Alone. Michael Korda.

Korda, Michael. Alone. Norton (Liveright), New York. 2017. NF; 5/18.

This is the story of the evacuation of French and English soldiers from Dunkirk, France in 1940. Korda is a writer and publisher, now about 85 years old, who was a schoolboy living in England with his wealthy Hungarian family during these historic events. He was sent to the United States shortly after the Dunkirk evacuation.

The narrative is lively and detailed, and one gets a realistic and unbiased-sounding evaluation not only of what happened but of all the important people involved, presumably informed by today’s scholarship on the subject. Hitler, Churchill, Neville Chamberlain, Rommel, the French and English generals, and many others are discussed and their actions analysed. There is also a strong sense of the public attitudes and the influence of radio and newspaper reports.

After overrunning Czechoslovakia and Poland, Hitler turned his forces west, and drove through “neutral” Holland and Belgium in a matter of days. The French government and military had relied on the allegedly impenetrable Maginot line of defence, the effectiveness of which depended on attacking ground forces being unable to cross forest areas between Germany and France. In the event General Rommel and his panzer tanks crashed through the forest in a matter of a few days. It was assumed that the Germans would drive toward Paris which French defences were focused on opposing, but the fast-moving tanks and supporting dive bombers instead turned north, and the British Expeditionary Force along with about 200,000 French troops were driven toward the English channel and trapped with their backs to the ocean.

Korda emphasizes, presumably with a firm historic basis, the disorganization and poor morale of the French military. Churchill, newly elected Prime Minister replacing Chamberlain who famously was looking in vain for a peaceful solution with Germany, was a strong francophile, and is said to have done his best to reinforce and assist with holding back the fast-moving Germans. But in the end the English (and an equal number of French troops) understood that their only hope was to be evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk, or to surrender.

At this point the well-known enlisting of “little boats”, including private yachts, fishing boats, ferries, tugs, lifeboats – pretty well anything that was capable of crossing the channel – was organized by English military officials, and over about a week nearly 340,000 French and English soldiers were evacuated, under constant strafing and bombing from the advancing Germans.

Korda intersperses this account of the conquest of France and evacuation of Dunkirk with anecdotes about his family. His father and uncle were wealthy successful film producers, the uncle married to Merle Oberon, and it’s clear that young Michael learned most of his World War II history later since he was only seven or eight in 1940. I wasn’t sure how much of the Korda family story helped make the war story more real for readers of this book, and how much of it was a bit self-promotional.

The fairly abrupt ending with commentary about the significance of the events prompted me to proceed to With Wings Like Eagles, Korda’s account of the Battle of Britain, which I found equally informative and a bit more exciting. 7.9/7.5

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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