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The true story of Dunkirk

August 1, 2017   5 mins

“We are leaving Dunkirk; we are not leaving the War. Or even France.”

Churchill didn’t say it, but he might have done.

At UnHerd we don’t chase the news, so I confess that I’ve yet to see Christopher Nolan’s variously acclaimed Dunkirk. But with so much in print and online, I feel that I’ve seen it already. Besides, in the 13th/18th Royal Hussars we all knew the story of Major John Cordy-Simpson, the father of our commanding officer, who had lined up his squadron after the Luftwaffe had bombed and strafed the beach, and got them to pick up the litter – “area cleaning.”

It seemed to sum it all up.

My local Odeon says the film is “the true story of the evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940”, which Nolan himself has never actually claimed. The story – the whole story – could scarcely be told in a couple of hours. But the historian Andrew Roberts (who will soon be writing for UnHerd), says that “for all the clichéd characterization, almost total lack of dialogue, complete lack of historical context (not even a cameo role for Winston Churchill)… Dunkirk somehow works well.”1

But nature abhors a vacuum of historical context. The French have complained that it didn’t show Frenchman defending the perimeter. The Indians that it didn’t show their two companies of muleteers on the beaches. And the Americans that “the fact that there are only a couple of women and no lead actors of color may rub some the wrong way.”2

It may. But what ought to rub people the wrong way is any suggestion that we were shamefully abandoning the French, that we even refused to evacuate French troops from the beaches. This is Roberts’s one substantive criticism of the film: “There was no discrimination whatsoever, and to suggest there was injects false nationalist tension into what was in truth a model of good inter-Allied cooperation. Only much later, when the Nazi-installed Vichy government in France needed to create an Anglophobic myth of betrayal at Dunkirk, did such lies emerge. It is a shame that Nolan is now propagating them – especially since this might be the only contact that millions of people will ever have with the Dunkirk story for years, perhaps even a generation. At a time when schools simply do not teach the histories of anything so patriotism-inducing as Dunkirk, it was incumbent on Nolan to get this right.”

In fact, between 29 May and 4 June when the evacuation, ‘Operation Dynamo’, was halted, 112,000 non-British Allied troops, predominantly French, were taken off at Dunkirk (in a 1:2 ratio with British troops).3

The fighting continued on other beaches

But the commitment to the French didn’t stop with the last destroyer and little ship sailing for Dover. Fighting continued elsewhere. The Saar Force, consisting of the famous 51st Highland Division, and reinforcements, was on the Maginot Line, and 1st Armoured Division, newly arrived in France, was south of the Somme. The surprise German thrust through the Ardennes, cutting off the BEF’s three army corps which had raced into neutral Belgium when the Germans invaded (a depressingly familiar re-run of August 1914), severed Lord Gort’s lines of communications to Le Havre, and with his troops in France. London at once sought to build a second BEF south of the Somme, sending troops into France through Cherbourg – including some of those taken off from Dunkirk – under Lieutenant-General Sir Alan Brooke, who had himself been taken off the beaches on 30 May.

Between 27 May and 4 June, under the overall command of the French Tenth Army, 1st Armoured, 51st Highland and an improvised division under Acting-Major- General Archibald Beauman (who in 1918 at the age of 29 had commanded a brigade on the Italian Front), fought a hopeless battle to secure the crossings of the Somme at Abbeville. After a second German offensive, which forced all the Somme and Aisne crossings, these troops were ordered to fall back on St Valery at the mouth of the Somme, or Le Havre at the mouth of the Seine.

A second evacuation then began,’Operation Cycle’, 10-13 June, but most of the 51st Highland ‘went into the bag’ at St Valery. As the German advance increased speed and the remnant of the French army began to disintegrate, 9,000 British troops and some French fell back on Cherbourg. Around 5,000 were taken off from here, including 1,000 French.

Even at this late stage Churchill was looking for a way to hold out in France, proposing to form an Anglo-French redoubt in Brittany, with both flanks on the sea. Fortunately, Brooke argued strongly that it just wasn’t feasible. The French government was on the point of collapse, however, and Churchill now played his last, desperate card – a political union that would keep France in the war, fighting from North Africa. On 16 June, the British cabinet agreed a memorandum that “France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union. The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial and economic policies. Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain, every British subject will become a citizen of France.”4

The French cabinet was split, Paul Reynaud the prime minister, strongly in favour, but finding little support. It was, said ministers, a last-minute British plan to steal the colonies. Marshal Philippe Pétain, the hero of Verdun (1916), said it would be “fusion with a corpse.”

Reynaud resigned, Pétain asked for an Armistice, and formed what would become the Vichy Government – better to be a Nazi province than a British dominion.

The rug thus pulled from under what remained of the British army in France, a third evacuation was now improvized from ports along the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, ‘Operation Ariel’, which lasted officially from 15-25 June but extended ad hoc until 14 August.

It was during Ariel that the army’s greatest losses occurred with the sinking of the RMS Lancastria. She had embarked troops and British nationals at St Nazaire, at the mouth of the Loire, well in excess of her capacity. Struck by four bombs dropped by Junkers Ju88s within sight of land, she sank with the loss of between 3,000 and 6,500 (the figure has never been authoritatively established) — the largest single-ship loss of life in British maritime history, greater than the combined losses of the Titanic and the Lusitania, and accounting for perhaps a third of the BEF’s losses in the whole Battle of France.

Nevertheless, Operation Aerial got away over 186,000 troops, of which 17,000 were French, 24,000 Polish and 5,000 Czech.

Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?

In all, Britain had managed to bring out of France some 523,000 men to fight another day, of which a third were foreign, and largely French. And these were in addition to the troops brought back hastily from Norway after the collapse of that campaign in early June – British, French, Poles and Norwegians.

The naval arrangements were magnificent, but the reception measures for half a million and more military refugees – their feeding, clothing, housing, documenting and regrouping – were an equally brilliant achievement, and hitherto largely unsung. They were masterminded by the Quartermaster-General, Sir Walter Venning, whose great-great niece, Annabel Venning, writes elsewhere on UnHerd about how TV handles history.

The last word should therefore go to a Frenchman. On 14 June, General Albert Lelong, head of the French Military Mission in London, wrote to General Venning:

Dear Sir Walter,

At the moment when most of the French troops landed in this country from Flanders have already found their way back to France, the time has come to thank the British Army, and in particular your Department, for the help that has been given unhesitatingly to the full and sympathetically. The achievement of this masterpiece of improvised organization is a success that all the Services can look on with pride. Please convey to all officers who have contributed to it my sincerest thanks in the name of the French Army.

Yours sincerely,

A. Lelong

  1.  Andrew Roberts, ‘Dunkirk Undone‘, Commentary Magazine, Jul 25 2017
  2. Brian Truitt, Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk examines WWII heroism up close, USA Today, Jul 17 2017
  3. The Second World War 1939-1945 – Quartering, compiled by the War Office, HMSO (1949)
  4. See ‘Prelude to Downfall: The British Offer of Union to France, June 1940’, Journal of Contemporary History, July 1974

Allan Mallinson is a historian and former career soldier, one-time Anglican seminarian, Catholic convert. Author of the Matthew Hervey novels and four works of history on the British Army, and the First World War (Penguin RandomHouse). Times and Spectator contributor.


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