A military defeat with a happy ending


Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory by Michael Korda, Liveright Publishing, US $29.95, Pp 544, September 2017, ISBN 978-1631491320

May 1940 was an important month in the history of World War II. German military blazed into France. After the fall of Holland, Belgium, and France, the British Army was stranded at Dunkirk, and Winston Churchill became prime minister on this historical nadir of May 10, 1941, as Neville Chamberlain’s government fell. Britain was suddenly the only nation with the courage and the resolve to fight Hitler. In Alone, Michael Korda relates what happened and why by combining history with rich personal and family stories. He tells the history of World War II and the big events that led to Dunkirk. He shows that even the most calamitous defeats can become the most legendary victories.

Michael Korda says that the transformation of a calamitous defeat into a legendary victory was one of the singular British triumphs of the war, one that would sustain the people through the next four years, during which they were overshadowed by their two more powerful allies, the Soviet Union and the United States, and for over seventy years thereafter, and doubtless will continue to do so whenever they look across the Channel toward the Continent, for Britain never suffered invasion, occupation, or the marching away of millions of men into captivity. Despite the horrors of five more years of war Britain managed to stand alone until June of 1941 when Japan attacked the United States — surely Churchill’s greatest achievement. In that sense, Dunkirk was, and remains, perhaps the greatest British victory of World War II. It was that rarest of historical events, a military defeat with a happy ending.

The spirit of Dunkirk is now ingrained in the British consciousness. Michael Korda says that it did not emerge immediately or take hold as completely as is now supposed. If a cabinet minister like Duff Cooper could send his son abroad after Dunkirk without causing comment, it is a fair conclusion that many people still remained anxious about the possibility of a German invasion, despite the national habit of putting a brave face on things. The contrarian Clive Ponting points out that the “Children’s Overseas Reception Board,” a hastily contrived scheme to arrange for the evacuation of children to the dominions, received over 210,000 applications between June and July 1940, when it was abruptly terminated because of the sinking of two passenger ships bearing evacuated children across the Atlantic – certainly an indicator of some degree of pessimism in the upper classes about Britain’s chances. Not until the Battle of Britain had been won in the autumn of 1940 did people begin to believe that whatever else Hitler might have up his sleeve, a German invasion was no longer likely.

Alone is not just another book on World War II, it is a well-researched history of the most important British victory against Nazi Germany around which the personal story of the author winds like strands of barbed wire. Michael Korda convincingly shows how important Dunkirk was for Britain and Allies and how it changed the course of World War II. With his unmatchable scholarship, Michael Korda has written a history book everyone would enjoy.