EXCERPT: 'My Paper Chase,' by Harold Evans

"They said they had nothing to fight with," Dad told everyone back in the dining room that lunchtime. The men were not triumphant, he explained, as they were said to be — they were bewildered, bitter that the Maginot Line had proved useless because the Germans had bypassed it by coming through Belgium, bitter with the French Army, bitter with the Royal Air Force (RAF) they felt had left them so exposed to the German Luftwaffe as they lined up on the beach and scrambled for the shallow- draft boats that would take them to the bigger ships. (The histories suggest that the French and the RAF both performed better than it seemed at the time, but misperceptions are the common currency of war.) The newspapers we'd seen had given the impression that the survivors couldn't wait to get back into battle to avenge their defeat. Maybe thousands were, but not those prostrate on the Rhyl beach or the dispirited men who, according to the historian Richard Collier in his 1961 history of Dunkirk, flung their rifles away after landing at Dover.

Dad's account of the mood of the men compared well with the national archives records I checked years later. "We didn't deserve the cheers," said Albert Powell, a truck driver, of their reception after they landed in Ramsgate before entraining for Rhyl. Bert Meakin, a gunner with the Fifty- first Medium Regiment, was critical of the weapons they'd been given to hold back the Germans: "First world war 6- inch howitzers on iron wheels, pretty useless really!" His group fought south of the Somme, then were told it was every man for himself; they abandoned the howitzers in the woods. He arrived in Rhyl with a seven- day leave warrant but without a penny. Powell, a Royal Signals truck driver attached to Third Corps Medium Artillery, got to La Panne on foot. "On the beaches," he recalled, "we huddled together in the sand dunes for protection from the constant bombing and machine gunning from the air. The bombing was ineffectual, just blowing up loads of sand, but the machine gunning was another matter." Once Powell reached a boat, it was swamped by a dive- bomber's near miss, and he was flung into the sea. He swam fifty yards, "arrived at the ship completely knackered and found myself hauled aboard."

Looking back on my boyhood snapshot memory of the difference between what I read and what I saw, I often wondered whether Dad and I were overly impressed with a firsthand experience and hadn't seen the woods for the trees. Dad talked, after all, to a tiny fraction of the evacuated soldiers (and surely, newspaper reporters would have talked to hundreds). So it was interesting to learn later that Winston Churchill got so worried at the presentation of the retreat as a triumph, he felt it necessary to remind everyone that "wars are not won by evacuations." Even more illuminating on the role of the press was Phillip Knightley's authoritative account of war reporting in his book The First Casualty, first published in 1975. Of Dunkirk he wrote, "Above all, the stories stressed the high morale of the evacuated troops, itching to get back to France and into the fight again. It was not until the late 1950's and early 1960' s — nearly twenty years after the event — that a fuller, truer picture of Dunkirk began to emerge." Alexander Werth, the Manchester Guardian correspondent, confessed that after the fall of France he felt guilty at the "soft soap" he had been giving his readers.

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