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Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory

Review

Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory

The summer of 2017 marks a resurgence in historical information about a significant event in the early days of World War II that changed the course of the War: the Battle of Dunkirk. Identifying Dunkirk as a battle is ironic. Dunkirk was a massive retreat of 300,000 troops from the shores of France to England by way of the English Channel. It was accomplished by a fleet of warships, civilian fishing boats, ferry boats and pleasure crafts. In July, the blockbuster film Dunkirk was released, grossing nearly $500 million and receiving strong reviews. Michael Korda’s ALONE may not have the pizzazz of an IMAX adventure, but it is a rich and scholarly complement to the Hollywood version of the tactical tour de force that was Dunkirk.

"Michael Korda’s ALONE may not have the pizzazz of an IMAX adventure, but it is a rich and scholarly complement to the Hollywood version of the tactical tour de force that was Dunkirk."

Korda’s narrative is more than just the historical facts surrounding Dunkirk. He sets the stage that culminated in the cross-channel evacuation through a detailed discussion of the events leading up to the opening battles of World War II. The British Prime Minister, as the continent once again faced the threat of war, was Neville Chamberlain, now forever known as the ultimate appeaser. After meeting with Adolf Hitler, Chamberlain announced to the world, “I have returned from Germany with peace for our time.” Tragically, Chamberlain was mistaken. His government would fall, and he would be replaced by Winston Churchill, anointed by history as one of World War II’s architects of victory. Beyond the history of the War and the evacuation, Korda has woven a personal recollection of how the events leading to war and to Dunkirk affected him and his family. He was six years old as the War threatened, living in London with his family, who had emigrated there from Central Europe.

Korda’s family was well-recognized in the entertainment world. His uncle was a renowned producer and director, his aunt the actress Merle Oberon. When hostilities commenced, the family production company was working on the fantasy movie The Thief of Bagdad. The Kordas were friendly with Churchill, who supported their decision to relocate their enterprise in Hollywood in order to finish their films. The Korda family dynamics are interesting and a reminder that everyday life continues for most people whether in peace or war.

Family aside, the real meat of ALONE is the story of the British Expeditionary Force, retreating from the Nazi blitzkrieg that levelled Belgium and advanced towards Paris. Korda is masterful in his portraits of the key players. Of course, Chamberlain, Churchill and Hitler dominate the story, but there are many other intriguing details, including Bertram Ramsay, the British admiral who conceived and drafted Operation Dynamo, the successful evacuation plan.

Any discussion of Dunkirk must eventually turn to the question of why Hitler did not attack allied forces and destroy the army on the French beaches. As fellow historians have struggled with this question, he suggests that the advance was halted for tactical reasons. Whatever the reason, this decision changed the course of the war in its nascent stages and allowed the allied troops to fight another day.

Perhaps it is fortuitous that the publication of ALONE coincides with the release of the well-received movie portraying the evacuation. Those who find the film interesting and wish to learn more about the subject should read this extraordinary account. The melding of the cinematically presented history and the wonderfully written narrative are a happy marriage of scholarship and entertainment that rarely occurs.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on September 29, 2017

Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory
by Michael Korda

  • Publication Date: September 19, 2017
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 564 pages
  • Publisher: Liveright
  • ISBN-10: 1631491326
  • ISBN-13: 9781631491320