Friday, July 21, 2017

“Dunkirk” by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Maj. J.S. Bradford

It’s called the “miracle of Dunkirk” with good reason. The successful evacuation of most of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and 120,000 French troops in May 1940 should never have happened. Penned into the narrow beaches of the French town of Dunkirk by the overwhelming forces of Hitler’s Nazi Wehrmacht, the hundreds of thousands of Allied troops – with little food and virtually no water – knew they faced death or imprisonment.

Ten years later, two British Army officers, Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Maj. J.S. Bradford, published an account of what happened at Dunkirk and what led up to it. Dunkirk: Retreat from the Brink of Destruction has been republished in time for the new movie version by director Christopher Nolan, and with good reason. The book provided a considerable amount of the basis for the film, and for the film of the same title released in 1958.

Dunkirk is not a standard military history. It was written by two army officers who were there, who experienced what happened, and who decided to tell the story – warts and all – of what led to the defeat of the Allied forces by the Germans and how the army was saved on the beaches. And so the reader gets both history and anecdote, and both are important to understand the events of May 1940.

World War II officially began in Europe with Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland in early September of 1939. The BEF began arriving in France a few weeks later, and was positioned in northeastern France along the Belgian border. The much larger French army occupied positions along the Maginot Line, the line of fortifications constructed by the French after World War I. The Maginot Line did not extend to France’s border with neutral Belgium.

For months after the war started, little happened on the Western front. Winter had come, never the best time for waging battles, and Germany was focused on consolidating gains in Poland and making plans for its attack in the west. Belgium and Holland desperately tried to hang on to neutrality, Belgium so much so that it stopped any military cooperation with the Allies. With the German invasion of Denmark and Norway in April 1940, even the Belgians knew that it was now only a matter of time before they were attacked.

A scene from the movie "Dunkirk" (2017)
The BEF faced a situation of being seriously outmanned and outgunned. War production in Britain was only starting to seriously gear up, and a decade of inaction. The Royal Air Force faced a German Luftwaffe of at least five times the size. And fifth columnists of collaborators were everywhere.

On May 9, Germany invaded Belgium. Half the country was lost within the first two days. The BEF moved into Belgium and desperately tried to establish secure positions. A little more than two weeks later, the BEF fell back to the French coast. In Dunkirk, where most of the troops massed, the water was extremely shallow for some distance from the beach. Big ships couldn’t get close because their drafts were too deep.

In London, the government put out the word: Operation Dynamo, the call to the owners and captains of small boats to sail to Dunkirk. Thousands responded and went. Just like that.

Butler and Bradford tell the big picture story, with the facts you’d find in a military history. But they also tell the human story, and I suspect that’s why Dunkirk has served as the basis for films. The Germans who disguise themselves as French and Belgian troops, trying to prevent the British from blowing up bridges. The aging hotel clerk, also serving as a German spy, who gets summarily shot. The RAF pilots, facing insurmountable odds, who flew the equivalent of suicide missions to provide cover for the retreating troops. And a little known fact: the RAF shot down more German planes in the month-long Battle of France than they did during the Battle of Britain which lasted far longer and is much better known.

One of the boats used at Dunkirk, on display at the Imperial War
Museum in London. Photo by Janet Young.
Perhaps the most gripping account is a chapter-long story of the bank cashier with his pride and joy – a recently purchased boat that he had lovingly restored and for which he had endured the jokes and taunts of his fellow amateur captains. He takes his boat to Dunkirk, carrying water and food, and transfers scores of men to the warships and safety. He’s shot once by machine gun fire from a German fighter plane; he gets patched up and continues to head to the beaches to get more troops. He’s shot again, this time in the lung, and wakes up after surgery on a hospital ship. His first concern – was his boat still in service. And he’s told it is still ferrying troops from the beaches.

Dunkirk is the story of war from ground level. It is about heroism and cowardness. It’s about courage and the doing of one’s duty. It’s about ordinary people facing death and keeping on. And it’s about a miracle – the saving of the British Army from annihilation. You will not be able to read this book and keep a dry eye.

The Trailer for "Dunkirk" (2017), directed by Christopher Nolan

Painting: The Withdrawal from Dunkirk June 1940 by Charles Ernest Cundall.

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