One of the biggest probems with writing history is the danger of hindsight. Its often far too easy to look at a long-gone event, and for our understanding of it to be influenced by what came after. Dunkirk is certainly one of those events. Over the past 70 years it has become part of the British psyche that in 1940 the French turned tail and ran, while the BEF was gallantly rescued from Dunkirk to fight another day. While there are some elements of truth to this, there are also many more aspects to Dunkirk than we hear about. This book by Tim Lynch goes a long way to shedding new light on an often misunderstood campaign.
while the book is titled ‘Dunkirk’, the analysis goes much deeper. Lynch looks at the British Army’s preparations for war, and how these were inadequate and too little, too late. The Army’s leadership and organisation was also not up to the job of fighting a modern war. In particular Lynch looks at the men of several territorial divisions that were sent to France as labourers, but ended up fighting in the front line. They were seriously undertrained and unprepared for the task that fell to them.
Regarding the question of the French Army’s conduct in 1940, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the French Generals seriously let down their men. While there were many examples of French troops fighting hard – often in hopeless positions – Gamelin had virtually no grip on the battle, and Weygand was far too unstable. Among this unsatisfactory set-up the BEF’s commander, Lord Gort, was far too passive and was out of his depth. Unbelievably, it is generally agreed that Gort was only sent to France as the Secretary of War, Hore-Belisha, could not stand him and wanted him out of Whitehall. Whether he was right for the job does not seem to have mattered.
The fate of the Lines of Communication come in for special attention from Lynch – in particular, the Labour Divisions aforementioned. The manner in which the British and French allowed themselves to be turned, outflanked and cut off led to the vulnerable lines of communication being flayed open. Therefore many non-front line troops found themselves in the thick of the fighting. This turbulent situation also led to the loss of so much equipment. While some historians might criticise Montgomery as a materiel commander, this ‘insult’ holds no water, given Gort’s ignorance of logistics and the disasters that this caused.
Another misconception about Dunkirk is that the whole of the BEF was evacuated through the sand dunes of the channel port. On the one hand, much fighting went on elsewhere. And in terms of the lines of communications, they were forced to fall back on places such as Dieppe, Rouen and even the Brittany ports. A second BEF was also landed in Normandy, but swiftly evacuated.
Lynch also suggests that the 51st Highland Division was sacrificed at St Valery as a sop to encourage the French to keep on fighting. Given the evidence this assertion is clear. Furthermore, the authorities should have realised at that point that the battle was lost – another Division evacuated to Britain would have been a godsend. While Anglophobes in the French Government and society might hold to the contention that Dunkirk represented the British abandoning their allies, it is hard to see what else the BEF could have done.
This book is a credible effort. I found it very readable indeed – Lynch’s experience as a writer for Britain at War Magazine no doubt helps. Lynch makes a good balance between personal stories and strategy, has found some good illustrations, and has used a wealth of sources.