The day the dream began to die: D-Day marked the beginning of an Allied victory but the end of the 'Dunkirk spirit', says Paul Addison

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE D-DAY landings of June 1944 were the prelude to one of the great British and American victories of the Second World War. The Battle of Normandy ended Hitler's mastery of Western Europe and, in conjunction with the Russian offensive in the east, ensured the destruction of the Third Reich. Nothing could stand in greater contrast to the humiliating circumstances in which the British Expeditionary Force had been evacuated from Dunkirk four years earlier. But the defeat at Dunkirk was soon transformed in the minds of the British into a kind of victory, and the events of the summer and autumn of 1940 have always constituted the central patriotic myth of Britain in the Second World War. Why is this? Why do we never think of D-Day as our 'finest hour'?

For the British, Dunkirk marked the end of one kind of war and the beginning of another. We were no longer fighting a continental war in alliance with the French, but a war for the defence of the homeland against invasion and occupation. Although, therefore, the withdrawal of the BEF from France was a defeat on the mainland of Europe, it was a deliverance from the point of view of the defence of the United Kingdom: 136,000 British troops had come safely home.

But Dunkirk and the fall of France put the entire population of Britain in the front line. Suddenly their institutions and whole way of life were at risk. At once there appeared, like a genie out of the bottle, the 'Dunkirk spirit' - an inspirational blend of nationalist and democratic feeling that created, for a time, an almost magical sense of unity and purpose. Churchill, with his vision of an island race spread around the globe, expressed it in British and imperial terms. But much of the inspiration was English.

It was the novelist and playwright JB Priestley who floated the idea that Dunkirk was a reflection of the English national character. Nothing, he declared in a broadcast of 5 June 1940, could be more typical of England than a situation in which 'when all was apparently lost, so much was gloriously retrieved. We have a queer habit - and you can see it running through our history - of conjuring up such transformations. This is not the German way. They don't make such mistakes, but also they don't achieve such epics. That vast machine of theirs can't create a glimmer of that poetry of action which distinguishes war from mass murder.'

The secret of the English, in other words, was their unrivalled capacity for muddling through.

Priestley was not alone. The press, the BBC and the Ministry of Information were hard at work. On all sides publicists proclaimed that the key to victory lay in the native genius of a people who were sturdy, industrious and unimaginative - not very clever in fact - but moved by an inner spirit that expressed itself in such things as patriotism, a love of the countryside and a love of liberty. 'Yes,' wrote George Orwell during the blitz, 'there is something distinctive and recognisable in English civilisation. It is somehow bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes. Moreover, it is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past, there is something in it that persists . . .'

All this drew on a tradition that went back a long way in time and pictured the English (or British) as the natural foes of continental tyranny. As in the days of Pitt the Younger, therefore, they would not only save themselves, but Europe by their example.

So deeply was this idea embedded in the literature, films and rhetoric of the period that it remains there to this day, a massive chunk of patriotic legend that still defies the best efforts of historians to break it up. The consequence is that the economic, military and diplomatic events of 1940, which record the collapse of Britain as a great power, are still trapped like flies in the amber of a radiant moment when the British, alone of all the European peoples, stood up to Hitler.

Yet this sense of a separate and peculiar destiny, which still haunts us, was ill-founded. We stood alone in 1940 because of the failures of British policy in the previous decade, and if we had continued to stand alone Britain would have become a satellite of Nazi Germany.

So exalted was the mood of 1940 that the activity of war itself took on a certain lustre. After the horrors of 1914-1918, and the pacifism of the Thirties, this was an extraordinary shift. Churchill's belligerent rhetoric, which had so often been held against him, now turned him into a hero, and the Battle of Britain took its place with Trafalgar as a national epic. Here was Priestley's war of 'poetic action', by contrast with the German technique of mechanical slaughter. As yet, however, the British were only peripherally engaged with an enemy that could fling 135 divisions into battle.

D-Day, by contrast, marked the high point of the British mobilisation for war. This time, as AJP Taylor pointed out, there was no question of muddling through. The cross-Channel invasion was the first combined operation in British history that was carefully planned in advance, mainly by the British themselves. Furthermore, the Battle of Normandy was won under the command of Montgomery, an authentic British hero if ever there was one.

And yet there was no revival of the high-flown patriotism of 1940. For this there were two main explanations. First, the fear of invasion had long since disappeared and, after four long years, the war had become a dangerous and unpleasant job to be finished. Second, Britain was no longer alone. As partners in the Grand Alliance, the British could no longer imagine themselves as the only great power. D-Day itself bore spectacular witness to the 'special relationship' between Britain and the United States, and it was becoming apparent that the Americans were the dominant partners.

On the first day of the landings, the British and American forces were approximately equal in strength. But as reinforcements poured in, the Americans began to outnumber the British and by December 1944 Churchill was lamenting: 'Our enemies are only one-half the size of the American forces and will soon be little more than one-third.' Imperialism was on the way out and Atlanticism on the way in. Further, a glance at the map showed the Red Army - which was extremely popular with the British public - advancing into Eastern Europe. The British were not yet good Europeans, but they had begun to register the limits of British power and the need for collective security.

Meanwhile the war had lost whatever vestiges of romance it had once possessed. Life on the home front was drab, exhausting and increasingly quarrelsome. And although the British never experienced the full barbarism of the war, they were beginning to taste it. Casualty rates were higher in Normandy than they had been in Italy or the western desert. Of all British troops killed or wounded during the Second World War, more than a third were casualties of the campaign in Europe between D-Day and the German surrender. The further British troops advanced into Germany, the deeper they got into a realm of moral and material annihilation.

We suffer in this country from a rising tide of Anglocentric nostalgia for a war of Dad's Army and sing-songs in the air-raid shelter. D-Day is a better guide to the realities, and the veterans of 1944-45 have a different story to tell.

The writer teaches history at Edinburgh University. His latest book is 'Churchill on the Home Front 1900- 1955', Cape/Pimlico pounds 10.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments