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From the other side: Hitler’s high hopes after his seeming victory at Dunkirk

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Most of us are used to looking at the Battle of Dunkirk through the eyes of the victors. We know that many were saved that day, against impossible odds, and that the Allies then went on to win the Second World War after years of bitter fighting and sacrifice. Much of what we know about Operation Dynamo, or the Miracle of Dunkirk, comes from the eyewitnesses.

There were many, especially in the heat of the moment, who felt that retreat was a defeat in itself. But when the Allies were cornered and the Navy came to save the Army, most were grateful to get the chance to fight another day. Some would say that it was a boost for morale but a clear military loss, and we haven’t confronted the evidence from that day because the Allies didn’t stay behind to take pictures and assess the situation. 338,226 troops and other personnel were saved between May 26 and June 4, 1940, but we left much behind.

New Evidence From the Other Side

Most of us visualize the many boats and ships that came to the rescue during that time, and some of those heroic participants have been part of memorials throughout the years. New pictures from those scenes at Dunkirk provide a different perspective, though. An anonymous collector has made some of the pictures available, and has offered to provide more over time, so we can learn about that period of time and how desperate it really was.

Recent images from a German photographer come to light which show details of the destruction and loss of military equipment suffered by the Allies during the Dunkirk engagement. The person who produced the photographs wasn’t trying to make a statement, but instead was just documenting the experience.

Wide Scale Destruction and Waste

Because they were fleeing with nothing but their lives, the Army left behind everything from vehicles to weapons. One of the most striking scenes is the sea itself, where ships were struck and left there, damaged. Troop carriers and other military vehicles were driven onto the sands and then abandoned, often after attempts at destruction. Many have their hoods open, where the Allies tried at least to make the vehicles unusuable by the approaching Nazis.

Other cars were abandoned outside the town, and it is impossible to tell whether the Allies’ sabotage or the Nazis’ bombardment caused so many to appear burned. Most of Dunkirk itself was destroyed, and 16,000 French soldiers and 1,000 British soldiers died. Another 30,000 to 40,000 soldiers weren’t able to be evacuated and were captured by the Germans. Looking at the scale of destruction, it is not surprising that Hitler thought he’d won the war at Dunkirk.

Was Another Ending Possible?

Perhaps if Hitler had more aggressively attacked the troops, the war might have had a very different ending. His delays gave the Allies enough time to organize the evacuation that allowed them to go home, regroup and come back fighting. 

Churchill’s historic speech after Dunkirk was another factor that helped bring morale back up to the point where the country could unify and keep fighting. “We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” His words still inspire today.

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