Sometimes history chooses not to repeat itself. In 1914 Britain sent a relatively small expeditionary force—six infantry divisions and one of cavalry—to the European continent, to defend Belgium and France against a German invasion. Whether this force was decisive is debatable, but the combined effect of British, Belgian, and—above all—French resistance sufficed to stem the German tide. Twenty-five years later the British once again sent a relatively small expeditionary force, called Operation Dynamo (initially four and then another six infantry divisions), to the European continent. The ensuing debacle at Dunkirk brought Hitler closer to outright victory than at any other time in World War II.

Thanks to the pause, or “phony war,” in Western Europe that followed the German attack on Poland in September 1939, the British forces sent to France and their hosts had more time to prepare to repel the Germans than their predecessors in 1914. Yet once the Germans finally unleashed their western offensive on May 10, 1940, it was a blitzkrieg as swift and as devastating as the one they had launched against Poland eight months before. After less than four weeks, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) had effectively ceased to exist. According to the official British figures, just over 193,000 British soldiers were evacuated from the beaches near the French port of Dunkirk, along with 122,000 Frenchmen. The figure of 193,000 should be compared with the total number of British soldiers sent to France, which was around 387,000, of whom 237,000 were combat troops.1

In the House of Commons on June 4, Churchill called the evacuation “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.” That is not how the event was portrayed in German newsreels at the time, which showed the shoreline strewn with British corpses and immense piles of discarded materiel, much of it burning. Though the rout of the British was not, as Churchill had feared a week before, “the greatest military disaster in our long history,” it was still a defeat quite unlike any Britain had suffered in living memory. The testimony of survivors, who were effectively put into quarantine after their return to Britain for fear that they would undermine civilian morale, is replete with tales of horror and humiliation: of drunken members of the British Pioneer Corp firing on their comrades while awaiting evacuation from Boulogne; of the “bitter agony of defeat” when the King’s Royal Rifle Corps laid down their arms at Calais; of exhausted men going “wackers” as Stukas screamed down to bomb their defenseless positions on Dunkirk’s eastern jetty; of British and French soldiers desperately fighting one another to get aboard the rescue boats.

Some regiments were simply smashed. Fewer than one in seven of the members of the 6th Royal West Kents made it home to England, to give just one example. The loss of equipment was almost total: 2,472 out of 2,794 artillery pieces were destroyed, damaged, or left behind and 63,879 out of 68,618 vehicles. The Royal Air Force had 931 planes shot down or otherwise put out of action, including 477 precious fighters. Around 170 ships and boats were sunk or damaged, including twenty-five of the Royal Navy’s destroyers. It says something for the British mentality that the “Dunkirk spirit” is still associated with doughtiness rather than defeat.

And yet, for all that the expedition to France was a disaster, there was, as Churchill put it, “a victory inside this deliverance.” If the Germans had succeeded in killing or capturing all of the men evacuated in Operation Dynamo,2 it would have dealt a heavy blow indeed to the British war effort. The fact that they made it back home, unscathed if unarmed, significantly lengthened the odds against a successful German cross-Channel invasion. For this reason, historians have long regarded the German failure to cut off and destroy the BEF in its entirety as Hitler’s first serious blunder of the war. Instead of allowing his tank commanders to finish off the job, argued General Erich von Manstein in his influential postwar study Lost Victories, Hitler ordered them to halt not once but twice, the second time on the outskirts of Dunkirk itself:

Three different reasons have been given for the latter order, the true effect of which was to throw a golden bridge across the Channel for the British Army. The first reason is that Hitler wished to spare the German armour for the second act of the French campaign, in which connexion [Chief of the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces Wilhelm] Keitel is said to have told him that the ground around Dunkirk was bad tank country. Another reason offered is that [Hermann] Göring assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe was quite capable of preventing the escape from Dunkirk unaided…. Both arguments were wrong from the military point of view. The third reason given is that Hitler…deliberately allowed the British to escape because he believed it would facilitate an understanding with Britain.3

“Dunkirk,” concluded Manstein, “was one of Hitler’s most decisive mistakes. It hampered him in attempting the invasion of Britain and subsequently enabled the British to fight in Africa and Italy…[whereas] her defencelessness would have been well-nigh complete had [he] not allowed the BEF to escape….”4 In recent years this argument has inspired at least one historian to envisage how, had Hitler not hesitated, a German victory over Britain might have looked.5


With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to be skeptical about Germany’s chances in World War II; to argue that the ultimate outcome was somehow foreordained.6 But at the time—as Hugh Sebag-Montefiore shows in his thoroughly researched and strongly written account—the fall of France made defeat seem a very real possibility to many in Britain. So thin were the defenses of the United Kingdom stretched that the Royal Navy at one point withdrew its destroyers from the waters off Dunkirk for fear of losing them all, while the Royal Air Force had to limit the cover it could provide for the evacuation in order to prepare for the anticipated air assault on Britain. Wounded men arriving in England from Dunkirk were sent as far north as Lancashire for treatment because—as one nurse was informed—“hospitals in the south [were] being emptied for the [German] invasion.” Even after the deliverance of Dunkirk, Churchill had to conclude his speech of June 4 with his famous pledge [still the most moving words I know]:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender….

Note that this peroration, for all its poetic defiance, sketches a line of retreat from France to unspecified hills. There are not many hills in the southeast of England, where the Germans would have landed.

A complete rout of the BEF would undoubtedly have weakened Churchill’s position as prime minister—a post he had occupied only since May 10—and strengthened the hand of the erstwhile appeasers still in the Cabinet. Sebag-Montefiore reproduces whole pages of the minutes of the Cabinet meetings of May 26 and May 28, showing how hard the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and the former prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, pressed Churchill to explore the option of Italian mediation. “We must not ignore the fact,” so Chamberlain reasoned on the 28th, “that we might get better terms [from Hitler] before France went out of the war and our aircraft factories were bombed, than we might get in three months’ time.” Churchill’s firmness was crucial at this juncture. “If once we got to the table,” Churchill argued, “we should then find that the terms offered us touched our independence and integrity. When, at this point, we got up to leave the Conference table, we should find that all the forces of resolution which were now at our disposal, would have vanished….” The success of Operation Dynamo helped Churchill to win this argument.

All of which might make the casual reader wonder if there is perhaps a typographical error in the subtitle of Sebag-Montefiore’s book. Given the importance of the BEF’s evacuation from Dunkirk, should it not perhaps read Flight—rather than Fightto the Last Man? This, however, is a work much more concerned with fighting than with fleeing (or, for that matter, flying; the role of the Royal Air Force gets relatively cursory treatment, despite Churchill’s claim that it was the true victor at Dunkirk). The author’s central contentions are that, contrary to the German newsreels, Dunkirk was a triumph for the British army, and that, contrary to the postwar literature, it was not a German blunder but something verging on a German defeat that allowed such a large proportion of the BEF to get away, so that its troops could resume the war against Germany later in more propitious locations.

The greatest heroes of this British victory, moreover, were not the intrepid mariners, many of them yachtsmen and fishermen, who traversed the Channel and rescued the remains of the BEF, but those sections of the army who were ordered to stand and fight—sometimes explicitly—“to the last man.” The limelight is thereby shifted from the likes of Basil Smith, a middle-aged London doctor who unhesitatingly sailed his motor yacht Constant Nymph from Twickenham to Dunkirk in response to the navy’s summons, to the likes of Rhidian Llewellyn, a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the Welsh Guards who was awarded the Military Cross for his almost suicidal bravery in the retreat from West Cappel. Had the entire British rearguard not fought with such tenacity and self-sacrifice, Sebag-Montefiore argues, many fewer British soldiers would have got away. The battalions who successfully slowed the German advance were thus “the forgotten heroes of Dunkirk.”


The key to what happened in the summer of 1940, then, is that Churchill embodied remarkably widespread British “forces of resolution.” “The saviour of his country” he may indeed have been, as A.J.P. Taylor proclaimed him in a memorable footnote,7 but Churchill could not have saved Britain (and a large part of its empire) if there had not been many other Britons like Lieutenant Llewellyn, willing to follow his injunctions to “go on to the end.”

Such examples prompt a question that Sebag-Montefiore’s unapologetically Anglocentric account cannot answer. Why was British morale so much superior to French? It is a paradox, since the French were defending their own soil. Yet time and again French forces took to their heels or meekly surrendered in the face of German assaults; the early chapters of Dunkirk abound with accounts like that of one staff officer at Bulson who saw “clusters” of fleeing men “hanging on to… vehicles like grapes…panic-stricken… some of [them] completely out of control,” others yelling “Run! The Boches are coming!” Seldom did British troops behave so disgracefully.

Explanations for the French collapse often refer to a creeping defeatism that predated the outbreak of war. Lieutenant-General Alan Brooke, who commanded the British Expeditionary Force’s 2nd Corps, had detected something of this lack of fighting spirit during a tour of the heavily fortified Maginot Line in early 1940. The line’s “most dangerous aspect,” Brooke noted in his diary, was “the psychological one, a sense of false security is engendered, a feeling of sitting behind an impregnable iron fence; and should the fence perchance be broken then French fighting spirit [might well] be brought crumbling with it!”8 A German officer who subsequently saw it crumble in just that way went further:

French spirit and morale had been…broken…before the battle even began. It was not so much the lack of machinery…that had defeated the French, but that they did not know what they were fighting for…. The Nazi revolution had already won the Battle of France before our first armored divisions went to work.”9

Defeat, in other words, had roots in the slow, creeping demoralization of the Third Republic.

Reading Dunkirk suggests more prosaic military answers. The first is that, flawed though British generalship may have been, French generalship was much worse.10 As General Gaston Billotte put it with self-pitying candor, the French had “no reserves, no plan and little hope.” There were two fatal mistakes made by the French early in the campaign that condemned the Anglo-French forces to defeat. The first was their failure to anticipate that after the so-called Mechelen Incident, when the original plans for the German invasion of Belgium fell into Belgian hands, the Germans would do something quite different, namely advance through Luxembourg and the Ardennes and across the Meuse. The French were ready to refight World War I along their heavily fortified Maginot Line, running from Longwy down the Franco-German frontier; they were quite unprepared for the bold improvisation of Operation Sicklestroke—the brainchild of none other than Erich von Manstein—which shattered the illusion that it would be “impracticable” for tanks to try to pass through densely forested terrain.11 The second French mistake, well documented by Sebag-Montefiore, was their failure to keep sufficient forces in reserve and, indeed, to use what reserves they had to counterattack in a timely and effective fashion.

All of this helps to explain why French resistance broke as swiftly and spectacularly as it did.12 It does not explain, however, why British morale did not also collapse. After all, these strategic blunders affected the BEF no less than they affected the French themselves. Yet there is abundant evidence that British soldiers were significantly less willing to stop fighting than their allies.13

One possible explanation for the greater belligerence of the British forces was their fundamental knowledge that, no matter how badly things went in France, defeat on the continent was not the end for the United Kingdom, much less the British Empire. British soldiers may also have been quicker to detect the dangers of surrender to the marauding Germans. In at least two well-documented incidents—at Le Paradis and Wormhout—dozens of British troops who had given up their arms were lined up and massacred in cold blood by SS units.

Yet somehow these explanations do not quite suffice. As Sebag-Montefiore’s account makes clear, the real foundations of British resistance were more a matter of culture than the particular situation the army faced. A vital ingredient was that strange combination of phlegm and puerility drummed into the British officer class on the public school playing fields and in the officers’ mess. Take Captain Peter Barclay of the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Norfolk Regiment, who, while waiting for the Germans to turn up, coolly amused himself and his batman by “having a rare bit of sport” with some ferrets in a rabbit warren. Or Major George Byam-Shaw of the Royal Scots, who ran a quarter of a mile in full view of German machine-gunners to direct a group of disoriented walking wounded toward the British lines, returning “rather out of breath but quite calm, as if it were all in an ordinary day’s work.” Or Brigadier “Becky” Beckwith-Smith of the 2nd Coldstream Guards, who advised his men to “Stand up to [Stukas]. Shoot at them with a Bren gun from the shoulder. Take them like a high pheasant.” Such men were fond of horseplay, but they were not donkeys; to invert a famous judgment passed on their predecessors in World War I, they were true lions.

Of equal importance was the quite different ethos of the “other ranks” led by such lions. Though as vulnerable as ever to the temptations of brothels and “plonk” (vin blanc), the “Tommy” of World War II was a different creature from his counterpart in World War I. The disappointments of demobilization and the Depression had made him less of an innocent abroad. Happier attending the local cinema than the local chapel, he cared more for the wisecracks of Hollywood than for the pieties of the Victorians. Yet this new cynicism was rarely defeatism; at worst it manifested itself as pigheadedness, at best as black humor. At Le Paradis, for example, Corporal Tom Warren insisted on referring to the Germans as “redskins,” as if he were involved in nothing more serious than a shoot-out in a Saturday matinee western.

As in World War I, it was often the Scottish Highland regiments—among them the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the last battalion to wear their kilts in combat—who got the dirtiest jobs and fought the hardest. In the roll of honor, pride of place belongs to the 51st Highland Division, whose hard lot it was not to be evacuated but “at all costs” to keep fighting the Germans in the area south of the Somme. Only when completely surrounded at Saint-Valéry-en-Caux did their commander give the order to “hoist that bloody [white] flag on the church tower.” Even then, some of his men were loath to stop shooting. “Not fucking likely, you yellow bastard!” was the furious reaction of one soldier when ordered to lay down his arms by an officer of the Kensington Regiment.14 Evidence like this makes me almost believe the apocryphal story about the two Highlanders watching the evacuation of the beaches at Dunkirk. “Aye, Jock,” says one to the other, “if the English surrender, it’ll be a long war.”

In Sebag-Montefiore’s account, then, Dunkirk emerges as one of those events so common in the history of the Victorian Empire: the salutary setback, necessary to awaken Britannia from her torpor, but never so serious as to cast doubt on ultimate victory. To be sure, not everyone will be persuaded by his emphasis on British tenacity over German hesitation. As he himself shows, it was not only Hitler who favored holding back the advance of the German armor. It was Erwin Rommel’s reports of British counterattacks on his 7th Panzer Division that persuaded his superiors to stop the tanks on May 23—a decision merely ratified by Hitler’s more famous “halt order” of the following day. Yet Rommel clearly exaggerated the strength of the British counterattacks, perhaps to magnify his own success in withstanding them.

Sebag-Montefiore is also a little too ready to believe the claims of many British officers that their efforts were being undermined by treacherous French civilians. As Glyn Prysor has recently argued, it is very doubtful that more than a small proportion of those summarily executed by the British as “fifth columnists” genuinely were endeavoring to assist the enemy. A manifestly innocent old lady in Calais was gunned down by a soldier of the London Regiment (Queen Victoria’s Rifles) in the belief that the Germans must be masters of disguise as well as of mobile warfare. Rough justice was also meted out to a group of Belgian farm laborers who were accused of mowing grass “in the formation of an arrow” to guide Stuka pilots to British troop formations. These scenes were uncannily reminiscent of the German army’s conduct in the same region twenty-six years before. In both cases, the real problem was trigger-happy men and paranoid officers.15

Another question that is not quite resolved here is how far the British rearguard was really doing a worthwhile job—giving their comrades time to get off the beaches—and how far they were wasting their lives in a vain bid to persuade the French not to capitulate. At times, Churchill seems to have attached more importance to the latter objective than to the former, even suggesting at one point that British troops should not be evacuated before French. If worst came to worst, he assured Admiral François Darlan, head of the French navy, then the British and the French would withdraw “arm in arm”: “Partage—bras dessus, bras dessous.” As it turned out, the allies departed with their arms around each other’s throats, in a mood closer to sauve qui peut.

Finally, there is the difficulty of reconciling Sebag-Montefiore’s tales of selfless heroism and stiff upper lips with the subsequent pattern of poor performance by British soldiers, which persisted well into 1942. Although Churchill was fond of phrases like “never surrender,” British troops as a rule did not fight to the death. In Crete in 1941 they failed to withstand a German parachute invasion, despite initially inflicting heavy casualties on the other side. The first campaigns in North Africa were also disappointing. In Recollections of Rifleman Bowlby, a wonderful memoir of one soldier’s experience in the Italian campaign, a seasoned infantryman looks back nostalgically on the simplicity of desert warfare. “We had a go at them, or they had a go at us. Then one of us fucked off!” “You fucked off about five hundred miles without stopping, if I remember rightly,” retorts a skeptical comrade.16

Churchill was especially troubled by the refusal of the garrison at Singapore—whom he had explicitly exhorted to fight to the last man—to hold out against what was in fact an inferior and very weary Japanese force. When she visited him shortly after the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Violet Bonham Carter found the prime minister “depressed…for the first time in their long friendship.” “He was querulous about criticism…but underneath it all was a dreadful fear…that our soldiers are not as good fighters as their fathers were.” “In 1915,” said Winston, “our men fought on even when they had only one shell left and were under a fierce barrage. Now they cannot resist dive-bombers. We have so many men in Singapore, so many men—they should have done better.”17

Even Alanbrooke, among Churchill’s harshest critics, was perturbed. “It is hard to see why a better defence is not being put up,” he confided in his diary as the Japanese closed on Singapore. “I have during the last 10 years had an unpleasant feeling that the British Empire was decaying and that we were on a slippery decline! I wonder if I was right? I certainly never expected that we should fall to pieces as fast as we are….” With the Japanese threatening to overrun Burma too, he became distraught: “Cannot work out why troops are not fighting better. If the army cannot fight better than it is doing at present we shall deserve to lose our Empire!”18 Many Asian observers did indeed see the reluctance of many British officers to fight to the finish as evidence that they had lost faith in their imperial role.

In short, Dunkirk begs the question about British morale. If the BEF really did fight with such commendable tenacity in 1940, why were there so many subsequent episodes of flight before the enemy? No doubt British soldiers fought better than their French counterparts. But it was not until much later in the war that they started to fight better than the Germans.

These, however, are minor caveats. Few readers could fail to be gripped by Dunkirk’s combination of enthralling narrative and firsthand testimony. Indeed, the greatest strength of this book—greater even than its excellent maps and detail-rich notes—is the extent to which the author allows the diaries, letters, and memoirs of contemporaries to speak for themselves. If the voices of officers from the English upper classes tend to predominate rather more than is nowadays fashionable, that may be for the very good reason that it was they who ensured that their men not only ran away in good order—but also lived to fight another day.

This Issue

November 30, 2006