Still, there was one brief moment when Hitler had it within his power to win the war on one front and remove both France and Britain from his list of antagonists. It had come more than a year and a half earlier, on the coast of northern France. On May 10, 1940, German spearheads brushed aside light resistance in the Ardennes Forest before smashing through the French defensive line at Sedan. Slashing across France, General Heinz Guderian’s panzers entered Abbeville, 20 miles from the English Channel, a mere 10 days later. The French army, cut in half and thrown off balance, never recovered its equilibrium.
But even as the Wehrmacht was finishing off France, Hitler’s next actions guaranteed the survival of another of his foes, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), thereby presenting his most committed opponent, Winston Churchill, with a gift of inestimable value: an army with which to continue the struggle.
On May 23, the leading panzer units were only 18 miles from the port at Dunkirk, closer to it than most British units. Although the German troops were exhausted from two weeks of continuous marching and fighting, local commanders judged that they could easily capture the port, and thereby trap the British Army in France. Sensing that a crushing victory was near, Wehrmacht commander in chief Walter von Brauchitsch ordered the city taken. But just before the tanks went forward, Hitler issued his infamous “halt order,” stopping them outside Dunkirk.
He never mentioned his rationale for the order; guesses include Hermann Göring’s assurance that the Luftwaffe could complete the destruction of the BEF, and Hitler’s reluctance to risk his valuable panzers in the unfriendly marsh terrain of neighboring Flanders. Whatever the reason, the halt gave the British two precious days to solidify their defenses around Dunkirk, permitting them to carry out the most famous sealift of modern history. In that end, the Royal Navy, assisted by some French warships and a flotilla of 800 private vessels, pulled 338,226 troops off the beaches at Dunkirk, including 118,000 French, Belgian, and Dutch soldiers. These rescued men provided a veteran core around which Britain rebuilt its army.