Just why Hitler gave his infamous order to halt the advancing panzer divisions on 24 May 1940 has been the subject of speculation and controversy ever since. But I reckon I’m pretty sure how and why it happened in this short extract from my book, The Battle of Britain…
Momentous decisions were now about to made on both the German and British sides, decisions that would have far-reaching consequences in the days and weeks to come. Running south-east from Gravelines, just ten miles west from Dunkirk, lay the River Aa, which south of St Omer joined Le Basséee Canal. This was the Canal Line that was protecting the southern – or right – flank of the BEF and the French First Army. By the morning of the 24th, Guderian’s 1st Panzer Division had reached this line and by midday had secured crucial bridgeheads across it in three separate places. As at the Meuse, getting safely across a key water feature was the key to an operation, so as far the buoyant Germans were concerned, the path to Dunkirk was now well and truly open, particularly since the bulk of the BEF was still south-east of the port. Calais and Boulogne had already been isolated and were expected to fall any moment, so it seemed to Guderian that the BEF and French First Army were now completely trapped with nowhere left to run.
Then, at 12.45pm, Guderian received an urgent order, from the Führer no less. North-west of Arras, all German forces were to halt along the line Lens-Bethune-Aire-St Omer-Gravelines. In other words, along the Canal Line. Hitler wanted ‘all mobile units to close up.’ First Panzer wasn’t the only unit to have already won bridgeheads across the Canal Line. So, too, had the SS Totenkopf Division at Bethune, for example. ‘We were utterly speechless,’ wrote Guderian. ‘But since were not informed of the reasons for this order, it was difficult to argue against it.’
[‘We were utterly speechless…’ Guderian, p.117]
In fact, the origins of this fateful order could be found the previous day, when von Kleist had told Army Group A and OKH that his units were now quite widely spread, conducting attacks along the Canal Line, the Channel ports and protecting their own southern flank. He told von Rundstedt that his panzer strength was down to fifty percent, which was actually a far more pessimistic assessment than was the reality. He thus warned that if the enemy counter-attacked in strength then he believed they might have some difficulties. However, there was no sign of any major counter-attack and nothing about the performance of the French or British suggested one was imminent.
Nonetheless, General von Kluge was alarmed by von Kleist’s message. Although commander of Fourth Army, which included Rommel’s 7th Panzer and Panzer Corps Hoth pressing north from Arras, he had also been given overall command of all the mobile forces on his left – ie, all of Panzer Group Kleist. At 4.40pm on the 23rd, he spoke to von Rundstedt and suggested a close up order be issued, halting the fast-moving mobile forces while the infantry divisions such as 56th Division, of which Leutnant Siegfried Knappe was a part, for example, caught up.
This was the same old concern that had repeatedly reared its head ever since the plans for the offensive had first been drawn up; and it represented the same doctrinal differences between the old-school conservatives and the progressives such as Guderian, Halder, Reinhardt and Rommel. Von Rudstedt, a conservative, agreed with von Kluge and issued an order at 8pm on the 23rd that the following day, the panzers were to interrupt their advances for twenty-four hours while the infantry caught up. Most of the divisions already attacking the Canal Line were furious. Guderian’s First Panzer, however, largely ignored this order, however. After all, had he listened to the orders of von Kleist and von Rundstedt so far, they would yet to have reached the coast.
Hitler would not have become involved, however, had Halder and von Brauchitsch not now become embroiled as well. Annoyed by von Rundstedt’s decision, Halder came to the conclusion that Army Group A had become too unwieldy – it was now 71 Divisions strong; ‘I have an idea,’ he noted, ‘its staff has not been energetic and active enough.’ [‘I have a good idea…’ Halder Diary 23/5/1940] As a result, von Brauchitsch now issued an order as of 8pm on 24th May, the whole of Fourth Army, including all the panzers, would switch to the command of Army Group B, whose task it would be to finish the encirclement in the north, while Army Group A henceforth concentrated on confronting French forces to the south.
Needless to say, von Rundstedt took a pretty dim view of this order and when Hitler visited him the next day, 24th May, made his disgruntlement clear to the Führer. It was, however, the first Hitler had known about it: the decision had been taken by von Brauchitsch without his knowledge. Annoyed that such an important order had been issued without his say-so, Hitler immediately rescinded it and then confirmed von Rundstedt’s close-up order of the previous evening.
The order prompted immediate and sustained outrage from nearly every single commander now pressing the Canal Line, as well as from Halder, whose plans were now being badly compromised. Oberstleutnant Ulrich Liss, one of Halder’s staff officers, saw his boss at the briefing that night. ‘He was livid with anger,’ noted Liss, ‘such as I have never seen him before.’ [‘He was livid with anger…’ Ulrich Liss, Westfront, p.196] Their anger was justified. It was the southern British front that was vulnerable: the British left flank was now dug in along the border making the most of previously prepared defences and in good order. Along the right flank it was a different story altogether, and it was here that Halder’s main strike force – his mobile forces – were now massing for their final strike.
Von Rundstedt was demonstrating what he had made clear all along: that he neither understood nor approved of the kind of fast, mobile warfare Guderian the progressives had been preaching. Hitler was showing – as if any more proof were needed – that he had no understanding of modern warfare either. His decision to rescind von Brauchitsch’s order was made because he felt his authority had been challenged – how dare von Brauchitsch make such a decision without clearing it with him first! He had always mistrusted the OKH and now he had been humiliated in front of von Rundstedt. His desire to put von Brauchitsch and Halder back in their boxes over-rode any sound military logic.
At any rate, the order to halt now had the written authority of the Führer, and this time, Guderian had no choice but to abide by it. In so doing, however, a golden opportunity to complete to annihilate the entire BEF was, without doubt, lost.
Having enforced the decision halt the panzers on the afternoon of 24th May, Hitler then gave von Rundstedt complete authority to lift the order whenever he saw fit. The outrage within the German units ranged along the Canal Line was intense. Von Bock, commander of Army Group B was incensed. His infantry divisions, still mostly on foot despite the large number of captured bicycles, had to advance fifty miles to reach Dunkirk, and through organized and dug in British divisions. The panzer and motorised divisions, on the other hand, were all lined up almost within spitting distance. General von Kluge who had originally suggested the close-up, was as one with von Kleist that the order should be rescinded immediately. He had planned to push through the narrowest point of the corridor in which the BEF and French First Army were now trapped, capturing the low heights around the town of Cassel, then heading straight to Courtrai and linking up with Army Group B – and in so doing, cutting off the British retreat to Dunkirk still some thirty miles to the north-west. Fully armed, highly confident panzers, a-brimming with supplies and ammunition against infantry low on rounds and increasingly hungry would have been no contest at all. The BEF would have been annihilated.
Even more galling was that for a number of units who had already made it across the Canal Line, the order was not a halt but rather, a retreat, as they had to pull back across the water. Early on the 25th, Guderian visited the Waffen-SS Liebstandarte Division and found them crossing the River Aa in defiance of the order. Guderian crossed too and eventually found the commander, Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, in the ruins of a castle on a well-placed hillock called Mount Watten. When Guderian asked him why he was disobeying orders, Dietrich pointed out that Mount Watten commanded a very strong position and that the task of crossing the Aa would be very much harder if it was in enemy hands. Guderian not only approved Dietrich’s action, he ordered some of 2nd Panzer to move up in support.
Von Brauchitsch had been summoned to see Hitler on the afternoon of the 24th. It had been his chance to point out the lunacy of the measure and the golden opportunity now before them to finish off the battle in the north with the destruction of the BEF. When he arrived back at the OKH command post at 8pm, Halder found him shaken and humiliated; far from convincing Hitler, von Brauchitsch had been forced to listen to one of the Führer’s furious rants. The Commander-in-Chief tried to put across his arguments, but failed. ‘Apparently again a very unpleasant interview with the Führer,’ noted Halder tersely. Von Brauchitsch, of course, had been made head of the army precisely because he could not stand up to Hitler, as he had showed the previous November during discussions on the Western offensive. [‘Apparently again a very unpleasant interview…’ Halder Diary, 24/5/1940]
However, while von Brauchitsch had been receiving his tongue lashing from Hitler for daring to act independently, Halder had been working out how to get around the halt order. Late in the afternoon he had come up with a cunning plan and accordingly issued a message to Army Groups A and B. ‘Expanding on the directives in the May 24 Army High Command order’ he gave the ‘go-ahead’ [‘Expanding on the directives…’ cited in Frieser, p.298] for the continuation of the attack towards Dunkirk-Cassel-Estaires-Armentieres-Ypres-Ostend – in other words, not the entire Canal Line, but just the northern half, which would shut the gate on the retreating British. This was clever wording; a ‘go-ahead’ was not the same as a new order, and it meant von Rundstedt need not lose face, nor the Führer order, strictly speaking, be disobeyed.
Incredibly, however, von Rundstedt dug in his heels and refused to forward on the message to von Kleist or von Kluge. Halder could scarcely believe it. ‘This is a complete reversal of the plan,’ he railed. ‘I wanted to make AGp. A the hammer and AGp. B the anvil in the is operation. Now B will be the hammer and A the anvil. As AGP. B is confronted with a consolidated front, progress will be slow and casualties high.’ [‘This is a complete reversal of the plan…’ Halder Diary, 25/5/1940] A crisis was now boiling over not just in Paris and London but within the German army too. Halder urged von Brauchitsch to try again to persuade Hitler to change his mind that morning, but Hitler was having none of it. The decision was to be von Rundstedt’s Hitler told him, and von Rundstedt’s only. And von Rundstedt, along with his Chief of Staff, General von Sodenstern, was determined to keep the halt order in place throughout the 25th May. This was more than just differences of military ideology – this was pure stubborn, bloody mindedness. That the Commander-in-Chief of the Army was not permitted to move his forces as he saw fit was crazy.
Hitler’s almost complete lack of military understanding was further proven with his indulgence of Feldmarschall Göring. On the 23rd, Göring had rung the Führer and told him that his Luftwaffe could set the Channel ports ablaze then destroy the British troops trapped in the encirclement. Hitler told him to do so, believing Göring’s boast – this way, he reasoned, the army could be kept in its place but the end result would be the same. ‘Our air force,’ Göring told Milch, ‘is to mop up the British. I’ve persuaded the Führer to hold the army back.’ ‘Our air force…’ cited in Göring by David Irving, p.290] Milch immediately expressed his concerns: the Channel ports were at the limit of most of the fighter units’ range, and had already been involved in heavy and continual fighting since the offensive began. Furthermore, there was still a job to do supporting the army. Göring brushed aside such worries. ‘The army always wants to act the gentleman. They round up the British as prisoners with as little harm to them as possible. The Führer wants them to be taught a lesson.’ ‘The army always wants to act…’ cited in The Rise and Fall of the Luftwaffe by David Irving, p.90] General Kesselring was as concerned as Milch about these new orders, and like Milch, pointed out the difficulty of such a task – bombing Rotterdam into the ground had been one thing; destroying the Channel ports and the British was quite another. ‘I pointed out to Göring that the modern Spitfires had recently appeared,’ Kesselring noted, ‘making our air operations difficult and costly.’ [‘I pointed out…’ Kesselring, p.59] Kesselring’s misgivings also fell on deaf ears. Sadly for the Germans, Göring was revealing a lack of military acumen to match that of Hitler.