Adrian Hamilton: 'A great escape? Dunkirk was actually a humiliation for British forces'

The Evacuation of Dunkirk, which began 70 years ago, was no military miracle. It was a humiliation for British forces, writes Adrian Hamilton, whose father was there

My father was at Dunkirk. Only 21, newly married, a local reporter in Newcastle who had left school at 17, he'd joined the Territorials when war threatened and was called up at the beginning. I don't think he went with any great dreams of glory. But, ambitious and determined to do his bit, he sought a commission and to show his mettle.

A couple of months after being sent to France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, 2nd Lt Denis Hamilton was part of the beaten and outmanoeuvred army that retreated chaotically to the French coast to clamber aboard the little ships that took them to the bigger ships to take them back from whence they had come. "I came back with more men than I went out with," he later told me. "We kept picking up stragglers; some had been deserted by their officers."

If Dunkirk has gone down as a heroic defeat, it wasn't like that to those who took part. It was a shambles, in which a poorly trained and under-equipped army was totally outflanked and outfought by two superior German armies invading France through Belgium towards Antwerp in the north and, completely unexpectedly, through the Ardennes in the south. The battle started on 10 May 1940, the German tanks burst through the Ardennes on 14 May and by 26 May the British Expeditionary Force and the French First Army were cornered in a narrow corridor around Dunkirk awaiting evacuation.

My father, in the Durham Light Infantry, never elaborated about officers deserting their men. Indeed, like so many veterans, he never talked much at all about the experience of battle, limiting himself to the more humorous stories and some caustic judgements about the British armed services. What he did describe was the amateurishness of the British effort compared with the German one, and his surprise at how many of the soldiers, when they came to the beaches and stood out in the water waiting for the boats to pick them up, couldn't actually swim. The experience, and above all the loyalty of the Durham men to each other, convinced him to turn down all later offers of a staff job and to stick with the frontline troops. To the end he remained what he had begun as – an infantryman, although much promoted.

His way out of Dunkirk was on a minesweeper to Margate, blown up by German aircraft on its return to the beaches. To this day, my mother (they had married as war broke out) keeps framed the telegram he'd shouted to a Salvation Army member from the train he boarded at Margate, saying simply: "Landed tonight safely see you soon." His biggest surprise was the reception that the defeated and bedraggled troops got on landing in Margate. "There were thousands of people cheering us," he later recorded in his memoirs. "I felt desperately humiliated that we had done so little and yet were being greeted as heroes."

It was the cheering, not the battle, for which Dunkirk was remembered. In strictly military terms, the "miracle of Dunkirk" was not the evacuation but Hitler's decision to hold his forces back from the kill for a precious three days in which the British and French were able to gather in their forces and regroup around the beaches. Hitler later implied that he'd done it almost as an act of charity, in the hope that the British would now come to terms with him, as several members of Churchill's newly formed War Cabinet were advising him to do. Modern historians tend to dismiss this, preferring to see in the decision the advice of the senior German commanders, worried that their advance had overstretched their lines of supply, their minds switched to defeating the main French forces to the south and their concern that boggy Dunkirk was no ground for tanks. To the Germans, an army penned in by the sea was an army with its back to the wall – there for the destruction from the air. For the British, the sea is a route out and a route home.

That didn't make it any easier for the troops on the ground, bombed and shelled day after day as they queued for the boats back. Nor is it to denigrate the extraordinary efforts and skill of the Royal Navy and Air Force in rescuing more than 330,000 Allied troops where our generals had thought a few days before that the best that could be achieved might be 40,000. If the French complained that the Navy gave the British preference, that was unfair. Nearly a third of the rescued were French. The Navy was sent back on Churchill's specific order for an extra day so that the last of them could be saved. It was not his fault that the bulk of the rescued French were returned via the Breton and Normandy ports to rejoin a French army that capitulated barely had they arrived.

Out of this feat of human salvage (the guns, tanks, vehicles and ammunition were left behind), the British forged a propaganda triumph. It is something that the country, for all its martial qualities, has been good at. From the Battle of Hastings to the retreat at Corunna, we make as much from our defeats as our victories. Out of disaster was woven the image of the "Dunkirk spirit", most assiduously by Winston Churchill with his great rhetoric of determination and defiance. "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender," as he told the Commons on 4 June while the last of the evacuees were lifted from Dunkirk. Never mind that Dunkirk was a reverse greater than the Norwegian fiasco which had brought down Neville Chamberlain and made Churchill Prime Minister less than a month previously. Never mind that several of the senior members of the Cabinet were then ready to make peace with the German dictator. Never mind the fact that Churchill, even after Dunkirk, was ready to send off a second British Expeditionary Force to help the French farther south, in an expedition that could have ended just as badly had the generals (Alan Brooke in particular) not knocked some sense into him.

Churchill was the man of the hour and the man with the words, and those words (as he knew well) came to embody the spirit of British resistance as France fell and the US remained on the sidelines. It was Britain and her dominion troops that now stood alone and were to do so until the Japanese launched their attack on Pearl Harbor and brought in the US in December 1941.

And yet to the British, and to people like my parents, there was something more to this "Dunkirk spirit" and the romantic notion of lonely defiance that Churchill promoted. He, like others in the government, was actually afraid that Dunkirk would lead to pessimism and defeatism in the public and set up public-survey schemes to test the popular mood. In fact, they found that most British people, although sobered by events, remained convinced that we would win the war eventually, only that it might be a long haul before we did so.

Was this grimness, the silence that several noted on the beaches of Dunkirk and the undemonstrativeness of the people at home, the result of simple shell shock? Churchill thought so, opining that there was only so much the human mind could take on board and that people shut out big events.

I don't think that was the case, certainly not with my parents. If there was a Dunkirk spirit, it was because people understood perfectly well the full significance of the defeat but, in a rather British way, saw no point in dwelling on it. We were now alone. We'd pull through in the end. But it might be a long, grim wait...

For those who went through the year and a half of island isolation, and particularly the young forged by that first taste of war, there could never be quite the same sense of trust in America that came once they joined, and the tide of war was changed. Seventy years later, I don't really see how we can understand what Dunkirk and its aftermath really meant to them. The glory of war was certainly not part of it.

What was special about Dunkirk was partly Winston Churchill. It's difficult to appreciate now just what his honed eloquence meant at the time. It wasn't that people naturally warmed to this figure from the Edwardian past or shared his vision of Britain's "greatness". But they did appreciate what he was doing. Churchill's rhetoric was directed to try to embody the national mood and to lift it. It's a gift no one has repeated since. Perhaps television makes it impossible. Perhaps only extremity makes it workable. But one wonders why, in this age of economic crisis, politicians are so reluctant to try to talk for the people as a whole.

It is the same with the Dunkirk spirit. Elevated emotion has gone out of fashion since the war. But if you regard the spirit as basically determined realism, it may yet be underappreciated as a British characteristic. Certainly the recent election campaign showed an almost universal belief by politicians that the electorate was not up to facing the truth about the country's condition. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps the opinion polls do suggest a reluctance by the British to accept reality, as Churchill had feared after Dunkirk. But it wasn't the case then, and maybe politicians should have more faith in it now.

Further reading: Denis Hamilton: 'Editor-in-Chief, Fleet Street Memoirs' (1989); Max Hastings: 'Finest Years: Churchill as Warlord' (2009); 'Winston Churchill's Greatest Speeches' (BBC Audio)

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