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Books: Cockleshell Armada

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THE SANDS OF DUNKIRK—(319 pp.)—Richard Collier—Dutton ($4.50).

As the battered tugboat churned into Ramsgate Harbor one day in 1940, the exhausted troops aboard noticed tricolor bunting in the streets. A French liaison officer, observing the welcome, could only wonder: “If this is the way the British celebrate a defeat, how do they celebrate a victory?”

The evacuation from Dunkirk of 338,226 British and French troops, soundly whipped by the German army but rescued by an improvised flotilla of 1,200 ships under week-long bombardment, was closer to triumph than to tragedy. By rights, the saga of Dunkirk deserves a Homer, but even in the jabbing, boilerplate prose of British Journalist Richard Collier, a reliable but uninspired artisan of “The Day That” books (The City That Would Not Die—TIME, Jan. II, 1960), the story vividly recalls the curious, human mosaic of heroic and horrifying experience that was pre-Hiroshima warfare.

Holiday in Uniform. Overconfident and undertrained, far too many of the British Expeditionary Force’s drafted Tommies had taken the “phony war” in France as a holiday in uniform, succumbed to the lure of strange food and strange women. General the Viscount Gort’s army, reports Author Collier, suffered more from gastric ulcers, scabies and venereal disease than it did from German bullets. Even in the famed Guards regiments, few of the hastily called-up reservists had seen, much less fired, a shot in anger until their first encounter with the Germans. The ist Armored Division arrived at the Western Front with mockup plywood tanks; another unit had six mobile movie houses, but only a handful of obsolete antitank weapons.

On May 26, 1940, Gort’s army was in full retreat from Hitler’s Panzers toward the Channel ports when Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill’s Secretary of State for War, gave the only command possible —the evacuation of the army from Dunkirk, the last northern French port left in Allied hands. Ironically, it was called Operation Dynamo. At first, the job seemed impossible, and officers gloomily reckoned on saving no more than 45,000 men. German bombers had ruined Dun kirk’s seven modern dock basins. Because the beaches were shallow, small craft were needed, and the navy, in a brilliant recruiting operation, found them. By dawn of May 30, the first wave of an astounding cockleshell armada was heading across the Channel. There was never a navy like it; the beachboat Dumpling had been built in Napoleon’s day; the Fleetwood fishing trawler Jacinta, to the horror of the troops that sailed home in her hold, stank to the skies of cod; the destroyer Harvester, built on contract for Brazil, had all its gunnery instructions in Portuguese; a Dominican friar skippered the armed yacht Gulzar.

Beaker of Gin. On the beach, the army waited. For some, the tension before rescue was too much. Captain George Anderson watched 100 men fight like wolves for a loaf of bread; even combat veterans went screaming mad as they waited on queue. Yet for most of the B.E.F., the defeat in France had been a badly needed but well learned lesson; they prepared for Operation Dynamo with a calm, stiff-lipped nonchalance that was unmistakably British. Attending to his toilet on the way to Dunkirk, Captain Robert Gordon of the Royal Ulster Rifles devised an intriguing substitute for shaving lotion: a beaker of hot gin. Marching his East Surreys toward embarkation, Colonel “Nipper” Armstrong accepted a grimy straggler into his unit—but not before roundly lecturing the guardsman on the Surrey’s tradition and ordering him first to wash and shave. Aboard the minesweeper Leda, Surgeon-Lieut. Richard Pembrey wept as he watched a dying soldier strip off his own blanket, gently place it across the shivering body of the pneumonia-stricken trooper in the next bunk.

In any war, more battles are lost than are won, and Dunkirk was plainly an opportunity that the Germans tossed away. In Author Collier’s view, the principal mistake was made by Hitler himself. Foolishly expecting the British army to surrender intact, he held back the Panzer divisions that could have wiped out the B.E.F. on Dunkirk’s beaches, instead ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy the port and the embarkation fleet. At least 235 ships were put out of action, but the Stuka dive bombers were not enough. The armada sailed grimly on, and by the time the German divisions pushed the British and French rearguard to the sand dunes, only 40,000 soldiers were left behind to throw down their rifles.

Dunkirk was the kind of defeat that turns losing armies into winners, and Author Collier found that survivors of Operation Dynamo, in the retrospect of victory, were uniformly proud to have shared in the humiliation of rescue. “If Dunkirk had to happen,” explained Sergeant Leslie Teare of the gth Sherwood Foresters, “I guess I’d not have missed it. You saw how low a man can sink, yes, but something finer too—how high a man can rise.”

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