DUNKIRK AND THE LITTLE SHIPS & IMAGES OF WAR. DUNKIRK EVACUATION: OPERATION DYNAMO; NINE DAYS THAT SAVED AN ARMY

Reviewed by: ANDY FIELD

I was really impressed by the superb job Philip Weir has done in producing what was, for me, an unexpected gem. It’s an ideal introductory book, not just about the evacuation from Dunkirk, but about the progress of the war up to that point, as well as about the Little Ships Association.

The opening chapter, ‘The Fall of France’, takes us from the invasion of Poland, covers the war at sea, the Phoney War, right through to the collapse of the Netherlands, Belgium and France and the retreat of the BEF to the coast. Next follows, ‘The Evacuation’, which details, not just the naval role, but also the part the RAF played, the allies’ contribution and the problems Ramsey faced in lifting so many troops of all nationalities off the beaches and from Dunkirk’s East Mole. Weir takes care not to belittle the role played by the ‘little ships’ but does place it in context, compared to the evacuations from Dunkirk Harbour. The third chapter details the ships, from destroyers and other naval vessels, cross-Channel ferries, right down to the small craft involved. Several of the ships mentioned are also illustrated with accompanying photographs, which are a particular strong point of this concise book.

Philip Weir then moves on to remind us that the British and their allies were not just evacuating from Dunkirk. Troops were also being evacuated from Norway at the same time, stretching naval resources thinly, and also from other French ports. Weir does not forget tragedies such as the sinking of the Lancastria nor the surrender of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery, following the failed attempt to evacuate them. One particular photograph struck me, that of Major General Fortune standing with Erwin Rommel, after surrendering his division, many of whom can be seen in the background. I wondered what any of these men were thinking just at that moment. The final section of Weir’s book covers the formation of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships, prompted by the ex-RAF pilot and TV presenter, Raymond Baxter’s, purchase of motor cruiser L’Orage. Superbly illustrated throughout, especially with so many colour illustrations, I really enjoyed reading Philip Weir’s book. Its packed with information and excellent value for money. Highly recommended.

If Weir’s book gives a ‘broad brush’ account of the first campaigns and evacuations of 1940, the second book, by John Grehan & Alexander Nicoll focuses much more closely on the Dunkirk evacuation itself. I was equally as impressed. Drawing extensively on photographs from their own and the Historic Military Press collections, supported by photographs taken by Sub-Lieutenant JR Crosby of the paddle minesweeper HMS Oriole, Lieutenant JG Wells of the Naval Beach Staff, Leonard Puttnam, an official photographer, Edward Malindine of the Daily Herald and German photographers, they present “…..a legacy of dramatic images…a vivid and memorable picture,…” of the Dunkirk evacuation. There are also some photographic stills from the 1958 film, Dunkirk, which do add atmosphere. Quite honestly, though, the book doesn’t need them to tell the story. The original photographs are enough.

After the Introduction, covering the retreat to Dunkirk, the text is organised as a ‘day-by-day’ Account, from Day 1, Sunday 26th May, to Day 9, Monday 3rd June, finishing with the final chapter, The Aftermath. The strength of the book obviously lies in the imagery, which is superbly evocative. Time and again I looked at photographs and wondered about the men in them, British, French, Belgian and German, now long gone, and what they must have been thinking and feeling. Faces look out the reader from the Mole, from destroyers and from railway carriages. Men walk along in Dover, supporting wounded comrades, staring at a photographer who is taking their picture. What did they think of him?  What were they feeling?

In another, as a party of Royal Engineers disembark at Dover, one man casts a sideways look at a comrade, carrying a ceremonial sword. What’s on his face? Jealousy, indifference? The RAF pilot, pictured, still carrying his parachute; has he endured insults and name-callings from troops convinced that the RAF was doing nothing to help them get away? And what of the German soldiers, wandering through the abandoned equipment, smiling at the camera from wrecked boats, relaxing, or looking at the graves of French and British dead, what are their thoughts? Relief at a war surely won?  Apprehension over what may happen next, or are they just relief to be resting until…whatever?

This is where the real power of this book lies. The imagery. The discarded equipment, the abandoned vehicles, the debris, including downed fighters, littering the beach, and wrecked naval vessels, speak potently about the evacuation. No-one who was not there can know what was really experienced by these men, but at least the photographs allow us to think, to empathise. This is a really thought-provoking book and again, I would certainly recommend it to members.