Debunking the Myth of Dunkirk

Eli Shaltiel
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Eli Shaltiel

"Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man" by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Harvard University Press, 701 pages, $35

Dunkirk is a city in northern France, where a great historical drama unfolded in May of 1940: In a courageous and impressive operation, more than 300,000 soldiers (most of them British and French) were rescued and taken to Britain. They were saved at the last moment from falling into the hands of Nazi troops, then storming toward the ocean in the last stages of the German campaign to take over Western Europe. The rescue of the Allied soldiers in the nick of time enabled Britain to continue fighting its war against Germany.

The importance of this bold rescue operation for the Free World's struggle against the Nazis and their allies cannot be exaggerated; nevertheless, Dunkirk is not a single and unique chapter in the military history of World War II. Already during the operation itself, the foundations were laid for the transformation of the Dunkirk story into a powerful founding myth. This review should therefore begin with some brief background remarks.

In May 1940, the results of the German fighting in Western Europe came into focus; the French army, it then became horrifyingly clear, would not be able to withstand the Nazi onslaught, and France as a whole would soon fall under Nazi control. While German troops were sweeping across the continent, Britain underwent a change of government. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, associated with the policy of appeasement toward the Nazis, was forced to resign; he was succeeded by Winston Churchill, a staunch opponent of the Munich policy.

Although Churchill became prime minister, some of the cabinet ministers continued to hope for a compromise with Hitler and his allies; among these were the angry and rejected Chamberlain, but especially Lord Halifax, the secretary of state for foreign affairs and a former candidate for prime minister. While the French and British armies tried to repel the German tanks, the British cabinet held heated debates and arguments. Halifax tried to convince his colleagues that it was still possible to avoid a prolonged and terrible war, and to reach a compromise with Hitler. He was convinced that Italian dictator Benito Mussolini could serve as a capable and fair broker for such an agreement. Churchill fought vehemently against this agenda, but he had trouble convincing his cronies that it was not yet time to acknowledge defeat; that surrender, if it happened, would occur after the last British soldier had died in the battlefield. The account of the British cabinet's hurried, fateful meetings is a wonderful and fascinating background to the story of the battles that are described in this great and complex book.

Keeping Britain in the fight

The uniqueness of historian Hugh Sebag-Montefiore's "Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man" lies in the attempt it makes to tease out the historical core of the Dunkirk myth. The book does not try to refute the claim that the evacuation of the soldiers was a grand and important act, which allowed Britain to battle on for more than another year later, until the United States joined the war. Nor does it obfuscate or deny the sacrifices and brave deeds of many soldiers and volunteers, who sailed to the shore in large and small ships alike, and risked their lives to save the exhausted, beaten troops. However, focusing on the rescue operation itself, the author claims, strengthens the tendency to recount what happened at Dunkirk as a "miraculous" event shaped by divine intervention - a tendency that is strengthened by the wondrous capacity of the British for turning military fiascoes into tales of incredible bravery.

Thus, for example, in the prevailing accounts of what happened at Dunkirk, a place of honor is reserved for Hitler's order to his troops to stop their tanks from tearing ahead in order to rest and regroup. There is no doubt that the forces besieged on the beach took advantage of this command to escape. Historians of the war cite Hitler's fateful directive as a perfect demonstration of their claim that the Fuehrer's interference in military decisions sabotaged the management of the war.

Hitler's meddling in purely military matters, Sebag-Montefiore argues, may indeed have compromised the fighting abilities of the German army; however, he does not believe that the decision to stop the tanks from storming Dunkirk offers any proof of this. The period of rest and reorganization, he shows, was imposed by the German generals themselves. Hitler eventually accepted their decision and issued the order, but only after the army had already halted without any such command coming from Berlin. The reason why the erroneous account of the events became the accepted one, the author argues, is that it is compatible with the tendency to see the Dunkirk battle in mythic terms. Within this mythological account, Hitler's inexplicable decision is read as an act of divine intervention; it is like God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart in the biblical tale of the Exodus.

The emergence of the Dunkirk myth was greatly aided by Churchill himself. Although in one of his glorious, sweeping speeches after the evacuation he said that war could not be won by withdrawing forces, he soon abandoned this apologetic line and called on his fellow countrymen to regard Dunkirk as a source of encouragement for the fighting still to come. Churchill managed to find in Dunkirk an empowering resource, and the heroic story continues even today to draw the attention of historians and scholars, artists and authors (such as Ian McEwan in his thrilling novel "Atonement").

The other side

The days of Dunkirk, Sebag-Montefiore claims, will remain forever in the murky realm of historical myth if we continue to focus only on the rescue efforts at Dunkirk itself. But Dunkirk was not a miracle; rather, he argues, it was the successful culmination of staunch military resistance, which created the necessary conditions for halting the German troops and carrying out the accelerated evacuation. For this reason, he describes the evacuation itself only in the last chapters of the book; most of his research is devoted to unveiling the military maneuvers from the beginning of the German invasion of Western Europe and until the arrival of the German troops on the outskirts of Dunkirk and the neighboring towns.

While most of the book involves the military moves, the author also examines the political and diplomatic background of the time. Thus, for example, he looks at the details of Churchill's contact with the French leaders, while he tries to explain why and how the French forces failed to present a genuine obstacle to the German army.

Sebag-Montefiore's account transforms the campaign that ended at Dunkirk from a heroic tale of miraculous evacuation into an important military accomplishment, rooted in considerable military power and dedicated fighting. The British army's success in slowing down the progress of the German troops was achieved through dozens of battles, each of which temporarily halted a vigorous, resolute army that wished to end the war in one swift assault. Therefore, even if the book focuses on the story of the Allied troops, occasionally it shines a spotlight on the German soldiers as well. And so, for example, when it describes the cruel slaughter the SS soldiers perpetrated among both civilians and fighters as the war progressed, the author turns to letters, diaries and courthouse transcripts that show what things looked like from the other side.

After the evacuation was complete, it became possible to gauge what had been accomplished. An army that is still waging war cannot bear the "disgrace" of withdrawal and flight, and so the British found ways to use Dunkirk as a source of empowerment. In his blow-by-blow account of the events, Sebag-Montefiore discards the mistaken interpretations that have become attached to the drama over time.

Seen from the battlefield in those difficult days of May 1940, the significance of deciding to withdraw also comes into relief. The soldiers trying to repel the Germans did not think that their task was merely to halt the headlong Nazi rush and prepare the ground for evacuation; they fought to win. Political leaders, too, found it very difficult to tell the military commanders to withdraw. They hesitated and voiced reservations, worried about what a withdrawal would mean in the context of Britain's relationship with France. They also dragged their heels simply because soldiers do not like to pull back. Above all, however, they found the decision concerning the withdrawal difficult because they were not very hopeful about the success of the operation. In the rosiest of scenarios, the more optimistic of the generals estimated that a successful evacuation would end in the rescue of 45,000 troops. The operation, then, succeeded beyond anyone's wildest dreams: Although the figures remain unclear to this day, even the more conservative estimates place the number of rescued soldiers at some 315,000.

"Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man" is not a historical account that is told "from above" of a difficult and important campaign. It descends to the level of the fighters themselves and describes the gradual withdrawal of the British army almost as it was seen from the foxholes. The book describes the movements of entire divisions, but it actually reaches its peak when it focuses on the level of the fighting platoon and even on the heroic actions of a lone soldier.

There is another sense in which this is not a routine study of military history. Beyond its desire to unveil a fascinating affair, the book also wishes to commemorate the soldiers who excelled in battle, died or were captured. Unlike cool, "objective" historians, Sebag-Montefiore does not conceal his resentment and anger: Indeed he is angry at politicians and generals, but above all he is angry at the French - with their listless commanders, their weak, treacherous leaders and even the ordinary soldiers, who fled unabashedly from the fighting, clogging up the roads and hindering the brave, determined Brits as they carried out their sacred task.

The book is not easy to read, and those who wish to appreciate its full depth and richness will have to proceed very slowly and carefully. It includes complex but clear maps that enhance the scholarly account. With these maps in hand, reading the book becomes a strenuous, painful journey throughout France and on the different fronts of the war - a journey in which the sound of gunfire resonates alongside the cries of the wounded.

Prof. Eli Shaltiel is the editor of the Ofakim nonfiction series at Am Oved.