DUNKIRK: The Patriotic Myth by Nicholas Harman
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DUNKIRK: The Patriotic Myth

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If Dunkirk was not all that the government said, Harman concludes, the lift that it gave the British spirit was incalculable: ""It matters not how many lies were told to sustain it."" By the same token his narrative of what actually happened--of how the British were not betrayed by their Allies, or how small ships were not crucial to the evacuation--is as stirring as those earlier tales of unalloyed heroism; more stirring, perhaps, because more thoroughly human. The British Expeditionary Force in France, Harman relates, was sadly undermanned and undergunned, a mere token of British solidarity with the Allies. Symptomatically, when the BEF began to move into action, its entire chain of command collapsed--for lack, simply, of radios. And after BEF commander Lord Gott decided to dash for the sea, only once did the British slug it out with the Germans--at Arras, where, however, a thin Tommy line inflicted more than 400 casualities on the mighty Wehrmacht in a single thrust. This British attack sufficed to convince Von Runstedt to halt his panzer advance at the river Aa; and this, in turn, gave French troops time to dig in around Dunkirk, thereby covering the BEF's escape. So begins the evacuation--which, in nine days (each logged here), was to lift almost 340,000 men to safety. Most had to be loaded from a stone-andconcrete jetty never intended for mooring; others were loaded on the beaches, in rowboats. The aching Navy crewmen, Harman writes, ""came to hate the weary, sodden men they were saving. They hated the ones carrying rifles, which cluttered up the boats. . . . They hated the ones without rifles, regarding them as cowards."" But if the volunteer small-boat armada was inflated (news of the evacuation was released only in its final days), most of the soldiers were indeed rescued by civilian ships--peacetime passenger ferries--with civilian crews. And the vohmteers had their impact: young Albert Barnes' mother proudly showed his dirty socks (""so dirty they stood up like Wellington boots"") to the neighbors as ""the socks that had been to Dunkirk."" Meanwhile the French and the British wrangled; and French troops--hostile to the British, resistant to orders--were the last to get out (most would soon sail back to France, in any case, and surrender). The close view and the long view, the ironies and moral ambiguities, the selfishness and sturdy courage--out of which Dunkirk emerges as mythic, still.

Pub Date: June 1st, 1980
Publisher: Simon & Schuster