DESTINATION DUNKIRK: The Story of Gort's Army
Pen & Sword Books, 2018
436 pages, 16 cm x 24 cm format
Verdict: Not all great historians are great storytellers.
Destination Dunkirk is a reprint of a book first published in 1973. It is essentially a history of the BEF in France, starting with pre-war planning for a response to a German invasion in the west right up to the evacuation at Dunkirk that ended in June 1940.
There's a certain kind of person who will enjoy reading this book, and I am not that type of person. Allow me to explain. The evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk was a remarkable accomplishment. Like any monumental struggle on the battlefield, it consisted of thousands of heroic actions carried out by thousands of individuals. These represent a trove of potentially gripping stories for any historian to mine (although you may not have gathered that from the, IMO, horrible Christopher Nolan movie that hit the theaters in 2017). Good historians who are also great writers, such as Barbara Tuchman, Stephen Ambrose, Nathaniel Philbrick, or Stephen Bungay, manage to paint an engaging and thorough big picture while also weaving in some of the fascinating individuals and actions that played their parts in the larger narrative. This, however, is not Gregory Blaxland's style.
Mr. Blaxland, who passed away in 1986, was a meticulous researcher, and this is obvious in his descriptions of events. The problem with this volume is that it is entirely too meticulous about the wrong kinds of details. Blaxland spends page after page telling the reader that the nth Division moved here or there, with the X regiment on the left and the Y regiment on the right where it linked up with such-and-such division along the left bank of the (insert name here) River, where it took fire from the German XYZ Division, losing x number of (Bren gun) carriers and y number of casualties. In the meantime, the reader learns precious little about the men in those units. Who were they? Why did they fight? What was their experience in France like?
The author himself provides clues about why the experience of the everyman in the Battle of France is largely ignored within the pages of his book. In his introduction, Blaxland describes The History of the Second World War, the official history of the British armed forces in that conflict, published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, as "the framework round which I have built," and I'm guessing that there are precious few accounts of individual British enlisted men in the Official History. In the sources section, the reader also discovers that Blaxland availed himself of little additional material other than the official war diaries, notes, and minutes published by various units and officers (much of which first became public in the late 1960s) -- and not very much of it, either. So it should not be too surprising that Destination Dunkirk reads very much like an official history since it is, in effect, a repackaging of various official histories.
The people who do tend to garner ink in this volume are the various officers within the combatant armies. This fact is evident not only within the narrative but is also seen in the selection of illustrations. There are 53 black-and-white photographs, which is actually a pretty good number, but of those 53 photos, 37 are of officers. Only one (!) shows any units actually engaged in combat operations
Sadly, for me at least, Blaxland tosses out so many names and numbers and dates, and in such a matter-of-fact delivery, that it becomes impossible to keep track of all the dramatis personae. And since so little is divulged of their back stories, it is rather hard to form much of an attachment to them either. It's a style that is fine for anyone who might be primarily interested in who did what and when, but it's not exactly compelling storytelling. There's no hook, and very little in the way of page-turning suspense. Through dogged perseverance, I made it to page 104. Your mileage may vary.