Tuesday 5 July 2016

Dunkirk: The British Evacuation, 1940

I recently finished reading this book that has sat on my shelves for quite a while. I have quite a backlog of unread books on my shelves and I'm trying to make a little dent in the 'must read' list. Part of the problem has been the chronic lack of lunch breaks in my current job meaning I never seem to have the time I used to have to read every day. However I have changed roles (and office) within the Charity I work for and lunch breaks - and therefore reading - are back on the menu!

Dunkirk is one of those episodes of the war that most people know about but the details remain sketchy. I have visited the wartime tunnel complex under Dover Castle where Admiral Ramsay coordinated the evacuation and its quite evocative to stand at the railing where Churchill once stood looking out to sea and beyond to an army on the verge of annihilation. My hope was this book would bring to life the wider story and fill in some of the broader gaps in my knowledge. In part it was successful, but I found it a hard story to read.

My main criticism of Robert Jackson's history of Dunkirk was that it is too detailed. For some readers this may be exactly what they enjoy but I found the overall narrative hard to follow. Many paragraphs seemed like endless lists of unit names and often the book read like a series of regimental war diaries. There are sections where this doesn't happen, where the author takes a more strategic level analysis of events rather than focusing on tactical level details. The reality is that only the larger picture shows the evolving shape of events. Look too closely and it becomes a jumbled mass of marching soldiers, burning vehicles and everywhere, desperate refugees. On the ground the British and French armies were throwing together ad-hoc divisions to face rapidly changing threats. Trying to understand the tactical situation is like trying to nail down mist. The overall impression is one of utter chaos.

The truth of course is that amid the chaos staff officers were working harder than they ever had to maintain order, mount defences and marshal hundreds of thousands of soldiers towards a diminishing number of viable embarkation points. Even after reading his book it is hard to `comprehend the complexity of the situation and even harder to understand how so many soldiers were evacuated as the Germans closed in.

Despite my criticisms this is a good book and worthwhile reading if you are interested in this period of the war. This particular edition has a series of very good maps (albeit at the back of the book rather than amongst the text they relate to) and an excellent bibliography of further reading.

Dunkirk: The British Evacuation, 1940
Author/s:   Robert Jackson
Format:     Paperback, 206 Pages
Publisher:  Cassell 1976 (Reprinted 2002)
Rating:      ★★★☆


  1. Read a few books on Dunkirk when I played WW2, never read this one!

  2. A good solid review. Not read it, but now tempted.

  3. Didn't Hugh Sebag-Montefiore write a history of Dunkirk? I seem to remember it was a very good read...


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