Last week, I read Lynne Olson’s book, Those Angry Days about the “Great Debate” the United States had between 1939 and 1941 about whether to get involved in WWII or not. It was an agonizing, if nevertheless captivating, read because of how dithering, apathetic, and opposed (Anglophobic is the word used in my latest read) citizens and government officials alike were in the response to the plight of Europe, and in particular, Britain, standing alone against the deluge of Nazi Germany’s attack. “Alone” is the keyword, because even when the war moved from “phoney” to real, Britain was quite literally alone from the time of the French surrender on June 22, 1940 until U.S. entry into the war after Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. That’s 533 days, nearly a year and a half. What if Britain didn’t possess the national character and befitting stereotype of a “stiff upper lip” and being willing and able to “take it”? Yes, as outlined in Those Angry Days, the U.S. eventually began helping to arm Britain and escort its ships, but that action wasn’t nearly the same as actually being “in it.”
All of this wind-up is to say, it felt apropos to go from reading Those Angry Days about the U.S. perspective of that time to reading Michael Korda’s 2017 book, Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory about the British perspective. Even more so than I originally thought because Michael Korda is part of the famous film and theater family the Kordas, behind The Thief of Bagdad, That Hamilton Woman, and other notable films of that time. As such, Korda weaves in his own experience being in England as a seven-year-old, a kid witness to history, and his memories all these years later, but also, Olson’s book touched on Hollywood and its political awakening, and here, Korda also talks about the influence of film, and how Churchill and the British government were using film (through Michael Korda’s uncle, Alex Korda) and Hollywood for propaganda purposes to make Americans sympathize with the British. I’d be happy to watch a documentary or a feature-length film about Alex Korda because his life seems extraordinary.
Nonetheless, the book follows the intricacies and political squabbling that led to Winston Churchill being in Neville Chamberlain’s War Cabinet and then prime minister. I do get the sense that Korda was sympathetic to a degree about the role Chamberlain played in the events of the day and how history has remembered him. I read Korda’s sympathies as perhaps an argument that it isn’t fair for Chamberlain to be so synonymous with appeasement when a.) much of what we know about Britain during WWII was written by Churchill himself (making his quip that he will “write that history” all the more prescient); and b.) others within the government, even amid the Dunkirk evacuation, were agitating for some sort of peace agreement with Nazi Germany. So, the British politics of it all was quite interesting and I’m certainly not going to do it justice in this review, but just as interesting was the French side, Churchill’s own strident belief in the French, and indeed, the entire world’s (including Germany’s) mistaken, old view of French military dominance and prowess.
In short, the problem (among many) of a global war following so closely after the first global war, is that some of the nations, like France, not only didn’t update their strategies, tactics, arms, machines, and transports because they were comfortable in the fact that it “worked” in WWI, so, it ought to work in WWII, but that they didn’t want war again. Understandably! War is hell, and the French knew that that they were going to be bear the brunt of Nazi aggression and that Hitler’s ultimate goal was taking Paris. Even if they eventually wanted to invade Britain, the French reasoned that the Nazis would need to go through France first. As it happens, the French still lost a great deal in the short time they fought ahead of surrender: 90,000 French dead, 200,000 seriously wounded, and 2 million (equivalent to about 10 percent of the adult male population of France!) sent to Germany’s brutal prisoner-of-war camps for hard labor in Poland.
As I always mention when reading these history books, I can’t help but marvel at how much of history turns on both luck and the smallest of details. To the latter, how much of the French response to WWII and Nazi Germany revolved around Premier of France Paul Reynaud’s mistress, Hélène de Portes, who was an Anglophobe and exerted pressure on him? Korda at least thinks it an important variable to consider. But it wasn’t just Hélène de Portes; I didn’t realize how much French culture at the time was distrustful and disdainful of the British. After all, as Korda puts it into perspective, the British and the French had been fighting for nearly a millennium, whereas the French and Germans had only been fighting since 1870.
But luck comes into play in the Germans hesitating in continuing their forward march (that was the distinctive difference between the German Army and military strategy that set it apart from the old days of WWI: forward movement, perhaps most pronounced in the Panzer tank divisions) against the BEF, or British Expeditionary Force, due to miscommunication of how well they were actually doing in the fighting. Such hesitation is what set the groundwork for the BEF (and the French; I also didn’t realize nearly half of the upwards of 400,000 soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk were French soldiers) to be evacuated from Dunkirk by the Royal Admiralty and the “little ships” from common British persons, and not so common British persons, like Charles H. Lightoller, the 66-year-old former second officer of the Titanic. Yes, the Titanic! Imagine surviving the sinking of the Titanic, and then ending up in service to the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk, which Korda describes terrifyingly as the picture of hell: continuous bombing and shelling, machine gun fire, dead bodies everywhere, burning rubber, diesel oil slicking the waterways, abject hunger and thirst, and the difficulty of even getting on to the boats. And the retreat itself to even get to the beaches was one of the bloodiest, most violent fighting the world had ever seen; Korda compares it to the fighting in WWI and the American Civil War.
It is extraordinary what was achieved with the “spirit of Dunkirk,” in evacuating so many soldiers, often improvising and haphazard, and of course, I get goosebumps even reading Churchill’s speech about fighting on the beaches. I also didn’t realize Churchill never actually deliver perhaps his most famous speech, and instead, it was relayed by the BBC (Churchill wouldn’t actually put his own voice to the speech until 1949). Korda does throw some cold water on the Dunkirk myth-making (occurring in real time, and obviously, in the years since), mainly that the British were still terrified of a Nazi invasion and the true British spirit wouldn’t be galvanized until after the Battle of Britain was won in the fall of 1940.
Overall, this book, like Olson’s before it, gave me an appreciation for the British “national character” as it were to “take it” or in a darkly humorous image, to obsessively abide by queuing on the beaches by the thousands to evacuate. The idea that the British weren’t just going to roll over for Nazi Germany, even if they had to go it alone, is one that still fills me with a weird sense of pride, even though I’m not British. Human pride, I suppose. That there were those in that time willing to stand athwart the Nazi storm no matter the onslaught. Someone, some country, had to do it, and I’m glad the British were willing to “take it” until the United States finally got involved to help tip the scales.
As I now wind-down, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention as an aside, that Korda’s book has a blurb from Henry Kissinger on the back. I get it, but I’d also rather commit the ultimate blasphemy of burning my own book before allowing a blurb by Kissinger to appear on it. But I digress.
I would highly recommend this book because of its important documentation of history, because of the interesting way it is told weaving in Korda family history and recollection of that time period, and because Michael Korda’s way of writing is easy-going, accessible, and at times even sarcastic and funny. History books should be informative, but accessible. Korda’s book achieves that feat. (And besides, the book also gave me film recommendations, albeit it not directly, and I always appreciate that!)