Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory

Michael Korda

Liveright, New York, 2017, 544 pages

Book Review published on: September 15, 2017

Michael Korda’s retelling of the desperate yet heroic evacuation of Allied forces from the French coast in May 1940 is a perfect complement to director Christopher Nolan’s epic film Dunkirk, released this past summer to both critical and popular acclaim. Seventy-seven years later, the story of Dunkirk continues to compel. And, while the visual splendor of the film is breathtaking, it provides little to no accompanying context. Michael Korda fills that gap admirably with Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory; indeed, his contention that Dunkirk was really three separate battles is mirrored visually in Nolan’s film, which follows the action across three domains—air, land, and sea. While there is no known tie-in between the book and the film, both succeed admirably in communicating the tragedy as well as the triumph of Dunkirk. Alone provides fresh perspective and insight into a story that never gets old in the retelling.

Korda is a gifted storyteller and a prolific writer, having tackled eclectic subjects ranging from Robert E. Lee to T. E. Lawrence, to keeping horses, to collecting watches. In Alone, the author leaves it to others to relate the specific tactical details of the battle of Dunkirk and its prelude. Instead, Korda adds depth, insight, and context from his unique perspective—that of a privileged youth of Hungarian Jewish extraction growing up in a famous film family in England during the outbreak of World War II in Europe. His uncle, Alexander Korda, was a renowned film producer and director, and husband of Hollywood starlet Merle Oberon. Michael’s father was Vincent Korda, a gifted art director, and his mother was a talented English theater actress. The author effectively interweaves his family story with the events surrounding Dunkirk, lending a very personal touch to these momentous events. Thus, the book is eminently readable and accessible, while still conveying the key historical elements leading up to Operation Dynamo, the remarkable evacuation of over 330,000 troops—140,000 of them French, from Dunkirk.

The author seamlessly interweaves his family story with the critical events of the book’s three sections—the outbreak of war, including the invasion of Poland and the Phoney War; the battle for France and the Low Countries; and Dunkirk itself. Here, Korda incorporates vignettes and first-hand accounts that incorporate all levels of war, from the political-military realm to the perspective of the ordinary foot soldier, sailor, or aviator. Thus, one of the book’s obvious strengths is in Korda’s narrative, which draws the reader in a compelling and always interesting manner. The author’s versatility is on display, whether covering heated British-French arguments over the defense of France, the German decision to halt Panzers short of Dunkirk after the Battle of Arras, or the difficulties of daily life in England of the 1940s. Additionally, his portrait of the sheer devastation of Western Europe following the German invasion—“the stink of blood and cordite”—is visceral and impactful.

Korda’s family story is another obvious strength of Alone, and a unique contribution that complements the historical events of the book. Korda’s uncle, Alexander, produced Things to Come, a 1936 British film based on an H. G. Wells short story that foretold the German Blitz of London in 1940-1941. Fear of a European war was pervasive and contributed to the appeasement movement following Hitler’s rise to power in Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill personally affected the professional lives of the Kordas. He insisted that certain high-profile films be produced in Hollywood vice Britain in order to cultivate American support for the British war effort. The author, only seven years old in 1940, was relocated several times as part of Operation Pied Piper, the unpopular British wartime plan to move children out of urban areas and into the hinterlands as a protective measure against German attack. By sharing personal connections such as these as well as many others, Michael Korda brings depth and realism to this period of history, which makes Alone such a compelling story.

While Alone stands well on its own merit, it provides excellent context for the movie Dunkirk, illustrating Korda’s insight that the battle was really three separate ones. Nolan’s cinematic version follows suit along three distinct story lines—the Odyssean exploits of a British soldier in his relentless struggle to get off the beach, a Spitfire pilot defending the skies over the English Channel, and a civilian boat owner (part of the “small vessel pool”) trying to extricate exhausted evacuees from the hell of Dunkirk. Military professionals already familiar with the story will find great value in Korda’s observations and insights, particularly in the political-military realm. General readers will find great value in Alone, either by itself or as a companion to the film.

Book Review written by: Mark V. Montesclaros, Fort Gordon, Georgia