It’s a story made for cinema, making it no surprise that it has inspired at least three feature films (the most recent being this summer’s Christopher Nolan blockbuster) and various documentaries.
Essentially surrounded by German forces in the north of France, more than 300,000 Allied troops — more than half of them Brits, along with large numbers of French, Belgian, and Polish soldiers — were evacuated to England by a flotilla of volunteers with pleasure boats, barges, and other craft over nine days in May 1940. The dramatic rescue snatched a huge morale victory from the jaws of what would’ve been a crippling military defeat for the English and the entire Allied war effort.
In “Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory,’’ Michael Korda revisits this perilous moment. But he has not written a book purely about the retreat. Korda, a former editor turned prolific historian and biographer, also looks at the larger strategic picture as Europe erupted into war in 1939. He chronicles the downfall of Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain and the accession of the more aggressive Winston Churchill.
He also weaves in a memoir of his time as a six-year-old boy in wartime London and his Hungarian émigré family (his Uncle Alexander was famed director of “The Thief of Baghdad’’ and other movies and his father, Vincent, was an art director) that gives a familiar history a personal touch. With all this in play, it’s some time before the action really picks up. When it does, Korda tells an exciting story laced with eyewitness detail and a fine sense of drama.
On paper, France fielded an army of 3 million that should have proved a worthier opponent to Germany. (The French had 86 divisions to Germany’s 116). In addition, they were buttressed by the manpower of the small British Expeditionary Force.
But a piece of paper and a theory does not fight actual battles. German speed and novel tactics overwhelmed French plans. When Germany invaded the Low Countries on May 10 — the same day Churchill became prime minister — the French assumed the advance would take weeks; it took days. German infantry crossed rivers in hours. Panzer divisions tore through the Ardennes forest, which was viewed as virtually impassable so was poorly defended. The Germans quickly flanked the Allies who had poured into Belgium to the north, anticipating the main German surge there.
Tensions between the British and French command structures did not help things. The French pleaded for more RAF fighter squadrons, which Churchill withheld. French dithering, collapsing morale, and bungled co-ordination between sluggish French armies and the British made a bad situation worse. The combined forces were eventually hemmed in.
The evacuation itself was not as impromptu as is sometimes presented. The Royal Navy had planned for such an event and made a careful inventory of private craft, especially vessels with a shallow draft, that could be deployed to beaches. The farsighted care of Admiral Bertram Ramsey, who would oversee naval operations on D-Day, saved the day.
The coastal city of Dunkirk itself, reduced to rubble by German bombing raids, was a surreal vision of hell. Bodies littered the streets; acrid smoke filled the air. With the waterworks destroyed, nothing could be coaxed from taps, but there were liquor and cigarettes galore from bombed-out warehouses. Drunkness and looting spread. One soldier was blown through the window of a women’s underwear shop and found himself sprawled out “by what looked like a naked woman.” (It was a mannequin.)
To his credit, Korda dials down the romance of Dunkirk. It was bloody slog from start to finish. As French troops fought ferociously on the town’s perimeter, a hodge-podge of vessels went about their task. However, for all the attention the “little ships” have garnered, Korda notes that Royal Navy destroyers carried thousands back to England, and, according to one officer, “put up by far the finest show of any forces concerned with the evacuation.”
Korda describes the departures as “lottery on a large scale.” Some soldiers, he notes, got to the beach, quickly boarded a vessel, and arrived in Dover a few hours later. Others ended up in the water or were killed outright when their craft was torpedoed. Though Dunkirk has been rendered as largely an all-British affair, Korda gives neglected France its due. Over 100,000 French troops were caught up in the same lottery and ended up in England. France, however, would nurse grievances and claimed it was abandoned by its ally. (Such hard feelings flared anew over Nolan’s film, which almost completely neglects the role of the French army.)
Dunkirk would inspire one of Churchill’s most famous speeches. Though he reminded the British public that “[w]ars are not won by evacuations,” he also emboldened them with aggressive tones, proclaiming, “we shall fight on the beaches . . . we shall never surrender.” His winning words fueled a popular, if surprising, sense of triumph over what was undeniably a loss.
Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory
By Michael Korda
Liveright, 525 pp., illustrated, $29.95
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.