General Montgomery and the Fighting Retreat to Dunkirk May 1940

By John Dudek 12 Mar 2015 0

Bernard Law Montgomery, Field Marshall, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, KG, GCB, DSO, and so on, is undoubtedly best remembered for commanding the 8th Army in North Africa, Sicily and Italy and then commands in Europe for D-Day and beyond. However, he did not just spring into those commands out of the blue. He also saw action in Europe at the very start of the war, and here we look at his experiences in France leading up to Dunkirk.


On 14 May 1940, and with little to no warning, General Heinz Guderian's German panzer tanks burst suddenly out of France's "impenetrable" Ardennes Forest at Sedan, and after overrunning the last French defensive position outposts, broke out into open country with nothing in front of them but the English Channel coast.  With little friendly infantry support or refuelling tanker trucks posted with them, the Germans were still able to maintain their incredibly rapid rate of advance by filling their panzer's fuel tanks by stopping at the many French gas stations they encountered along the way.  On 20 May they would arrive at Abbeville on the coast after advancing 60 miles the last day.  This radically new and brutally effective "blitzkrieg" armored thrust effectively cut off the nearly 400,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force now located along the River Dyle in Belgium from direct contact with their French allies to the south. This left them in danger of being completely encircled and destroyed by the seemingly unstoppable German steamrolling juggernaught.  The first news that newly named British Prime Minister Winston Churchill heard that anything was amiss in France was when he was suddenly awoke at 7:30am on 15 May at Admiralty House London by an extremely distraught French Premier Paul Renaud who said in English: "We have been defeated!  We are beaten, we have lost the battle!"  Churchill replied: "Surely it could not have happened so soon."  Renaud continued: "The front is broken at Sedan they are pouring through in great numbers of tanks and armored cars."  Churchill flew to France the following day to review the situation first hand.



However, when French and British armored counterattacks in the following days failed to cut off the German bridgehead, and with their Belgian Army allies tottering and on the verge of surrender to the attacking Germans, BEF commander Lord John Gort ordered his troops to make a gradual and orderly fighting withdrawal to the channel coast where it was hoped the British Army could somehow be evacuated back to England by ship.  The things most needed now by the British Army were competent leadership, fighting spirit, and the ability to buy badly needed time if the withdrawal and evacuation were ever to succeed.  One British General embodied all three of these needs in abundance.

He was General Bernard Law Montgomery the 53 year old commander of the 3rd Infantry Division now located along the River Dyle in Belgium, on the southernmost right flank of the British Army.  Montgomery was a battlefield decorated veteran of the First World War and one who believed in intensive training in all facets of battle in conjunction with all the combined arms, both in the attack and retreat.  Described as mercurial and an arrogant martinet with few friends, but with many admirers and enemies, Montgomery could be insufferably arrogant with a decided lack of tack and diplomacy.  Even the Chief of the Imperial General Staff and his superior Lord Alan Brooke mentioned this in his war diaries: "..he is liable to commit untold errors in lack of tact and I had to haul him over the coals a number to times for his usual lack of tact and egotistical outlook which prevented him from appreciating other people's feelings."  The puritanical Montgomery was soon to face serious problems after complaining to both his military superiors and the clergy about his men's normal tendency to find sensual release through "horizontal entertainment" in the arms of the many willing and lonely French and Belgian lasses they encountered.  He faced a possible dismissal for his views but was strongly defended by his superior General Alan Brooke, the commander of II Corps.  The whole matter was soon dropped which proved to be fortuitous for the BEF.  Montgomery was one of the few who realized the true gravity of the situation of the war against Germany.

He realized this as soon as the BEF landed in France in 1939.  Montgomery knew full well that the Anglo-French allies would be unable to launch any appreciable military offensives against the Germans before 1941, especially in the British Army sector.  Until then the British would remain at a decided manpower disadvantage, although slowly growing in number of divisions with the passage of time.  Montgomery also knew that what could not be gained in quantity of manpower numbers could be achieved through quality. While most Allied commanders were content to allow their men to grow stale with limited training in their static positions along the German frontier, during the winter of 1939-40 Montgomery kept his men of the 3rd Infantry Division extremely busy practicing both offensive and defensive military tactics both in daylight and darkness. They oftentimes conducted division sized night time road marches from one sector to another in unfamiliar territory along unknown roads with no enlisted man or officer being exempt.  This would pay off in major dividends both in extremely high unit morale and battlefield expertise in the crucial and difficult days to come.  Later, when the Luftwaffe dropped bombs and leaflets on the Allied armies the leaflets showed a map of their tactical situation. They read, in English: "British soldiers! Look at the map: it gives your true situation! Your troops are entirely surrounded – stop fighting! Put down your arms!" The soldiers mostly used the leaflets as toilet paper or 'bum fodder' as the British troops termed it.

With the British Expeditionary Force now in their positions along the River Dyle following the German break through at Sedan, the British faced their first serious clash with the invading Germans on 14 May.  General Von Bock's troops tried to take the town of Louvain but Montgomery calmly responded by calling down a massive artillery bombardment on them from his 60 pounder heavy guns. This caught the German troops in the open and quickly turned back their assault.  On 26 May, the Germans conducted a reconnaissance in force against the British. The following day, they launched a fierce three division assault on the British lines south of the town of Ypres.  The attack too was soon beaten back.  However, with the sudden and unexpected Belgian capitulation by their King, Leopold, there was suddenly a 20 mile long hole along the British left flank between their lines and those of the French, located along the channel at Nieuport.  With inadequate forces at his disposal to plug the gap.  II Corps Commander General Alan Brooke was forced to order Montgomery's 3rd Infantry Division on the southernmost right flank of the pocket to conduct a night time 25 mile road march with his entire 13,000 man division from one end of the British perimeter to the other, oftentimes over unfamiliar roads while traveling extremely close to the German lines. The night march had to be made in order to avoid both day time German observation as well as air attacks on Montgomery's troops while they were strung out along the roads.  In the late afternoon of 27 May the 3rd Division's armored cars, machine gun vehicles as well as 2,000 lorries, vans and troop carriers of all kind moved out onto the road as darkness descended upon the region.  With next to no illumination to speak of other than the lively flashes of British artillery firing from nearby Mount Kemmel to guide them, the division made its way to the opposite side of the British perimeter where it arrived before first light.  Arriving on his divisional front Montgomery was shocked to learn the Belgians had surrendered.  This left him with an additional 13 miles of strategically important territory to defend.  Montgomery later recalled:  "Here was a pretty pickle! Instead of having the Belgian Army on my left, I now had nothing."  Montgomery quickly threw together an ad hoc force of British and French armored cars, Bren machine gun carriers, and a handful of infantry to guard the key bridges and road junctions along the recently evacuated line, eventually tying in with their French allies at the towns of Wulpen and Nieuport on the channel.  Even then it was all an extremely close run business.  An engineer from the 12th Lancers only just managed to blow up the bridge at Dixmude in the face of Von Bock's quickly advancing infantry to keep it from falling into German hands.  The seizure of this bridge could have cracked the Allied line wide open.



By this time in the campaign the BEF was literally robbing Peter to pay Paul, frantically withdrawing one unit from an unthreatened sector while moving them to another that was under heavy attack and about to buckle from German pressure.  Monty's recent night time road march enabled two British brigades to be moved to Messines Ridge.  They arrived there to find the Germans on the verge of making a major breakthrough, as they'd already advanced to the point of attacking the rear area British artillery.  The endangered gunners were literally cutting their shell fuses to zero and firing their artillery at zero elevation directly into the faces of the charging German infantry. A desperate counterattack by the two British brigades drove off the Germans from the ridge.  On 28 May those two brigades were securely dug in east of Wytschaete.  That same day Alan Brooke ordered another counterattack. While the attack did not achieve its goals, it did momentarily disrupt the Germans battle plans while buying some badly needed time for the BEF to begin executing the many rear guard actions during their retrograde (retreat) manoeuvres along the way to Dunkirk.  More bad news struck the BEF this same afternoon.  The Germans were punching hard at Nieuport, the easternmost anchor of the Dunkirk perimeter.

The hard pressed Montgomery had no troops to spare, so General Alan Brooke called on the services of Brigadier A.J Clifton to lead a hastily sent scratch force of some 200 regimental clerks, surveyors, transport drivers and fitters to Wulpen to see what could still be salvaged of the now desperate situation there.  The unit never had a name, the officers came from five different regiments.  Most of the men had never seen their officers before and the officers had never worked with Clifton. Somehow he welded them together and they marched off to the front in amazingly good spirits. Along the way, they met the disbanded Belgians trooping back.  The Belgians were throwing away their weapons and shouting that the war was over for them.  Clifton's men collected the discarded rifles and ammunition, adding them to their own meager arsenal.  The fighting at Nieuport was exceedingly hot with the British only just managing to hold the bridge there by firing their 18 pound guns directly at the German assault infantry teams and tanks.  At one point the situation grew so desperate that two British battalion commanders had to personally man a Bren light machine gun, with one colonel firing and the other loading. A few hours later, the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards rushed to reinforce the line near Furnes, where the British troops had been routed. The 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards restored order by shooting some of the fleeing troops, and turning others around at bayonet point. The British troops returned to the line, and the German assault was beaten back.  That same afternoon, the Germans broke through the perimeter line at the canal of Bulskamp, but a combination of the swampy ground and the heavy rifle fire of the Durham Light infantry stopped their attack.  That evening as the Germans were massing for yet another infantry assault at Nieuport, RAF bombers caught the Germans in their assembly areas and blasted them with high explosive bombs, dispersing and halting the attack before it ever began.



With the Belgians now out of the war and the Germans closing in like bloodhounds in every sector, BEF Commander Lord Gort ordered Sir Ronald Adam, 3rd Corps Commander and French General Falgade to prepare a perimeter defense of Dunkirk.  The perimeter was semicircular, with French troops manning the western sector and British troops the eastern.  It ran from Nieuport to the east via Furnes, Bulskamp and Bergues to Gravelines in the west.  The line was as strong as it could be made under the circumstances.  The British 3rd, 4th and 50th Infantry divisions held their crucial positions until the last possible minute before withdrawing to another position closer to Dunkirk and the possible evacuation and safety it promised.  During these incredibly stress filled days and nights it was impossible for the exhausted troops of the BEF to grab more than a few short winks of sleep.  One infantryman in Montgomery's 3rd Infantry division recorded in his diary:  "In five nights I have had a total of 8 hours of sleep.."  Such prolonged, hardship, near endless fighting and sleep deprivation took its toll on both the men and the officers. As the last of the BEF's combat troops marched into the final Dunkirk perimeter, the 7th Guards Brigade moved into Furnes, cornerstone of the eastern end of the perimeter, the men spotted General Montgomery standing in the marketplace.  In a rare lapse, the General had dropped his normally cocky stance and stood looking weary and forlorn.  As the 7th swung by, they snapped to attention and gave Monty a splendid "eyes left".  It was just the tonic he needed.  He immediately straightened up and returned the honor with a magnificent sweeping salute.  Within days both Montgomery and his 3rd Infantry Division returned to England, one of the few British Army units who managed to keep their rifles and lighter supporting arms with them during the evacuation.



Operation Dynamo's highly successful evacuation of the BEF from France somehow managed to save 330,000 British and French troops from certain death or captivity.  However, the loss of material on the beaches and throughout northern France and Belgium was huge.  The British Army left enough equipment behind to equip about eight to ten divisions.  Left behind in France were, among huge supplies of ammunition, 880 field guns, 310 guns of large caliber, some 500 anti aircraft guns, about 850 anti-tank guns, 11,000 machine guns, nearly 700 tanks, 20,000 motorcycles and 45,000 cars and lorries.  Army equipment available at home was only just sufficient to equip two divisions.  The British Army needed months to re-supply properly and some planned introductions of new equipment were halted while industrial resources concentrated on making good the losses.  The shortage of army vehicles after Dunkirk. was so severe that the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) was reduced to retrieving and refurbishing numbers of obsolete bus and coach models from British scrap yards to press them into use as troop transports.  Many of these continued to serve in the early days of the North African campaign.

Besides Operation Dynamo's saving act of removing the core of the irreplaceable British Expeditionary Force from France, something else positive came out of their evacuation at Dunkirk. A competent field general's military mettle and talent were again successfully tested in the fires of extreme adversity, hard fighting, and bitter hardship against overwhelmingly long odds.  Upon returning to England, Montgomery was promoted to the leadership of II Corps and he continued to rise both in rank and military stature for the remainder of the war. He eventually assumed the title of 1st Viscount Field Marshall Montgomery of El Alamein. Montgomery remains a fascinating, highly controversial figure of 20th century military history, although most people know only of his North African, Sicilian and European military campaigns where his army was nearly always on the offensive rather than on the retreat. However, I would tend to agree with the historians who believe the military heart of the man came to its full and final fruition during the difficult series of near disastrous, although successful rear guard actions the BEF fought in Belgium and northern France during the long retreat to the Dunkirk perimeter. He died on 24 March 1976 at the age of 88, full of honors full of years.




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