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Detailed But Limited
on 8 August 2007
The `miracle' of Dunkirk, as Churchill styled our most famous military disaster, is one surrounded by myths. This book sets out to dispel some of them, but for readers unfamiliar with the story of the fall of France in 1940, it might not be the best place to start, as it does not convey the broad picture very clearly. An entertaining opening of British soldiers visiting French brothels, like children let loose in a sweet shop, is followed later by a detailed account of the `Mechelen incident', when German plans were captured in January 1940. But the implications are less well dealt with, and Colonel-General Gerd von Rundstedt, whose forces performed the decisive German attack through the Ardennes called 'sichelschnitt', or sickle-cut, does not make an appearance until chapter 11.
The use of first-hand accounts conveys the confusion and desperation of the fighting, and the narrative is sometimes intensely personal. There are French and German voices early on, but thereafter it relies on British ones as the book concentrates on the efforts of the soldiers holding the defensive ring while the `little boats' and the Royal Navy set about the work of evacuation. In this it succeeds in creating a vivid impression of what it was like for those desperate men. The book's best sections are those dealing with set pieces, such as the defence of the village of Cassel, the massacres of British prisoners by SS men at Le Paradis and Wormhout, but this is at the expense of the evacuation itself which is covered in much less detail. The book finishes describing the capture of two-thirds of 51st (Highland) Division at St Valery-en-Caux, and the tragic sinking of the Lancastria with over 3,500 lives lost, but it skates quickly over the further evacuations that brought 144,000 British servicemen back from France from points south of the River Somme.