A swiftly paced, illuminating account of events at the opening of World War II in Europe, recounting “a military defeat with a happy ending.”
Revived in part thanks to Christopher Nolan’s 2017 film Dunkirk, the history of the British Expeditionary Force is compelling even in its barest bones. Korda (Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee, 2014, etc.), noted as both a historian and publisher, brings a personal touch to the story with that of his own family’s flight from Europe a step or two ahead of the advancing Nazis. So it was with the BEF, caught in France at the beginning of the German blitzkrieg. They fought valiantly as they retreated toward the coast, then were evacuated, famously, by a flotilla of both military and civilian boats that crossed the Channel under extreme danger, attacked by Stuka bombers and heavy artillery all the while. As the author observes, these unfolding events occasioned the first sustained contact between the French and British commands, to uneasy results. Some of the French commanders were highly effective, others not, while of the ordinary French troops, as one British veteran recounted, “their zest and delight in shooting Germans was most entertaining.” Even so, Winston Churchill found it necessary to deny the French access to the Royal Air Force, since, the British leader reasoned, the French army might well fold, as it did, and leave the British to fight the war alone. To craft this narrative, full of set pieces both political and military, Korda has scoured the archives, citing, for instance, the journals of “that rarest of observers, a well-educated public school Oxonian serving in the ranks” and looking deeply into all kinds of records. The author has a fine eye for the telling detail, too, such as the fact that British trucks captured at Dunkirk turned up among the German military train during the invasion of Russia in the following months.
An excellent revisitation of a critically important set of battles that, once a byword for courage, have faded in memory.