Saturday, May 30, 2020

I First Saw the Ruins of Dunkerque

John Fisher
From Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1944

Dunkirk ruins after British retreat, early June 1940. (Hugo Jaeger / Timepix — The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images).
To the Germans, the Battle of Dunkirk was a tremendous victory heralding the ascendancy of the Third Reich. To the French, it was a devastating loss presaging the end of the Third Republic. To the British, however, it was a miracle.

On May 10, 1940—the day Winston Churchill became the British prime minister, replacing Neville Chamberlain—the German army invaded Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg (all neutral countries) and launched heavy air attacks against France. The Allied command sent troops into Belgium and Holland to establish a defensive perimeter but failed to detect the movement of German forces through the Ardennes Forest. The Germans broke through the French positions along the Meuse River on May 13.

By May 20, German forces reached the English Channel near Abbeville, completing the encirclement of British and French armies in Belgium. After attempts to break through the cordon failed, the British began evacuating troops from Dunkirk. Writing for the 1941 edition of Britannica Book of the Year, retired U.S. Army officer George Fielding Eliot described the flotilla of more than eight hundred vessels. “One of the most motley fleets of history—ships, transports, merchantmen, fishing boats, pleasure craft—took men off from the very few ports left, from the open beaches themselves, for German air attacks had virtually destroyed most port facilities.”

The day the British ended the evacuation, June 4, Churchill delivered his famous “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech and called the rescue “a miracle of deliverance, achieved by valor, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.” Approximately 225,000 British and 110,000 French troops had been rescued—abandoning all of their heavy weapons and equipment. Unfortunately, as many as 40,000 French and 40,000 British soldiers were left behind to become prisoners of war and—if they survived—to suffer from brutal treatment in German work camps for the next five years.

“Wars are not won by evacuations,” Churchill reminded his listeners. While the British were giving thanks for the “miracle” of their army’s deliverance, the Germans were cleaning up after their conquest of Dunkirk. John Fisher, identified only as Life’s correspondent in Berlin (not much else is known about him), was one of a small group of foreign journalists to be allowed into the city. “Leaving Berlin on May 31,” the headnote to his account in the magazine explains, “he travelled through The Netherlands and Belgium into France . . . and then circled north along the Channel, arriving outside Dunkerque [as it was then often spelled] while the German bombardment was still going on.” He entered the city only hours after the last Allied troops surrendered, and we reprint below his fascinating account, which was published later that month.

The German army entered Paris on June 14. The new French government headed by Marshal Philippe P├ętain requested an armistice on June 17, which was signed five days later and became the first step toward the establishment of the collaborationist Vichy regime. Yet the war in western Europe, seemingly over, had barely begun.

Notes: Fisher incorrectly states that he and his companions “drove through the Maginot Line,” but the fortifications around Maubeuge were not part of the Maginot Line, which, for financial and diplomatic reasons, stopped short of the Belgian border. The Lancasters were British soldiers from a Lancashire regiment.

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Our party was whipped into shape with German precision and we set out from Cologne in seven high-powered Mercedes-Benz staff cars. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

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