“At about 11:30 pm, the 4 commanders and brigadiers, and anybody else who was English, left in a pinnace, and there we were, left standing alone. Forsaken by England, and only the Germans to look forward to. I can never forget that moment as long as I live. It gave me the greatest feeling of desolation I have ever had.”
In May 1940, the German army advanced through Belgium and into France, heading west to the sea, aiming to gain control of the ports and trap the British Expeditionary Force and French force in the area. Fighting along the way, the allied soldiers tried to outrace the Germans in an effort to reach Dunkirk, a northwestern port, where they could be evacuated to Britain.
Destroyers arrived to pick up the soldiers, but more ships were needed quickly. The British called for all owners of small watercrafts to donate or make the run themselves to Dunkirk, and a parade of yachts, fishing boats, and ferries set off for France, with civilian crews that found themselves under fire as they attempted to pick up the soldiers who were madly scrambling for transport out of the area.
About 30,000 British troops died before they could be rescued, or during rescue operations; over a million British, French, Belgian and Dutch soldiers were taken prisoner. Large amounts of armaments had to be abandoned, much to the detriment of the British forces, which already had been low on materiel. A number of destroyers and RAF planes were also lost. A cruise ship carrying a mix of civilians and soldiers away from France after the official evacuation operation had ended was bombed, resulting in the loss of over 3500 people. Despite all this, though, the evacuation from May 26-June 4, 1940, resulted in the rescue of almost 340,000 men, both British and French.
I’ve read a number of books about various wars, but the horror and despair of war in Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man is unlike any other. Part of this is because he includes so many first-person accounts, from diaries, letters, interviews, and official reports. While all the other information in between—troop movements, discussions amongst generals and politicians—is obviously important, I do plead guilty to sometimes letting my eyes be drawn towards these first-person sources and skimming everything else.
But every war has its war-is-hell stories. What stood out about these, though, is the constant sense of abandonment for so many of the different groups of soldiers, that feeling that everyone is leaving and you might be left behind. You might be killed or wounded as you tried to fight your way to the shore; you might be under attack as you waited in line to get on a ship; your ship might be attacked; worst of all, you might be in one of the units that provides cover for another group trying to get out. You might be in the group that is told to stay behind. And these soldiers and generals, of course had to smile and perform as best as they could, even though they knew they were being left to be either killed or captured.
Sebag-Montefiore goes through all the reasons why things went so badly, and they are typical of many things that happen in wars: the British were underarmed and underprepared, the French were worse (unprepared, disorganized, and defeatist), the leaders didn’t get along. Miscommunication meant that leaders couldn’t be found at key moments, didn’t get messages that changed orders, or stumbled during the rescue operations. The British were completely taken by surprise when the King of Belgium surrendered. Ships arrived at the ports to pick up soldiers but due to miscommunication, left empty. None of this is as interesting, though, as the individual stories.
“We were all eating breakfast, when suddenly there were explosions all around us. I remember seeing the Company Runner, Guardsman Brind, showered with earth and thought “Well that’s just ruined his breakfast!”I took cover with Guardsman Chapman on 4 Company’s extreme left flank. [Then] we were hit by a bomb, and all that was left of Chapman was his pack. I remember thinking: “funny, he was wearing that a second ago.”
Soldiers describe emerging from a bombing and not immediately realizing that their skin had peeled off their hands and faces. They tell of friends suddenly struck blind or left without limbs. One reported seeing a gunner with arms, legs, and head gone, still strapped into place. Another soldier, after a bomb struck, saw that the man next to him had had his head blown off and was so shocked he still asked the doctor nearby if he could do something to help.
The doctor couldn’t do anything for that man, of course, but even those that should have had a chance were in dire straits. The water at one medical facility ran out and electricity failed. The constant battlefield noise drove already shell-shocked patients to further distraction. There weren’t enough doctors and orderlies to help and one orderly admitted that he found himself wishing seriously wounded patients would die quickly in order to make room for another.
Evacuations to the beach left men scrambling down rocky cliffs, running without cover under fire from the Luftwaffe, and sloshing through the waves to reach the ships that themselves were being bombed. And in some cases after this rush, they got to the quay, and found there was no ship for them after all.
Sebag-Montefiore draws all these stories together in impressive fashion. The book features photos, useful appendices with facts and figures, a “dramatis personae list and a “what happened to…?” follow up. There are many detailed maps, which of course I greatly appreciated. However, these are all grouped together at the end of the book. Sebag-Montefiore tries to be helpful about this, pausing to tell readers what map they should look at as they read and the page on which it could be found, but I didn’t find this any substitute for having the maps within the text, alongside the appropriate events. I’m sure there was some kind of production reason for this, but while it may work for readers who are kicking back with this book in an armchair in front of a fireplace, it’s not very convenient if you’re trying to read, say on a train. During rush hour. When there’s been some kind of breakdown so that two zillion people who’ve been waiting for a half hour try to squeeze into what they fear may be the only train for the next few hours (evacuation from Dunkirk—how about evacuation from the 86th St. station?).
It’s also hard to get a grasp on any individual characters. Other than a few less than colorful generals, most of the soldiers quoted show up for a burst of a few pages, then disappear for the rest of the book. I suppose this can’t be helped; with so much material and so many people, there were probably almost no one who would have been really involved in the whole story. Still, I would have liked to have some people to track throughout the book, but that unfortunately, is the stuff of fiction. And equally unfortunately, the events recounted here are not of fiction; it would be a terrifying imagination, indeed, that could conjure up the visions recounted in these pages.
At various points in this book, there are moments when soldiers are ordered to fight to the last round, fight to the end, fight to the last man. And to be given that order while seeing others get their chance to leave, no matter how precarious that chance was, must truly have been to know the heart of despair.
“I was overcome, and wept for him. I wasn’t used to sudden death. How could it be possible that he was gone not ever to come back? He so clearly had the potential for a brilliant career. Now gone. I was aware that this hopeless and helpless feeling of loss was in itself a stranger to me. I had not cried since I was a child. Yet there was little personal fear for tomorrow. That came later.”