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On the Beach

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Dunkirk: The History behind the Major Motion Picture
By Joshua Levine
William Morrow, 2017.

There’s no question that the evacuation of the British army from France at Dunkirk in May-June 1940 represented a military defeat. But, as the bedraggled evacuees returned to England, a strange thing happened. Defeat, in many British eyes, turned to victory. How does an abject military defeat turn into a victory for the fleeing army? In his new book, author Joshua Levine answers this question as he delves into the experiences of people involved in the evacuation.

Levine has written other works of popular military history, including at least one previous work on Dunkirk; the purpose of this is book to

explain events by placing them within a richer context—not merely military, but also political and social. It will try to give a sense of what it was to be a young soldier in 1940, and of the importance of youth culture, in its different forms, in the build-up to war. It will focus on the fighting (and sometimes lack of fighting) that led to the evacuation. And it will explore the effect of the evacuation, up to its very latest manifestation—the 2017 Chris Nolan film.

Accordingly, Levine opens with a fourteen-page interview of Nolan, the director of the film. Levine’s questions bring out the fact that there is no single Dunkirk experience. The author returns to this theme several times in the narrative; given the hundreds of thousands of people involved, it’s inevitable that men’s experiences differed greatly. From courteous orderliness to rude self-preservation and chaos, it was all evident at Dunkirk.

Levine gives us a glimpse at the general upbringing of some of the men who fought at Dunkirk by describing the growth and meaning of youth culture in Britain, Germany, and the United States in the years leading to World War II. In Britain, life was difficult for most young people:

It is possible to view modern life—from a western perspective, at least—as a succession of choices. But for most young Britons living in the first decades of the twentieth century, fewer choices existed. They followed their father’s trade, lived near their birthplace, and married for convenience as of as for love.

The Great Depression left its mark on British young people. The despair and feelings of uselessness that settled upon many youth was apparent in one man who spent his days playing ping pong:

I’m here every day at ten and play till dinner-time….and there’s nothing to do in the afternoon, either, so I come up here and play whenever the table’s free. Ping-pong. Knocking little celluloid balls about. That’s my life! All I’ll ever do is play ping-pong.

Despite the depression in the 1930s, some British youth were able to secure jobs. According to Levine, the youth kept more of their income for personal use, hence they bought new clothes and watched the latest American films. Their fashions, music, and dance steps were largely imported from America. One young man described his method of approaching girls:

You used to chat them up, see if you could take them home. … I would walk them home and probably have a little snog when you got up to the gate. But they were looked after in them days. Sometimes parents would be watching out of the window in the lamplight. “Come on! You’re late!”

German youth, however, were brought up to be tough and resourceful, not to mention mindful of their “racial stock.” Levine recounts the development of the Hitler Youth and such violent horror as Kristallnacht, when the property and businesses of German Jews were targeted and destroyed by Nazi Storm Troopers and Hitler Youth. Youth culture in 1930s Germany was displayed in all its ugly and sacrilegious form by “an incantation based on the Lord’s Prayer”:

Adolf Hitler, you are our great Fuhrer. Thy name makes the enemy tremble. Thy Third Reich comes, thy will alone is law upon the earth. Let us hear daily thy voice and order us by thy leadership, for we will obey to the end and even with our lives. We praise thee! Heil Hitler!

Hitler’s confidence in German indoctrination was evident early on: “When an opponent says, ‘I will not come over to your side,’ I calmly say, ‘Your child belongs to us already…’” His confidence bore fruit during Kristallnacht. Obsessed with Hitler and fully buying into his ethos, young people participated in the blood-lust and rampage. Levine astutely observes that for German youth of this generation, “rebellion was not Elvis Presley, the Beatles, David Bowie, or Public Enemy. It was Adolf Hitler.”

Youth in the United States benefited from President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs that helped education and provided work. In contrast to Hitler’s programs, Levine observes, “Roosevelt’s initiatives may have been collective, but he had no desire to brainwash America’s youth. His New Deal offered individual growth alongside the nation’s.” Similar to British youth, Americans had disposable income and outlets that nourished youth culture. American teens distanced themselves from their parents: “No
longer so influenced by their parents, or at all by their senior workmates, they begin to create a distinct identity inside their teen bubble.” This “teen bubble” contained distinctive dress, dances, music, and sexual mores. Sociologist August Hollingshead, in a contemporary study of young people in a Midwestern town, described a “clique of lower-class boys calling themselves ‘The Five Fs”. This near-acronym stood for ‘Find ‘em, feed ‘em, feel ‘em, fuck ‘em, forget ‘em.’” Teens listened and danced to swing music, and they drank bourbon. In that regard, American youth culture differed from the German variety in important ways.

Having thus, in a broad sense, given us an illustration of pre-war youth culture, Levine next recounts the military actions in northern France leading up to the evacuation. After Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, she sent a comparatively small, under-equipped, and poorly prepared army to France. At that time Belgium was still neutral, and neither France nor Britain wanted to cross her borders until the German army crossed first. This neutrality irritated British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:

In January 1940, [Churchill] compared neutrality in the face of a saber-rattling Germany with feeding a crocodile. Each neutral country was hoping that feeding the crocodile enough would ensure its being eaten last.

With nothing else better to do, and with the German army still on their own territory, the British army dug in near the French-Belgian border; the so-called Phony War, in which neither side did much of anything militarily, had begun. Perched on the French frontier, the British were prepared to move east into Belgium if the Germans advanced.

On May 10, 1940, after almost eight and a half months of relative inactivity, the Germans attacked, advancing quickly through Luxembourg and Belgium. Soon they came upon British and French forces. The Phony War was over. As British soldier John Williams later observed:

The Phoney War [sic] was a dream time. I don’t know what we expected. We were in an innocent state. We were doing what we were told, and we had our officers, and we knew all our lads, and we thought all was right with the world. When I look back now, I shudder. I could almost burst into tears.

The German army pushed the Belgians, French, and British back, and Levine conveys the feelings of the ordinary men affected by this withdrawal, including the trials of being a leader of men:

The novelist Anthony Powell, a second lieutenant in the Welch Regiment, writes of commanding a platoon that “Thirty men are merely a responsibility without the least compensatory feeling of power. They only need everlasting looking after.”

Private Ernie Leggett describes his adventures while manning an outpost:

The next thing I knew I’d hit the ceiling, and then I heard a loud bang. I came down and hit the floor. I realized that I’d been hit. It was one of those blasted three-inch mortars and I’d been hit. My left leg was absolutely numb, my back was numb from the waist down, I couldn’t move my legs, and all I saw was blood all over the floor. Two others ran across to me, and one said, “Bloody hell, Ernie! You’ve had it!”

Leggett’s friends carried him out of the building and set him down beside a railway line:

Naked except for his underpants, he began to pull himself agonizingly along the railway line, sheltered by the rails from the gunfire, covered by earth from shellfire, his hands bleeding from the effort of dragging himself along.

Leggett survived the rest of the retreat and was evacuated to England.

As the Allies retreated, Belgian refugees joined in the stream. A British officer, Anthony Irwin, watched British engineers blowing a bridge to slow down the Germans:

But the [explosive] charge was accidentally detonated while the bridge was still being used by Belgian refugees heading for France. Imprinted on Irwin’s mind was the snapshot of a cyclist, sitting on his bicycle, still pedaling, forty feet in the air, his clothes blown off.

As the German advanced to the coast, their Panzer tanks ran ahead of their motorized infantry. This stretched and exposed their flanks, causing a vulnerability that worried Hitler. German commanders felt that a temporary halt would allow their forces to close up and consolidate. Hitler confirmed this order; he had also in mind the idea of conserving his Panzers in order to meet French forces along the Somme River.

On May 25 British commander Lord Gort decided to evacuate British troops via Dunkirk; at the time, British leaders didn’t inform their allies of this decision. Accordingly, they fought rearguard actions in their scramble to reach the port. Of the retreat, the author paints a picture of chaos, discouragement, and self-preservation. Throughout May 1940 the Allies consulted and bickered with each other. The British criticized the French, and the French sought to attack to the south, trying to achieve a breakout, while the British wanted to maintain the defensive. Even within British leadership there emerged a difference of opinion. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, for example, sought to hold Calais at all costs, knowing that this would mean the virtual sacrifice of the defending troops, rather that effect an evacuation. An evacuation of Calais, he felt, would open the door for an immediate German advance on Dunkirk; this would, in turn, prove disastrous to the British army’s efforts to evacuate the balance of its forces through Dunkirk. “[G]iven that [German] Panzers were already at the gates of Dunkirk when they were stopped by … Hitler,” Levine avers that Hitler’s decision to halt the Panzers had more influence on events at Dunkirk than the defense of Calais.

On May 27 Belgian King Leopold III surrendered his army, and British and French officials publicly decried what they termed Leopold’s “treachery.” As French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud stated in a radio broadcast shortly after the surrender, “In the middle of the battle, without any consideration and without any notice to his British and French allies, King Leopold III of the Belgians laid down his arms.” Levine states:

Belgium’s surrender was militarily unavoidable. King Leopold did not enforce or manufacture it. And it is clear that he made efforts to keep the British and the French informed of his army’s true situation, and of its inevitable fate. Indeed, if any information was being withheld on 27 May, it was that the British had begun to evacuate their army—and it was being kept from her allies.

The French looked upon the British decision to evacuate as a betrayal, too. French commander Maxime Weygand still unrealistically held out hopes of a counterattack southward, but the Allies were in no condition to engage in such an operation. According to Levine,

…retreat and evacuation were the only sensible courses of action in the circumstances. By keeping alive his impractical plan to attack southwards, Weygand was endangering both his and the British forces…. The exodus from Dunkirk was a desperate effort to keep the war alive, not a sly British bid to cut and run.

A sort of preliminary evacuation had begun on May 21 when non-essential personnel were sent from Dunkirk to England. After five days, about 28,000 “butchers, bakers and candlestick makers” had been sent back to England.

As the troops withdrew, Lord Gort established a perimeter around Dunkirk. Men within this ever-shrinking perimeter were blasted by German artillery and aircraft. Amidst this, the evacuation of retreating British soldiers began on May 26. Men were taken off the beaches in a variety of ways. A breakwater, or mole, jutted out about a half mile into the harbor, and men were taken off this via any ship that could pull up alongside; this was a risky business given the tides and, not least of all, German bombing and strafing. There were also great lines of men extending from well inland on the beach all the way out into the water, up to the leading men’s chests. The men in these lines awaited smaller boats that would pick them up and ferry them out to larger vessels in the harbor. Necessity being the mother of invention, someone got the idea to create truck piers. Abandoned trucks were driven out into the water, weighed down with sandbags, lashed together, “bonnet to tail,” and their tires shot out. Then wooden planking was laid along the tops of the trucks, creating makeshift piers upon which men could wait for rescue. When the tide came in, these lines of trucks “stretched far out to sea.” At least ten of these were built, and they greatly increased the rate of rescue.

Men tried to leave the beach with all sorts of paraphernalia and gear. Many items, such as the motorbike one soldier tried to bring aboard ship, were pitched aside. One man brought back a haversack of watches he intended to sell in England, while another, a barber who wanted to open his own shop, had a bag full of hair clippers. Some men tried to bring pets off the beach, too:

Able Seaman Ian Nethercott, a gunlayer on board HMS Keith, was surprised by the stream of dogs that men tried to bring on board, and appalled by what happened to most of them. “As the men arrived with their dogs,” he says, “the military police were shooting them and throwing them in the harbor.” Every time this happened, a loud “boo” went up from soldiers and sailors.

As the Dunkirk “bridgehead,” originally about twenty-five miles by eight miles, shrunk, German artillery and aircraft continued to pound the soldiers within it. One of the fearsome weapons that Allied troops faced was the Junkers Ju 87 dive bomber, better known as the Stuka. The bomber would fly at about 15,000 feet until it began its near-vertical dive toward its target. At about 1,500 feet the Stuka would release one of its bombs (either a 250kg or a 50kg bomb) as it pulled out of its dive and climbed sharply away. The Stukas were also a psychological menace:

Some Stukas were fitted with “Trumpets of Jericho” (wailing sirens operated by small propellers fitted to the legs that became louder with speed), while the central bomb had cardboard sirens fitted to its fins, each tuned to a different pitch. The hellish screams these sirens created were the Stukas’ greatest weapon, far beyond the actual bomb damage, causing intense terror to soldiers and civilians…As a French officer wrote, “The noise from the siren of the diving aircraft drills into your ear and tears at your nerves. You feel as if you want to scream and roar.

The men and women on the beach desperately needed a miracle, and on May 31 they got one in the form of what the author calls an “Armada”:

A procession of coasters, launches, lighters, lifeboats, barges, tenders, trawlers, motor boats, cockle boats, pinnaces, fire floats, tugs, yachts, and goodness knows what else left Ramsgate [England] and made its way to Dunkirk. The line of boats stretched for almost five miles.

Levine recounts the work of several of these so-called Little Ships in fascinating detail. Although the work of the Little Ships has been either inflated or downplayed in the historical record, Levine says, correctly, that many men were rescued by, or with the direct help of, these ships. The variety of Little Ships was staggering. Robert Newborough, aboard a vessel leaving the shore, witnessed a man in a canoe making for the beach:

“What the hell are you doing?” shouted Newborough.
“I can take one other!” explained the canoeist.
But perhaps the least reassuring mode of transport in the Channel was observed by the master of the steam yacht SY Killarney. He sailed past a French officer and two Belgian soldiers attempting to reach England on a door. And balancing on the door, between the three passengers, were six bottles of wine.

The last of the British troops to leave Dunkirk left at 11:30 p.m. on June 2, but ships continued to rescue French troops for the next day or so. The final vessel left Dunkirk at 3:40 a.m. on June 4; “About 12,000 French troops remained to be taken prisoner.” In all, some 260,000 people were evacuated from Dunkirk, about ten times greater than some pre-evacuation estimates.

In his conclusion, Levine returns to the film. Although interesting, this seems out of place with the historical narrative, as does the opening interview with Nolan. But when you consider the book’s subtitle and the fact that Levine is the film’s historical advisor, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that this book and the film intentionally serve as advertisements for each other. This isn’t necessarily bad; the book is admittedly a popular history, versus a scholarly history, and Levine has certainly evoked the confusion and misery of the evacuation. But to some, this book might feel like an extended publicity pamphlet for the film.

Although the book is obviously well researched, Levine has not included footnotes or references, but they are available at the author’s website. He does include an eight page select bibliography showing many primary and secondary sources, and he has conducted interviews with veterans and others involved in the evacuation. The absence of an integral section of footnotes, while annoying, is surmountable. The absence of an index, however, is quite frustrating. Those who might wish to follow the experiences of any given man or woman will find it difficult without an index. The single small-scale map is inadequate for anything but the most general overview of the military situation in Belgium and northern France.

Despite the few shortcomings, Levine has succeeded in providing a vivid depiction of what some people experienced on the beaches and waters in and around Dunkirk. His interviews with survivors are an important historical record, and these he weaves into the overall flow of events to paint a picture of confusion and, most importantly, survival. The evacuees, and Britain, lived to fight another day. They had indeed turned defeat into eventual victory.

Major Peter L. Belmonte, USAF (Ret.) is a military history book reviewer and the author of Italian Americans in World War II (2001), Days of Perfect Hell: The US 26th Infantry Regiment in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, October-November 1918 (2015), and Calabrian-Americans in the US Military During World War I (2017).