Review: The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk

The Miracle of Dunkirk, Walter Lord. New York: Open Road Media, 2017.

Summary: A historical account of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops as the German blitzkrieg shattered Allied defenses and occupied France.

A new generation learned about the “miracle” of Dunkirk this summer through the Christopher Nolan film. In conjunction with this release, Open Road released a digital version of Walter Lord’s classic The Miracle of Dunkirk. Lord is most famous for his highly readable account of A Night to Remember about the sinking of the Titanic, but also published a number of histories of various aspects of World War II, including the truly miraculous evacuation of 338,000 Allied troops from Dunkirk and its nearby beaches between May 26 and June 4.

The Allied line had collapsed in front of the German blitzkrieg, and nearly 400,000 were isolated and driven toward the French coast. It would be a huge debacle and demoralizing blow, especially for the British, if these forces were surrounded and captured. At this point, no amphibious craft existed to evacuate them from the beaches and no plan existed to do so.

Lord’s account covers the various facets of the unfolding “miracle.” There is the decision to evacuate and launch Operation Dynamo and the resultant misunderstandings that occurred with the French. We watch the scramble of Admiral Ramsey to mobilize anything that floated from destroyers to tugboats and pleasure yachts to evacuate soldiers. Initially, they expected to evacuate only 45,000 before the Germans completed their conquest.

Several factors contributed then to this miracle. One was Hitler’s puzzling order for the advancing German forces to halt for a couple of critical days between May 24 and 27, allowing more Allied forces to retreat. Then there was reliance on Goering’s Luftwaffe, which was devastating at points but could not fly during overcast weather, which prevailed during several days of the evacuation.

“Miracle” might give a sense of a smooth running operation. It was anything but and Lord describes the mishaps that resulted from a wrecked port, efforts to ferry men off the beaches around Dunkirk and the eventual use of the mole, or breakwater, that allowed boats to berth, load and depart with the greatest efficiency. Likewise, there was bad blood between the British and the French, and at first evacuations were primarily of British troops until they agreed that it would be “arm in arm.” Eventually about 100,000 French were evacuated along with over 230,000 British.

Part of the story was the resistance of British and French troops (Belgium had surrendered, leaving a hole in the lines to be plugged, stretching the defenders further), a number of whom spent the rest of the war as prisoners, especially among the French. The resistance they put up, along with the unwillingness of the Germans to risk their tanks in the marshy lands around Dunkirk, bought precious extra time for the evacuation to mobilize, which succeeded in evacuating a peak of 68,000 on May 31. The other part of the story was the heroism of not only the naval forces but the many civilians who faced German fighters, bombers, mines, and torpedoes. Lord tells stories of men who had to evacuate more than one ship enroute to England.

The RAF’s Spitfires also bought some respite for the shipping when they engaged the Luftwaffe. At the same time, Lord describes the balancing act that they had to play between providing critical air cover, and maintaining sufficient forces for the anticipated defense of England.

Lord portrays the different ways the evacuation was seen by Germany, France, and England. Germany didn’t think England would return. France felt betrayed. But for England, and their new prime minister, Winston Churchill, the “miracle” represent a resolve to fight on, and a signal achievement in recovering such a significant part of their fighting core, later to be joined by their American allies. While France was lost, and with it, vast amounts of arms and equipment, all was not lost. And that was enough to fight on.

Lord’s account covers all sides of the battle, British, French and German, and the land, air and sea elements. He captures both the overall development, and the stories of the fighting men and civilians who all were part of the miracle. His notes and bibliography detail the mountains of research that he distilled into a manageable and riveting narrative. If you haven’t seen the movie, get the book, and it will make more sense of the movie when you do. And it will help you understand the first of the series of turning points that culminated in D-Day.

Review: A Night to Remember

A Night to Remember
A Night to Remember by Walter Lord
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Walter Lord’s classic account of the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage. Certainly newer books have been written but the immediacy of his account is unparalleled. He follows minute by minute the last hours of the “unsinkable” ship after its encounter with an iceberg at 11:40p.m., after receiving no less than six warnings of icebergs in the area.

The account moves from the initial complacency of most of the passengers who trusted the assurances of Titanic’s watertight compartments. Then we learn of the shipbuilder’s assessment that too many compartments were involved for this system to work, and it was only a matter of a few hours before the ship sank (she sank at 2:20 a.m.).

We follow the loading of the lifeboats “women and children first” when there simply weren’t enough lifeboats. [One question Lord doesn’t answer is why so many lifeboats were launched with less than full complements.] We see the quiet courage of the men who assured wives they would get a later boat, knowing there was no later boat to be had. In other boats, a few men disguised themselves while some boats provided rescue for their first class male passengers. There is the ship’s orchestra, who play ragtime until almost the end. There are pastors who counsel and others who come to term with their fate on their own, in various ways.

We see the desperate calls for help from the ship’s communications, and the futility of raising the radio room of the California sitting ten miles away and even noticing the rockets set off and the gradual settling of the lights. The Cunard Line Carpathia on the other hand was 58 miles distant and arrived within four hours, saving all those in boats, but too late for others who jumped into the sub-freezing waters.

There was the scandal that so many of the first class were rescued while many in steerage were not. Lord’s book provides a complete passenger list that indicates the survivors. The dramatic difference between first and third class is clear. And we have the sad survival of Bruce Ismay, the White Line owner who retires and lives the remainder of his life as a shattered recluse.

I’ve not read other Titanic books and I suspect later ones dispute some of Lord’s account. But the power of the eyewitness accounts on which Lord draws, the dialogue he claims is based on these accounts and how he brings us along with the passengers of the Titanic to the unbelievable news that she really was sinking all make for an account not worth missing.

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