Air Battle for Dunkirk: 26 May–3 June 1940

  • Published

Air Battle for Dunkirk: 26 May–3 June 1940 by Norman L. R. Franks, Grub Street Publishing, 2017, 192 pp. 

Having been the subject of Christopher Nolan’s cinema blockbuster, many people know the premise of Dunkirk as a major rescue operation during World War II. However, far fewer know the heroic actions the Royal Air Force (RAF) displayed in the 25 days encompassing Operation Dynamo’s line-of-effort from the air. In movie and book alike, we hear the question, “Where is the RAF?” The detailed fighting record presented by Norman Franks answers this question. 

Specifically, Franks’ work describes the last of a four-phase operation for the RAF, wherein fighter cover closed to enable the Army to both withdraw to Dunkirk and evacuate from the ports and beaches. Through this Herculean effort, 338,226 Allied troops were rescued (the initial estimate only included 45,000 troops). During the operation, air sorties totaled 4,822 hours, with 432 Hurricanes and Spitfires expended. By comparison, German aircraft losses totaled an estimated 402 planes. On both sides, the destruction from the air battle is remarkable. 

What is also remarkable is how well Franks authors the book. Leveraging mission logs and splicing firsthand written accounts, the narrative is both cohesive and seamless. The details are incredibly rich, yet not burdensome. On an audiobook, plane alphanumerics become jersey numbers, and listeners feel like they’re listening to a sportscaster announcing a high-stakes final game of an NCAA tournament. The firsthand accounts portray the aviators as genuine. There is humor abound (e.g., explaining the timeless trial of relieving oneself in a cockpit), all the while not detracting from the seriousness of the campaign. 

There are also numerous takeaways and questions that are presented, the consideration of which is paramount in today’s time of peer-competition and precipice of conflict. From the beginning, we are reminded about the powers of luck—both in what the enemy chooses to do (or not do) and the weather. Had Hitler not acquiesced to the Luftwaffe taking the lead in crushing the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) after several days’ hiatus, it is quite possible that Dynamo would not have occurred. Similarly, overcast weather kept the German air forces at bay at various times through the campaign, and calm seas aided the rescuing vessels in evacuating both the BEF and French forces. One may be just as good as lucky, but Lady Luck is akin to a swing-state in the vote of war. We also come to appreciate both the command and control structures we have in place now and how difficult it becomes should those things ever be lost. There are numerous accounts of blue-on-blue attacks on aircraft from ships because there was no way to tell an ally from an enemy. Similarly, many an Allied aircraft found itself in a precarious position regarding enemy fighters because visual identification was essentially the only way to determine friend from foe at that point. 

The topic of cycling pilots into squadrons is brought up multiple times. Many pilots were shot down and bailed out over the ocean, only to be picked up by a vessel and returned to their squadron to fight mere days later (an incredible endeavor). New recruits cycled in had to learn critical skills and tactics on the job—just-in-time training was not a feasible option given the conflict’s rate of losses. There was no discernible method for cycling which squadrons were given respite and which were to continue fighting. Further, dynamic tasking amidst distributed operations was commonplace. These logistical problems are all ones we will undoubtedly revisit should a modern conflict emerge, and thus, it is prudent to engage with the themes Franks presents us. To that end, the most important theme concerns innovation. The older, “by-the-book” tactics were deadly for the British, as discussed at the end of the book. It was when the RAF diverged from the “tried-and-true” formations and maneuvers that they had the edge against the German fighters. Tactical innovation was quintessential for mission success in the air. 

While overall, the book is a great addition to the canon of works on airpower, it is not without its issues. Through the chapters, we are given harrowing play-by-play of action. Yet we do not get any meta-commentary on how the campaign was planned. Where was the strategic planning, and how did the tactics evolve from this strategy? How did the multiple nations comprising the Allies integrate? How did the reconnaissance aircraft liaise with the fighters or other intelligence contingents? How did mission planning occur? Why is it the case that so many of these skirmishes occur over land against the Germans? What was the German perception of Dunkirk and the Allies from the Luftwaffe? Some of these questions are later answered in the last chapter of the book (some are not answered at all). Accordingly, it would have been more useful to have the last chapter toward the beginning of the book. This would have given us a better lens through which we view the action scenes that comprise most of Franks’ work. We would have insight into the various altitudes used and understand a bit more about the squadron and wing maneuvering. If nothing else, it would have enabled the reader to picture it better as she reads. To the questions left unanswered: while it is good to make the reader think of such things, it runs the risk of appearing as a lost research opportunity to truly capitalize on the lessons of such a remarkable campaign across multiple domains. 

Ultimately, the book aims to exonerate the RAF surrounding Dunkirk and Dynamo writ large. It succeeds, without question. It is well-written (and well-narrated if you listen to the audiobook, too). While the book is clearly written from a pro-RAF standpoint, it does not paint the organization as infallible. Further, the “nice-to-haves” are far outweighed by the exciting and masterful way Franks composes his work. Bottom line: this is an easy read that should be on your next reading list. 

LT Joshua M. M. “Minkus” Portzer, USN

"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."