The British Army in the UK- Evacuation From Dunkirk, May-june 1940. War Office/CC
I am whistling the theme to the Dambusters as I write this, obviously. There’s something in the air after Mrs May’s promise to fight them during the serving of the canapés, fight them over the smoked salmon starter, fight them on the roast beef, and never surrender, until the dessert and port, and so on. I am also saluting, as I type, just to annoy my ultra-Remainer friends in the media who are so obsessed about other people being obsessed by the War that they are always the first to mention it.
Of course, I am not saluting. Or whistling. Or not much.
But honestly, I have just read in another place the worst nonsense from one of my favourite writers and old friend Alex Massie. He is a magnificent man. His fingers glide across the keyboard. His brain delivers wit and incisive analysis for his readers. He is even more cynical about politics than me.
Still, his latest piece is rot. Massie says that Dunkirk was a defeat, as though this is news, and draws a parallel with Theresa May’s skirmish this week with the ghastly Jean-Claude Juncker. Brexit is a defeat, apparently (no it’s not). The useless British, he argues, have misunderstood this just as they supposedly misunderstood Dunkirk.
No, no, no, to quote a former Prime Minister.
The people most prone to misunderstanding the Second World War and its historiography and impact seem to be those ultra-liberal commentators who accuse others of doing so.
A few points:
1) Dunkirk was a defeat, of course it was, or it was a moment of good fortune after a humiliating defeat on the continent for the British and the French. Churchill said this at the time! Wars would not be won by evacuations. The church services celebrated lucky salvation, not victory. We had been bested and only with a steady nerve and luck had we got so many men away. The retreat was a shambles and was recorded in diaries as such. The news reporting of the time was straightforward and not hysterical. Ever since Dunkirk has stood as a symbol of providential escape, before further setbacks and then a regrouping. That’s what it was. Its reputation is justified.
2) The British think they won the War alone and they think this makes us superior. No, we don’t think this. Yes, we stood alone (in Europe) for a while, partly by accident of geography and history (France was exhausted after its incredible sacrifice in the First World War). But alongside us were the countries that became the Commonwealth. America joined after Pearl Harbour and the British offered an immediate alliance with the Soviets after Hitler’s invasion of Russia. There was enormous domestic pressure for more assistance to the scumbag Stalin who had allied with the Nazis. The Russian sacrifice in lives and treasure that followed was much bigger than that of Britain. No-one, other than a few ignorant idiots, has ever claimed otherwise. The stuff that the Brits venerated in film and popular culture – such as the Battle of Britain – was worth venerating. But the British view of those years has long been disputed and debated, in Britain. Look at the row that greeted the publication of Alanbrooke’s (edited) memoirs because he told the truth about Churchill. The myth-making comes now from those endlessly accusing others of being fixated on the War. It’s a complex story, like all the most interesting stories.
3) British amateurism and our periodic ineptitude is a good thing worth celebrating. In the last decade or so, the historical fashion (led by Max Hastings) has been to emphasise the inferiority of the British and their forces. Germany assembled out of its officer tradition and maniacal leadership the best army in history since, perhaps, the Romans. Fair enough. It is tremendous that the British were amateurs who would rather have stayed home and gone to the pub. The deep suspicion of a standing army and island status (pure luck) mean that in various scrapes the British have tended to be initially complacent and then on the backfoot, before somehow scrambling together a response put together by patritoic amateurs. Not always successfully, but more often than not. This is infinitely preferable to ruthless efficiency and excessive enthusiasm. Look where that leads in Europe.
Dunkirk was defeat? Of course it was.