Western Europe Crumbles

In the spring of 1940, Nazi Germany was on the brink of victory in Western Europe, their lightning ‘Blitzkrieg’ attack having bypassed the Maginot line and surged into France and the Low Countries, forcing back the harried and often dispirited Allied forces which had been caught completely off-guard by the speed and ferocity of the German attack.

...They were now poised to seemingly eliminate the BEF...

They were now poised to seemingly eliminate the BEF and conquer their old enemy, France. However, despite the success of the German offensive, Hitler began to have doubts about the feasibility of his plan to conquer France. He was concerned about the vulnerability of his flanks, and the potential for Allied counterattacks.

The origins of this fateful order could be traced back to the day before, the 23rd May, when von Kleist informed Army Group A and OKH that his troops were now widely dispersed, conducting attacks along the Canal Line, the Channel ports, and defending their own southern flank.  He told von Rundstedt that his panzer strength had dropped to 50%, which was a far more pessimistic assessment than the truth.  He thus cautioned that if the enemy counter-attacked in force, they might have some difficulties. 

However, there was no sign of a major counter-attack, and nothing about the French or British performance indicated one was imminent.

Map showing German advances in France and the Low Countries between 16 and 21 May 1940. Hitler's forces made stunning advances during the Battle of France, pushing the Allied armies back forcing the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) back towards the channel port of Dunkirk.

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Hitler paid a visit to General von Rundstedt's headquarters at Charleville on the 24th of May. The ground around Dunkirk was deemed unfit for armour. Von Rundstedt recommended attacking the British forces at Arras, where the British had proven capable of launching an attack, while Kleist's armour held the line west and south of Dunkirk to pounce on the retreating Allied forces before Army Group B. Hitler, who was familiar with the marshes of Flanders from his time serving in the army during the First World War, agreed.

...As for the BEF, they were seen as doomed...

German leader Adolf Hitler. It was Hitler's decision to issue the Halt Order which would ultimately aid the Allies in evacuating over 300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk.

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So at this critical moment in the campaign, Hitler issued a halt order that day, instructing his armies to stop their advance and wait for three days. With this command, the Germans were able to consolidate their victories, repair and refit their units and prepare for a southerly offensive - Fall Rot - against the surviving French forces.

As for the BEF, they were seen as doomed – trapped with their backs to the cast and no apparent avenue of escape.

However, this gave the Allies enough time to prepare the Dunkirk evacuation and construct a defensive perimeter. As a result, 330,000 Allied forces were eventually rescued over the next few days, although the British and French suffered significant casualties and were forced to surrender practically all of their equipment; approximately 16,000 French soldiers and 1,000 British soldiers died during the evacuation.

The ‘Halt Order’ would have a significant impact on the outcome of the war.


The German order to halt the advancing panzers has led to a claim that Hitler deliberately allowed the British to escape – the idea being that avoiding humiliation would make them more willing to accept a peace deal that would free him to turn his attention to the east. This is highly debatable.

For a start, the German Supreme Headquarters issued Directive No. 13, which called for the elimination of the French, English, and Belgian forces in the enclave, while the Luftwaffe was ordered to prevent the English forces from crossing the channel.

Capturing or destroying most of the trained strength of the British Army would have provided a weighty bargaining chip for future negotiations.

...the Luftwaffe continued to attack the BEF...

Additionally, the conspiracy claim does not reflect what actually happened: only one of the two advancing German armies halted (and only for two days, pushing on when it became clear that an evacuation might be underway). The other carried on advancing and the Luftwaffe continued to attack the BEF. If this was an attempt to allow the British to escape, it was a strangely aggressive one.

Although von Rundstedt stated after the war that he suspected Hitler wanted to "help the British" based on alleged praise of the British Empire during a visit to his headquarters, there is little evidence that Hitler wanted to let the Allies escape other than a self-exculpatory statement by Hitler himself in 1945.


A more logical explanation might be that German armoured forces were stretched after a long advance and needed a pause to recover, to allow infantry and supplies to catch up, and to prepare for the next stage of the campaign, pushing for Paris and fighting the large French forces to the south.

Some German commanders were nervous that their progress had been too good to last, influenced by a minor British counterattack near Arras on 21 May which gave them something of a fright.  This then raised groundless fears that a larger Allied counterstroke might be imminent. What’s more, Hermann Göring, the boastful, and at times ludicrous, commander of the Luftwaffe, insisted that his force could mop up the remnants of the encircled Allied forces. Despite having no evidence to base this claim on, Hitler appeared to believe him.

...the Allies were cornered with their backs to the sea and no way to escape...

Still, given the understandable assumption that the Allies were cornered with their backs to the sea and no way to escape, it is easy to see why Hitler might have felt no urge to further risk his battered armoured forces.  Certainly, the British did not believe that a large-scale evacuation was feasible – they only felt a small number of the BEF might be saved - why would the Germans?

So, while the decision to halt was a grave error that greatly assisted the British, gifting them time to continue their withdrawal, strengthen the defences around Dunkirk and ultimately evacuate most of their army. This does not mean that it can only be explained by a conspiracy theory in which Hitler secretly brokers some sort of deal with Churchill.


The decision to issue the Halt Order was not without controversy. Many of Hitler's generals, including Gerd von Rundstedt and Erich von Manstein, argued against the order, urging Hitler to allow the German army to continue its advance. However, Hitler was adamant, and the Halt Order remained in place.

The impact of the Halt Order was significant. By giving the Allied forces time to regroup, it allowed them to launch a counterattack at Arras, which culminated in the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk. This, in turn, helped to boost Allied morale and convinced Hitler to shift his focus to the East.

...Many of the generals felt that Hitler's decision was a mistake...

Furthermore, the Halt Order also had a significant impact on the relationship between Hitler and his generals.

Many of the generals felt that Hitler's decision was a mistake, and it led to growing tensions between them and the Nazi leader.

As historian Richard Overy has written, "The Halt Order was a clear sign of Hitler's distrust of his generals, and it signalled the beginning of a breakdown in the relationship between the two."

One key figure involved in the events surrounding the Halt Order was General Gerd von Rundstedt. As one of the most senior German generals, Rundstedt was opposed to the order, arguing that it was a mistake to halt the advance.

In a letter to Hitler, he wrote, "The enemy's ability to counterattack increases day by day...The right moment to push home the decisive blow has arrived."

Another key figure was General Erich von Manstein. As one of the most innovative and successful German generals of the war, Manstein was a vocal critic of the Halt Order.

In his memoirs, he wrote, "The Führer's decision came as a severe shock to the army, which had tasted victory and wanted to press home the advantage."


In conclusion, the Halt Order issued by Hitler in 1940 had a significant impact on the outcome of the war. By allowing the Allied forces to regroup and launch a counterattack, it helped to eventually shift the course of the war in their favour (although not to the same degree that events on the Eastern Front would).

It also had a significant impact on the relationship between Hitler and his generals, leading to growing tensions between the two. As General Rundstedt wrote in his letter to Hitler, "The right moment to push home the decisive blow has arrived." Unfortunately, Hitler's decision to issue the Halt Order prevented the German army from doing so, and ultimately contributed to their defeat in Western Europe.

Cheerful British troops very happy to be in the UK after being evacuated from Dunkirk. Two wearing labels with upbeat slogans.. "Hitler's Grave Berlin" and "We demand Hitler Alive".


Hitler’s Greatest Mistake Ever: The Halt Order at Dunkirk? | The National Interest

...This decision would prove to be a critical mistake...

The Halt Order was one of several key turning points in the war, demonstrating Hitler's indecisiveness and his lack of trust in his generals. It also highlighted the limitations of the German war machine and the risks of overextending their forces.

In the aftermath of the Halt Order, Hitler would refocus his efforts on the East, launching Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union - in June 1941. This decision would prove to be a critical mistake, as the German forces were ill-prepared for the harsh Russian winter and the resilience of the Soviet army. The failure of the German campaign in the East would ultimately lead to their defeat in the war.

...the Halt Order remains a pivotal moment in the history of the Second World War...

The impact of the Halt Order is still discussed today, as historians continue to debate its significance and the reasons behind Hitler's decision. Some have argued that the order was a calculated move on Hitler's part, designed to conserve his forces and avoid overextension. Others have suggested that it was a sign of his indecisiveness and lack of strategic vision.

In any case, the Halt Order remains a pivotal moment in the history of the Second World War, highlighting the complexity and unpredictability of warfare. As historian Richard Overy has noted, "The Halt Order was a crucial moment in the campaign, one of those points when the course of history might have been different."

For better or for worse, the decision to halt the German advance in 1940 would shape the course of the war for years to come.

Further reading