The Dunkirk Evacuation: Background information when reading The Afrika Reich

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The Afrika Reich

by Guy Saville

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2013, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2015, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Heather A Phillips

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Beyond the Book:
The Dunkirk Evacuation

Print Review

In The Afrika Reich, Guy Saville sets his story in a world in which the "miracle of Dunkirk" is reimagined as the "massacre of Dunkirk." In this book, Britain failed in their mass evacuation of troops from the European mainland. Burton Cole, the protagonist, is a survivor and a former prisoner of the Germans.

British troops rescued at Dunkirk The stage for the real Dunkirk Miracle was set on the night of May 9, 1940. German troops attacked Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Northern France (bypassing the much-vaunted Maginot Line). Though British troops moved to the defense of these so-called 'low-countries' and that of France, their forces were unable to prevent German occupation. On May 14, German forces turned toward the English Channel and the channel port cities to cut off the retreat of troops. Had they succeeded in cutting off this line of retreat, all British troops (and many Belgian and French) then present in western Europe would have been stranded behind enemy lines. On May 25, British Command made the decision to evacuate from Dunkirk, a northern French port city on the English Channel. The evacuation was to be code-named "Operation Dynamo."

Due to war-time censorship, the full extent of the crisis was not publicized. However, the dire situation of British troops in Dunkirk led King George VI to call for a week of prayer. The British Government declared Sunday, May 26 a national day of prayer. The BBC broadcast the morning service from Westminster Abbey that day. Consequently, the entire country heard the Archbishop of Canterbury lead prayers "for our soldiers in dire peril in France."

Tamzine The evacuation fleet of British destroyers and merchant ships was joined by more than 700 "little ships", which consisted mainly of pleasure craft and small commercial vessels. The captains and owners of the little ships were mostly volunteers, some from as far away as Scotland. The bravery of the crews who manned the little ships – some of which were not designed to be ocean-going vessels – is remarkable. For example, the smallest of the little ships was the Tamzine, a fishing boat that measured less than 15 ft (4.6 m) long! These little ships crossed the English Channel, then ferried soldiers from the beaches at Dunkirk to the waiting fleet for evacuation, making multiple runs under intense Luftwaffe strafing.

British Command estimated that 30,000 - 45,000 men could be evacuated during the 48-hour window they forecast to be available before fighting became too severe for the evacuation to continue. In a stunning success, that earned the Dunkirk Miracle its name, Operation Dynamo rescued a total of 322,226 troops (over 200,000 British and 100,000 French) over the course of nine days. The evacuation went on this long because the Germans halted their advance on May 24 for three days. The reasoning behind this decision is a question that historians continue to debate. This delay gave the British and French troops time to build a defensive line and organize their plan of escape; then, when the Germans began to advance, they were slowed by 40,000 members of the French First Army who held back a far larger force of seven German divisions, three armored, for four days.

Despite Operation Dynamo's success at evacuating personnel, it is estimated that for every seven soldiers who escaped through Dunkirk, one was left behind as a prisoner of war. Over 68,000 British troops were killed, injured or captured, and between 30,000 to 40,000 French troops were taken prisoner by the Germans. British losses also included 243 ships (including over 70 of the little ships), 106 aircraft, 2,472 guns, 63,879 vehicles, and an estimated 500,000 tons of supplies. However, despite these losses, the evacuation preserved the core of the British Army, and rescued significant numbers of Belgian, Dutch, French, and Polish troops, allowing continued resistance to the Nazi threat.

This article was originally published in March 2013, and has been updated for the January 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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