The new film Darkest Hour is justly drawing high praise, including for the tour de force performance by its star, Gary Oldman, who brilliantly plays Winston Churchill. The movie is set in May, 1940, at a time when the Nazi blitzkriegs of Belgium, Holland, and France stunned the world with their speed and overwhelming military success. The Nazi attack began on May 10th and within a week, the combined forces of Holland, Belgium, France, and England were in full and chaotic retreat.
Adolf Hitler’s innovative generals such as Erwin Rommel and Heinz Guderian had implemented a daring plan to bypass France’s allegedly impregnable Maginot Line of fortifications by doing what most military experts thought was impossible: Sending three corps of panzer tanks through the thick woods and ravine-riddled topography of the Ardennes forest. When Nazi armor penetrated the Ardennes in just three days, it then smashed through the French defenses at Sedan. Next, it rapidly raced to flank and encircle the French divisions to the southwest, as well as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to the northwest.
Nearly overnight, the Allied armies were in danger of annihilation as the northern pincer of the German forces swept through the Low Countries. The small armies of Belgium and Holland were no match for Hitler’s screaming Stuka dive bombers, his seemingly endless columns of panzers, and his armored troop carriers. It quickly became obvious that France would soon surrender. The BEF engaged in a frantic retreat to the sea, constantly harassed by the Luftwaffe which had near total control of the skies.
Over 300,000 British soldiers managed to make it to the French port city of Dunkirk where the Luftwaffe continued a relentless campaign of strafing and bombardment. Sunken ships blocked the harbor which, combined with the Luftwaffe’s air superiority, made an evacuation of the troops by the British navy a near impossibility.
In the event the BEF, which represented nearly all of England’s professional army, was destroyed or captured, its small island nation had little chance of resisting an invasion by German troops. The Nazi forces would soon control the coastal city of Calais, a mere 20 miles from the English coast (along with all other French ports). Even the still formidable British navy faced daunting odds in attempting to stop a German flotilla traveling such a short distance and protected by the world’s most powerful air force.
Darkest Hour vividly evokes the sense of utter hopelessness England’s leaders felt during the terrifying month of May 1940.
Darkest Hour vividly evokes the sense of utter hopelessness England’s leaders felt during the terrifying month of May 1940. The despair was so acute that key members of Churchill’s war cabinet began repeatedly pressuring him to sue for peace. Ironically, these same individuals, particularly Neville Chamberlain and Edward Wood—more famously known as Lord Halifax—were the prime appeasers who had, for years, ignored Churchill’s prescient warnings of the escalating Nazi menace. Their dithering, based on an understandable desire to avoid the horrific slaughter of another world war, allowed Hitler to effectively annex countries like Austria and Czechoslovakia without firing a shot.
As near certain defeat loomed for England, Chamberlain and Halifax, along with their many supporters in Parliament, clung to the notion that Hitler would allow their now tottering empire to remain largely intact and its independence preserved. Churchill, on the other hand, realized that surrender to the Nazis would unquestionably mean his once proud country would be rendered nothing more than a slave state to the Nazis, with the Swastika flying over Buckingham Palace and the Gestapo terrorizing the British people. What the French people endured, until their liberation over four years later, clearly validated Mr. Churchill’s apocalyptic view.
Yet the pressure on him to capitulate and negotiate surrender terms intensified to the point that Churchill was on the brink of caving in to the demands of Chamberlain and Halifax. Even his loyal War Secretary, Anthony Eden, felt a negotiated peace was the only practical option, the assumption being that there was no hope of rescuing the BEF from the blood-soaked beaches of Dunkirk.
It was during this bleak time that Mr. Churchill devised a plan his military advisers ridiculed: Enlisting hundreds of private vessels to make the perilous journey across the Channel, while being attacked by the Luftwaffe, to pick up as many of their men as possible. Their rough estimate was that perhaps 10%, 30,000 or so, would make it home and, of course, at great loss of life to the civilians in their defenseless little boats (though many were manned by members of the Royal Navy).
Millions poured into churches throughout Great Britain, with massive queues around the iconic Westminster Abbey.
The willingness with which so many of its citizens gladly accepted this near-suicide mission was a shining testament to the courageous character of the British people. But there was another aspect to this heroic effort that the Darkest Hour completely overlooks.
On May 23rd, on the eve of the evacuation effort, King George VI of England addressed his citizens and asked for a National Day of Prayer to be held on May 26th. Millions poured into churches throughout Great Britain, with massive queues around the iconic Westminster Abbey, as pictured above.
What followed were two highly improbable events. The first was a violent storm in the Dunkirk vicinity that largely grounded the Luftwaffe the Monday after the National Day of Prayer. Then, on Tuesday, May 28th, the normally turbulent English Channel was strangely becalmed. This was particularly odd given that bad weather continued to keep the Luftwaffe largely grounded. In the words of Father John Willans: “A great calm descended on the Channel the like of which hadn’t been seen for a generation, which allowed hundreds of tiny boats to sail across and rescue 335,000 soldiers, rather than the estimated 20,000 to 30,000.” Moreover, 140,000 French, Belgium, and Polish men were also rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk.
A third extremely implausible event was the decision by Hitler to stop his ground troops from attacking for three days, leaving the objective of destroying the trapped BEF to the Luftwaffe. Yet, as noted above, the weather prevented that from happening. Hitler’s halt-order has been the subject of much discussion by historians. According to Wikipedia, Guderian considered the failure to order a timely assault on Dunkirk to be one of the major German mistakes on the Western Front. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called it "…one of the great turning points of the war". Unquestionably, those three days of relief gave the British a desperately needed window to stage the evacuation. (It should be noted that remnants of the once-mighty French army fought valiantly for four days at Lille, holding off much larger German forces, and further impeding a land-based Nazi assault on Dunkirk.)
Perhaps these extraordinary developments, leading to what became popularly known as “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” were just coincidences. Certainly, the makers of Darkest Hour felt no need to bring up England’s National Day of Prayer. However, another such appeal was made by King George in 1942 after the Allied forces had suffered serious reversals. These were also soon followed by stunning defeats for the Nazis at Stalingrad and El Alamein, often considered to be, along with the US Navy’s improbable victory at Midway, the three main turning points of World War II. After those pivotal battles, the Axis powers would spend the rest of the war on the defensive, until their ultimate crushing defeat.
Present generations take for granted that the Allies were destined to triumph over the Axis powers. It’s sobering, however, to think what would likely have happened in the event that the Dunkirk evacuation had been the disaster military experts thought it would be. Consider the following plausible chain reaction:
- Churchill may well have been forced to resign. Those urging surrender would likely have replaced him.
- As a result, there would have been no Battle of Britain, no Battle of North Africa, and no Battle of Greece.
- The Luftwaffe, which suffered crippling losses due to Churchill’s pet project, the Spitfire, during the Battle of Britain, would have grown even stronger than its fearsome status of May 1940.
- Hitler would have controlled all of the oil in the Mid-East.*
- His forces would not have been bogged down in Greece, which cost him army dearly by delaying Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the following year. (Considering that the Soviets barely survived the German onslaught as it was, it’s hard to believe they could have withstood the German war machine given the many advantages listed above.)
- Once Russia had fallen, only isolationist-minded America would have been left to stand against both the Nazis and Imperial Japan.
- Hitler’s scientists, who nearly beat the US in the race to develop atomic weapons, would have had an excellent chance of acquiring such doomsday weapons first without the distractions of fighting wars on multiple fronts and under increasingly devastating bombardment. Had Hitler acquired nuclear weapons, you can be assured he would not have hesitated to use them on US cities, with eventual American surrender virtually a fait accompli.
Accordingly, had the events of May 1940, particularly those recounted in Darkest Hour, turned out differently, the entire world might well have endured a darkness such as never seen before in the history of mankind.
Perhaps the May 26th, 1940, National Day of Prayer deserves more than a few silent prayers of thanks and certainly, at very least, an honorable mention by Hollywood.
*Concerns about oil supply also diverted large elements of the Wehrmacht into the crude-producing Russian Caucuses and away from attacking Moscow and Stalingrad during the Russian invasion, likely tipping the scales in favor of the beleaguered defenders; oil shortages would haunt the Nazis throughout the war.