Socialist Worker

The road to Dunkirk

The BBC last week set its sights on a key episode in another war

Issue No. 1890

THE BBC may well feel its back is against the wall in its battle with New Labour over coverage of the Iraq war. But the corporation must be on safer ground with another conflict, World War Two.

Over four nights last week we were given an account of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from France in 1940. The story was told through dramatic reconstructions and newsreel footage. The final programme was devoted to the real voices of the soldiers whose stories had been recounted.

Dunkirk has always been one of the great myths of World War Two. Victory, it is said, was snatched from the jaws of defeat through the discipline of the British soldiers and the improvisation of the 'little ships' who rescued them from France.

To say this version of history is far from the truth is in no way meant as an insult to those ordinary soldiers and civilians who told their stories, often very movingly, in the BBC programmes. But Dunkirk was, in the private words of Winston Churchill, 'the greatest British military defeat for many centuries'.

Fighting on the Western Front began on 10 May 1940. Within days the German army had punched through the Allied lines and the British forces began their retreat. The tiny, poorly armed expeditionary force expressed the weaknesses of the British Empire itself. Unable to meet the huge cost of defending its overseas colonies while meeting threats from Germany, Italy and Japan, the British economy was not ready for war.

Desperate attempts to appease Hitler in the 1930s were a response from British leaders to this weakness. The expeditionary force began its retreat in unseemly haste. On several occasions its commanders refused pleas from its French and Belgium allies to stand and fight.

They only informed the French government that the British forces were getting out after the evacuation had begun. The French army did not even trust the British to defend the perimeter around Dunkirk. The troops themselves were confused, badly led and hungry. While the soldiers struggled to survive, the British cabinet discussed negotiating a separate peace with Germany.

Despite the later myths, Churchill at this stage decided to fight on only to obtain better terms while others in the cabinet wanted to open talks with Hitler.

To the BBC's credit some of the tensions in the British cabinet and between the British and French governments were shown in the programmes. The misery felt by the ordinary British soldiers was also depicted. The troops were a lot less stiff-upper-lipped than John Mills ever was in Dunkirk the movie.

And the BBC is to be congratulated for assembling a great oral history of the events as part of the project. But much of the great myth remained in the programmes, and could you really expect anything else?

The truth is that for millions of ordinary people Dunkirk was a radicalising experience. The British ruling class had appeased Hitler and then brought the country to the verge of defeat by Nazi Germany.

A radical pamphlet, The Guilty Men, which slammed the appeasers, sold in its thousands. Radicals like J B Priestley and George Orwell gained a huge audience for their vision of a people's war which would defeat Hitler and bring about a more just society.

This feeling led to Churchill, supposedly Britain's great war leader, being kicked out of office in 1945.

Books: 1940: Myth and Reality by Clive Ponting. A People's War by Angus Calder. Film: Dunkirk (1958) starring John Mills.

TV: Faking It reveals the truth

Faking It Tuesdays, 9pm, Channel 4

YOU MIGHT have avoided the Channel 4 programme Faking It, thinking it's yet another one of those dire 'reality TV' shows. But Faking It is worth watching. Someone is given four weeks training in a task they have never done before in order to try and fool a panel of three experts.

The best programmes show how ordinary people can achieve skills they thought were beyond them. This is particularly true of the working class people on the show. A young woman who is a stewardess on a ferry becomes a skipper on a racing yacht. She beats the other experienced competitors in a race and fools the experts in the snobby world of yachting.

A bicycle courier enters the world of the rich and the royals to become a polo player. With no previous experience of horse riding or knowledge of polo, he still succeeds in duping the experts.

Most working class people have it drummed into them that on the one side are the 'experts', and then there are the rest of us who don't have the same 'talent'. Faking It is entertainment TV. But it also reinforces the idea that ordinary people have great potential that often goes unrecognised and unused.

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Sat 28 Feb 2004, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1890
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