Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man

by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2006, $35.

Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s book could just as well have been titled The Roads to Dunkirk, for rather than replowing old furrows— the May 1940 evacuation, the flotilla of military and civilian ships, the onesided air battle—the author concentrates on the desperate rear-guard actions that enabled the eventual Allied troop withdrawal. Only 82 of the 720 pages describe the actual evacuation from the beaches and tiny harbor at Dunkirk, France, to England.

Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man deals less with overarching strategy than it does with small-unit tactics, for it was in the ditches, canal beds, roadblocks and barns between the armies and the sea that the British, French and Belgians tried desperately to stall the Germans and spare their otherwise doomed fellow soldiers. According to Sebag-Montefiore, though, the Allies spent as much time fighting each other as they did the Wehrmacht.

The author has no patience with the French in particular, whom he views as incompetent, cowardly, obstructionist and stupid. There is sometimes bravery among the French, but never skill. Sebag-Montefiore is so unremitting in his contempt, it’s jarring. At one point he presents the written account of a meeting between senior British and French officers as having been “compiled it seems by a French Anglophobe.” That said, there will certainly be some who say this book was compiled it seems by an English Francophobe.

Drawing from other accounts, Sebag-Montefiore describes horrifyingly—e.g., decapitations, amputations and flesh intermingled with tank tracks—what seems like every company action, squad firefight and hand-to-hand struggle the British experienced in Belgium and France. Unfortunately, the level of detail often turns out to be more exhausting than exhaustive.

Sebag-Montefiore’s work actually comprises three books: the main text; nearly 100 pages of fine-point chapter notes; and 23 pages of precise maps laden with arrows, perimeters, routes, positions and incident locations. Absent the latter, much of the action described in the narrative would be baffling. What’s more, Sebag-Montefiore has also added endless bracketed clarifications and explanations to firsthand diary entries and reports written during battle, marring the impact of the original text.

Still, Dunkirk is a work of substantial scholarship. Sebag-Montefiore carefully places the British withdrawal within the context of everything that happened in the Lowlands and northern France from the time the Wehrmacht skirted the Maginot Line and instead plunged through the Ardennes forests to the final British evacuation from Saint-Nazaire two weeks after the Battle of Dunkirk. (That lesser-known second retreat led to England’s single biggest maritime disaster: the Luftwaffe’s sinking of the Cunard liner Lancastria, which resulted in an estimated 3,500 deaths.)

For World War II scholars, this book is a valuable compendium. For those of us fascinated by military history, Dunkirk is a challenging textbook. Anyone looking for an easy read should stick to Tom Clancy.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here