The Miracle of Dunkirk: The True Story of Operation Dynamo by Walter Lord. Open Road Media (Reprint edition). 370 pages. 2017
I read this book after watching Christopher Nolan’s excellent film Dunkirk. This is a very detailed and well-researched (written source materials, more than 500 interviews) book. I appreciated the book, but some may get lost in all of the details.
The book tells the amazing story of approximately 400,000 Allied troops that were trapped against the coast near the French port of Dunkirk. Hitler’s advancing tanks were only ten miles away. On May 26, “Operation Dynamo” began. By June 4, more than 338,000 men had been evacuated safely to England in one of the great rescues of all time. It was a crucial turning point in World War II.
The book tells the reader the backstory of Dunkirk, and fills in the gaps that the movie viewers may have had. How did the troops get to the beach and into an evacuation situation in the first place? I read about the surrender of the Belgian Army, and the at times contentious relationship between the British and French.
There were many challenges in evacuating the troops across the English Channel to Dover. There was the difficulty of loading at water’s edge. Once loaded, the departing boats faced bombings from the air by the Germans, running into underwater mines or encountering German torpedo boats.
It was Captain Tennant who came up with the idea of using the eastern mole or breakwater of Dunkirk harbor as an improvised pier. A steady stream of destroyers, minesweepers, ferries, and other steamers would ease alongside the mole, load troops, and then head for England. Dinghies, rowboats, and launches would load at water’s edge and ferry the troops to small ships waiting offshore. These would then ferry the men to the growing fleet of destroyers, minesweepers, and packets lying still farther out. When filled, these would head for Dover. It was a practical, workable scheme, but it was also very slow.
The author writes about a mass of dots coming over the horizon that filled the sea on May 30. The dots were all heading toward Dunkirk. The “dots” were every kind of boat manned by regular British citizens, many without any navigational equipment or experienced captains. They were joining in the rescue effort for Operation Dynamo.
The author states that there were several miracles of Dunkirk.
- The weather. The English Channel is usually rough, and rarely behaves for very long. Yet a calm sea was essential to the evacuation, and during the nine days of Dunkirk the Channel was a millpond. He writes that “old-timers” still say they have never seen it so smooth.
- Hitler’s order of May 24, halting his tanks just as they were closing in for the kill.
- Another miracle was provided by the German bombers. The German planes rarely strafed the crowded beaches. They never used fragmentation bombs. They never attacked tempting targets like Dover or Ramsgate.
He writes that whatever the reasons, these lapses allowed additional thousands of men to come home.
Britain lost 2,472 guns and 63,879 vehicles were abandoned, but 224,686 men returned home safely. The rescue electrified the people of Britain, welded them together, gave them a sense of purpose that the war had previously lacked. The author writes about the sense of national participation that Dunkirk aroused.
When the evacuation began, Churchill thought 30,000 might be saved. In the end, over 338,000 were landed in England, with another 4,000 lifted to Cherbourg and other French ports still in Allied hands. Continue reading