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Gardner, W.J.R. (editor) The Evacuation from Dunkirk: 'Operation Dynamo', 26 May - 4 June 1940. London: Frank Cass, 2000.
Foreword; Preface; Addendum to Sources; List of Abbreviations; Sources; Introduction; photos; maps; tables; Appendices; Index
Frank Cass Publishers, one of the planet's leading sources of serious military titles, has kicked off a new series of books with The Evacuation from Dunkirk and The Naval Operations of the Campaign in Norway. These, and upcoming studies in the series, were originally published in the immediate post-war years by the Naval Historical Branch of the Royal Navy for internal use and were prepared using primary source material from the Public Records Office such as reports from ships and individual officers participating in the evacuation, the Admiralty War Diary, French Admiralty records, etc.
This particular title was originally written in 1949. To it has been added a Foreword by the First Sea Lord and a Preface by the editor of the new edition, W.J.R. Gardner.
Following a brief introduction to the situation, taken largely from Lord Gort's official Despatch, the study begins a day-by-day description of the decisions being made about evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk, how those decisions were implemented, and how the force of events altered the process. For example, the original plan called for two days of operations in the hopes of lifting as many as 45,000 men from the continent. Despite the collapse of Belgium and the surrender of its army, the BEF and the French managed to hold the perimeter considerably longer, allowing evacuation of over 300,000 Allied troops. (The exact figure for men rescued varies somewhat from source to source.)
Due to the original perception that Dunkirk itself was aflame and its facilities untenable, the RN quickly altered the original plan and diverted considerably larger resources to a single, quick operation. This improvised infusion of additional ships turned out to be one of the most important reasons for the much increased numbers of troops who were lifted over a considerably longer period than initially envisioned.
The book goes into much detail about the arrival of naval shore parties, establishment of communications, the content of important signals between the continent and Dover, movement of individual ships, vessels lost, and men rescued. While the main emphasis is naturally on the Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force are not ignored. In fact, the authors explain that while the RAF was unable to put sufficient aircraft over the beaches to drive away the Luftwaffe, the strenuous and costly exertions of the pilots greatly hindered the enemy and prevented Goering's flyers from entirely halting the operation. This was all the more important since British AA gunners around Dunkirk were among the first to be evacuated.
The notion is also put to rest that a large percentage of the evacuated troops were saved by private craft manned by fishermen and amateur yachtsmen. Indeed, the vast majority of soldiers were taken back to England aboard Royal Navy vessels. Similarly, the carefully compiled numbers show that a relatively small percentage of men were embarked directed from the beaches; most were taken off from the harbor at Dunkirk.
While not of the genre that glorifies the operation as an incredible success, neither is The Evacuation from Dunkirk much like Nicholas Harman's iconoclastic Dunkirk: The Patriotic Myth. Because this was written for naval officers by naval officers, it tends to be a very straightforward description of events. Successes are acknowledged, but failures are not intentionally concealed. For example, the account makes it clear that many valuable boats used to carry troops out to ships in deeper water were lost because no one would remain with them and the boats were simply left to drift away. At the same time, in a number of cases rescue ships turned back and returned to England without ever reaching France.
While the narrative closes with an analysis of the operation as a whole, a study of this sort inevitably will be far stronger in presenting information than in evaluating data, interpreting events, presenting opinions, and making critical judgments. That's certainly the case here. Rather than presenting opinions and making judgments, the authors offer page after page of appendices with lists of ships and craft involved, troops lifted by each, lengthy tables of evacuation locations, vessels, and numbers, digests of signals exchanged, and much more.
This is a fine, valuable piece of history, and as close to the original sources as most readers are likely to get without a visit to Kew. While the records on which this is based have been used in other books on the topic, The Evacuation from Dunkirk provides an unobstructed view of what happened in the waters off Dunkirk without the distorting lens of mythology. Recommended.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Frank Cass.
Thanks to Cass for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 6 August 2000
Copyright © 2000 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone