    Note that the true miracle of Dunkirk was 10 days of uninterrupted calm weather and still water in the North Sea and English Channel, allowing the small boats to ferry most of the rescued 400,000 troops out to transports and destroyers. The dock capacity of Dunkirk was woefully inadequate for the task, in the available time. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 15:28
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    Tanks over-run the defenses but were out of fuel, infantry far behind on horse wagons, with huge exposed flanks being attacked by French. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 15:42
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    Though in disarray, the Brits had naval strength offshore. Tank commanders don't relish significant artillery fire and naval forces had heavy artillery relative to land forces.
    – TomO
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 17:58
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    @DavidRicherby My first sentence says the truth is that that the reasons are not completely understood by historians. That is really not the same as "we don't know". We know a great deal, but not all the detail. The last paragraphs are just an overview of what we can can be (reasonably) certain about - based on the rest of the answer. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 18:21
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    I note with amusement that the final sentence of your third-to-last paragraph is somewhat ambiguous. Although it is clear that you intended the "them" in "condemned them to the dustbin of history" to refer to the theories of the previous paragraph, on a purely technical reading it seems as though it actual refers to "Hitler apologists like David Irving". Which made me LOL.
    – Jules
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 23:23

It's easy to ask these questions after the fact, but a primary reason was that what we now know as the Miracle of Dunkirk was basically unthinkable.

It is easy to forget that in reaching the coast, and cutting the Allied line in two, the Germans had already won a great, practically unthinkable victory. Their victorious divisions, particularly armored units, were scattered, considered overextended, and needed time to be "realigned." One can say that the best use of these troops was to pile on, pursue the enemy into the ground, etc. but that would not have been "easy." It would have been a "brawl, the kind of fighting that the Germans disliked, with British naval gunfire taking part, as a commenter pointed out. If the Germans had managed to slaughter 300,000 troops in this way, they would probably have taken casualties of a significant fraction of this, say 75,000-100,000 men. There might even have been embarrassing losses of key units or commanders. A victory that cost the life of say, Heinz Guderian, might have been very "bittersweet," and had us asking why the Germans didn't "hold up."

Nor was it really the German way. They were winning, and planned to win, but in a more organized fashion, with armor, infantry, artillery and airpower in alignment (although that gave the enemy a chance to reorganize as well). And speaking of airpower, that was supposed to play a key role in 1) blocking retreat and 2) actual annihilation. Much to a lot of people's surprise, it did neither.

The original British hope was evacuate 45,000 men over two days. In fact, they evacuated 338,226 men over a period of eight days. This was due to the efforts not only of the regular navy, but of "little ships," civilian motor boats, pleasure craft, etc. In fact, the port was blocked and the big ships could not get close enough to shore to embark many soldiers, so the smaller ships did the actual ferrying of these men. A combined military-civilian effort involving a total of almost 1000 ships of this kind had never been seen in the history of warfare.

Another imponderable factor was the effect of the good weather during the evacuation as pointed out by a commenter. "Forecasts" were probably available to both sides beforehand, and the Germans probably thought that clear skies would help their bombers. It turned out to help the numerous ships far more.

Then, Hitler was hoping for an early cease-fire/peace with Great Britain, and would therefore rather "capture" 300,000 or so British soldiers than slaughter an equivalent number. Bombing them would have fallen under the "capture" strategy; during the same campaign, German bombers that had run out of bombs terrorized French soldiers just by remaining overhead.

Basically, the Germans thought that they could take their time, and minimize their losses and disorganization for the battle with the remaining French forces, while capturing the bulk of the British army. They could not envision not only all the trapped Britishers but almost half of the French in the pocket escaping. The conventional wisdom was that the British could rescue their highest officers, (as the Germans did from say North Africa), but the rest of the men, including most of the non-coms and junior officers, would be stranded.

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    And not only did the Germans think they had time on their hands - without the imagination of the Ministry of Shipping in drafting civilian support, without the extreme speed with which they did this, and without such widespread use of civilian pleasurecraft as we had (and still have) in Britain, the Germans would have been completely right. This is perhaps the first example of "total war" in WWII, where drafting civilians was key to success.
    – Graham
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 12:29
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    Great answer, even Churchill didn't expect to evacuate so many men!
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 13:16
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    Let's not forget the almost unthinkable - ten days of uninterrupted calm weather and still water in the English Channel and North Sea, allowing all those small civilian craft to remain afloat and at sea. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 15:31
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    @PieterGeerkens True, although the English Channel is a fairly benign stretch of water. Weather sufficiently bad to stop small boats only happens a handful of days a year at most. Storm-force wind and rain (in Britain we never get that kind of wind without rain) would have grounded all aircraft too, and it would be incredibly hard to manouevre troops under those kind of conditions.
    – Graham
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 12:57
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    @Graham: It might not have sunk the boats, but waves and even moderate wind would have made beach-embarking and transport-debarking much more time consuming than it was; and thus reduced the number of troops retrieved per day. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 21:02

That's one great mystery in history. Some say that Goering asked Hitler to let the Luftwaffe handle this problem. Some say that Hitler was afraid of his armies going too fast. Some say that Hitler was afraid of the might of the RAF.

One point is not to be forgotten though. The French army, although completely late in panzer and plane tactics, fought very hard around Dunkirk to defend the harbour as long as possible, with more than 100,000 were killed in action during the 6 weeks of the battle of France. The French air army also destroyed around 1000 Luftwaffe planes during this period; those missing 1000 Nazi planes were really missed during the Battle of Britain. But because of the armistice of shame in June 1940, those poor fighters were forgotten by history, especially in the English speaking world.

Source : Wikipedia: Battle of France/Bataille de France

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    Yes - German losses during the 6 weeks of the French campaign exceeded those of the first 6 weeks of the Russian campaign a year later. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 21:03

From all I have read over the decades, the Germans were doing their very best to wipe out the Brits at Dunkirk. And there's a body count to prove it.

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    Yes, but the question is specifically about the German army (Wehrmacht) which did receive a "Halt Order" from Hitler on 24 May 1940 (actually, Hitler's order just confirmed an order previously given by General Gerd von Rundstedt, except that Hitler's order required advanced units to pull back to the Lens–Bethune–Saint-Omer–Gravelines line). See my answer above. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 17:44

Let us not forget that Hitler assumed the UK would join him as he perceived the UK being of a similar mindset to Germany. At the time of Dunkirk, he was still hopeful the UK would join him as an ally, not an enemy and this may have stayed his hand and provided the opportunity to save the troops.

Just an idea....

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 8:26
  • @Mark C. Wallace Hitler had long tried to come to terms with Britain, (Munich etc) and it is not fanciful to assume that he did have hopes that after the fall of France, Britain would "see sense" and do a deal with Germany. However, another factor does not seem to have been mentioned here, and that is that soldiers assembling on beaches are an extremely difficult target to attack from the air. A large proportion of the Luftwaffe's bombs simply fell in sand and did almost no damage.
    – WS2
    Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 22:36
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    This rather sensational documentary claims that Hitler anticipated war between the US and Britain, and hoped for an alliance between Germany and Britain. I don't know how much significance to attach to the historically factual existence of War Plan Red, the US plan to invade Canada and strangle the British Empire in the 1930s. I've always assumed that the US had a war plan for defeating every country in the world, including its allies, just in case the need should arise. Commented Aug 31, 2017 at 22:42
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    @Mark sources would not improve this answer. Sources would make it impossible for this answer to exist.
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 15:15
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    @NeMo I suspect we know what those sources would be, and they would just attract more downvotes Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 18:15

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