Was the British Army relatively dispensable in May, 1940?

Discussion in 'Military History and Militaria' started by htjyang, Mar 12, 2009.

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  1. I was reading John Lukacs's Five Days in London when something he wrote struck me. In the chapter on the events of May 27th, 1940, he noted that Britain did not use its capital ships to help evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk or defend them from air attacks.

    The reason was probably because the capital ships simply made for big targets for the German air force. But that reason doesn't really obscure the fact that there were about 200,000 troops in the BEF. Even if every British capital ship was sunk and lost with all hands, total fatalities would not come close to half the size of the BEF. One might argue that it is precisely because they made for tempting targets for the German air force that they ought to be sent: To shift the German air force's attention away from the army and the transports. Not to mention the fact that those ships could provide more anti-fighter fire.

    Of course, in the end, most of the BEF was evacuated. But the British government could not have known that before the operation. In fact, estimates before the operation suggest that only about 45,000-50,000 of the BEF could have been evacuated. That still leaves us with the fact that the British government was willing to sacrifice about 150,000 British army soldiers rather than risk the capital ships.

    There was, of course, a perfectly logical reason why such a calculation was made: 150,000 troops was not as essential to the defense of the British Isles as the capital ships. Whereas the British navy had a sizable superiority over the German navy, the reverse is true when you compare their armies. (I will not get into a debate concerning the quality of the 2 armies. I do think it is indisputable that the German army had a significant quantitative superiority over the British army and I think it was Stalin who noted that quantity had a quality of its own.)

    I'd like the opinion of the denizens of this forum on this issue. Did the British government make a conscious decision of valuing the capital ships of the navy over the BEF? If so, was that decision correct?

    P.S. Along the same line of reasoning one might suggest that the British government in May, 1940 made another value judgment: The preservation of 25 squadrons of the British Air Force was more important than the survival of France. The difference being that whereas France was indeed sacrificed, the BEF escaped.
  2. As soon as the BEF was put under the control of the French and headed off into Belgium it was lost. As for committing capital ships to Dunkirk what takes longer training new units or building and fitting out new ships. Any planner would of gone for the loss of troops every time.
  3. What good would capital ships have done. They were designed to fight other ships.
  4. In the briefest possible terms, having a fully manned & equipped navy to prevent a hostile landing, plus 20% of your army probably leaves you in a better defensive position as an island nation than having 30-40% of your army and a shattered navy.
    I'm not in a position to look up figures right now, but the Staff College TEWTs of the 60's demonstrated quite clearly that the channel was the bigger impediment to a Hun invasion than the number of divisions in Kent.

    OTOH, in practical terms, the coast off Dunkirk is shallow, sloping and silty. Even if it did have enough freeboard to float in, a battle ship is not a troop carrier, and while there is some spare deck-space, it'd be compromising it's defensive ability if crew members were diverted shepherding troops over the rail etc.

    Finally a lot of ships in the RN in 1940 were either ww1 vintage, or their keels were "laid-down" before the peace dividend of 1918. There was a lot of inertia against building new warships in the early war (you've heard of the Great Depression?) and these ships were irreplaceable.
  5. The could have been used as shore bombardment.

    However is any of these ships had been lost their replacement would not have been for two or three years.
  6. Makes sense to me.
  7. Another factor was the Empire. I'm sure that at the time it was believed that keeping the Empire together required seapower, which meant keeping the Fleet reasonably intact. Indeed I've seen it argued that the success of any invasion of the UK might have hinged on naval loss rates; if they were high enough then the UK would have to choose between losing the UK and keeping the Fleet and the Empire intact, or losing the Fleet and the Empire with no guarantee they'd keep the UK.

    Then there's also the implausibility of the German halt which allowed the evacuation which may have caught us on the hop.

    All in all I think we're lucky that Hitler was so obsessed with race; had he not been he would have let the BEF be captured and made damn sure the UK was out of the war before invading Russia. Well, maybe lucky isn't the word but if he hadn't been convinced that the Brits would throw out that Jewish mouthpiece Churchill and join their racial brothers in ridding the world of Jewish backed Bolshevism etc etc then we might not have survived.
  8. See task force Z in the far east with Prince of Wales and Repulse. Battleships no likey aircraft attacking them, involves lots of sinking. The only way the RN would go suicidal in the channel would be to get at the german invasion fleet.

    Plus dunkirk harbour was full of sunken ships that manoeuvrable destroyers had trouble getting around. That is even if the harbour could hande a ship of that draught.
  9. I've always thought that was precisely what the BEF is / was for.

    The small professionally trained cadre "held the line" so to speak, got a malletting (handily reducing the numbers) leaving just enough to form a cadre of instructors with tough battle lessons learnt to pass on to the conscript army now gearing up.

    Twas ever thus - non?
  10. Having read a number of recent books on the subject, what surprised me (and that I didn't know) was that the German Blitzkrieg did not isolate and surround the British Army, it bisected it. Half of the British Army was still intact south of the German line of advance and there were a number of mini-Dunkirks all the way down the French coast (as far south as Bordeaux) well into June (including the loss of the Lancastria with 7000 troops on board which was bombed leaving Le Havre). After Dunkirk, it was still felt that if the French could stabilise a line somewhere across France (as they did in 1914) then the troops rescued at Dunkirk could be rotated back into the line to join their colleagues still remaining. Allenbrook was sent over to Le Mans in June to investigate this possibility but found the situation so shambolic that he recommended the total evacuation of all remaining British troops from the continent.

    Much has been written (mainly from the French) about how the British abandoned their French allies. Consider this, the French army in 1940 was bigger than the German army, had more tanks and was about on a par with aircraft. It did not just lose, it fell apart - no amount of support from the British would have changed that. The only opportunity to halt the German advance in Flanders, the Battle of Arras, was intended to cut off the German spearhead in a pincer movement. It would have succeeded had the French side of the pincer bothered to turn up.
  11. Auld-Yin

    Auld-Yin LE Reviewer Book Reviewer Reviews Editor

    We certainly appeared to have been so in the 1960's during the 'Cold War' when we were repeated told that our role was to hold out for 3-4 days when either reinforcements would arrive or nukes deployed.

    Did not say much about our indespenibility then. :cry:
  12. John Lukac seems to be falling prey to the popular bollox version of history. The major battle against the Luftwaffe was being fought by the RAF - usually out of sight of the beaches, which led to the oft-quoted soldiers' perception of being abandoned. The RN was using plenty of cruisers and destroyers - which were far better suited to Channel operations - and they paid a blood price in lost ships and sailors. Questionable whether the army had the NGLO resources to make any use of ships' guns (several destroyers did in fact bombard visible enemy troops; destroyer vs panzer in at least one case further south), and questionable whether a capital ship offered significant advantage over cruiser/ destroyer armament. RN capital ships were doing their priority tasks elsewhere - hunting and/or fixing enemy capital units. As mnairb also points out, Dunkirk wasn't intended to be the end of the Battle of France - British and French forces were being relanded near Boulogne and further west, with a view to rebuilding the front line and carrying on.
  13. As I understand it more troops were evacuated from Dunkirk by the destroyers coming in to the harbour mole than were evacuated from the beaches. As has been pointed out above destroyers could maneouver into port and were (relatively) expendable. Battleships were not expendable and would not have been able to get into Dunkirk anyway. And at that stage of the war they did not have the AA batteries necessary to make them floating flak platforms. All in all totally against doctrine, vulnerable to U-Boats and Stuka's and ultimately the loss of a few capital ships within sight of Dover would have been a morale disaster as well as putting the naval defense plans in jepardy. We might have lost the army and the navy in one fell swoop. So I would think thats why the RN went for the plan they did, and it would be an understatement to say it pretty much worked as well as it could have been expected to. Hats off to them.

    Quite interesting short account/opinion from of one of the guys not part of the evacuation fighting a rearguard and ultimately forced to surrender:
  14. Britain simply coud npot afford to squander capital ships off Dunkirk.
    In reality they would have been pretty much useless at anything other than bombardment, it's doubtful that in 1940 they would even have been reasonably capable of defending themselves against heavy air attack. Early in the war anti-aircraft defences on capital ships were not that extensive.
    Regarding the decision to preserve a large element of the RAF, that needs to be put into context with what happened to the very lage and very modern French Air Force, the majority of which (2000 modern fighter aircraft if I remember correctly) were flown to central France and stayed there in safety while France fell.

    Throwing battleships at the beaches of north eatern France would simply have jepordised any chance of Britain being able to defend itself.
    The detroyers that were used in evacuating the BEF were fast and agile, capital ships of the Home Fleet were neither, especially in coastal waters and the Channel. Had the Home Fleet been sacrficed then the war was over.
  15. I think we've reached consensus on this one: The battlewagons would've been next to useless in the evacuation task. As strategic assets, they had to be preserved. The much nimbler cruisers and destroyers did a superb job, taking heavy losses in the process.
    The discussion on numbers is interesting. Churchill planned for a 48-division army (~1.3mill troops). The value of the BEF veterans was their quality: a largely professional core of battle-hardened troops to train and mentor the huge intakes of conscripted manpower, their worth was far in excess of a mere headcount. Similarly, a comparison of potential manpower losses from sunken battleships is misleading. Losing ~14,000 trained sailors would be disastrous for the RN.
    Nobody could blame the troops for thinking the RAF had abandoned them: devoid of comms and intelligence-gathering assets, they couldn't see the bigger picture. I don't think anybody ever considered the BEF to be dispensable - otherwise the evacuation wouldn't have taken place. But in the event, the whole operation was a success; the Navy used the right tools for the job.