Could it have been government news management that conjured the Dunkirk 'miracle' from the disaster of the Fall of France? Duncan Anderson investigates.
By Professor Duncan Anderson
Last updated 2011-02-17
Could it have been government news management that conjured the Dunkirk 'miracle' from the disaster of the Fall of France? Duncan Anderson investigates.
Over the last ten years new terms have entered the English language. We have 'spin doctors' who, on a 'bad news day', manipulate information to protect their government's 'media flank.' Terminology of this sort is particularly common on military operations, where 'media minders' supervise 'pools' of those journalists who have not been 'embedded', so that their reports can be 'shaped' to conform to the dictates of an all embracing information strategy.
Many deplore the news management of the current age, hearkening back to earlier periods, when fearlessly independent reporters exposed wickedness and brought governments down.
... the British government manipulated information to increase the chances of national survival.
Of course, there never was such a time. Beginning with the emergence of the Greek city states in the fifth century BC, all governments have attempted to manipulate information to their advantage, and have often suppressed those who have sought to tell a different story. This tendency is most apparent when the very existence of the state is under threat. In extreme situations governments can interpret chance events - storms, fortuitous deaths, and so on - as evidence of the intervention of an external agency (often supernatural) working on their behalf.
Such agencies can come in the form of fate (Athens 480BC), a divine wind (Japan 1281), a protestant God (England 1588), a special providence (Prussia 1762) - example could be piled upon example. In the early summer of 1940 Britain's very existence was threatened, and unsurprisingly, the British government manipulated information to increase the chances of national survival.
Sixty years ago there were three main ways of receiving information. Britain had over eight million wireless sets, about one for every six people, and audiences for popular programmes, for example the BBC's nine o'clock news, could number 20 million. In addition to listening to the wireless, most adults visited the cinema at least once a week, and nearly half the population went twice a week.
The cinemas were supplied by five newsreel companies, who could turn out a new newsreel every week, although the most famous, Pathé, could usually produce two a week. Finally, virtually all British households subscribed to a weekly paper or magazine, while the collective circulation of daily newspapers showed that the British market had reached saturation point.
... about four million men and women over the age of 40 had served in the war.
By today's standards the population was not as well educated (only 7 per cent had been to university), but they were very much more sophisticated in their understanding of the nature of war and of war reporting. Nearly three quarters of Britain's 48 million people had lived through World War One, and about four million men and women over the age of 40 had served in the war.
They understood the language of military communiqués, in which 'withdrawal' meant 'retreat', 'regrouping' meant 'disorganisation', and 'consolidation' meant 'disaster impending'. They were not a population it would be easy to tell lies to in the event of a military reverse - indeed, it would have been foolish to try.
By the summer of 1940 the British government had an effective system of news management in place. At the apex was the Ministry of Information under Churchill's old friend, Alfred Duff Cooper. The MOI had responsibility for censoring news, but it found the most effective means was to control the source, issuing communiqués to newspapers, which editors could then interpret in their own ways.
Thus the MOI encouraged the appearance of diversity, when the media was actually under a very tight reign. The BBC presented more of a problem. Churchill and Duff Cooper both wanted to exert more control, but the corporation managed to maintain a surprising degree of independence.
In the early summer of 1940 the government had to deal with the greatest defeat ever suffered by the British army, which resulted in the most dangerous situation the country had faced since the summer of 1805. It had to change news stories that told of Anglo-French successes in Belgium between 10-14 May, with stories which would prepare the public for the possibility of defeat.
The men at the centre of this process, Churchill and Duff Cooper, weren't sure what the outcome would be. They had to be flexible, and adopt different positions to accommodate ever changing circumstances. In short, they made it up as they went along.
... it was announced that the government had designated Sunday 26 May as a Day of National Prayer for the British army ...
Churchill first learned of the full extent of the disaster that had overwhelmed the French at Sedan, when he flew to Paris for a meeting with the French government on 16 May, and found them in a state of near panic. Back in London the following day, Duff Cooper urged him to prepare the British people for the receipt of bad news. Although documentation in the form of cabinet minutes is sparse, the campaign that emerged can be pieced together from newspapers and recordings and transcripts of radio programmes.
On 17 May newspapers carried the first open acknowledgement of the German breakthrough on the Meuse, though editorials by military experts reminded the readership that the Germans had broken through in March 1918 and had still been defeated. Despite such reassurances, it was announced that the government had designated Sunday 26 May as a Day of National Prayer for the British army 'in peril in Flanders'.
In an anticipatory move, the Royal Navy had already begun moving destroyers and transports to the south east on the 15 May, though Churchill did not formally discuss the prospect of an evacuation in cabinet until Sunday 19 May. That evening he made his first radio broadcast to the British people since he had become prime minister. While he asserted that Britain and France would continue to fight together, he skilfully introduced the possibility that Britain might find itself fighting alone.
In this new situation:
' ... there will come the battle for our islands, for all that Britain is and all that Britain means. In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step - even the most drastic - to call forth from our people the last ounce and inch of effort of which they are capable.'
In effect, Churchill had announced a policy of war to the death, something which he made explicit in his conclusion.
'Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: "Arm yourselves and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict: for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our alters. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let Him do." '
Churchill's broadcast was heard by more than half the British population, and the following day was widely and favourably discussed in the press. It provided the context for the events of the next week. On Monday 20 May the German thrust reached the Channel coast, and on the following day British papers openly discussed the danger this posed to the rear of the BEF, still in western Belgium.
On 23 May Churchill announced in the House of Commons that heavy fighting was taking place in the Channel Ports, a speech which was widely reported on Thursday 24 May. In the meantime a series of defence measures had been promulgated, all with widespread approval from the press - Eden's formation of a 250,000 Volunteer Defence Force, the arrest of pacifists and fifth columnists, and the passage of the Defence of the Realm Act, which effectively suspended the constitution and provided for mass mobilisation.
The formal decision to start an evacuation through the port of Dunkirk was made at a meeting of the defence committee at 10pm on Saturday 25 May, though as we have seen, the Royal Navy had been moving ships to Channel ports for at least ten days.
The following morning, as the first elements of the BEF to be evacuated boarded destroyers in Dunkirk, a great service was held in Westminster Abbey, as the focal point for the much heralded Day of National Prayer. In the presence of the king and the prime minister, the Archbishop of Canterbury called on the help of the Almighty to save the British army, sentiments which were echoed in thousands of churches throughout Britain.
By Thursday evening many were expecting that the weekend would bring the worst ...
At first it seemed that the prayers might not be answered. Between Monday 27 and Thursday 30 May the news got worse and worse. Papers carried stories of the BEF and its French and Belgian allies holding grimly to a pocket around Dunkirk, as German pressure mounted, the only solace being reports of massive German air losses (hugely exaggerated) at the hands of RAF fighters. On 29 May there was a bombshell - the Belgian army had capitulated, reducing further the perimeter around Dunkirk.
The unstated corollary - one that was well understood by the veterans of World War One - was that with their eastern flank weakened, British and French forces could not long survive. Such prognostications seemed confirmed in 30 May, with the publication of a telegram from the king to Lord Gort, which could be read as a message of farewell.
'All your countrymen have been following with pride and admiration the courageous resistance of the British Expeditionary Force during the continuing fighting of the last fortnight. Faced by circumstances outside their control in a position of extreme difficulty, they are displaying a gallantry which has never been surpassed in the annals of the British Army. The hearts of everyone of us at home are with you and your magnificent troops in this hour of peril.'
By Thursday evening many were expecting that the weekend would bring the worst, the news that the BEF had also been forced to capitulate.
On the day the king's letter to Gort was published, 126,000 troops had already been evacuated, so that the BEF's situation, while serious, was by no means as desperate as it had been made to appear. The scene had been carefully set for a 'miracle'. It came on Friday 31 May, with newspapers and the BBC announcing that an evacuation had been underway for several days, and a large part of the BEF had already been rescued.
The Times editorial, the 'Sea Grip', a peon to British maritime prowess, was followed by 'Anabasis - the Sea', which drew a parallel between Gort and the BEF, and Xenophon and the escape of the 10,000. Other papers with less literary leanings gave the public the news with screaming headlines - 'Saved' - 'Disaster Turned To Triumph' - 'Rescued From The Jaws Of Death'.
On Sunday 2 June, the Dean of St Paul's referred to the 'miracle of Dunkirk'. During the following week papers were filled with letters from readers making an obvious association. It was remembered that the Archbishop of Canterbury had announced that the Day of National Prayer might well be a turning point, and it was obvious to many that God had answered the nation's collective prayer with the 'miracle of Dunkirk'. The evidence of God's intervention was clear for those who wished to see it; papers had written of calm seas and the high mist which interfered with the accuracy of German bombers.
The message was clear - although the army had been driven from the continent, its spirit had not been broken.
With a great national drama unfolding, the BBC sought and got permission to conduct radio interviews with the troops as they landed, while newsreel cameras filmed soldiers coming ashore smiling, waving, and giving thumbs-up signs. The message was clear - although the army had been driven from the continent, its spirit had not been broken.
In his first radio postscript for the BBC on 5 June, JB Priestly, the popular novelist, added a new dimension to the miracle of Dunkirk. Priestly told the story of 'Gracie Fields', a paddle steamer named after Britain's most popular singer, which served as a ferry between Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, before she was used in the evacuation. According to Priestly ...
' ... this little steamer, like all her brave and battered sisters, is immortal. She will go sailing down the years in the epic of Dunkirk. And our great-grandchildren, when they learn how we began this War by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell and came back glorious.'
The following day many newspapers carried stories about the small ships at Dunkirk, not just pleasure steamers but river cruisers, which had never been beyond the estuary of the Thames. Hundreds of such craft had indeed been co-opted, and had sailed across the Channel, but most had naval reserve crews, and had been used for ferrying men from the beaches to the destroyers.
The newspapers were not interested in the reality. Even The Times devoted an editorial to civilians, including women who, by donning trousers and tucking their hair under caps had passed themselves off as men, had sailed their own river craft over to Dunkirk, and brought soldiers back all the way to England. The story of the small boats was soon enshrined in British popular consciousness, an example of a people coming to the rescue of their army.
The 'spin' given to the evacuation of the British army was almost too successful, setting off a wave of euphoria throughout Britain. It was a very British story - the gallant loser escaping from disaster at the very last moment - and one that the public liked to be told.
... they much preferred the myth to the reality, and they were not prepared to listen to anyone who sought to puncture their belief ...
Increasingly concerned at the air of unreality that seemed to permeate Britain, on 4 June Churchill addressed the House of Commons in terms that spelt out clearly the truly desperate nature of Britain's situation. He reminded his countrymen that wars were not won by evacuations, and that 'what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster'.
But the British people didn't really believe him; they much preferred the myth to the reality, and they were not prepared to listen to anyone who sought to puncture their belief, not even Churchill himself. They were a difficult people to feed on lies, but they were perfectly happy to lie to themselves, particularly when that lie held the key to their survival as a nation.
Chief of Staff: The Diaries of Lt Gen Sir Henry Pownall , Vol 1 edited by Brian Bond (Leo Cooper, 1972)
The War of Words: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol III by Asa Briggs (OUP, 1970)
Return via Dunkirk by Gun Buster (Hodder and Stoughton, 1940)
Duff Cooper: The Authorised Biography by John Charmley (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1986)
The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries, Vol One: 1939 - Oct 1941 by John Colville (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
The Evacuation from Dunkirk edited by WJR Gardner (Frank Cass, 2000)
The Churchill Papers: Never Surrender, Vol 2. May - Dec 1940 by Martin Gilbert (Heinemann, 1994)
Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth by Nicholas Harman (Hodder and Stoughton, 1980)
The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton 1940-45 edited by Ben Pimlott (Jonathan Cape, 1986)
Duncan Anderson joined the War Studies Department at Sandhurst as a senior lecturer in 1987, and has been Head of Department since 1997. He has written several books on World War Two, and worked for the British Army and other NATO forces in Germany, both lecturing and conducting staff tours.