Book review: Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

This was one of those books the library had on display. It is newly out and popular, so I was lucky to get a copy to check out. Being a student of history, I’ve been familiar with the general activities that led up to the British evacuation at Dunkirk, but I’ve always been starved for details. How did the British manage to get all those men out? How many made it? What about the French? Why wasn’t the German army able to stop them? Did the small boats really help all that much? This book is well-researched and does a great job of answering those questions. It also, importantly, introduces the politics–domestic and military–that maneuvered Britain into the situation in the first place. Along the way, Michael Korda weaves a compelling narrative with a information-rich but eminently readable style.

He manages this by interweaving personal points of view into the story, with his parents and extended family doing their best British best to get on with their business in the midst of warfare. In fact they were almost caught by the battle on the continent (like most well-off families, they were vacationing in France that spring). Another aspect of Korda’s success is his storytelling. Every chapter tells a story, and each story hangs on a salient, unexpected fact–for example, the indomitable control Chamberlain had over his party. Whereas we Americans often see him painted as weak, a sop to Hitler, Korda paints the picture of a man so in control he perhaps missed the bigger picture. He also fills in the blanks of what Chamberlain did after he fell from the prime minister’s position.

Fans of Churchill will not be disappointed; he is given a typically positive spin, touching on his work ethic, prodigious alcohol intake, and determination. Korda does not go into the man’s views on race (cringeworthy today) or his coldly self-interested approach to the food crisis in South Asia. The book covers his political rise from a somewhat discredited political position (following the abdication of Edward VIII), explaining how his combination of steadfast pugnaciousness versus a re-arming Germany and reputation as a competent administrator (as First Sea Lord) led to his ascent as prime minister.

To leaven his heavy doses of politics, Korda mixes the personal experiences of the family  with action in politics and on the ground (from a high level, with peeks into small-unit action now and then). Most of all, he works in how the structure and morale of three armies led to the success of the German invaders, the near-paralysis of the French high command and resulting isolation of the British Expeditionary Force against the channel coast. Along the way, great attention is paid to the valor of the French soldier; though not well led, many of them fought tenaciously to effect the extraction of the British. Sadly, to the end, the cooperation between the allies was fatally flawed (or absent entirely).

Korda hits on many well-known factors, covering them lightly but with interesting detail, such as the composition of forces, level of training and morale, relative strengths in air and armored forces that most of us history buffs are familiar with. His light style moves quickly through those and he brings to bear better than other historians a sense of the civilian experience through the lens of his family as well as the desperation and anxiety felt by commanders and troops on both sides of the battle. All in all, a engrossing read.

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About H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.
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