By Alistair Farrow
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Dunkirk and an empire in decline

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Issue 2564
A scene from Christopher Nolans latest blockbuster Dunkirk
A scene from Christopher Nolan’s latest blockbuster Dunkirk

The establishment claims the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Dunkirk was an example of people pulling together in the national interest.

In reality it was a humiliating rout followed by a cynical plot by British generals and politicians to abandon troops and limit damage.

Between 26 May and 4 June 1940 some 186,000 British and 125,000 French soldiers were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk in France.

Speaking in the House of Commons, then Tory prime minister Winston Churchill described the evacuation as “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance… by unconquerable fidelity… there was a victory inside this deliverance.”

Afterwards Churchill admitted privately he had only expected between 20,000 or 30,000 people to make it back.

He described Dunkirk as “the greatest British military defeat for many centuries”.

The propaganda magazine The War Illustrated ran an article about the evacuation. “At Dunkirk tragedy was turned into triumph,” ran the headline.

A new film directed by Christopher Nolan, although well-made, does little to rock the boat when it comes to the mainstream version of events.

It is largely context-free. German soldiers are never depicted. And the film shows some of the chaos of the evacuation and the grinding horror of war, but offers few explanations.

There are “amazing images and dazzlingly accomplished set pieces,” according to the Guardian newspaper. And the Daily Telegraph described it as “a work of heart-hammering intensity and grandeur”.

Leaving the gushing to one side, although the chaos of Dunkirk is depicted in detail, it is shown from a British perspective. There is little mention of the more than 100,000 French troops who were stranded as well.

Nor is there any mention of French troops guarding the perimeter while the British generals plotted their evacuation.

In reality the dead of Dunkirk and the Battle of France were victims of British military incompetence and cynical manoeuvring.

At the outset of the war, the BEF was badly armed and small in number. It was woefully underprepared, despite all the bluster of Churchill and others.

Their radio communications and military intelligence were hopelessly inadequate. “Neither at headquarters or at the fighting front did the British know what hit them,” went one account, quoted in Angus Calder’s The Myth of the Blitz.


The German army broke through British lines quickly when battle started in Flanders on the Western Front on 10 May 1940.

By 22 May, British generals had already begun pulling troops away from the fighting.

The French general in command, Blanchard, ordered a counter-attack on the German army. British generals ignored it and continued their retreat towards Dunkirk.

Abandoned, the French army followed. It hoped the town and surrounding industrial area could be used as a base from which to attack the German army’s supply lines as it advanced on Paris.

Once they got to Dunkirk, British generals didn’t tell their French counterparts they were evacuating until they had already begun on 26 May, the much-hyped “Operation Dynamo”.

The British left them to man the perimeter around the town and focus on turning the area into a fortified base.

Meanwhile, the British had begun quietly evacuating non?military personnel days before. Churchill was ­personally involved in the deception.

On 29 May the German army escalated its efforts to kill off the BEF with air and submarine attacks. If it had sustained the attack, it could have meant the total destruction of the BEF and large amounts of the French army.

Dunkirk saw lives lost because of the arrogance, self-interest and cowardice of a ruling class during the desperate death throes of an empire.

Bizarrely, Hitler gave the order for ground troops to hold back rather than move in and finish the British, French and Belgian armies off.

By the start of the Second World War the British Empire was stretched to breaking point. Simultaneously defending its colonial territories and fighting a war on the European mainland was too much for the British state.

Laurence Thompson recalled his experience as a soldier at the time, “There are in the country fewer than a thousand tanks, most of them unserviceable,” he said. “No division has anything like its establishment of field anti?tank guns.

“At the current rate of ­production it will take two months to bring a single division up to strength in twenty?five pounders?and there are 29 divisions.”

The mainstream account of the Second World War is stuffed with propaganda to disguise the frailty of an empire in decline.

The image of hundreds of little ships crewed by civilians volunteering to go to Dunkirk is also a distortion of the facts. The evacuation remained a secret for days.

An illustration of the evacuation

An illustration of the evacuation

Civilian-owned ships crewed with civilians rescued some 25,000 soldiers out of a total of some 300,000—significant, but not decisive.

Small ships were involved but were crewed by navy reservists, similar to conscripts. The main civilian ships used were large ferries. The image of thousands of seafarers queuing up to volunteer in a display of Blitz spirit in the national interest is largely false.

And the context that set the stage for Britain’s involvement in the Second World War is a testament to the racism and self-interest of the British ruling class.

During the Spanish Civil War the British refused to send aid to Republican forces fighting Franco’s fascists. Then-foreign secretary Anthony Eden secretly supported the fascists.

Meanwhile, Franco’s army was being armed by Germany and Italy, which even sent troops to fight in the war.

The rise of Hitler went unchallenged by the British ruling class, a section of which actively supported the Nazis. They were more than happy to sacrifice the lives of ordinary people across Europe in order to concentrate on maintaining their empire.

In 1938 Hitler demanded the western part of what was ­then Czechoslovakia. British prime minister Neville Chamberlain agreed, leaving the Czech people to fight alone.

“This is peace in our time,” he declared. Today he is presented as a dreamer and a fantasist, an easy target compared to the hard-headed Churchill


But Chamberlain’s position was the dominant attitude of the British ruling class at the time, to leave the Germans alone if they didn’t threaten Britain’s imperial interests.

The British establishment had no problem with the mass extermination of Jewish people, which was well underway by 1940. Nor did they object to the murder of trade unionists and socialists.

Their real concern was the defence of Britain’s power and maintaining its leading place in the world order.

Only when the bosses were threatened, and millions of ordinary people became increasingly horrified at the rise of fascism, did Britain get involved.

Labour’s involvement in a coalition government during the war, and nationalist propaganda, helped to blunt some of the class antagonism towards Churchill.

Yet contrary to the mainstream story of the war, class antagonisms did not disappear. In 1940 some 940,000 days were “lost” to strikes and in 1941 the figure rose to over a million.

Dunkirk had a transformative effect on thousands of people. It exposed the weakness of the British state and the contempt with which the ruling class viewed the lives of ordinary people.

“I saw literally hundreds and hundreds of lorry loads of soldiers coming through the village, coming back from Dunkirk,” recalled one person, a child in Kent at the time.

“Soldiers with no uniforms, in shirts, in a hell of a state.

“I felt certain that the war was over, that we’d lost. Us kids were horror stricken. No one could defeat the British army in my mind.

“But these soldiers passing through the village were not only ragged, they were starving.”

In the wake of the disaster thousands of copies of a radical pamphlet, The Guilty Men, were sold.

Written anonymously by Michael Foot, the Liberal Frank Owen and Peter Howard, it argued that those who made deals with Hitler and the Nazis should be brought to justice.

Dunkirk saw lives lost because of the arrogance, self-interest and cowardice of a ruling class during the desperate death throes of an empire.


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