OPERATION AERIAL: CHURCHILL’S SECOND MIRACLE OF DELIVERANCE

Reviewed by: BRIAN TRIM

I not only found this book informative, but I also thoroughly enjoyed it. Our ever-greater distance from the actual events of the Second World War seems to yield two trends. First is the ‘History Channel’ effect – unedifying commentary laid over endlessly re-used newsreel to give a popular but inherently reductive narrative of events. The second trend, however, adds value through new analysis and new sources, countering the dumbing-down of popular understanding. David Worsfold’s book is firmly of the second trend.

The author’s introduction describes the ‘trap’ of believing that in 1940, large-scale British military activity in France ended at Dunkirk. This of course was not true, but such is the hagiography around Dunkirk that it has obscured the four weeks of evacuations which followed it. This book is intended to redress this issue.

It is important to recognise, this is not a detailed operational history. While clearly very well researched, you will not find minutely detailed tactical data here, nor extracts of ship’s logs or unit war diaries. It does have a comprehensive bibliography if you are in search of those things. The author is an experienced journalist and, in some ways, his book is a fine example of long-form journalism. Having set out the strategic framework, he skillfully layers chapters to explain key events through the quite remarkable experiences of ordinary people. Amongst them are military and naval people, but also diplomats, journalists, and expatriate families. In 255 pages, he explains the operational geometry that resulted in units being isolated and channeled to various ports, alongside the accelerating collapse of military resistance.

I suspect this book will have particular points of interest for many readers. The sinking of Lancastria, the Little Ships of Jersey, and the evacuation of the Famille De Gaulle were some I found noteworthy. Other subjects treated include efforts to recover BEF and RAF equipment, the care and evacuation of the wounded – and medical personnel – and the urgent work of demolition crews in progressively destroying port infrastructure down the French Atlantic coast. I was also pleased to find well-considered maps, a useful chronology of key events, and sensible use of photos. My one criticism would be the pastiche of marketing imposed on the book. Despite the sub-title, I noted few miracles but a great deal of careful planning and human endurance. Additionally, while the somewhat clumsily pasted photo of Churchill on the cover may attract the eye, I cannot help but find it rather twee.

Overall, very readable, very informative, very reasonably priced. Recommended.