Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk:
Defeat into Victory
New York: Liveright, 2017
Hardcover. xv+525 p. ISBN 978-1631491320. $29.95
Reviewed by Antoine Capet
Université de Rouen
All Churchillians are familiar with Churchill’s close relationship with Sir Alexander Korda (1893-1956), the director of his favourite film, Lady Hamilton (That Hamilton Woman in the original American release, 1941) – in which the hero is not the eponymous heroin, but her lover, Admiral Nelson, played by Laurence Olivier. Few however will be familiar with Alexander’s brothers, Zoltan and Vincent – also working in the cinema industry, the latter being the father of the author of the book discussed here, Michael Korda, born in London in 1933. After a long and successful career in writing and publishing books, he offers us here an attractive mix of personal childhood memories, historical facts and anecdotes, recollections of participants as well as retrospective judgements and observations on the core theme of the book: the Dunkirk evacuation – what led to it, how it was organised (brilliantly at times, disastrously at others) and Churchill’s role both in launching, observing and supervising the operation and in exploiting it to boost morale on the Home Front in the magisterial way which even his detractors are compelled to recognise.
Though following a broadly chronological development, the text very skilfully ties all these prima facie disparate threads into a most convincing narrative. The reader who already has a fair idea of events as they unfolded at Dunkirk will not learn anything new: the interest of the book lies elsewhere, in the many passages which focus on young Korda’s perception of what happened through the eyes of his father and uncles, the Hungarian-born Korda brothers who had arrived in England in 1932, and their English wives – to whom one must add his beloved English nanny, who read the popular press while her employers read The Times. Both of course gave the same rosy, misleading news – but the Korda brothers were not taken in, being accustomed to the propaganda machine of central European authoritarian regimes. The author points out the discrepancy between the gung-ho communiqués, and the harsh reality, adopting a Churchillian style: ‘The attempt to defend Boulogne was a sad failure. The attempt to defend Calais was a tragedy’ .
‘I am one of the fast-diminishing number of Britons who heard Neville Chamberlain’s announcement that we were at war with Germany’, Korda writes – adding a very interesting, because uncommon, personal observation: ‘For some reason, Chamberlain has never been given his due as a speaker – he had a deep, sonorous voice, a natural gravity that made even me, as a child, aware of the importance of the occasion’ . Chamberlain’s place in the volume, alongside Daladier’s and later Reynaud’s, is explained in plain terms: Dunkirk is the result of their inane policy of appeasement, retrenchment and refusal to rearm in good time. This is what is now sometimes called the Gathering Storm thesis, imposed by Churchill in the first volume of his memoirs. It is not Korda’s purpose to discuss it – he simply (and magnificently) illustrates the result, with many testimonies of escapees from the débâcle, which of course did not only affect the French (interestingly, General Halder used the French word at the time to describe the state of British troops around Dunkirk ). Among these personal narratives, Korda draws a lot – and rightly so – on a little-known book published in the United States in 1943 by a bilingual French liaison officer, Henry de la Falaise. From the excerpts given here, the work, Through Hell to Dunkirk, appears to be a little gem, especially for the light which he throws on the plight of the civilians caught in the débâcle, with a particularly moving passage about an orphaned Jewish girl whom he meets on the retreat of his British unit – he knows that they will have to leave her in Belgium, and guesses ‘what is in store for her’ [240-242].
In the background of the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force and its early evacuation operations in and around Dunkirk, Korda insists on the lurking trial of strength between Halifax and Churchill, with the idea, which is not a novel one, but is always worth repeating, that Churchill’s position of no truck with Hitler would have possibly become untenable if the final phases of the evacuation had not been perceived as a success by British public opinion. Korda of course does not say that it was a success, and he shelters behind the expert opinion of Montgomery writing of the escapees who proudly displayed ‘a coloured embroidered patch on their sleeve with the title “Dunkirk” ’: ‘They thought they were heroes, and the civilian public thought so. It was not understood that the British Army had suffered a crushing defeat’ .
Meanwhile that civilian public was totally unaware of the power struggle between Churchill and his opponents. As Korda puts it, ‘More people in Rome or Berlin knew of the rift between the prime minister and the foreign secretary than did people in London’ . In this respect, Korda’s book is extremely timely, setting the record straight as it does in the face of recent films like Dunkirk or Darkest Hour. He correctly reminds us that it was the full Cabinet, not the narrow War Cabinet or a group of MPs, that finally endorsed Churchill’s refusal to negotiate [365-366]. Still, though Korda evidently believes that it was a good thing Halifax lost the struggle, he does not blindly support Churchill. For instance, he does not take at face value his assurance that ‘he let events take their course’ after the fateful meeting with Chamberlain and Halifax on 9 May, purposely adding ‘or so he says’ . Korda also writes of Churchill that his ‘greatest fault was a blindness to other people’s feelings’  – and here one is bound to disagree, because if this was a trait of his personality which was indeed in evidence on some occasions, it was not a permanent characteristic, far from it.
The book has some technical titbits of undoubted value, e.g. why it was Hurricanes, not Spitfires, that would have been useful in May-June 1940 in France: the latter aircraft’s ‘narrow undercarriage track made it unsuitable for rough fields’ , or how ‘dive-bombing [by the German Stukas] produced far fewer casualties than a well-organised artillery barrage’ , or again ‘that a minimum of 250 tons of bombs were required to guarantee the destruction of a bridge’ – ‘an impossible task’ for the ‘Battles and Blenheims carrying 250-pound bombs’ which were charged with destroying the bridges of Belgium and northern France to slow down the advance of German tanks . Many readers however will frown upon the irrelevant ‘saucy bits’ on Pétain as ‘an indefatigable womaniser’  or on ‘Major General HRH Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, […] a younger brother of King George VI’ and his ‘much hushed-up, but scandalous affair’ , though they will appreciate the ‘cheeky bits’ like ‘Paul Reynaud said Gamelin would have made a better bishop than a soldier’ .
In a way – apart from Korda’s personal recollections – the most interesting part of the book, which is not really a ‘Churchill book’, even though the Prime Minister is ever present in its pages, is to be found in its last chapters. Unlike a previous author, Korda does not speak of 'Dunkirk, the necessary myth’ (Nicholas Harman. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980), but he prolongs this thread with a thoughtful reflection on the link between ‘Dunkirk’ and ‘Brexit’. Naturally, he accepts the notion of a myth: ‘Dunkirk fit into the British war narrative so well that it became myth even as it was going on’ (notably because one forgot that the destroyers berthing in the harbour had brought back many more men than the ‘little boats’ – though curiously he does not mention J.B. Priestley’s celebrated broadcast) . From this, he goes on to say: ‘ “The Dunkirk Spirit”, somewhat sentimentalised, is still a potent factor in the way the British think of themselves, and of the difference between them and Continental nations’ , which enables him to argue in his last pages that ‘Dunkirk is not unrelated to the emotions of those who demanded “Brexit”, the British exit from the European Union in 2016. There was a national sense of relief in 1940 at leaving the Continent and withdrawing behind the White Cliffs of Dover’ .
This is a fine hardback, with sewn sections of high-quality paper and a profusion of photographs – some well known, others uncommon and most welcome – and useful maps in the style of those in Churchill’s The Second World War. The Index is adequately detailed, as it should be. Offering a Bibliography of ‘Dunkirk’ is of course a very tough undertaking – but the book gives a copious selection. Curiously, since Admiral Ramsay obviously features among Korda’s heroes of Dunkirk, his official report published in 1947, ‘The Evacuation of the Allied Armies from Dunkirk and neighbouring Beaches : Despatch submitted on the 18th June, 1940’ is not included.
Unfortunately, the proof-reading was neglected: ‘priviledged’ , ‘Churchill’s daughters, Diana and Sara’ , ‘get aweigh’ [‘anchor’ missing? 341]. Also, the text includes ‘French’ words which do not exist: ‘a dévoté of’ , distorted phrases: ‘à l’outrance’ , unwarranted accents: ‘éxiste’  and anglicised spellings: ‘méchanisée’ , ‘Côte d’Azure’ .
Altogether, however, this is a rewarding book, with no academic pretensions, but a ‘good read’ because the author has an interesting personal history to share with us and he is able to weave it very effectively into the dramatic events of May-June 1940 as seen both by participants rescued at Dunkirk and his family circle in London. Unreservedly recommended as a Christmas present to a budding or confirmed Churchillian.
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