The Miracle of Dunkirk
© 1982 Walter Lord
In September 1939, British troops arrived in Europe to defend France against a rapidly expansionistic Nazi regime. Germany’s leader of six years, Adolf Hitler, had already annexed Austria and Czechslovakia, and following his invasion of Poland, the western powers had no choice but to declare war. For eight months following, however, Hitler’s tanks were quiet, the only action being at sea. In May 1940, however, they sprang into action and with such ferocity that the entire Allied campaign seemed doomed. Roaring through the Ardennes Forest, thought impassable by tanks, the German blitzkrieg quickly claimed northern France and surrounded entirely the British forces. As a stream of routed and retreated Franco-English forces converged on what few port towns were yet untaken, their defeat seemed imminent. But loss was not to be: the tanks would stop, the English would regroup, and in a brief snatch of grace they would organize a plan to evacuate the army from France so that it might live to fight another day. Under the very nose of the Wehrmacht, amid the bombs of the Luftwaffe, the British admiralty and its merchant marine stole a march and saved not only the British expeditionary force, but over a hundred thousand French soldiers as well. The Miracle of Dunkirk tells a story of salvation in a dark hour.
Walter Lord is best known for A Night to Remember a narrative history of the Titanic disaster based on extensive interviews with survivors. The same style is employed here, an easy kind of story-telling strengthened by the constant presence of the participants’ accounts. Like Washington’s retreat from New York, Dunkirk is a strange duck, a victorious defeat. What most impresses a reader in Miracle is the fact that the admiralty was able to effect a rescue amid so much confusion. The invasion of France struck through Allied lines so abruptly that unit cohesion was virtually a lost cause. The cry was, “Every man for himself — make for Dunkirk!”. At first, Allied command waffled on what to do: attempt a breakout and rejoin the French army in the south, or quit the continent altogether? Fortunately for free Europe, they chose discretion. Equally impressive is how quickly a rescue fleet was cobbled together, made of not just whatever ships of the Royal Navy could be spared, but of whatever could be found that floated. Tugs, barges, ferries, fishing boats, pleasure yachts — the whole of the English marine seemed present.
Despite the chaos the admiralty had to manage, some circumstances favored the evacuation. Smoke from burning oil tanks shielded parts of the beach and harbor from Luftwaffe attacks, at least part of the time, and the German pause had given the BEF time to establish a few strongholds. When the German advance continued, it was without much of its strength, with far fewer tanks: most were being re-concentrated and repaired for the drive south. In the nine days it took for the Wehrmacht to take Dunkirk, the British marine managed to evacuated over 300, 000 British troops and 100, 000 French troops. Miracle is replete with fascinating stories, like the presence of Charles Lightoller: the only officer on the Titanic to survive its sinking, he commanded his ship to France and back, rescuing another generation from the perils of the sea and war. Lord’s heavy use of first-hand experience and storied style commend Miracle to readers with an interest in learning how the British and free French lived to fight another day at the port of Dunkirk.