Lieut.- Colonel Ewan Butler, Major J. Selby Bradford
London, Hutchinson & Co., 1950, ISBN: Not applicable
Date accessed: 4 December, 2023
It is possible to talk today of a ‘public obsession with the Second World War’.(1) The preoccupation is one that generates lively academic debate. Yet bizarre though it may now seem, in 1950—just five years after the surrender of Germany and Japan—it was possible to write off the Second World War as ‘already but a memory’. (2)
This is how the authors of Keep the Memory Green saw matters. Butler and Selby Bradford were serving officers with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sent to France upon the outbreak of war in September 1939. Germany invaded Belgium on 10 May. BEF troops moved north to oppose but were soon boxed in as Germany invaded France on 12 May. German armour unexpectedly broke through to the south in a surprise attack on a weakly-defended sector of the French border around Sedan. Within days, Calais and Dunkirk were under threat.
Between late May and early June 1940, the greater part of the BEF fell back upon Dunkirk, from whose fire-swept beaches it was evacuated by the Royal Navy in the eight-day ‘Operation Dynamo’. Paris was surrendered on 14 June, and eight days later the French Government signed an armistice. At first it was thought that ‘Operation Dynamo’ might rescue perhaps 45,000 of the 250,000 British troops falling back upon Dunkirk. Yet between 26 May and 3 June 1940 some 224,000 troops were taken off. So too were about 110,000 men of other nationalities, mostly French. In 1941, the Poet Laureate, John Masefield, was to write of ‘The Nine Days [sic] Wonder’.
If, by 1950, according to Butler and Selby Bradford, the Second World War was ‘already but a memory’, the men of Dunkirk were ‘more than half-forgotten’. They had won no military victory, and were soon merged ‘into those greater armies which were to bring victory after long trial’.
Many of these men, of course, were not to come home from the ensuing two years of what Carlo d’Este was to describe as ‘one calamitous defeat after another’ as the British fought alone in the Mediterranean, North Africa and South-East Asia.(3) Dunkirk, d’Este holds, was ‘in reality the price paid for two decades of unpreparedness’.
It was in Churchill’s celebrated ‘we shall fight on the beaches’ speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940 that the incoming Prime Minister spoke of a ‘miracle of deliverance’. Much of the BEF was now safely back in England, defeated, but not in German prisoner of war camps(4).
The PM was not the first to invoke the miraculous. ‘Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now’ noted Commander II Corps Lieut. Gen. Alan Brooke, on 23 May. Two days later, General Sir Edmund Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, confided to his diary, ‘[w]e shall have lost practically all our trained soldiers by the next few days—unless a miracle appears to help us’.(5)
It could be argued that a ‘miracle’ had occurred the previous day, for on 24 May German tanks were within ten miles of Dunkirk when they were ordered to halt and regroup.(6) .
The main body of the BEF was still around Lille, 40 miles south of the Dunkirk perimeter. By the time the German halt order was rescinded on 27 May, an escape corridor had been established and troops were pouring into Dunkirk and were embarking for England.
Wonders did not cease. In late May to early June the weather in the English Channel is frequently changeable and often rough. During the eight-day evacuation, however, the Channel was a ‘milllpond’.(7) On 5 June the wind changed, driving great breakers up the beach. This would have been disastrous had not the last men been taken off the previous day. Even in calm weather, the waters were too shallow for a rescue fleet to come in close. The evacuation of men in such great numbers became possible only if they were able to wade into the sea, where—under fire—they could queue for hours to be picked up by the small boats and ferried out to larger vessels.
When France capitulated on 22 June, Germany had captured more territory in eight weeks of 1940 than in the four years of the Great War. The BEF had abandoned its heavy weapons and transport yet, with the bulk of its men now back in England, could help to oppose the expected German invasion.
Germany did launch a preliminary air offensive, ‘The Battle of Britain’, initially to put RAF airfields out of action. Losing that battle, German attentions switched eastward to the disastrous invasion of the USSR.
Had the BEF not made it back to England, would Churchill have survived as Prime Minister? Would his successor have been as energetic and inspiring a war leader? The Americans were unconvinced that Great Britain could hold out even with Churchill at the helm. As late as 11 April 1941, the United States Army Air Corps sought proposals for a bomber able to fly non-stop from the USA to Berlin and back ‘after the defeat of the United Kingdom’. (8) Yet Great Britain was to become the base for Allied aid to the USSR and, ultimately, the springboard for the invasion of Europe.
It is the conjectural as well as the practical consequences of ‘Dunkirk’ that drive subsequent inquiry. Butler and Selby Bradford were neither the only nor the first author/participants to give their account. In 1945, David Divine, later Defence Correspondent of The Sunday Times, published The Nine Days of Dunkirk. This study flags up the consequences had the evacuation failed, notably in Divine’s view, ‘acceptance of a carefully calculated German offer of peace’.(9) Divine himself piloted one of the fleet of small boats and he was able to document the vital the part they played in taking off some 90,000 men.
Without an index and seldom referenced, Keep the Memory Green nonetheless appears to have kicked off or at least to have been in at the beginning of enduring British interest in Second World War studies. Yet Butler and Selby Bradford do not set out to give a comprehensive account of the BEF campaign in France. There is no reference, for example, to the other large-scale evacuation of the BEF. Between 15 and 25 June 1940 some 150,000 BEF and French soldiers were taken off from the Atlantic coast around Nantes-St. Nazaire.
Churchill found nothing ‘miraculous’ in this operation, indeed demanding press silence, for on 17 June German bombers sank RMS Lancastria as she prepared to weigh anchor off St. Nazaire. The Lancastria was overloaded with evacuees, civilian and military, about 4,000 of whom died.(10)
With Keep the Memory Green, the authors seek to stake out a place in the national memory for Dunkirk as if in absolution for the national humiliation of the military defeat that preceded it. Butler and Selby Bradford appear in a hurry to commemorate ‘the men of Dunkirk’ lest the story of their defeat on land and rescue by sea be effaced by the RAF’s victory in the air.
The ‘Battle of Britain’ began four weeks after the last rescue boat cast off from Dunkirk. Clearly invoking Churchill’s 1940 tribute to the Battle of Britain pilots, to whom “[n]ever … was so much owed by somany to so few”(11), Keep the Memory Green is subtitled ‘The First of the Many’. One reason they were so ‘few’ was their losses in men and aircraft in France, although the Luftwaffe also lost heavily.
Butler and Selby Bradford vividly convey the disarray of the French army, the senior partner in the alliance, and the weakness of RAF support available to the BEF. The reader is left in no doubt as to the horror that awaited Great Britain but for the success of ‘Operation Dynamo’. On 15 May 1940, some BEF troops ‘first encountered death’, yet that it is neither their own nor even in battle, but
[I]n the quiet square of a Belgian town, where a crocodile of school children was on its way to Mass, shepherded by nuns. Death came to them over the roof-tops, machine-guns spitting, from a Heinkel, so that in a moment small, black-pinafored bodies lay on the cobbles
For yet other children, death came
As they sat at tea in a farmyard—thick china mugs of milk and wedges of bread and butter on the trestle table before them … while a British officer fired a futile revolver from a ditch opposite.(12)
By 1950, the year Keep the Memory Green was published, a developing taste for Second World War biography, history and memoir was there to be served. Wartime paper rationing had slackened. So too had the fear of prosecution, book-pulping and even imprisonment under the Official Secrets Act. Hitherto, publishers and writers had been haunted by the hounding of Sir Compton Mackenzie, who in 1932 had been forced to plea-bargain or face imprisonment for an alleged breach of the Act for his memoir of Great War service with Military Intelligence, Greek Memories.
Moreover, 1950 was the year the Korean War broke out. This was to be just one of a number of limited but still savage conflicts. The Malayan emergency, now in its second year, had ten more years to run. In Kenya, the Mau-Mau uprising was two years off, and the Cyprus crisis, five.
Amid such colonial savagery, it became possible to look back on the 1939–45 conflagration almost fondly as an epoch of national unity and ultimate victory in the face of great and unquestionable evil.
Curiously, a best-seller of 1950 (and hit film of 1951) was a biography of a German Field Marshal, Erwin Rommel, the loser in the first large-scale British victory of the war, at El Alamein in 1942.(13). The Dambusters, Paul Brickhill’s non-fiction account of an RAF bombing raid, sold well in 1952. The 1954 film was a hit, remaining popular ever since.
The further ‘Dunkirk’ receded into history, it now seemed, then like the war itself, the more attractive did ‘Dunkirk’ become as a subject for study as well as for popular entertainment. In 1957, an official history, The Defence of the United Kingdom, put the evacuation into an interservice context.(14) In 1958, a dour British film, Dunkirk, part-based upon Keep the Memory Green and with a screenplay by David Divine, enjoyed some success in Great Britain.(15)
By 1980, the Churchillian version of ‘Dunkirk’ as gallant miracle had been comfortably assimilated into British folk history. In 1982, the Churchillian view captivated the United States afresh with the publication of The Miracle of Dunkirk. The book’s American author, Walter Lord, had previously reprised Pearl Harbor and the sinking of the Titanic. Before 1940, ‘Dunkirk’ could signify to Americans a harbour town on Lake Erie, New York State, site of an 1812 naval engagement with the British.
Nicholas Harman began chipping away at the nostalgia with his 1980 Dunkirk, subtitled The Necessary Myth, and for the American market restyled The Patriotic Myth. Over the next two decades, memoirs, novels, screenplays and studies proliferated. Charles Arnold-Baker, who during the war commanded troops guarding Churchill, appears to attach no particular significance to the events of 1940. There are two entries under ‘Dunkirk’ in Arnold-Baker’s 1,407-page Companion to British History.(16) The first entry refers to the 1658 ‘Battle of the Dunes’, the second to the 1947 Treaty of Dunkirk that provided for ‘strong mutual assistance’ against a now-prostrate Germany.
Under ‘World War II’, however, we read that ‘[m]ost of the British and about an equal number of French troops had been evacuated amid fire and smoke from Dunkirk (30 May–03 June)’. Arnold-Baker gives figures neither for the numbers of men rescued nor for their rescuers. (17)
Turn to the 410-page Dictionary of British History of 1994, however, and we read that ‘233,000 British and 113,000 Allied troops’ were evacuated from Dunkirk by a flotilla of 850 naval and civilian craft at the cost of 235 vessels and 106 aircraft.(18)
‘Dunkirk’ came to command attention as worthy of a standalone narrative blockbuster (Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man (London, 2006)), as well as an essential element of panoramic general history (Antony Beevor, The Second World War (London, 2012) and Robert Tombs’s The English and Their History (London, 2014)).(19)
A crucial development was the growing interest of German scholars and their assiduous recovery and employment of German archive material. Karl-Heinz Frieser comprehensively blitzes the idea that the concept of ‘blitzkrieg’ was either novel or German. He also dismisses the belief that the German Army invading France in 1940 was bigger and better-equipped than the opposition.(20) It was certainly more chemically-fuelled.
Hitler, it has long been alleged, was a drug addict. Norman Ohler’s research demonstrates that methamphetamine (‘crystal meth’) was freely distributed to German troops. Ohler infers that Erwin Rommel’s behaviour leading 7th Panzer Division in 1940 was typical of ‘excessive methamphetamine consumption’ in showing no apparent sense of danger and pointing to ‘future orgies of violence’.
On 17 May, Ohler relates, Rommel was in a hurry for his tanks to engage French troops near Lille in the race to Dunkirk and Calais. Along a 10km stretch of road he ordered his column to push ‘hundreds of vehicles and tanks, along with the dead and wounded, into the ditches on either side’, whereupon his tanks rattled on with blood-smeared tracks’. (21)
In Desperate Victories (2018), the British historian G. H. Bennett, analyzes the Dunkirk rhetoric of and since 1940. A cooperation with The National Archives, Desperate Victories reprints military despatches from Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain. Yet, if anything, Bennett’s acerbic commentary, with its analysis of the appalling cost in men and materiel, can make the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ seem even more miraculous. He makes the point that the Dunkirk withdrawal took place as the Germans were consolidating their defeat of the British in Norway. Both the British and the German navies had suffered heavily, yet the Royal Navy was much bigger than the Kriegsmarine, whose losses obviated any decisive role at Dunkirk. Bennett also reminds us that there was not just one ‘Dunkirk’, but two. The second was ‘Operation Ariel’, the withdrawal from French Atlantic ports of about 192,000 Allied personnel, 144,000 of them British. (22) Losses were ‘just as shocking’ as off the coast of Belgium and Northern France. Yet ‘Ariel’, an ‘enormous’ undertaking, is ‘all but lost from public understanding of the Second World War’.
- D. Sandbrook, ‘Island Stories: Britain and Its History in the Age of Brexit by David Reynolds review—an academic badly misfires’, The Sunday Times, 20 Oct. 2019, p. 29Back to (1)
- On 6 June 1950 the BBC broadcast Richard Austin’s account of his rescue from Dunkirk. In November 1940 Austin, then a captain of artillery, published a graphic memoir, Return Via Dunkirk, under the pen-name ‘Gun Buster’.Back to (2)
- C. D’Este, The Oxford History of the British Army (Oxford, 1994), pp. 273-4.Back to (3)
- The BEF was a ‘small but excellently trained elite force of regular soldiers’, according to Karl-Heinz Frieser, The Blitzkrieg Legend (Annapolis, 2012), p. 304. Robert Tombs disagrees; see The English and Their History (London, 2014), p. 699. The number of men brought home from ‘Dunkirk’ varies from study to study, embarkations having taken place at various places along the Channel coast.Back to (4)
- For the Brooke and Ironside quotations, see Walter Lord, The Miracle of Dunkirk (Ware, 1998), p. 25.Back to (5)
- Frieser, Blitzkrieg Legend, pp. 291ff.Back to (6)
- Lord, English and Their History, p 272. Low cloud ceilings frustrated Luftwaffe attacks on three days. Back to (7)
- See Bill Gunston, Giants of the Sky (Yeovil, 1991), pp. 192 ff. The bomber, the six-engined Convair B-36, did fly but did not bomb Berlin for the German capital became within reach of airfields in England.Back to (8)
- D. Divine, The Nine Days of Dunkirk (??, 1976), p. 292. In 1940, Divine was awarded a DCM, having been wounded while for the third time skippering a 35-foot rescue boat to Dunkirk.Back to (9)
- The Lancastria’s estimated death toll of 4,000 is equivalent to about 40% of the BEF’s fatalities, and almost twice the 2,718 combined losses of the Lusitania and Titanic. See Lloyd Clark, Blitzkrieg (New York, 2016), p. 390. See also Jonathan Fenby, The Sinking of the Lancastria: Britain’s Greatest Maritime Disaster and Churchill’s Cover-Up (London, 2006).Back to (10)
- The First of the Few was chosen as the title of the 1942 film biography of R. J. Mitchell, designer of the Spitfire fighter that along with the Hurricane helped win the Battle of Britain. Ironically, the film’s producer, director and star, Leslie Howard, was killed in 1943 when German fighters shot down his unescorted civilian aircraft over the Bay of Biscay on a flight to England from neutral Portugal.Back to (11)
- E. Butler and J. Selby Bradford, Keep the Memory Green: The Story of Dunkirk (London, 1950), p. 87.Back to (12)
- D. Young, Rommel: The Desert Fox (London, 1950).Back to (13)
- B. Collier, The Defence of the United Kingdom (Uckfield, 1957).Back to (14)
- The 2017 film of the same name was more successful.Back to (15)
- C. Arnold-Baker, The Companion to British History (Battle, 2008), p. 438. First published 1996.Back to (16)
- Arnold-Baker, Companion to British History, p. 1344.Back to (17)
- Dictionary of British History, ed. J. P. Kenyon (London, 1994), p. 117-8.Back to (18)
- Tombs, English and Their History, p. 699 speculates that Hitler ‘probably’ believed that the BEF could not escape and might serve as a bargaining counter in armistice negotiations. Back to (19)
- Frieser, Blitzkried Legend, pp. 290 ff.Back to (20)
- N. Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (London, 2017), pp. 91 ff. In Put Out More Flags (London, 1942, p. ??), a novel set in 1940, Evelyn Waugh has a club bore say he has it ‘on the highest authority’ that the German infantry is ‘intoxicated before battle with dangerous drugs’. In 1940, while awaiting call-up, the war poet Stephen Haggard referred to German soldiers as ‘frenzied, martial, slave-driven, adrenalin-injected[sic]’. See S. Haggard, I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (London, 1944), p. 20. Haggard was later recruited for ‘black propaganda’ duties by Ewan Butler, now attached to Special Operations Executive in Cairo.Back to (21)
- G. H. Bennett, Desperate Victories: Military Despatches from Dunkirk to the Battle of Britain (Stroud, 2018), p. 19.Back to (22)