This month, Army Night, marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Dunkirk, where the Allies made their last stand on the continent in the wake of the Blitzkrieg, which commenced on May 10, 1940. By May 20th the Wehrmacht spearhead had reached the Northern French coast and reeled north, splitting the Allied forces and isolating the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the Belgian Army and the French 1st Army from the majority of French forces to the south. By May 26th, Anthony Eden (Churchill’s recently-appointed War Secretary) had notified Lord Gort, Commander of the BEF, that they might need to “fight back to the west.” Though effectively surrounded, the remaining Allied forces fell back to consolidate their position, fighting an impressive defensive action to protect their retreat and eventual evacuation. In one of the more debated decisions of the Second World War, the so-called German “Halt Order” -- issued on May 24th, apparently to allow the Wehrmacht to consolidate their positions and the Luftwaffe to recover from two weeks of 24/7 operations before the final push against the “doomed” and “hopelessly bottled-up” Allied forces -- gave the Allies three days to plan and execute the evacuation of forces across the English Channel.
In the nine days from May 27th through June 6th, the evacuation of approximately 340,000 Allied troops was accomplished by a flotilla of “naval ships,” the composition of which will never be seen again. Many civilians in Great Britain answered the call to supplement the available Royal Navy ships and help save the Allies: civilian ferries, tourist boats, personal yachts and other pleasure boats, sailing dinghies and any other vessel that could navigate the English Channel assisted in this great evacuation which the Germans thought impossible. I encourage you all to read more about and contemplate this momentous event in British and Allied military history.
It is poignant this Army Night that we balance the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the successful evacuation from Dunkirk with a presentation about two 19th Century engagements one British and one American – where the “Allies” did not fare well. No military force accepts defeat readily, but defeats are a part of every engagement: one side “wins” and one side “loses,” notwithstanding that, there will often be arguments about what constitutes “winning” and “losing.” The question after any “defeat” – whether in war, politics or indeed in life -- is whether the defeated learn from their experience, make necessary changes and adapt their strategies for future engagements. Did the British Army learn from and make changes after their experiences in January 1879 at Isandlwana, South Africa? And on this month’s 139th Anniversary of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, did the Americans learn from and make changes after their experience?
Please join us this month for what promises to be an interesting presentation about when the “home team” doesn’t win.