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Christopher Nolan’s epic new movie, ‘Dunkirk’ has created a buzz and looks set to be a box office hit, but what do we really know about Dunkirk? The biggest evacuation of military forces. The ‘little ships’ whose owners bravely volunteered to aid the rescue. The British Expeditionary Force returning home, dirty, exhausted, hungry and wounded. Relieved to be home, and yet worried that the public would brand them as cowards for running away, leaving the Germans to claim a fallen France as the victors. They need not have worried. Upon their arrival on English soil, the men of the BEF were surprised and relieved to receive a hero’s welcome. But Dunkirk is far more than this – the wider picture extends beyond the beaches, beyond any physical evacuation and involved many sacrifices.
When the German tanks approached within a few miles of the almost empty and undefended port city of Dunkirk, they halted. General Rundstedt, in charge of the German forces in the area, ordered them to halt to resupply and rearm, and prepare for the next leap into France. Not satisfied with the pace at which he was advancing his army, German High Command ordered Rundstedt to attack. Hitler, asserting his authority over the General Staff, rescinded the attack order, demonstrating he, not the Generals, was in control of the German Army. Hitler’s need to demonstrate he was in charge was one factor in saving the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), as well as many of its allies, allowing them to escape through a soon to be defended and evacuated port of Dunkirk.
What Hitler and his underlings did not expect is the will of the one they thought to be a dupe because of his actions in Munich less than two years earlier. Neville Chamberlain, still the head of Government in the UK until May 10, played a key role in both choosing Winston Churchill as the next Prime Minister, and deciding to evacuate the BEF from the Continent. When Chamberlain met with the King to provide his resignation, he advised the king to invite Churchill to become Prime Minister instead of Lord Halifax (the man already looking for a way to reach out to Italy for mediation with Germany). Then, in a momentous War Cabinet meeting on the night of May 28, Chamberlain sided with Churchill, against Halifax, as the key vote, to fight on, against the odds.