Whose Fault Was Dunkirk?

For years, historians have blamed King Leopold of Belgium. But did they fall for Allied propaganda?

Lynne Olson | Last Hope Island: Britain, Occupied Europe, and the Brotherhood That Helped Turn the Tide of War | Random House | April 2017 | 15 minutes (3,983 words) 

Below is an excerpt from Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.

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In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.

Winston Churchill arrived at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the Quai d’Orsay on the afternoon of May 16 and saw “utter dejection written on every face” of the officials with whom he met. In the gardens outside, clouds of smoke billowed up from bonfires stoked by official documents that government workers were heaping on the flames.

The French military leaders summarized for Churchill the disastrous news of the previous four days: the German breakthrough at the Meuse and the onrush of tanks and troops “at unheard-of speed” toward the northern French towns of Amiens and Arras. When Churchill asked about plans for a counterattack by reserve forces, General Gamelin shrugged and shook his head. “There are none,” he said. Churchill was speechless: no reserves and no counterattack? How could that be? Gamelin’s terse response, Churchill wrote later, was “one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life.”

The British prime minister’s shock and confusion, his failure to grasp the speed and immensity of the German onslaught, were no different from the dazed reactions of French and British officers and troops in the field. Years later, General Alan Brooke would write dismissively, “Although there were plenty of Frenchmen ready to die for their country, their leaders had completely failed to prepare and organize them to resist the blitzkrieg.” Brooke didn’t mention that he and his fellow British commanders were as guilty as their French counterparts in that regard—a point repeatedly made by General Bernard Law Montgomery, a subordinate of Brooke’s in France. In his diary of the campaign, Montgomery, who commanded a British division in the battle, was scathingly critical of General John Gort, the British Expeditionary Force commander. Later Montgomery would write, “We had only ourselves to blame for the disasters which early overtook us in the field when fighting began in 1940.”

Trained for static defensive warfare, the Allied military simply did not know how to react when the blitzkrieg—“this inhuman monster which had already flattened half of Europe,” in the words of an American observer—burst upon them. Coordination and communication between the French and British armies broke down almost immediately; within a few days, most phone and supply lines had been cut, and the Allied command system had virtually ceased to function. The only way army commanders could communicate was through personal visits.

While French and British units functioned without information or orders, their tanks and aircraft were running out of fuel and ammunition. An RAF pilot called the situation “a complete and utter shambles”; a British Army officer wrote in his diary, “This is like some ridiculous nightmare.” Back in London, Churchill told one of his secretaries, “In all the history of war, I have never known such mismanagement.”

With Allied losses escalating and French and British troops in retreat, Paul Reynaud and the French high command begged Churchill to send ten more RAF fighter squadrons to France, in addition to the ten already there, to counter the Luftwaffe dive-bombers that were decimating their forces. Churchill eventually agreed to the request, arousing the impassioned opposition of the RAF’s Fighter Command, which insisted that sending any more fighters abroad would pose a grave danger to Britain’s own security.

Just six days into his tenure as prime minister, Churchill was faced with an agonizing choice: whether to give France as much material assistance as possible to bolster its morale and resistance or to withhold such support so that it could be used in Britain’s own defense. As the French saw it, the British had nothing to lose by pouring all their resources into France, because if France went down, Britain would soon follow. The pugnacious Churchill did not share that view. Once the ten squadrons were dispatched, France would get no more, despite repeated appeals from Reynaud. And, unbeknownst to the French, on the day he returned from his May 16 trip, Churchill ordered plans drawn up for a possible evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force.

Increasingly doubtful of France’s will or ability to fight back and fearing the encirclement and annihilation of his troops, General Gort was also contemplating evacuation. By the last week of May, the British forces had begun their retreat toward the beaches of Dunkirk, pursued by German troops and strafed by dive-bombers as they fled down dusty roads and lanes leading to the port. Churchill renewed his appeals to the French to stand and fight, never telling them until after the evacuation began that his own troops were leaving the field of battle.

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We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians.

Also left in the dark was the Belgian army, which had borne the brunt of Germany’s aerial and tank juggernaut, shielding British and French troops in Belgium from much of its fury. Churchill’s failure to inform the Belgians of the British retreat was not an oversight; he was counting on them to help keep the German forces at bay while British troops boarded the armada of small boats and large ships now being dispatched to Dunkirk.

In fact, the Belgian army—pummeled relentlessly by German dive-bombers, tanks, and artillery for more than two weeks and running out of food and ammunition—was already in the throes of disintegration. When the British began their westward retreat toward Dunkirk, the Belgians agreed to guard their flank but repeatedly warned both the British and French commanders that their reserves were nearly depleted and that unless the Allies came to their assistance, they would soon have to surrender. In London, Churchill was given the same message by Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes, a flamboyant British war hero and close friend of Churchill’s, who was serving as the prime minister’s personal liaison with King Leopold. But the Belgians’ pleas for help carried no weight with Churchill, who told the War Cabinet that “the Belgian Army might be lost altogether, but we should do them no service by sacrificing our own Army.”

When Colonel George Davy, the BEF’s liaison officer with the Belgian army, asked General Gort and his deputy, General Henry Pownall, if Belgian forces would be allowed to participate in the Dunkirk evacuation, Pownall scoffed at the idea. “We don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians,” he said. Seemingly oblivious to the stalwart defense being waged by the Belgians, Pownall wrote in his diary on May 15, “Belgian morale, already thoroughly bad from top to bottom. They are simply not fighting.” He later referred to them as “rotten to the core” and “lesser breeds.”

Wounded_British_soldiers_evacuated_from_Dunkirk_make_their_way_up_the_gangplank_from_a_destroyer_at_Dover,_31_May_1940._H1623

Evacuated British soldiers. Via Wikimedia.

On May 26, the Belgian commander in chief sent his last request for aid to Britain and France. Like his earlier pleas, it went unanswered. Instead, Churchill instructed Roger Keyes to emphasize to Leopold the importance of his troops remaining in the field. Obviously, the Belgians would have to capitulate soon, Churchill told a subordinate, but only “after assisting the BEF to reach the coast.” He bluntly added, “We are asking them to sacrifice themselves for us.”

The exhausted Belgians, however, believed they had done enough sacrificing. Abandoned and isolated by their allies, lacking everything they needed to keep fighting, they felt they had held off the Germans for as long as humanly possible. On May 27, the Belgian government, in an official communiqué, informed France and Britain of its imminent surrender to Germany: “The Belgian Army has totally exhausted its capacity for resistance. Its units are incapable of renewing the struggle tomorrow.” Leopold sent an envoy to the Germans, and early on the morning of May 28, a cease-fire was announced.

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If the only usefulness he retains is that of a scapegoat, then a scapegoat he must be.

The Belgians’ surrender was a purely military act, a laying down of arms, but it was complicated by Leopold’s decision to remain in Belgium. His fateful choice followed more than a week of soul-searching discussions with his government ministers about whether to go or stay. Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot and his colleagues informed the king of their plans to escape to France and urged him to accompany them. As head of state, they argued, it was his duty to continue Belgium’s resistance in exile. Under no circumstances should he be taken prisoner by the Germans.

Leopold, however, saw his duty very differently. In that, he was guided by the example of his father. During the Great War, Albert, in his role as commander in chief, had repeatedly declared that he would never leave Belgium, even if the Germans conquered all of it. “Never would King Albert have consented to take refuge abroad,” leaving his troops to their fate, Leopold told his ministers. Like his father, he believed that his responsibilities as commander in chief trumped those of head of state.

Pierlot and the others contended that according to the Belgian constitution, it was Leopold’s duty to follow the wishes of the government. They added that if he stayed behind, the Germans would make political use of him whether he cooperated with them or not. The king rejected all their arguments. He would not, he said, become “an idle refugee monarch, cut off from the Belgian people as they bow under the invader’s yoke.” To abandon the army, he added, “would be to become a deserter. Whatever happens, I must share the fate of my troops.”

At the time of the surrender, Leopold pledged not to have any dealings with the enemy while his country was in German hands. “For the duration of the occupation,” he declared, “Belgium must not do anything in the military, political, or economic sphere which could harm the Allied cause.” He asked to be put in a prisoner-of-war camp, along with his captured troops, but Hitler confined him instead to his palace in Laeken, on the outskirts of Brussels.

Leopold had been scrupulously correct in his handling of the surrender, but the French and British erupted in fury, joining forces to whip up a campaign of violent verbal abuse against the Belgians and their king. “Defeat arouses the worst in men,” Irène Némirovsky noted in Suite Française, her posthumously published novel about the fall of France. As one historian put it, “When one is fighting a war and things are going badly, one cannot afford the luxury of being generous or even fair to an ally who has ceased to be of any use. If the only usefulness he retains is that of a scapegoat, then a scapegoat he must be.”

Seeing a way to evade responsibility for France’s looming defeat, French and British leaders put the onus on Belgium for all their troubles. To General Maxime Weygand, who had replaced Gamelin as French commander in chief on May 17, the capitulation of Belgium was actually a “good thing,” because “we now shall be able to lay the blame for defeat on the Belgians.”

In covering up their own ineptitude, the Allied commanders resorted to outright lies. Both Weygand and Gort made the patently false claim that they had been given no warning of Belgium’s impending surrender. Accusing the Belgian army of cowardice, Gort also charged that its withdrawal from the fight had endangered the lives of his troops in their flight to Dunkirk. In reality, as the British military historian Brian Bond wrote, “the Belgian Army, virtually without air cover, bore the brunt of the German . . . attack while the BEF had a comparatively easy withdrawal to the French frontier. Indeed, but for the prolonged resistance of the gallant Belgian Army, the evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk would have been impossible.”

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King Leopold III. Via Wikimedia.

French premier Paul Reynaud went even further in his diatribes against Leopold and the Belgians. One of the few French politicians to oppose the appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s, Reynaud, who had headed the government for just two months, was nearing the end of his emotional tether. In the early days of the German invasion he had aligned himself with Churchill, arguing that France should continue to hold out. But as the military situation worsened, he began yielding to the defeatist mood of many of his ministers, prominently including Marshal Philippe Pétain, the eighty-four-year-old architect of the failed Maginot Line strategy who was now deputy premier. Since Reynaud had vowed he would never agree to a surrender, he knew he would soon have to hand over power to Pétain—an act that would infuriate the British. In Belgium’s capitulation, he saw a golden opportunity to shift the blame from himself and his government to the hapless Leopold.

“There has never been such a betrayal in history!” Reynaud exclaimed to his ministers when he heard of the Belgian surrender. “It is monstrous, absolutely monstrous!” In a May 28 broadcast to the French people, he accused Belgium of capitulating “suddenly and unconditionally in the midst of battle, on the orders of its King, without warning its French and English fellow combatants, thus opening the road to Dunkirk to German divisions.”

Before he made the broadcast, the premier bullied the Belgian government officials who had just arrived in France to support him in his attack upon their king. If they didn’t, Reynaud said, he couldn’t answer for the safety of the more than 2 million Belgians who had fled to France after the German invasion.

The Belgian ministers, who apparently feared that Leopold was thinking of establishing a new government in cooperation with the Germans, gave in to Reynaud’s blackmail. In doing so, they made far graver and equally false accusations against Leopold, charging him with “treating with the enemy”—in effect, accusing him of treason. Instead of preventing acts of violence against their countrymen, their denunciation only added to the French fury against Belgian refugees, who were jeered at, spat upon, beaten up, and ejected from restaurants and hotels. A number of Belgian pilots who had escaped to France were handcuffed and thrown into jail, while several thousand young Belgians undergoing military training in France were imprisoned in their barracks.

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For the space of a day, Hitler had to give up his title of most-hated man.

Kept in the dark about the ineptitude of the British and French military response to the German blitzkrieg, public opinion in Britain readily accepted as truth the accusations against Leopold and Belgium. In London, the Daily Mirror ran a front-page cartoon depicting the Belgian king as a snake wearing a swastika-topped crown; the Evening Standard called him “King Quisling.” One British newspaper columnist wrote that no child would be christened Leopold in Britain or anywhere else for the next two hundred years. Mollie Panter-Downes, the New Yorker’s London correspondent, told her American readers that “for the space of a day, Hitler had to give up his title of most-hated man to Leopold III of the Belgians,” who apparently “would rather be a live Nazi than a dead Belgian.”

In the midst of all the vituperation, only a few lonely voices spoke up for Leopold. “The king’s capitulation was the only thing he could do,” the U.S. military attaché in Belgium reported to his superiors in Washington. “Those who say otherwise didn’t see the fighting, and they didn’t see the German Air Force. I saw both.”

Admiral Keyes and Colonel Davy, the two British liaison officers assigned to the king and the Belgian military, also strongly defended the actions of Leopold and his army. Both were appalled when they returned to Britain on May 28 to find that Gort and his staff were heaping blame on the Belgians for their own incompetence. Particularly galling to Keyes and Davy was the fact that Gort himself was guilty of what he falsely accused the Belgian king of doing—withdrawing from the fight without warning his allies that he was going to do so.

Both officers, however, were forbidden by the British high command to make any public statements about their mission in Belgium. Furious at being muzzled, Davy wrote an account of what actually occurred there and gave copies to Keyes and the War Office for use in preparing the British official history of the war after it had ended. In a cover letter, he declared that the “savage and lying attacks” made on Leopold by “prominent military persons who found in him a profitable and unresponsive scapegoat” (i.e., Gort and Pownall) had prompted him to act. He added that “the truth should not be suppressed forever.”

Keyes, for his part, mounted a passionate defense of Leopold in a letter to Churchill, urging him to put a stop to British officials’ “vilification of a brave king.” At first, the prime minister seemed to heed his friend’s admonition, telling Parliament at the end of May that the Belgian army had “fought very bravely” and that the British should not pass “hasty judgment” on Leopold’s surrender.

His forbearance was short-lived. Annoyed that Leopold had chosen to remain in Belgium, Churchill was still riding his hobbyhorse of anger at the European neutral countries for not joining Britain and France in preinvasion military alliances. Refusing to acknowledge that the neutrals might have had valid reasons for shying away from such ties, he repeatedly made statements blaming their alleged cowardice for Germany’s military successes. He told Keyes privately that Leopold’s surrender had “completed the full circle of misfortune into which our Allies had landed us while we had loyally carried out our obligations and undertakings to them”—a comment that could not have been less true.

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Evacuated British soldiers. Via Wikimedia.

Churchill’s already strong prejudice against Leopold was exacerbated by growing pressure on him from Paul Reynaud to join France’s scapegoating of the king. Reynaud accused the British of being too subdued in their expressions of outrage against Leopold and the Belgians, and Churchill, desperate to keep France in the war, finally gave in to the French premier’s arm-twisting. On June 4, in a speech announcing the success of the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill employed all his formidable rhetorical skills in a fierce denunciation of Leopold. “Suddenly, without prior consultation . . . he surrendered his army and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat,” the prime minister thundered, as the MPs around him cried “Shame!” and “Treachery!” “Had not this ruler and his government severed themselves from the Allies, had they not sought refuge in what has proved to be a fatal neutrality, the French and British armies might well at the very outset have saved not only Belgium but perhaps even Poland.”

The sheer absurdity of Churchill’s statement—that Belgium’s neutrality, not Germany’s military prowess, had been responsible for the defeat of Poland and other European countries—registered with Roger Keyes but with few others in Churchill’s parliamentary audience. An MP himself, Keyes listened to the prime minister’s diatribe with mounting anger and disbelief. Instead of praising the Belgians for having protected the BEF from the worst of the German onslaught, Churchill was echoing Reynaud in accusing them of having endangered the British evacuation, as well as causing the encirclement and surrender of thousands of French troops.

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The BBC, under pressure from the War Office, suppressed the news of the king’s exoneration.

Yet, in retrospect, Churchill’s harangue, though unjustified, is understandable. Prime minister for only four weeks, he considered his political position at that point to be extremely tenuous. Many Conservative MPs, whose party dominated Parliament, had not yet reconciled themselves to his succeeding Neville Chamberlain; indeed, a fair number were openly hostile to him. “Seldom can a prime minister have taken office with the establishment so dubious of the choice and so prepared to have its doubts justified,” noted John Colville, one of Churchill’s private secretaries.

With his country now facing the greatest challenge in its history, Churchill was eager not only to fortify his own position but also to draw a veil of secrecy over the incompetence of his top generals as well as the other grave shortcomings of the British military’s performance thus far in the war. What better way to do so than to pin the blame on a smaller ally whose king and commander in chief was unable to defend himself?

Roger Keyes, however, refused to fall into line. In early June, he filed a libel suit against the Daily Mirror for a story accusing him of abetting what the Mirror called Leopold’s treachery. Determined to exonerate himself as well as the Belgian king and his military, Keyes pressed for a public trial. Before the case was finally heard in March 1941, the Mirror acknowledged that it had erred in its statements about Leopold and Keyes and agreed to apologize to both. Declaring that “the public interest would not be served” by publicizing the matter, Churchill and his government pressured Keyes to accept an out-of-court settlement rather than go to trial. Keyes agreed, but, in settling the case, his lawyer outlined in open court what had really happened in Belgium the previous May; in the same hearing, the newspaper’s attorney conceded that the Mirror had done the king “a very grave injustice.”

The story of Leopold’s vindication made front-page headlines in Britain. k.c. clears king leopold’s name: london told of surrender plan, one blared. Another noted, king leopold warned britain of surrender. But the BBC, under pressure from the War Office, suppressed the news of the king’s exoneration; it remains relatively unknown to this day. In the seventy-plus years since 1940, many if not most historians who have written about the battles in France and Belgium have accepted as true the charges made by the British and French against Leopold and his country.

Yet even during the chaos of May 1940, there was one celebrated Briton who knew better and who refused to participate in the mudslinging. King George VI was said to be furious at the campaign aimed at the Belgian sovereign, who was a distant cousin of his and whom he had known and liked since the teenage Leopold had attended Eton during the Great War. When British officials proposed that Leopold be dropped from the Roll of the Knights of the Garter, Britain’s highest order of chivalry and one of its most prestigious honors, George, who keenly understood the excruciating dilemma faced by his fellow monarch, rejected the idea.

As George’s biographer, the historian John Wheeler-Bennett, has pointed out, the choice confronting the heads of state of German-occupied countries was “one of hideous complexity, [with] little time for calm consideration. To leave their homeland and follow their Governments into exile leaves them open to the charge of desertion by those who remained behind; yet to remain [in their countries] involves the risk of their being held hostage for the submissive conduct of their peoples.”

The day before Belgium surrendered, Leopold wrote a fond letter to George, whom he addressed as mon cher Bertie—a diminutive of his given name, Albert, which was used only by members of the British king’s family and a few others close to him. In the letter, Leopold explained his rationale for staying in Belgium, declaring that his overriding duty was to share the ordeal of German occupation with his troops and the rest of the Belgian people and to protect them as much as possible. “To act otherwise,” he told George, “would amount to desertion.”

As it happened, King George did not agree with Leopold’s choice. When Harry Hopkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s closest aide, visited London in early 1941, George told him he thought that Leopold had gotten his two jobs—king and commander in chief—“mixed up.” In a memo to FDR, Hopkins observed that George had “expressed a good deal of sympathy for the King of the Belgians and had little or no criticism of him as C-in-C of the Army, but as King . . . he should have left the country and established his government elsewhere.” Yet while questioning the wisdom of Leopold’s decision, George never doubted that his cousin was following his conscience and keen sense of duty in staying behind.

Ironically, George himself had taken the same vow made by Leopold: under no account, he said, would he leave his country if it were invaded by Germany. Fortunately for him and for Britain, he was never called upon to make that choice.

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