Monday, 23 June 2008

"Dunkirk - Fight to the Last Man"

“Dunkirk – Fight to the Last Man”
by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Sometimes the British defy all rational explanation. A humiliating rout and ignominious evacuation from the beaches, Dunkirk ranks as one of most grievous losses ever suffered by British forces – and yet it is celebrated as a moral victory. Dunkirk meant not only the loss of 11,000 dead and a further 41,000 soldiers taken prisoner, but also spelt the expulsion of the British Army from mainland Europe for three long years. But, for all that, Dunkirk has entered the public consciousness and has become a byword for a peculiarly British trait - the dogged refusal to surrender and the will to triumph in the face of adversity.

For most, Dunkirk is all about the 800 “little ships” – the makeshift flotilla from the Channel ports that lifted around 330,000 British soldiers from the beaches of northern France. Yet, as Sebag-Montefiore demonstrates, this conventional understanding actually ignores a vital aspect of the operation – and one which is actually much more appropriate to the true meaning of the famed “Dunkirk Spirit”.

“Dunkirk – Fight to the Last Man” takes as its main focus, not the brilliantly improvised evacuation from the beaches, but rather the heroic rearguard action fought by units holding the perimeter of the Dunkirk pocket; units which in many cases were sacrificed to allow their colleagues to escape. It was an action that would result in no fewer than 8 awards of the Victoria Cross.

The book also casts its net wider and incorporates other interesting angles, such as the acrimonious deterioration of the Anglo-French Alliance and much of the background to the French campaign itself. Included in the latter category are two curious tales that are well worthy of an airing. Firstly, Sebag-Montefiore explores the contact between Hans Oster of the German Abwehr and the Dutch Military Attaché in Berlin through which vital intelligence about the forthcoming French campaign was passed to the Allies. Secondly, he relates the little-known Mechelen Incident, whereby German invasion plans fell into Allied hands in January 1940 after a German pilot crash landed in Belgium having lost his way in fog. In retrospect, armed with this wealth of information, it is hard to see how the Allies could have been caught cold when the Germans finally attacked on 10 May.

Sebag-Montefiore is at his best with ‘set pieces’ such as the massacres at Wormhout, Vinkt and Le Paradis, or his description of the capture of Eban Emael or the Mechelen Incident. He writes crisply and the series of small-scale actions are related with considerable verve, but he appears to shy away from offering a wider context or thoroughgoing analysis of the events that he is describing. For example, he gives only a cursory explanation of one of the key mysteries of the campaign – Hitler’s decision to halt at Dunkirk, rather than press his advantage. Stranger still, he even avoids offering a concluding chapter in which wider issues such as the creation and significance of the “Dunkirk Myth” might have been discussed.

“Dunkirk” is a fine book. It is immaculately researched, well written, and has much in the way of pathos and human interest, but it is hard not to conclude that the definitive volume on this subject still awaits its author.

© Roger Moorhouse

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