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The Dunkirk delusion: From our finest hour to the coronavirus crisis

The national saga of 1940 was remarkable and truly historic. Eighty years on, the UK is again in the grip of a “people’s war” that will define the lives and outlook of all who survive it.

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The story seems so familiar. Christopher Nolan’s gripping movie of 2017 captured the highlights perfectly. Lines of British soldiers on a naked beach, praying for salvation. Enemy aircraft zooming in to bomb and strafe. Horror as Royal Navy warships are hit and the exhausted troops on board frantically struggle to escape their metal coffins. Intrepid Spitfire pilots going to the limits of their stamina and fuel to protect the boats below. The “little ships” manned by old men and young lads who arrive in the nick of time (cue Elgar) to help transport the soldiers back to the White Cliffs of home. There, amazed, they are hailed as heroes.

Dunkirk powerfully captures the frenzy of battle and the anonymity of sudden death. It also brings alive the unpredictable mix of courage and fear, panic and calm with which a group of human beings react to existential crisis. Despite being a saga of Britain and 1940, Dunkirk is a universal story (like the 2020 box office hit, 1917) in which time and place seem almost secondary.

This is micro-history, detached from the big picture. The film gives us little idea why these men are on this beach. Its opening captions simply state that “the enemy” has driven them to the sea. No mention of the Germans. Only in the final shots do we glimpse two shadowy coal-scuttle helmets on the edge of the frame. As for the French, they are background noise. Manning a roadblock near the start of the film. Or clamouring to join an evacuation boat and being sternly told “English Only!” There’s also that laconic line from the Royal Navy operations officer at Dunkirk (Kenneth Branagh), “I’m staying, for the French” – a fleeting allusion to the courageous rearguard who helped gain time for the evacuation.

These lacunae expose the dangers of focusing on epic moments, pulled from their historical context. “Our island story” has often been told in this deluded, myopic way, not least the tale of what now seems the proto-Brexit summer of 1940. Yes, we should remember Dunkirk. But not just to honour the heroism. We need to set the micro into the macro. That means situating Dunkirk in the Battle of France that precipitated it, one of the most astounding upheavals in the annals of warfare. It also means treating the Battle of France as overture not just to the Battle of Britain but also to the total revolution in global power politics that ensued in 1940-42. Exploring the world we lost along the road to victory may help us better understand Brexit Britain in 2020. And life and death under today’s coronavirus shadow may, in turn, offer a fresh perspective on “our finest hour”.

If the French do figure at Dunkirk, it’s usually in a brisk side-story of predictable failure. Predictable because the German Blitzkrieg is seen as a demonically brilliant masterstroke, cutting through the Allied forces “like a knife through butter”, or some such cliché that fits British stereotypes of ruthless Prussian military efficiency. And predictable also because the French seemed, well, “so French” – slow to react, still in shock after 1914-18, almost defeatist from day one. Winston Churchill caught that stereotype superbly in his war memoirs, writing about his visit to Paris on 16 May, six days after the German assault began, when he asked General Maurice Gamelin, the supreme commander of the French army, “Where is the strategic reserve? Où est la masse de manoeuvre?” With “a shake of the head and a shrug”, Gamelin uttered just one word: “Aucune.” No strategic reserve. Stunned, Churchill turned towards the windows and gazed down into the gardens of the Quai d’Orsay. There he saw “venerable officials pushing wheelbarrows of archives” on to “large bonfires”. The evacuation of Paris was already under way.

It is a passage of consummate artistry. In a few deft word-strokes, Gamelin’s Gallic shrug and those “venerable” gentlemen evoke the faiblesse of the Fourth Republic. Watching the smoke from the bonfire of French vanities, Churchill struggled with “one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life”.

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Afterwards, many in Britain claimed they saw it coming because Thirties France was obviously “rotten” to the core. The eminent French historian Marc Bloch, himself a veteran of May 1940, penned the classic indictment Strange Defeat a few months later, though the book was only published posthumously in 1946. The “immediate occasion” of the debacle, according to Bloch, was “the utter incompetence of the High Command” but, as befitted a doyen of the Annales school of historical sociology, he found its roots “at a much deeper level” in the society, values and mentalité of a whole generation.

Underlying this interpretation is the delusion that great events must have equally great causes, reaching deep into the past – so that, in effect, the decisive moment has been decided long before. In reality, however, 1940 exemplifies a different theory of historical causation, featuring Machiavelli’s Fortuna or what Frederick the Great called “His Majesty, King Chance”.

In material terms, most historians agree, there was nothing inevitable about what happened in May 1940. The German armed forces in the West did not compare well with those of France, Britain and the Low Countries. Hitler could deploy only ten Panzer divisions, with 2,439 tanks between them. They faced a French army that was more fully motorised and with 3,254 tanks, as part of an Allied force totalling more than 4,200 tanks. What’s more, most German tanks were inferior in firepower and armour. Nor did Hitler have clear air superiority: although France had been slower than the RAF in converting from biplanes to monoplanes, it had recently been reinforced by several hundred modern fighters bought from the US, and the overall balance again favoured the Allies (4,469 planes to 3,578). The Germans did have a definite advantage in some areas, such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons, but the idea that they enjoyed overwhelming superiority for waging modern industrial war is a fiction.

That’s why, in 2000, the Harvard historian Ernest May, turning Bloch on his head, gave his own study of 1940 the title Strange Victory. Crucially, French leaders were unable to put themselves into the mind of a man whose bravura desperation generated one of the most audacious gambles in military history. As a result of their failure, 1940 became the fulcrum of the 20th century.

In the wake of the Munich conference in 1938, Hitler had concluded that the British and French were “small worms” who would not stop him next gobbling up Poland, especially after his non-aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939. But the worms finally turned and in September Hitler faced a war in the west for which he was unprepared. Yet he turned crisis into opportunity, boasting: “In my life I’ve always gone for broke.” Aware that Germany had little chance of winning a prolonged conflict once the global empires of Britain and France had been fully mobilised, he demanded an all-out offensive on the Western Front that autumn. It was “a gamble,” the Führer told his generals. “I have to choose between victory and destruction.”


Master strategist: Panzer general Heinz Guderian, who played a key role in reworking Fall Gelb, sitting in a military plane. Credit: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images

The first version of Fall Gelb (Plan Yellow) envisaged the principal thrust into Belgium in November 1939. There the German army would have encountered the main weight of the French army (104 divisions) plus 22 Belgian divisions and ten British. But the start date was twice delayed and eventually postponed until the spring of 1940. Over those months the plan went through several iterations, inspired partly by Hitler himself, which shifted the centre of gravity some 70 miles south to the Ardennes and then into France across the Meuse River at various points between Dinant and Sedan.

So, instead of a right hook, reminiscent of the fabled Schlieffen Plan of 1914, the strongest thrust would now be a left hook, codenamed Sickle Cut (Sichelschnitt), targeting the weakest French divisions placed behind the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes forest. What would happen if the Germans did manage to cross the Meuse was left hanging, but in the mind of Heinz Guderian – the Panzer general who, with staff officer Erich von Manstein, played a major role in reworking Plan Yellow – the logical end point of the left hook was quite clear: the Channel coast.

The risks were immense. Seven of Germany’s ten Panzer divisions were allocated to General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A for the thrust to the Meuse. The other three would lead the feint into Belgium. Not one Panzer division was kept in reserve. What’s more, in the first days of the campaign von Rundstedt’s tanks were stretched out in long columns on four forest roads and would surely be detected by Allied planes if the Panzers did not reach the Meuse by 13 May. To keep their drivers going for 72 hours, there were ample stocks of fuel – and amphetamines, known as Panzerschokalade (tank chocolate). Even if the Germans did get across the Meuse into open country, they then would offer an exposed left flank to French reserve divisions along the Aisne river. Little wonder that one sceptic, General Feodor von Bock, claimed that Sichelschnitt was “transcending the frontiers of reason”.

But the plan was also driven by a “mad logic”, to quote the historian Adam Tooze in The Wages of Destruction (2006): the logic of a man who saw the world as a struggle between races and nations, in which only the strongest would survive and conflict was the mechanism of international selection. If war was inevitable and Germany’s relative position would only deteriorate, it was therefore better to fight soon rather than too late. Making the best of necessity, Sichelschnitt actually followed classic Napoleonic logic: achieving local superiority by maximum possible concentration of forces and maximum possible surprise. On the flanks – Army Group B in Holland and Belgium and Army Group C facing Luxembourg and the northern edge of the Maginot Line – the plan, on Tooze’s calculations, conceded two to one superiority to the enemy. At the schwerpunkt – focal point – on the Meuse, however, the Germans could expect superiority of nearly three to one.

By May 1940 Berlin’s once wary high command had been won over. The Sichelschnitt plan looked brilliant, on paper. But wars are not won on paper.

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La Marfée looms over the west bank of the Meuse. A steep massif some 1,100 feet high, it’s a superb viewpoint – looking out eastward across the Ardennes towards Bastogne, 50 miles away. Down below, to the north, on the opposite side of the river, is the town of Sedan, dominated by its vast château-fort – a site of memory for French and Germans alike. On 1 September 1870 the French army, led in person by Emperor Napoleon III, was encircled outside Sedan by the Prussians. Its humiliating surrender triggered revolution in Paris and the unification of Germany. The Marfée was the headquarters of Helmut von Moltke, the Kaiser’s victorious commander.

Fast forward nearly 70 years to Whit Sunday, 12 May 1940. The massif was now a strongpoint for the French 55th division, from which its observers watched in amazement as columns of tanks belonging to Guderian’s XIX Panzer Corps emerged from the Ardennes to grind their way through Sedan, virtually undefended. By evening they had reached the east bank of the Meuse. But the French blew the bridges just in time, and their artillery on the heights opposite were now in position to destroy the enemy below. Yet the French commanders rationed their fire, sure that it would be days before the Germans had enough engineers and artillery in place to risk a crossing.

French confidence was not entirely unreasonable. Getting the Panzers through the Ardennes had been no picnic. The four columns of tanks and trucks along the Franco-Belgian border – one of them snaking back 150 miles to the Rhine on 13 May – amounted to what the historian Karl-Heinz Frieser called “the biggest traffic jam known to date in Europe”. And operations in the north had been delayed by unexpected Dutch resistance, for which the inhabitants of Rotterdam paid a terrible price in the fire-bombing of 14 May. But Hitler’s overall strategy worked. In Marc Bloch’s image, the invasion of the Low Countries served as the matador’s cape, distracting the French bull, while the Panzers delivered the fatal thrust on the left. And Guderian’s lack of artillery – much of it horse-drawn and still stuck in the Ardennes – was to be redressed by another terror weapon: tactical airpower.

From 7am on 13 May, Dornier Do 17s bombed French artillery positions on the west bank with mounting ferocity. During the afternoon they alternated with squadrons of Junkers Ju 87s, the “Stuka” dive-bombers. The load each plane carried was small – a single 550lb bomb, often landing off target – but the psychological effect was devastating. The French could see the Stukas assembling high above, circling like birds of prey, before they broke into line formation and hurtled down almost vertically, amid a rising screech from their sirens. One French officer on the Marfée recalled how, as the first bombs came, “everyone tightened his back, gasping, teeth clenched. The earth shook, seemed to part.” There would be a few minutes of respite, before new waves of Stukas descended, again and again. In the end, he said, “we were there, immobile, silent, backs bent, shrunken into ourselves, mouths open so as not to have the eardrums burst”. Not surprisingly, many French gunners panicked and fled.

As French fire faded away, small groups of German soldiers – intoxicated by the Luftwaffe’s success – seized their chance to cross the river in rubber dinghies and push rapidly forward. By evening shock troops of the elite Grossdeutschland Division had battled to the top of the Marfée, not far from the site of Moltke’s old command post. As yet they had no tanks or guns. But young engineers, stripped to the waist in the heat, got the first pontoon bridge up by late afternoon and built a 16-tonner, suitable for armour, overnight. By morning on 14 May the Panzers were chugging across.

It was a similar story downriver at Dinant, where Erwin Rommel – commanding the 7th Panzer Division – got some of his troops across even earlier on the 13th. The following day, as the Germans consolidated their bridgeheads along the Meuse, the Allies began to fight back. French units mounted some piecemeal ripostes and dozens of British and French pilots sacrificed their lives in support. But it was all too little, too late.

By the afternoon of 14 May the Germans controlled the Marfée and the other ridges along the west bank, debouching on to the Bulson plateau beyond. Surveying miles of open country to the west and south, Guderian asked his staff (perhaps rhetorically) whether they should create a flank guard facing south against a possible French counter-attack or begin the drive to the Channel. One officer (probably grinning) quoted back to Guderian his favourite maxim, Klotzen, nicht Kleckern. This has been translated by Alistair Horne – whose study of France in 1940, To Lose a Battle (1969), remains a classic – as, “Wallop them, don’t tap them.” Guderian issued orders to wallop the French all the way to the sea.

Over those crucial five days from 10 May, France’s High Command had been pretty much out of it. Gamelin, a military intellectual with a priestly manner, kept his HQ in the Château de Vincennes, just outside Paris – close to his political masters, remote from the front. He didn’t even have a radio transmitter. The chain of command was clunky, communications were primitive and most eyes were fixed on what was believed to be the main battle in the Low Countries. Only on 14 May did the magnitude of the Meuse breakthrough become clear at Vincennes.

London was no better. Churchill, who had only become prime minister on 10 May, was preoccupied with the intricacies of forming a coalition government. He only grasped the danger on 15 May when awakened in bed at the decidedly un-Churchillian hour of 7.30am by a panicked phone call from the French premier Paul Reynaud, who shouted (in English), “We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” The next day the prime minister’s encounter with Gamelin in Paris confirmed that France’s will to fight was evaporating. Thereafter Churchill juggled desperately, maintaining some RAF fighter support for his ally while husbanding men and resources for “a certain eventuality” – Whitehall’s euphemism for French capitulation. But by 26 May it seemed Britain might well go the same way, with most of its army trapped on the Channel coast.

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It was against this background that events at Dunkirk unfolded. On 24 May Hitler halted the Panzers – whose men and tanks needed to regroup after their manic 150-mile dash – and entrusted the Luftwaffe with the honour of finishing the job. He rescinded that order on the afternoon of 26 May but by then the French and British had created a defensible perimeter and Admiral Bertram Ramsay, from his bunker at Dover Castle, had improvised an evacuation plan involving some 850 vessels spearheaded by nearly one-fifth of the Royal Navy’s 200 operational destroyers.

Between 27 May and 4 June some 338,000 troops were rescued from Dunkirk. About a third were French, most of whom (including Marc Bloch) were shipped back across the Channel to rejoin their army. Of the grand total, more than 70 per cent were evacuated from the East Mole (a concrete breakwater nearly a mile long), where they boarded destroyers and minesweepers. The fabled “little ships”, including pleasure boats, fishing vessels and Thames launches, therefore played a secondary role. But they were invaluable in ferrying men from the beaches to the big ships, and their impact on national morale was immense.

The British public was far behind their government in waking up to the crisis. The end of May was just three weeks since the war in western Europe had begun (comparable to the timespan in 2020 between Boris Johnson proudly declaring on 3 March that he’d been “shaking hands continuously” on a hospital visit and his announcement on 23 March of a national lockdown). People were aghast at the unfolding news from France and 26 May 1940 was designated a National Day of Prayer. That helps to explain the frequent allusions a week later to the “miracle” of Dunkirk. The dawning sense that this was now a “people’s war” was perfectly captured by those “little ships”. On his BBC radio “Postscript” on 5 June the author JB Priestley said that the motley armada’s “excursion to hell” and back would feature in the story told to “our great-grandchildren, when they learn how we began this war by snatching glory out of defeat and then swept on to victory”. The next morning the Times was already enjoining its readers to draw inspiration from “the spirit of Dunkirk”.

In late May the inner war cabinet had considered a French proposal to try to dissuade Mussolini from entering the war. This broadened out into a discussion of whether to use him to sound out Hitler’s possible peace terms. In 1999 the US historian John Lukacs built up these five days in May into a moment that “could have changed the world” – revolving around a “duel” between Churchill and his foreign secretary Lord Halifax that replayed the Thirties arguments over appeasement. The duel can easily be exaggerated. Neville Chamberlain, once the arch appeaser, took the PM’s line, and Halifax’s own position was coloured by “despair” at the “frightful rot” Churchill talked “when he works himself up into a passion of emotion” instead of using his brain to “think and reason”. Both men were understandably living on their nerves.

It is also essential to remember that these cabinet discussions were conducted during the early days of the evacuation, when the outcome seemed grim. On 26 May it was expected that only 30,000 to 50,000 men could be evacuated; on 28 May Churchill told his colleagues that if they could get 100,000 away, that would be “magnificent”. The final total of a third of a million was not only a huge relief but also meant that Britain had saved what Churchill called “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, despite losing most of its heavy weapons. This totally changed the terms of the cabinet debate.

On 4 June Churchill warned the Commons not to delude themselves that a “deliverance” was a “victory”, adding: “wars are not won by evacuations”. Britain’s survival in 1940 was the result of many factors, some of them British – such as the country’s island position, the cutting-edge air defence system forged in the 1930s, Churchill’s leadership and the heroism of the RAF – but we should also remember that “our island” could still draw on the resources of the empire and that the Luftwaffe lost nearly 30 per cent of its front-line strength in the Battle of France.

Whatever the reasons, that Britain fought on in 1940 was of world-historical importance. If it had succumbed, aside from the implications for this country, Franklin Roosevelt could never have persuaded Americans that Europe was now their front line. The US would have stuck to defending the Western Hemisphere instead of building up Britain as the base for liberating Europe from Nazi domination. A different 1940, in short, would have meant no D-Day, no Marshall Plan, no Nato. . .

Britain after Dunkirk therefore played a vital part in eventual victory. But only a part. Once again, the dramas of micro-history can obscure the bigger picture, because the Fall of France revolutionised the whole struggle, turning it into a true world war on a scale and intensity far beyond 1914-18. Throughout that earlier conflict, the French had always maintained a Western Front. In 1940 the Western Front collapsed in four weeks; it was not created anew for four years. Amid that power vacuum, the war was transformed in three salient ways.

First, Mussolini did indeed enter the conflict. After the fall of France, it seemed stupid for Italy not to grab some of the spoils. Yet his army was unprepared for war – as proved by the Greeks and then by British empire forces in North Africa – and had to be rescued by Hitler. But Il Duce had opened up a Mediterranean conflict that would distract Britain, and then the US, until 1944.

Hitler’s triumph in France also changed his own position. Unlike the rumbles of discontent in 1939, the German high command responded rapidly to his order on 31 July 1940 to prepare an invasion of the USSR in 1941 – years earlier than planned. Having rolled over the French, they did not expect the Red Army – still recovering from the bloody nose inflicted by little Finland – to pose much of a problem. But Operation Barbarossa, which began in June 1941, proved a very different story to the ten-day steeplechase from the Meuse to the Channel. The German army was totally unprepared for a long campaign against a vast country with far greater resources. To quote Hitler’s biographer Ian Kershaw, the hubris born in 1940 led directly to nemesis in 1945. The war ended with the Red Army in Berlin, facing off against an Allied army in which the British were junior partners to the Americans. The two new “superpowers” soon began their own contest for mastery of Europe.

The third transformation unfolded more slowly but was global in scope. After Hitler’s victories in 1940, France, Britain and the Netherlands were in no position to defend their Asian empires. Japan started to move into French Indochina and in 1941, after the initial success of Barbarossa, Tokyo’s military leaders decided that this was their moment to go for broke, with a Pacific equivalent of Sichelschnitt at Pearl Harbor. In time the Japanese, too, were broken, but not before their victories in 1941-42 across south-east Asia and the Pacific had undermined the old colonial order. Images of bony British officers in baggy shorts signing the surrender of Singapore helped destroy the myth of white racial superiority on which the European empires had depended.

The Fall of France turned the British away from the Continent, but it also triggered transformations of world politics that eventually eclipsed Britain as a global power. What Churchill called a “special relationship” with the US helped to shore up its international reach for a while but in 1973, by joining the EEC, the country seemed to have accepted an essentially European identity. Yet that did not prove to be the case. Brexit is an attempt to turn away from the Continent and go global, without accepting that the capacity to operate as a strong, independent power is far more limited than it was before the Second World War.

During this new twist in our national story, delusions about Britain Alone in 1940 have often been on parade. Boris Johnson loves to drape himself in the mantle of Churchill and to depict Brexit as the latest phase of Britain’s heroic efforts to stand up against a German-dominated Europe. On 15 May 2016 the Daily Telegraph headlined one interview: “Boris Johnson: The EU wants a superstate, just as Hitler did.” And the saga of little ships has been deployed again in the Covid-19 crisis, as a shorthand for the improvisation needed in a crisis for which the government was unprepared.

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On 18 June 1940, just as France was asking Hitler for an armistice, Churchill tried to rally his people with these words: “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” Nine years later he used “their finest hour” to entitle the 1940 volume of his war memoirs: exhortation was now description. And by the end of the 20th century the idea of 1940 as “our finest hour” had become a national cliché.

Yet consider the sense of “finest”: 1940 was the peak and it has been all downhill ever since. That also seemed to be the implication of Johnson’s words on the 75th anniversary of VE Day earlier this month, celebrating “quite simply the greatest generation of Britons who ever lived”. Hardly a clarion call for the future. During the Brexit debate Tory minister Matt Hancock warned his party’s ageing membership: “We have got to sound like we actually like this country. We have got to be patriots of the Britain of now and not the Britain of 1940.”

Of course, the national saga of 1940 was remarkable and truly historic. It has also grown more lustrous over time, together with the reverence for Churchill. Yet in 2020 this country is now in the grip of an existential crisis that will define the lives and outlook of all who survive it. This is also a “people’s war” in which survival turns on the heroism of medical staff, continuing to work despite inadequate protection, backed up by thousands more in factories, shops, transport and supply chains who keep essential services going. The “front line” dead are disproportionately from the black, Asian and minority ethnic groups who, unlike 1940, now make up around 14 per cent of the UK population. And it’s going to be a long war.


Hero of today: a mural of 100-year-old veteran Captain Tom Moore, who raised £30m for the NHS. Credit: PAUL FAITH/AFP

While the politicians fumbled, it was Britain’s nonagenarians who managed to speak to the nation. Captain Tom Moore became a household name by raising over £30m for NHS-related charities by pushing his walking frame 100 laps around his garden ahead of his 100th birthday. His wartime service in Burma and his advanced years could have justified sitting back as a member of the “greatest generation”, but Captain Tom said that in 2020 “the doctors and the nurses, they’re all on the front line, and all of us behind, we’ve got to supply them and keep them going”. They were the “heroes” of today’s war. “I’ve always been an optimist,” he added. “I do believe that the future is going to be much better.”

The country’s 93-year-old monarch also struck an apt note in her speech on 5 April, at the height of the Covid-19 panic. The Queen reminded the nation that she had experienced 1940 first-hand, recalling in words and images her first radio address during the Blitz. She praised “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling” that “still characterise this country”. And she expressed the hope that “in the years to come everyone will be able to take pride in how they responded to this challenge” so that “those who come after us will say the Britons of this generation were as strong as any”.

All very low-key. No reference to Churchill, the empire or the next 1,000 years. Yet maybe her speech helps to identify a “finest hour” experience for people of the 21st century – for Britain now not then. Spoken by a leader who, like Captain Tom, knew 2020 and 1940, to a country that needs to value its past and also believe in its future. 

David Reynolds is the author of “Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit” (HarperCollins)

This article appears in the 22 May 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Moving Left Show