/ Published May 13, 2011
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore. Harvard University Press, 2006, 701 pp.
There are many military history books that cover the World War II battle of Dunkirk and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from France in May 1940. However, each book on the subject faces a daunting task of having to add new and original information about the topic. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore rises to the occasion in his Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man, which sets itself apart from the pack through the author’s strong narrative focus and wealth of previously untapped primary sources.
Hugh Sebag-Montefiore is a British lawyer and journalist who also wrote the history book Enigma: Battle for the Code in 2004. His writing style brings fresh material to the tale of Dunkirk. He wanted to go beyond the standard tale about Dunkirk solely as an evacuation, because it ignored how the British deployed to France, their fighting retreat to Dunkirk, and the tale of their units that were forced to surrender when the evacuation ended. The author corrected the historical record by giving a day-by-day account of how the British managed to pull off Operation Dynamo at Dunkirk. He pointed out that the French let the British down when their strategy failed, and that the British held up their end of the bargain, fighting the Germans in bloody battles along their retreat to the sea. The only drawback to the book is that it is largely about the British effort at Dunkirk, and the lion’s share of detail is about them, rather than the French, Belgians, and Germans.
Dunkirk is smartly and ably written, making complicated military actions and strategies understandable to the average reader. The author recreates the battlefield for the reader by using soldiers’ personal memoirs and testimonies to showcase moments of sheer terror and bravery they endured or observed in combat. The book also has a plethora of maps and glossaries to accentuate the daily accounts and flesh out the narrative of the British retreat and local battles in which they hoped to hold on to areas that were tactically important to maintaining their defensive perimeter.
The British came to France in 1939 to fight and win a war against German aggression. However, their French allies failed military in the opening days of the German invasion of Western Europe, and the British-French relationship never recovered. The British wanted to continue fighting, and from the soldiers’ accounts, their army comes off as a well-trained force, despite being poorly equipped. The book highlighted that the British did not lose the Battle of France and that their decision to evacuate from Dunkirk was the right strategic move to prepare England to defend against invasion, even at the risk of rupturing British and French relations during the Dunkirk campaign.
Dunkirk contains lessons for dealing with military operations and responding to natural disasters. It helps readers understand the implications and mechanics behind rescue efforts that take place under heavy fire. It was not just about the courage of the British forces but about people who designed the evacuation and put it into action. This required a great deal of coordination between land, sea, and air forces, and an understanding that sacrifices in manpower and material needed to be made to see the operation to its successful completion. There also needs to be coordination between the various nations that are involved; the rift between the British and French almost ruined their chances to evacuate from Dunkirk. The author also underscores how crucial the French harbors and British evacuation ships were, and that even though the plan succeeded, it was cobbled together quickly and was created from scratch. The British should be lauded succeeding at Dunkirk, but the evacuation should also serve as a historical cautionary tale about how the lack of pre-planning could affect any plan’s operational capacity.
Dunkirk fits with other books in the historiography of the early war in Europe, especially John French’s Raising Churchill’s Army: the British Army and the War Against Germany, 1919-1945 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), Alistair Horne’s To Lose A Battle: France 1940 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969), and Eugenia Kiesling’s Arming Against Hitler: France and the Limits of Military Planning (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996). With French’s book, Dunkirk reinforces the thesis that after WWI the British retrained their army, which went from being poorly trained to one that understood the changes in warfare since 1918, and fielded a well-trained force that was only lacking heavy firepower in 1940. Kiesling and Horne argue that the French failed to rebuild their military between the wars, which lead to their poor strategy and tactics during the Battle of France, and Sebag-Montefiore argues that British soldiers’ will to fight and good training highlight the differences between the British and French armies in the campaign.
Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man is a highly readable and accessible historical work that goes beyond the standard military analysis of the Dunkirk campaign to give readers the viewpoints of the soldiers and leaders, to let them feel and understand the war the way they fought. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore does an admirable job of showing that Dunkirk was only the end result of hard fighting that began with the German invasion and ended only when the remaining British soldiers in France had no choice but to surrender. It moves beyond the narrative of the evacuation to highlight the hard work of the British army holding a defensive perimeter around the Dunkirk region and the Royal Navy persevering through German air and sea attacks. It was the end result of a military disaster, but it was also a military feat that Britain should be proud of to this day.
Jason P. Bieber
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."