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Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man

by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2006, $35

On May 14, 1940, the German break- through at Sedan culminated a series of Allied command failures. Too many intelligence warnings were ignored. Too many senior officers made the wrong decisions or were in the wrong places. The unfortunate result: A stark dilemma faced the British government and high command as the Germans drove across northern France. Should Britain stand by an ally in the process of collapsing and risk losing the entire British Expeditionary Force?

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore was an attorney and a journalist before turning historian, and the skills of his former professions inform this work’s lambent prose and fast pace. The heroic legend of Dunkirk is, of course, familiar. To flesh out the human story of the long retreat to the beaches, Sebag-Montefiore mined public, regimental and family archives to unearth personal accounts. Many, composed in German prison camps, were unavailable until much later. Others may have been initially treated as confidential, perhaps because the light they cast on this mythologized event seemed negative.

Neither a debunker nor a revisionist, Sebag-Montefiore allows his sources to tell their stories. The result is Dunkirk unvarnished.

Opening his book with Sedan, Sebag-Montefiore sympathizes with the British dilemma and effectively depicts the resulting Anglo–French tensions, created by mutual suspicion and exacerbated by stress and fatigue. He validates the eventual British decision to save what could be saved while bringing along as many French as possible. And he highlights the final, sacrificial French commitment to hold the Dunkirk pocket while the last British troops crossed the beaches to safety.

The evacuation climaxed three weeks of bitter fighting to hold open the lines of retreat. It was precisely the kind of impossible challenge to bring out the qualities for which British soldiers are justly famous: insouciant courage, understated determination and sheer bloody-mindedness. It was the stuff of legend—and it was all-too-human. The legend is in fact enhanced by Dunkirk’s accounts of deeds unreported at the time because no witnesses escaped. In the face of catastrophe and chaos, the British cashed out high, and when they surrendered, it was with their arms in their hands. The Germans got over them, but very seldom through them.

Nevertheless, the author reminds us, the men of the British Expeditionary Force were sacrificed in defeat—and defeat, however heroic, does not win wars.

His vignettes can be raw, primal, ugly. There’s the bitter brigadier who realizes his men are being sacrificed so others can escape and get the kudos; the 18-year-old private who bayonets a German in the groin (“I felt sick…I was not sane”); the lieutenant who shoots a panic-stricken soldier in the back, then calmly tells his platoon he wants only fighting men to return with him to England.

Even a defeat like Dunkirk, though, had its share of comic moments, such as the officer from a sunken destroyer who says his will to keep swimming was sustained by “picturing my wife’s small but beautiful backside.”

However evocative, a book dominated by vignettes is clearly not meant as an academic analysis, but Dunkirk powerfully if indirectly raises significant operational issues. Britain’s lack of an effective frontline antitank weapon in 1940 gave German armor near-dominance against infantry. The concentration of antitank guns and heavy machine guns above battalion levels, combined with the large sectors that units had to hold during the retreat, too often forced the infantry to rely on rifles and Bren guns. And since British rifle companies usually had less than 100 men, relatively few casualties drastically reduced each unit’s impact.

As for command-and-control issues, the vaunted British regimental system often generated misunderstanding and outright friction among battalions that did not share a common link. Sebag-Montefiore suggests that the British Expeditionary Force at lower levels did not manifest the everyday professionalism of its 1914 predecessor: Colonels and captains were unable to adapt to the unfamiliar—which the Germans capitalized on.

These shortcomings were well within the British army’s power to address between the wars. From that perspective, Dunkirk supports the argument that the officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force paid in blood for entrenched thinking. Past El Alamein, even past D-Day, the Brits were still paying for it.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here