Dunkirk: From Disaster to Deliverance provides a good small-unit view of the British withdrawal from Dunkirk in June 1940. While this account is far from comprehensive, it does address the essential elements of the campaign and also serves as a guide to the modern monuments in the area.
The book consists of eight chapters, beginning with a brief overview of the Phoney War and the initial German blitzkrieg in May 1940. Unfortunately, the book provides little information on how the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was deployed when its commander, Lord Gort, decided to withdraw to Dunkirk on 26 May. A map showing BEF dispositions on 26 May and an order of battle for the BEF would have been helpful, but they are not provided. The next two chapters deal with minor incidents that attempt to convey the flavor the retreat: a desperate brigade-level defense of a fortified town to delay the German advance and a massacre of British POWs by an SS unit. While interesting, these sections give little feel for what the BEF as a whole was doing on 26-30 May, since the author focuses on a few battalions in the rearguard. Four chapters then cover the defense of the perimeter and the actual evacuation, and these are certainly the most interesting aspect of the book. A final chapter that asks, was Dunkirk a victory or defeat, serves as a conclusion. Overall, the quality of the text and photographs are quite good, although the maps are just adequate. The lack of an order of battle for either side and a chronology are unfortunate omissions.
The author attempts the difficult task of de-mythologizing the "myth" of Dunkirk while not reducing or obscuring the value of this withdrawal. In the areas he has covered, he succeeds. Brave last stands by determined British rearguards are counter-balanced by ugly scenes of panic and self-preservation on the evacuation beaches. Large ships evacuated most British troops, not the "little fleet" of civilian boats as in popular imagination. The evacuation operation was aided by Hitler's "stop order" and overcast weather far more than stopgap efforts like the defense of Calais. British exaggeration of German air losses and minimization of Allied losses are exposed as war-time propaganda intended to buck-up morale. Most important, the meaning of the defeat and evacuation are put in proper perspective. Certainly, the author's point that American willingness to render Lend Lease aid to Britain was influenced by the British saving their army and thereby, the means to stay in the war. Also, the shock of the defeat in France served to invigorate the British war effort, which had initially been quite sluggish. After Dunkirk, the British people knew that they were in a fight for national survival. However, the author's assessment that Dunkirk saw the emergence of Hitler's self-destructive megalomania and hence, marked "the beginning of the end for the Third Reich," are wide of the mark. Hitler's megalomania began long before June 1940, and the Third Reich was on borrowed time once Hitler began a global war in September 1939.
This account of Dunkirk is far from comprehensive, because it covers only selected areas at selected times. Military historians will be disappointed in that British corps, divisions and brigades are rarely referred to in the text and the German side is very thinly detailed. The encirclement of several French divisions in the Lille pocket, which bought time for the British in Dunkirk, is not even mentioned and the French are mostly depicted as defeatist slackers. Unfortunately, there is no mention of what happened to the French troops evacuated from Dunkirk or the second BEF that was sent to Cherbourg. Dunkirk marked the apogee of the German Blitzkrieg, and the accomplishment of wiping over fifty enemy divisions off the chessboard in less than one month should not be underplayed. Nor should the ingenuity of the British in withdrawing and rebuilding their army under the worst circumstances. In many respects, Dunkirk was the "finest hour" of the British and German armies in the Second World War, but for different reasons.