Thursday, 27 May 2010

Dunkirk Spirit - myth & reality.

Inevitably with the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of the BEF this week, and of course the imminent World Cup, the idea of the 'Dunkirk Spirit' is being much touted around. And mis-appropriated - from fat red-faced football fans waiving St George's flags, to Cameron's 'we're all in it together vision' of people creating their own DIY schools.

If there is such a thing as national character - and straightaway we're on dodgy ground here - then  perhaps the Dunkirk Spirit is a particularly British form of stoicism, quiet understatement and dry-humour, along with a discovery of collective spirit provoked by adversity. It certainly isn't about waiving the flag and singing ENGER-LAND.

For my Mum and Dad's generation Dunkirk and the events of 1940 holds a special place in their memory. Although they probably wouldn't express it themselves that way - I think that for them it marks the start of the 'People's War'. Only this weekend they were reminiscing how my Granddad in the river police wanted to take his boat over to France but wasn't allowed to  because it might be needed in case of invasion -  whilst a firefighter Uncle  did go over on a fire-boat - presumably these were seen as more expendable.

The involvement of civilians and their boats in the rescue operations was in this respect very symbolic: The troops of the BEF were largely pre-war Regulars and called-up Territorials - the mass armies  of citizen-conscripts were to come later. The talk  of 'phony war' rapidly switched   - after France fell so quickly to the German blitzkrieg - to a genuine fear of an invasion of the British Isles.  Along with  a much-mythologized but undeniable sense of  standing alone  - without European allies, support from the Commonwealth still to be mobilised, and with the USA standing aloof .

For them there was/is a real sense that Dunkirk was a turning point in the national psyche. But even then - as now - there was much mis-information about the evacuation: 

Some parts of the BEF were sacrificed (notably in Calais) for PR purposes to reassure the French  - whilst there were bitter arguments over the evacuation of French troops that were to have recriminations for years. Ironically many French troops who were evacuated to Britain were then pointlessly returned to ports in Western France just in time for the mass surrender. 

Most fundamentally the threat of invasion averted by the 'miracle of Dunkirk' was probably more perceived than real. Historians have speculated endlessly whether the German forces had either the means or desire to stage an amphibious invasion. And conspiracists have pondered the crucial and mysterious order to halt the Panzer forces' pursuit of the BEF to Dunkirk. It's now fairly well established that the Nazis harboured hopes for a negotiated settlement with an isolated Britain that would leave the empire in tact whilst giving them a free hand in Europe. And it's equally well established that there were factions within the British ruling class - Lord Halifax and various other toffs - who felt the same way. Recently discovered evidence suggests that even Churchill didn't discount this at one point.

There are some extraordinary tales to be told about Dunkirk - just not the flag-waiving ones that we are likely to see this week ..

No comments: