Dunkirk 1940 has always been an ideological field day for our ruling class, Chris Bambery cuts through the fog of war
Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” describes the evacuation of 400,000 British (including many from the Empire) and French troops from the northerly French port in May and June 1940.
Britain’s Prime Minister at the time, Winston Churchill, was more circumspect in saying wars are not run by evacuations, but the naval operation to bring the troops were hailed as a victory by the British media at the time. It would achieve mythical status, with the fleet of small boats which arrived to take men off the beach being hailed as heroes. In truth, most men were evacuated by naval ships from the port.
The reality of what actually happened could not be told to the British population. One Whitehall source told a newspaper editor: “The Dunkirk episode was far worse than was ever realised in Fleet Street. The men on getting back to England were so demoralised they threw their rifles and equipment out of railway carriage windows. Some sent for their wives with their civilian clothes, changed into these, and walked home.”
One Londoner evacuated to the South Coast, recalled: “I saw literally hundreds and thousands of lorry-loads of soldiers coming through the village, coming back from Dunkirk. Soldiers with no uniforms, in shirts, in a hell of a state… I felt certain the war was over, that we had lost. Us kids were horror-stricken… You couldn’t believe it was an army. The next thing there was going to be an invasion and we were going to be finished. I was sure of it.”
Of course, the majority went back to duty, but few who had gone through the collapse of French, British and Belgium resistance to the Germans in the previous weeks knew they hadn't suffered a humiliating defeat and that they hadn't left most of their equipment, particularly tanks, trucks and artillery behind. In reality, the Nazis had little chance of pulling off an invasion, but the British population and its ruling class were hardly aware of that in that early summer of 1940.
Indeed, and this is a fact hidden from us even today, the majority of the ruling class, right up to the King and Queen, had not wanted war with Nazi Germany, had done all they could to avoid it and were prepared to look for a negotiated peace with Hitler. Churchill was in a minority within the Tory Party, who still looked to his predecessor, Neville Chamberlain, the premier most associated with the policy of appeasing Hitler.
That had meant allowing Hitler to feed on territory in Central and Eastern Europe in the hope that this would satisfy his appetite. The high point of appeasement was at Munich in September 1938, when Chamberlain and his French counterpart had handed over Western Czechoslovakia to Hitler, including its armament factories and border defences, without reference to the Czechs.
Most of the British and French ruling class saw Nazi Germany as a bastion against Bolshevism. Despite Stalin’s Russia being the graveyard of the Bolshevik Revolution and despite its desperate pleas for an alliance with Britain and France against the Third Reich, London and Paris still saw everything through the prism of 1917.
Hitler had promised he would leave the rest of Czechoslovakia alone, but when reneged on that and marched into Prague in early 1939 doubts began to grow that he could be trusted and that all he was interested in was his own backyard. Britain and France gave Poland a guarantee they would declare war if Germany invaded it. But Polish distrust of Russia added to their reasons for not allying with Russia, which now looked to reaching accord with Hitler.
Despite this Chamberlain continued to hope he could negotiate with Hitler up to and beyond the eventual invasion of Poland, and was reluctant to declare war. In the event, the British and French did nothing to aid the Poles, even though French forces on the German border outnumbered their German opponents whose defences were unprepared.
The period from the fall of Poland to the spring of 1940, when Germany invaded Norway and Denmark, was known as the “Phoney War” because there was no fighting on the Western Front. In large part, this was because the British and French governments still hoped to strike a deal with Berlin.
The German occupation of Norway and the abject performance of British and French forces sent to aid its army led to the fall of Chamberlain. He suggested to the King that his Foreign Minister, Lord Halifax, another arch appeaser, be his successor, but Halifax told Chamberlain the idea of being a war-time Prime Minister gave him a “bad stomach ache.” The King, who appoints British Prime Ministers, had wanted Halifax, an old friend, too.
The opposition Labour Party had been asked to join a new coalition government but would not accept Halifax. The only viable choice was Churchill because he had opposed appeasement from the back benches.
This was not because he was an anti-fascist but because he grasped Hitler wanted domination of Europe as the vital step towards global domination, and that would mean the end of the British Empire. Maintaining the Empire was always the priority of that arch imperialist.
When Churchill was appointed Prime Minister in May 1940 he was in a minority in the Tory Party whose MPs refused to cheer him in the Commons. Chamberlain and Halifax remained in his Cabinet.
Within days Hitler’s armies attacked France and Belgium.
The Germans were well aware that the bulk of the Allied armies planned to advance north into Belgium if it was invaded. The Germans aimed a secondary thrust there to draw them off and then launched their main attack through the poorly defended sector facing the Ardennes Forest on Belgium’s south western border.
The Germans broke through and unleashed their tank armies, supported by the planes of the Luftwaffe towards the English Channel. The aim was to encircle the bulk of French and British forces.
Since then the story often peddled is that the Germans outnumbered the Allied in tanks and planes, but that was not true. What the Germans did was concentrate their armour and establish close cooperation with the Luftwaffe. The French, which made up the overwhelming bulk of Allied forces, dispersed their tanks to act as support for the infantry and had no such close cooperation between air and ground forces.
The Allies failed to launch any significant attacks on the exposed flanks of the German tank forces which swept through to the Channel. As early as 19 May the British began planning the evacuation from Dunkirk of its forces, which were ordered to retreat. They did not inform the French and Belgians of this.
Churchill told the British commander in France, “Of course if one side fights and the other does not, the war is apt to become somewhat unequal.” He left this out of his post-war memoirs.
When the evacuation began on 27 May the Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, told British commanders, “It is obvious you should not discuss the possibility of the move with the French or Belgians.” When asked about evacuating Belgian troops the British commander responded, “we don’t care a bugger what happens to the Belgians.”
The Belgians would surrender. The French thought they were fighting to defend a military stronghold in the north east of their country. Actually, they were defending the British army which was leaving them behind.
The senior naval commander at Dunkirk reported on 29 May: “The French staff at Dunkirk feel strongly that they are defending Dunkirk for us to evacuate, which is largely true.”
Eventually, under intense pressure from Paris, the British agreed to take off French troops, who until then had been blocked from evacuating. By that time a third of the British army had been evacuated.
Yet French troops maintained the front line, and held out in the city of Lille after British troops quit for Dunkirk. Eventually, many French troops were taken off and then sent back to France, although many had to surrender.
Britain saved its troops but in that summer of 1940, there was no strategy to win the war, beyond survival.
Hopes for a naval blockade were blown apart by the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, which meant Russia supplied the Third Reich with food and key imports like oil which allowed it to wage war in the west.
As in 1914 it also looked to the French army to do the bulk of the fighting but in June 1940 it was a broken reed. After the Germans took Paris and then attacked south, France surrendered.
The truth was that the French ruling class and High Command had no taste for this war. Four years earlier, in May and June 1936, the election of a centre left Popular Front government had unleashed a huge strike wave and factory occupations. Then they had feared revolution. Haunted by memories of 1871, when defeat at the hands of the German state, Prussia, had unleashed revolution in the shape of the Paris Commune, most prepared for Hitler and German occupation.
Meanwhile, in London, Churchill found himself faced in late May 1940 and again in June with demands from within his own Cabinet for peace with Germany. In order to overcome this, he had to rely on Labour, who were effectively left to run the Home Front, and by going public. In June 1940 three journalists, one of whom, Michael Foot, was a future Labour leader, produced a little book, “Guilty Men,” which told the truth about appeasement and Chamberlain and his gang.
They blamed them for the catastrophe in France. WH Smith and other outlets would not sell it but within a few months, it had sold 200,000 copies. The maverick media mogul, Lord Beaverbrook, a crony of Churchill, joined in with his “Evening Standard” calling for a European revolution against the Nazis!
Churchill had allowed the lid to lift on the closed world of Westminster politics. In reality, he was fighting a faction fight. He would win and Britain fought on.
Victory came because of the Russians, in the main (largely despite Stalin, and the brutal way the Red Army treated its own troops), and the Americans. That Britain fought on was important because it was the base for the belated Allied invasion of France in June 1944. It was important too because the US President, Roosevelt, had similarly grasped that Hitler was after global domination and decided that with Britain fighting on he could ally with it.
Churchill opposed the 1944 invasion of France to the last because he wanted to concentrate on the Mediterranean, which he saw as the key link of Empire. As early as August 1940, while a German invasion still seemed a real possibility, the bulk of British forces were sent to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal.
The Germans actually had little chance of invading Britain in 1940. The Royal Navy was intact and the RAF denied the Luftwaffe control of Southern England’s skies. Anyway, Hitler’s eyes were on invading Russia in expectation of quick victory which would then leave Britain bereft of any possible ally. American involvement was still a long way off.
Britain would create two other war time myths: the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, when we were “all in it together.” It’s not to deny the heroism of the RAF pilots (many Poles, Czechs, West Indians and Indians) or the suffering inflicted on London, Coventry, Clydebank and elsewhere, but there was a huge amount of self-serving mythologizing.
What is less talked about is that in the summer of 1940 the British population, convinced in the main the war had to be fought to defeat Hitler, moved left. The scars of the First World War and the broken promise of a “Land fit for Heroes” was still fresh. In order to get the Brits to fight the Tory Churchill had to promise a settlement: enter the Welfare State.
From a German, Russian, American or, especially a French, viewpoint in 1940, Dunkirk was no victory. Britain seemed on its knees, set to follow France to surrender.
Survival was a sort of victory for the reasons outlined. But it did not feel like it too many of those brought home from Dunkirk.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.