The BEF which was sent to France in 1939 was significantly larger and more powerful than its namesake of 1914. The British Army was, by the outbreak of the Second World War, one of the most mechanised forces in the World, certainly more so than the German army, but like its Great War predecessor it was, at around only 13 Divisions, comparatively small, making up only 10% of the Allied ground forces in France.
The French army was considerably larger than the British and comparatively well-equipped, particularly in tanks, which were amongst the best in the World. Both France and the UK had, however, failed to invest in their defence to the same degree as Germany. While the French government built the Maginot Line as a physical buffer to German aggression, the UK government refused to accept that they would need to fight a war on the continent of Europe and consequently British military and naval power went into decline from 1919.
When the Germans launched the invasion of France and the Low Countries in May 1940, the failure to recognise the value of defence and the lack of training and expertise in fighting a modern war which flowed from that, left the Allies badly exposed. In a matter of a few, short weeks, the German war machine had forced the allies apart in Northern France and Belgium leading to forced evacuations of Allied troops from the Channel ports and beaches, most notably at Dunkirk.
The Battle of Arras – 21 May 1940
Contrary to popular perception, the Germans didn’t have it all their own way during the Battle of France in 1940. On many occasions, the dogged determination of British and French troops would stop the Germans in their tracks and give them cause for panic; one such event was the Battle of Arras.
The French city of Arras sits on the edge of the Flanders Plain in countryside ideal for the deployment of large bodies of tanks. By the 21 May 1940, the lead German armoured forces, supported by infantry and dense formations of ground attack and bomber aircraft was approaching the City. The City’s defence was in the hands of Major General Harold Franklyn with the British 5th and 50th Infantry Divisions and 74 tanks of the 1st Army Tank Brigade supported by a few French tanks.
Maj Gen Franklyn launched an attack by 40 tanks into the advancing German forces, the British Matilda tanks were superbly well armoured and the German forces had no answer to them, in desperation they even used high velocity anti-aircraft artillery to try to hold up the British advance. By dusk on the 21st May 1940, the British had advanced 10 miles into the enemy’s lines, captured 400 troops, and destroyed many German tanks and vehicles.
The determined attack at Arras proved that when prepared and well-led the British were the equals of their opponents, but the next day, once again surrounded, the victors of Arras were forced to join the retreat to the coast, overwhelmed by German numbers. Never again, though, would the Germans underestimate the tenacity of the professional British Army in defence. It is often said that German caution after Arras, together with dogged French resistance in Lille, permitted time for the evacuation at Dunkirk.
Dunkirk and the Evacuations.
By the end of May, the BEF had withdrawn into a number of defensive pockets around the main channel ports of Dunkirk and Calais. At Dunkirk, in an eight-day operation 338,226 British, French, Commonwealth, and Belgian troops were rescued from the beaches and brought back to England by around 800 vessels of all shapes and sizes, while the outnumbered fighters of the RAF attempted to keep the German Luftwaffe at bay.
Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk was not the only evacuation from France forced on the British Army that Summer. In order to support the French, the BEF was reconstituted and elements of the original BEF joined the 51st Highland Division and 1st Armoured Division. The British commander, Lieutenant General Brooke advised the Cabinet that such a gesture was futile, but his orders were confirmed. Within a few short days, the French Army to which Brooke’s command was attached was disintegrating and it was decided to evacuate the ‘Second BEF’ from any available port.
Whilst many soldiers were evacuated in June, from ports all along the French coast, one of the saddest stories is that of the 51st Highland Division. The Royal Navy, bedevilled by fog and later by German aircraft, tried valiantly to evacuate the Division from the small port of St. Valery en Caux near Le Havre, but it proved impossible and on 12th June 1940, 10,000 men of the Division surrendered to the Germans becoming prisoners of war for the next five years.
The Battle of France is often cast as a disaster in the history books, and so it was, notwithstanding the heroism of many of the Allied troops. But this month we commemorate those soldiers of Britain and her Allies who fought hard together in the cause of freedom 80 years ago, giving German intelligence the last word:
The English soldier was in excellent physical condition. He bore his own wounds with stoical calm. The losses of his own troops he discussed with complete equanimity. He did not would conquer in the end was unshakeable.... The English soldier has always shown himself to be a fighter of high value. Certainly, the Territorial divisions are inferior to the Regular troops in training, but where morale is concerned they are their equal.... In defence the Englishman took any punishment that came his way’.