Walter Lord wrote the definitive Titanic book, A Night to Remember, and wrote another heart-in-your-mouth thriller here. It’s not like I don’t know how either of those stories ended but Lord has a real gift for seeking out people you’d like to have a beer with in ordinary circumstances who are then thrown into extraordinary circumstances and brings you along for the ride. I’m still spitting the sand of the beach out of my mouth.
You all know the story; the Allied Forces were forced to the coast by the German Blitzkrieg and were on the edge, literally, of being forced into the sea when England mustered every Naval and civilian vessel in the UK able to get to Dunkirk in time to evacuate the troops. Dunkirk is a shooting gallery for the Luftwaffe and the men waiting on the beaches watch as ships are strafed and bombed and sunk right in front of them. Some men who make it to the boats have boat after boat shot out from under them. Before Dunkirk the British Navy had 40 destroyers; after Dunkirk it had 11. They lost 243 vessels in all, including Life Guard skiffs, pleasure craft, sailboats, ferries and naval ships of every size.
The attrition was horrific but in spite of it all, in spite of the deterioration in the chain of command and the miscommunications between London, Paris and Dunkirk and the resulting chaos on the beaches, in spite of some of the crews on the civilian ships flatly refusing to return, in spite of the German torpedo boats taking pot shots from the sea and the Luftwaffe strafing and bombing from the air, in spite of weekend sailors running into and frequently sinking each other on the way there, back and even inside Dunkirk harbor–in spite of all of these obstacles and many more, they evacuated 224,686 British troops and 103,000 French troops. Which troops would be become the nucleus of the army that would one day return to France almost exactly four years later, in June 1944.
Some characters take up residence in your imagination and just won’t leave. Like Lt. Jimmy Langley of 2nd Coldstream Guards who scrounged up enough guns and ammo (and creature comforts like food and booze) to help hold off the Germans until a boat got there with his name on it. And then was wounded and they were only taking the walking wounded on the ships so he was left behind and captured. (He wasn’t done, though–I looked him up and the guy has his own Wikipedia entry. A German doctor amputated his arm and he was sent to the south of Vichy France, where prisoners only had to report in to the authorities once a week. So of course Langley joins the Resistance until a friendly doctor certifies him as unfit for duty and he is invalided back to England, where he joins MI9 and helps run the Resistance from there.)
And like Sergeant Bill Knight of the Royal Engineers. He and four men from his unit missed the order to evacuate and were holed up in a basement with a couple of Belgian civilians. They’ve got a truck but they can’t get to Dunkink, the Germans are now in the way, so, Knight figures, why not try to hook up with the Allied forces to the south? The Belgians agree to show them the way if Knight will give them a ride home, and off they go. On the second day they find a German convoy of captured Allied vehicles and tag themselves onto the end. They reach one of the few bridges left standing across the Somme and hustled across it right into the welcoming arms of the Allied forces. You can’t make this stuff up.
If you don’t know the name Lightoller you should (you would have if you had read Lord’s A Night to Remember), as Lightoller was the 2nd officer aboard the Titanic, the only officer to keep his head and save a bunch of people. Here he has retired to raise chickens in Hertfordshire and recreates in his 58-foot power cruiser, the Sundowner. When the call goes forth the Navy says they’ll take it from here, thanks. Nope, and Lightoller and his son Roger and an 18-year old Sea Scout cross the channel to Dunkirk. The tide is too low for them to take on men from the mole (or pier) itself so Lightoller ties up to a destroyer that is taking on men from the mole and the men cross the destroyer to his ship. His son packs 80 men belowdecks, all of them laying down so they’ll take up less room and not coincidentally lower the center of the Sundowner’s gravity, and Lightoller packs the deck with 50 more, at which point Lightoller “could feel Sundowner getting tender.” Tender means a ship is unbalanced and hard to handle. Yeah, you would think 130 men might make a 58′ cabin cruiser a little tender. They leave the harbor and are attacked by the Luftwaffe all the way across the channel. They make it without a scratch. (This GUY.)
Yes, all this makes for great storytelling, but Lord never lets you forget that this is a war, and that wars are brutal and unforgiving and if you can manage it best viewed through a distant lens. Like this book.
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