Customer Review

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth a read, 25 Jun 2008
This review is from: The Sinking of the "Lancastria": Britain's Greatest Maritime Disaster and Churchill's Cover-up (Paperback)
If all you know about the evacuation from France in 1940 is the story of Dunkirk, this gripping book will interest you. It begins almost at the end of the story, with the sinking of the Lancastria, a passenger liner, told through first-hand accounts of the soldiers, sailors and airmen on board. But if you think all you are getting is the story of a sinking you'd be mistaken and you will be pleasantly surprised.

Starting from the events of 17th June, the book rewinds to 14th June and tells the story of the fall of France in two ways. First, many recollections are brought together of the men of the British armed forces, trying to follow orders, even trying to find someone to give them orders. These aspects are excellent and convey a sense of the unreality, amazement at events and confusion that existed. The men fall back on various ports but the focus is on those heading for St Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire, south of Brittany.

The second level of narrative is that of high-level diplomacy between Churchill's government and the French. This could be very dry but the author is a journalist by trade and puts this to great advantage, keeping the story moving, picking out angles that garb the attention of the non-academic historian (such as the French Prime Minister's reliance on his mistress's opinion, or De Gaulle's role).

In this way it is as much a history of the first half of June 1940 in France as it about the sinking of one particular ship. The Lancastria itself is given its place, however, describing enough of the ship to satisfy my curiosity without becoming dull. There are enough survivors' accounts to describe what happened in some detail, and pretty harrowing it is too, including the time the survivors spent in the water hoping for a rescue.

The book does not end there (nor will you want it to) and the return to England and the first few days after are described as well. Don't be too misled by the books sub-title alluding to Churchill's Cover-Up - you can imagine the British government was doing everything possible to maintain morale and the image of Dunkirk as a great triumph. Can we really blame them for not publicising the losses in the Lancastria? Unfortunately this has led to the story being neglected and you can understand the survivors' irritation. However, the story is plenty strong enough to stand without this slightly spurious controversy.

So overall, a really gripping read that goes beyond what you might have expected. Thoroughly recommended, although maybe not for reading on a cruising holiday ...
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