The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) stationed in France in the spring of 1940 was commanded by Lord Gort. The BEF was considered to be a formidable fighting unit but against blitzkrieg, it had little to offer. Against the onslaught of blitzkrieg, the BEF withdrew, along with remnants of the French army, to Dunkirk.
When the BEF was deployed to France at the start of the war, it was based from Bailleul to Maulde, north-east of Douai. On May 9th, one day before the German attack, it comprised of 9 infantry divisions with one other division (the 51st Highland) having been sent to the Maginot Line to bolster the defences in the Saar region.
Though Lord Gort was in theory under the command of the French, he was a commander in his own right. Therefore, he had a certain degree of independence in his own right. He had been told be London that:
|“if any order given by him (General Georges) appears to you to imperil the British Field Force it is agreed between the British and French governments that you should be at liberty to appeal to the British government before executing that order.”|
Within France, the BEF helped to patrol a 200-mile length of the French frontier. Though a professional and highly regarded military unit, such a task was almost impossible to execute thoroughly.
After the attack on Poland, the BEF in France spent a great deal of time in training for what was assumed to be a German attack west. Such was the regard for the BEF, that German Intelligence stated that:
|“The regular divisions (of the BEF) will fight bravely. Their resilience in face of losses and reverses must be rated high.”|
However, that applause for the soldiers of the BEF was not matched by the Germans belief in the ability of the senior officers in the BEF. The Germans concluded that:
|“Among (British commanders) there was an aversion to taking bold decisions.”|
Such an attitude, understandably, was not shared by the BEF.
|“So far as they (British officers) were concerned, they were all quietly confident in their ability to give a good account of themselves against all comers.” (Major-General Barry)|
Between arriving in France and the German attack, the BEF had spent its time building defences and undertaking training programmes with territorial divisions. By the standards of the time, the BEF was highly regarded but it could do little to stem the flow of the Germans after their blitzkrieg attack of May 10th 1940. Forced back with little opportunity to counter-attack, the BEF was pushed on to the beaches at Dunkirk.