LONDON -- The "miracle" of Dunkirk happened only because Hitler was thrown into panic by a geological map, according to a book published in Britain this weekend.

The map convinced him that his crack tank regiments would be trapped in waterlogged, low-lying fields near Dunkirk if he let them advance to annihilate the retreating allies.So he halted their advance for 2 1/2 days, giving the British and French armies time to organize defenses and start evacuating their troops to fight on future battlefronts. In the view of many historians, this pause lost him World War II.

In fact, the land was dry and safe for tanks during this period. "They could have got through and inflicted immense damage on us," said the book's author, military historian Martin Marix Evans, author of "The Fall of France."

Hitler's front-line panzer corps commanders, who had observers close to the terrain, were "left speechless" by the order, issued in Berlin.

Almost as soon as Hitler rescinded the command, rain began to fall. It lasted three days. This made the fields genuinely impassable, allowing the evacuation to be completed despite Luftwaffe attacks.

The book claims to be the first to publish and to discuss the official German army geological maps and handbooks used by Hitler and his headquarters staff. The documents are also analyzed in a military journal by Marix Evans' publisher.

Hitler's notorious "halt" order on May 24, 1940, is seen as one of the central unsolved mysteries of the war. He later gave the terrain of Flanders as his reason. He is known to have been haunted by memories of Flanders mud as a soldier in World War I.

The map, in documents titled "Military and Geographical Descriptions of France," appears to be the first evidence that Hitler had solid reasons for his qualms. Compiled five months before the evacuation, it was the main German army manual used until 1944.

Marix Evans bought a copy of the manual captured by a British soldier during the liberation of France in 1944 in a Welsh antiquarian bookshop. "Clearly it circulated widely in Hitler's army," the author said. Yet it is not mentioned in the official British army or Royal Navy histories of the operation.

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Copies of the map exist in the Bundesrat war archive at Koblenz, Germany, and in the Imperial War Museum in London, but neither archive could trace any requests from scholars to study it.

"I can say with confidence that the map has been neglected," said Marix Evans.

("The Fall of France -- Act With Daring, by Martin Marix Evans is published in Britain by Osprey Military Books, Wellingborough, Northants NN8 4ZA. "Osprey Military Journal" is available from the same publisher.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service. For more Guardian news go to www.guardian.co.uk/)

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