John Grehan and Alexander Nicoll, Dunkirk Evacuation Operation Dynamo (Frontline, 2020)
Few events sit higher in British military mythology than the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in May 1940. What was a staggering defeat by any measure became a source of national pride, a turning point not towards defeat but victory. It remains so with numerous books written about it and two major movies produced to tell the story. The latter is important because Dunkirk is understood best as a visual event; numbers and statistics are important, but do not have the image of a long line of defeated soldiers standing in the sea under fire, waiting for a ship to rescue them. That is where John Grehan and Alexander Nicoll’s Dunkirk Evacuation Operation Dynamo comes in as part of the Images of War series of books.
After an outline, narrating the fall of France that led to the evacuation, the authors describe the events chronologically across the nine days it took to bring those men back home. John Grehan has recently written a book on this subject, so we can skip across the text, suffice to say that in this volume it is well-paced and works well with the photographs. Grehan and Nicoll make it clear that likely catastrophe was all that most of the BEF could look forward to as they retreated back to Dunkirk, but instead an extraordinary effort was made to get the men off the beaches by a flotilla of ships large and small.
It is the photographs, however, that make this book: many are of the ships, planes, and men that crossed the Channel, and what became of some of them; others show the British streaming into the town and gathering on the beaches, including action shots of men firing and bombs exploding. The detritus of war is strewn across many of the photographs: vehicles and equipment abandoned in the flight of a retreating army – the British left an awful lot behind them, including many men. The ‘Aftermath’ chapter pictures were taken by the victorious Germans, which I found particularly interesting; how easy they must have thought war was at the time. A few photographs are stills from the 1958 movie Dunkirk, which I thought cheapened the book a bit and they should not have added them; they did not need to. Otherwise, Dunkirk Evacuation Operation Dynamo is an informative journey through the drama that was Dunkirk and a welcome addition to the Images of War series. 8/10