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Book Reviews: Hardship and Heroism at Dunkirk

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Book Reviews: Hardship and Heroism at Dunkirk

War and Conflict, World War II, pic: May/June 1940, The Battle of Dunkirk, British troops marching along the pier to the rescue vessels, The Battle of Dunkirk, (which took place approx, 25th May - 3rd June 1940 was one of trying to extricate the British Expeditionary Force and otherAllied troops from a hopeless situation, when they had been "squeezed" into a small area around Dunkirk with no hope of escape, by the vastly superior German mechanized forces, The call was made for every ship and boat to leave from Britain to save as many soldiers as possible, and despite the British leaving behind most of it's equipment, over 338, 000 Allied troops were brought back to England  (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Dunkirk was a disaster for Great Britain, but one from which it drew pride and the strength to carry on the war.

Royal Engineer Robert Halliday was hungry. He had searched for food in the town of Dunkirk, France only to find nothing. As he searched a German bomb exploded nearby, blowing out his eardrums and hurling him 50 yards. Now, hungry and with little else to do, he and fifty other engineers began building a raft out of empty fuel cans and boards from truck beds. They fought they might be able to get it out to a ship; those who couldn’t swim would sit on it while the swimmers pushed it out to sea for rescue. As they worked other soldiers sat around doing nothing. One saw a British helmet lying on the beach and quipped “Blimey, he’s dug himself in well!”

Subaltern Anthony Irwin was on leave from the 2nd Battalion, Essex Regiment when the Battle of France began. He spent days trying to get back to his unit, searching through the chaos with one his sergeants. He managed to find it and soon found himself in battle. Days later, he recalled being bivouacked in an orchard when a British plane was beset overhead by a half-dozen German ME-109s. As each fighter attacked, however, the British piloted expertly maneuvered to avoid it, to the cheers of the infantrymen.

War and Conflict. World War II. pic: May/June 1940. The Battle of Dunkirk. British destroyers with an R.A.F. fighter escort on their way back to England, the ships crammed with Allied troops. The Battle of Dunkirk, (which took place approx. 25th May - 3rd

The Germans then attacked the RAF plane simultaneously, but they had to come low to catch the descending aircraft. When they did, every Bren gun in the company opened up on the ME-109s, bringing one down in flames. The rest promptly forgot the air battle and began strafing Irwin’s troops, only to be chased off moments later by RAF Hurricanes. Within hours they dug in after relieving a gingerbread factory of its contents. Anthony Irwin would reach the beach at Dunkirk and be evacuated aboard an Isle of Man ferry, surreally being served a glass of beer by a steward who wouldn’t give it to him until they were three miles offshore – as per regulations.

By the time it was done over 330,000 Allied soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk to England, providing a nucleus from which the future British Army would be created. Hundreds of small boats and civilian craft were used along with naval vessels to bring them home and many were lost. It was time when the entire United Kingdom came together to retrieve its army, saving it from destruction.

The evacuation at Dunkirk in May and June of 1940 is famous and the use of civilian craft to rescue thousands of Allied soldiers is equally well known. The true details of the story are in the myriad personal tales of the operation, where privates, sergeants and junior officers had to get through the ordeal and bring order out of chaos. That is the tale the reader gets in Dunkirk: The History behind the Major Motion Picture (Joshua Levine, William Morrow Publishing, New York NY, 2017, 354 pp., Maps, photographs, bibliography, $16.99, softcover).

34304263 This is a companion book to the recent film Dunkirk, which has received many favorable reviews for its depiction of the event. This book also deserves favorable mention due to its detail, flowing narrative and ground-level storytelling. The movie focuses on lower level leaders and enlisted men and this book does the same. Dunkirk wasn’t a great victory or even a great defeat, though it stemmed from a defeat. It is instead a story of survival, revealing how a disparate group of soldiers, sailors and airmen came together to preserve an army which would go on to help defeat Germany within five years, fighting in North Africa and Italy along the way. Hundreds of thousands of men occupied the beaches of Dunkirk. There are far too many stories to recount in a film; this work gives the reader a deep look at some of those stories.

Since this is a book meant to accompany a film, it also contains a nicely done section where the making of that film is discussed. The film’s director is loath to use the extensive computer-generated images so many movies depend upon now, so sets, aircraft and vehicles all had to be located and procured for use. All of the aircraft are actual flying examples or large scale remote-control models, for example. How such attention to detail is used to make a realistic war film is also worthy of attention.

 

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