Tag Archives: Dunkirk

Dunkirk: how British newspapers helped to turn defeat into a miracle


Exhausted British troops on the quayside at Dover, May 31 1940.
Official War Office photographer, Imperial War Museum, CC BY-SA

Tim Luckhurst, Durham University

Modern Britons associate The Great Escape with the 1963 film of that name starring Steve McQueen, reffering to, of course, a mass escape by Allied prisoners during the second world war. But this title might more appropriately be applied to the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from Dunkirk between May 27 and June 4 1940.

As the UK marks the 80th anniversary of that escape, we shall hear much of the author JB Priestley’s first “postscript” for BBC Radio on Wednesday June 5. That broadcast coined the phrase “Little Ships” and even acknowledged Priestley’s own part in shaping understanding of Dunkirk. He asked listeners: “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”

But there was nothing inevitable about it.

Before pledging to “fight them on the beaches”, Winston Churchill himself reminded the House of Commons in the same speech that “wars are not won by evacuations”. He acknowledged that the BEF had courted disaster before depicting its escape as “a miracle of deliverance”. That the British public regards it as a triumph owes much to the work of British newspaper journalists and the Royal Navy press officers who briefed them.

How the ‘miracle’ came about

Dunkirk was not reported in eyewitness accounts from the beaches. The few war correspondents who struggled back with the retreating armies had no means by which to communicate. Reports, such as Evelyn Montague’s The Miracle of the BEF’s Return for the Manchester Guardian of Saturday June 1 1940, were penned by journalists invited to witness the Royal Navy’s delivery of evacuated soldiers to the ports of south-east England. There, they were briefed with patriotic fervour and naval pride as well as facts.

The first sentence of Montague’s piece gives a flavour of the mood that was inspired:

In the grey chill dawn today in a south-eastern port, war correspondents watched with incredulous joy the happening of a miracle.

The reporter – a grandson of the famous Guardian editor and owner C.P. Scott – did not fail to give the Royal Navy credit. Having described a waterfront hotel in which “every armchair held its sleeping soldier or sailor, huddled beneath overcoat or ground sheet”, Montague turned to the scene in the port:

As the rising sun was turning the grey clouds to burnished copper the first destroyer of the day slid swiftly into the harbour, its silhouette bristling with the heads of the men who stood packed shoulder to shoulder on its decks.

Back in 1940, the Times did not award reporters bylines. Its report of the BEF’s return on June 1 was by “Our Special Correspondent”. He too witnessed the scenes in a south-eastern port (security censorship forbade more precise identification). The men, he wrote, were “weary but undaunted”. Protected by “the ceaseless patrol maintained by British warships and aeroplanes in the English Channel”, men who had displayed “steadiness under a cruel test” were “pouring onto the quays”.

‘Undaunted’: Allied servicemen arrive in London after evacuation from Dunkirk.
War Office official photographer, Imperial War Museum, CC BY

The Daily Mirror’s Bernard Gray, writing in its stablemate, the Sunday Pictorial, gave his verdict in a column on June 2 headlined simply “The Whole Magnificent Story”. “There have been many glorious episodes in the history of Britain”, he opined, “but, if that great English historian Macaulay were able to select from 2,000 years the most glorious week in the annals of the British Empire, this last seven days would surely be the week he would have chosen.”

Gray did not hesitate to offer comparisons:

Never mind the defeat of the Armada. Forget even the Battle of Waterloo, the epic of Trafalgar. For this week has seen the British Empire at its mightiest – in defeat.

Standing “in the streets of an English Channel Port”, G. Ward Price of the Daily Mail was similarly enthralled in his front-page piece, Rearguard Battles On, on June 1: “It is a picture of staggering heroism, fighting spirit and determination that never weakened in the face of overwhelming odds in men and material.”

A defeat, however ‘glorious’

It took Hilaire Belloc, the Anglo-French author of Cautionary Tales for Children, to recognise in his column for the Sunday Times (The Evacuation and After, June 2) that the withdrawal from Belgium and the collapse of Britain’s key ally, France, constituted a “catastrophe”.

In his defining examination of the elements that comprise Britain’s “received story” of 1940, The Myth of the Blitz, Scottish historian and poet Angus Calder noted that elements of the way the story was reported were misleading. However, Calder agreed that “Dunkirk was indeed a great escape”.

I celebrate the work British newspapers did to stiffen resolve and sustain morale at this time of grave national peril. In a democracy fighting totalitarianism, newspapers must balance their obligation to hold power to account and their duty to the national cause. The newspapers surveyed here certainly colluded in the creation of myths about Dunkirk, but their readers might not have welcomed any efforts to report Dunkirk any other way.

After all, myths are not lies and this one was studded with harsh facts. In Bernard Gray’s words for the Sunday Pictorial, Dunkirk was glorious despite the truth that: “The British Army has not won a battle. The British Army has retreated. The British Army has had to leave the Battlefield.”

For me, David Low captured the prevailing mood in his famous “Very Well, Alone” cartoon for the Evening Standard just a few weeks later on June 18. It depicts a British soldier alone before a raging sea and gesturing with a raised fist towards the Nazi-occupied continent from which German troops were expected to arrive at any moment.The Conversation

Tim Luckhurst, Principal of South College, Durham University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


What happened to the French army after Dunkirk



File 20170713 11780 dtkewf
French POWs being led away from the battlefield in May 1940.
Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Nina Wardleworth, University of Leeds

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in May 1940 from Dunkirk by a flotilla of small ships has entered British folklore. Dunkirk, a new action film by director Christopher Nolan, depicts the events from land, sea and air and has revived awe for the plucky courage of those involved.

But the story of the French army after Dunkirk is altogether less glorious, and perhaps because of that, less widely remembered. Of the 340,000 allied soldiers evacuated by boat from Dunkirk, 123,000 were French – but thousands more were not rescued and were taken prisoner by the Germans.

French media coverage of the premiere of Nolan’s film has presented the events as a British story in which French soldiers were involved, not a shared wartime narrative.

Operation Dynamo (the code name for the Dunkirk evacuation) took place between May 26 and June 4, 1940. The Germans entered Paris on June 14, but fighting continued in the east of France until June 24. General Charles De Gaulle made his now famous radio broadcast, calling on the French public not to accept defeat, on the BBC on June 18 from London, but very few of his compatriots are likely to have heard it on that date.

It is estimated that between 50,000 and 90,000 soldiers of the French army were killed in the fighting of May and June 1940. In addition to the casualties, 1.8m French soldiers, from metropolitan France and across the French empire, were captured during the Battle of France and made prisoners of war (POWs).

That early summer of 1940 in France was also marked by a mass exodus. At least six million civilians took to the roads to escape the advancing German troops, with frightening World War I stereotypes of German brutality at the forefront of their minds. They moved south and west through France, although most returned home following the June 22 armistice with Nazi Germany.

Such mass population movement both helped and hindered the French army. It made moving men and equipment much more difficult on crowded roads and railways. However, for the ordinary soldier who could procure civilian clothes, it allowed them to slip away from their units and rejoin their families.

Colonial troops massacred

The French army of 1940 included soldiers from across its empire in north, west and central Africa, the French West Indies and Indochina. These troops found it more difficult to disappear into the crowds. There were numerous massacres of west and central African troops in eastern France by the German army, who after separating them from their white officers, shot them.

There were 120,000 colonial prisoners of war captured during the Battle of France. They were housed in different camps from their white, metropolitan French counterparts, all on French soil and French run, because of Nazi racial fears of them mixing with German civilians.

Colonial POWs from the French empire under guard by German soldiers, June 1940.
RaBoe/Wikipedia

French POWs were sent to camps in Germany where they were quickly set to work on farms, in industry, mines and on the railways, to replace German men away fighting. The POWs lived and worked alongside the German population, leading to both tensions and friendships. The fate of these POWs became central to the propaganda of the French collaborationist government, based in Vichy.

Numerous government programmes tried to encourage young French men and women to sign up for work in Germany in exchange for the return of a POW to France. But, most prisoners – about one million – only returned to France following the end of the war in May 1945. They were often greeted by widespread indifference, even sometimes hostility because of their supposed links and sympathies to the Vichy regime. In reality, they were no more pro-Vichy than many other parts of French society.

A difficult history for France

The very swift German victory in May and June 1940 and the humiliating armistice that followed, meant that post-war French society and the state sought to minimise and forget the defeat, preferring to concentrate on more glorious stories of the Resistance and the Free French. There was an unsuccessful campaign in the French press in 2015 for a state commemorative event and memorial to honour the war dead from France and its then empire, who the campaign labelled as “the first Resistance fighters”. Former French president, François Hollande, increased the number of state commemorative events for key moments from France’s 20th century history, but still ignored the events of 1940.

Despite official silences, the fighting of the summer of 1940 has been the subject of French novels and films ever since. Robert Merle’s 1949 novel Weekend at Dunkirk was adapted into a successful feature film, with an audience of three million on its release in 1964. The protagonist, Julien, is a French soldier desperate to make it onto one of the boats of the British evacuation in a town shattered by bombing. Claude Simon’s 1960 novel, The Flanders Road, painted a picture of an outdated French army, ground down by months of a phoney war, fighting against a much better equipped, more modern German enemy.

The ConversationFor French POWs, Dunkirk and those battles of May and June 1940 marked the beginning of five years of humiliation and hardship, before many returned to a country that wanted to forget them and their fighting experiences.

Nina Wardleworth, Teaching Fellow in French, University of Leeds

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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