Monday, 31 July 2017

Orwell on Dunkirk

Orwell on Dunkirk

As part of the Battle of France on the Western Front, the Battle of Dunkirk was the defence and evacuation of British and Allied forces in Europe from 26 May to 4 June 1940.

George Orwell’s diaries on the fall of Dunkirk are interesting because he can clearly see the situation as it developed with a fair degree of accuracy.

30th May 1940

The B.E.F. are falling back on Dunkirk. Impossible not only to guess how many may get away, but how many are there. Last night a talk on the radio by a colonel who had come back from Belgium, which unfortunately I did not hear, but which from E’s. account of it contained interpolations put in by the broadcaster himself to let the public know the army had been let down (a) by the French (not counterattacking), and (b) by the military authorities at home, by equipping them badly. No word anywhere in the press of recriminations against the French, and Duff-Cooper’s broadcast of two nights ago especially warned against this… Today’s map looks as if the French contingent in Belgium are sacrificing themselves to let the B.E.F. get away.

It is certainly true that the British army had been whittled down in the pre-war years. Successive governments had decided that maintaining and equipping a standing army was a waste of resources which could be better deployed elsewhere. The BEF was also undermanned.

No lessons seem to have been learned. When the Falklands war began, it was because Margaret Thatcher’s government had been scaling back the naval deployment across the world, and the Argentinian government thought they were ill-prepared for battle. As it turned out, they were not, but the damage done by reducing the navy costs lives dearly, and no member of the government took responsibility for that failure, while they were all happy to bask in the glow of victory.

Again in the Gulf War, in Afganistan, we hear of troops inadequately provisioned with equipment, and the navy had for some years no aircraft carrier at all [Fortunately this has now changed and two new ones have been built]. It is pattern which again sends out the wrong signals, and a further Argentine encroachment might not be improbable.

Orwell also was right in spotting that the French contingent were sacrificing themselves, but there were also British soldiers doing so. At Calais, for example, 16,000 French and 3,500 British were taken prisoner after it fell, fighting to delay the German advance to Dunkirk.

Still no evidence of any interest in the war. Yet the by-elections, responses to appeals for men, etc., show what people’s feelings are. It is seemingly quite impossible for them to grasp that they are in danger, although there is good reason to think that the invasion of England may be attempted within a few days, and all the papers are saying this. They will grasp nothing until the bombs are dropping. Connolly says they will then panic, but I don’t think so.

Again Orwell was right. The “phony war” was a curious time with preparations but no real knowledge of what it would be like. But when the Blitz descended on England, there was no mass panic.

2nd June 1940

Impossible to tell how many men of the B.E.F. have really been repatriated, but statements appearing in various papers suggest that it is about 150,000 and that the number that originally advanced into Belgium was about 300,000. No indication as to how many French troops were with them. There are hints in several papers that it may be intended to hang onto Dunkirk instead of evacuating it completely. This would seem quite impossible without tying down a great number of aeroplanes to that one spot.

It is interesting that with two days to go before the final evacuation, the numbers were still known. And the papers also seem to have been unclear, giving out what Orwell correctly sees as quite an unrealistic strategy.

6th June 1940

Borkenau considers that the Dunkirk business has proved once for all that aeroplanes cannot defeat warships if the latter have planes of their own.

The figures given out were 6 destroyers and about 25 boats of other kinds lost in the evacuation of nearly 350,000 men. The number of men evacuated is presumably truthful, and even if one doubled the number of ships lost it would not be a great loss for such a large undertaking, considering that the circumstances were about as favourable to the aeroplanes as they could well be.

The figures were 6 destroyers, 1 sloop, 18 steamers, 17 trawlers, 5 minesweepers, 1 hospital ship and 188 other vessels sunk. And the number of men was around 330,000.


“Private Eye” has a feature in which advertisers grab hold of any newsworthy story and use it as a means to sell products which have nothing to do with the story. As Orwell shows, this is nothing new! Here we can see an American company turning someone else’s disaster to clean profit!

But Orwell sees that this is not widespread:

Of 9 food and drink adverts, 6 are for unnecessary luxuries. Of 29 adverts for medicines, 19 are for things which are either fraudulent (baldness cured etc.), more or less deleterious (Kruschen Salts, Bile Beans etc.), or of the blackmail type (“Your child’s stomach needs magnesia”). Benefit of doubt has been allowed in the case of a few medicines. Of 14 miscellaneous adverts, 4 are soap, 1 for cosmetics, 1 for a holiday resort and 2 are government advertisements, including a large one for national savings. Only 3 adverts in all classes are cashing in on the war

And finally..

Borkenau thinks Hitler’s plan is to knock out France and demand the French fleet as part of the peace terms. After the invasion of England with sea-borne troops might be feasible.

And as it turns out, this was more or less right. France was defeated but the French fleet in Toulon was scuttled on 27 November 1942 to avoid capture by Nazi German forces.

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