Book Review Destination Dunkirk - The Story of Gort's Army by Gregory Blaxland

Discussion in 'Books, Films, TV, Radio' started by Jonathan Ball, Mar 10, 2019.

  1. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    “It seemed inconceivable that there could be another war after all that had been said and written about the horrors of the previous one. Yet here they were marching off just as their fathers had done, and the beat of their feet gloomily pronounced it was true, true, true”

    Thus begins Gregory Blaxland’s classic 1973 account of Lord Gort’s army that followed in the footsteps of that earlier BEF which had fought the war to end all wars, now pleasingly and faithfully reprinted by Pen and Sword in 2018. Blaxland himself went across the channel with Gort’s army until he himself was evacuated on 31 May 1940. This was the book he was born to write.

    Through its 436 pages the reader will follow the BEF across the channel and their 250 mile move to the Belgian border. Here, because of the Belgian desire for neutrality they went no further and dug in. Alongside them were the French, in Blaxlands view “…a clumsy army, still beladen with much equipment from the massive store in 1918” and commanded by men of whom Alan Brooke, commanding II Corps, was to observe were “dapper, ageing generals in their gilded kepis and immaculate breeches” and of whom Blaxland opined were living in the glories of the past and ignoring the present.

    So began a longer and bitterly cold winter of relative inactivity. The 'Bore War’ to some, ‘Phoney War’ to others. As Blaxland observed though it was one of the worst ever winters which was then followed by one of the best ever springs until 10 May, when the balloon went up and the Germans struck westwards. Here they sliced through the Dutch and Belgian defences, taking the fortress at Eben Emael on the banks of the Meuse in an operation mounted before, to use Blaxland’s memorable phrase, ‘the [Belgian} soldiers realised they were at war’

    The BEF, forgoing ground of their own choosing motored eastwards in to Belgium towards the river Dyle. Here they made their first contact with the enemy and held them well. However, to their south Blaxland observed that the noise of battle on the French front ominously receded westwards.

    What followed is described by Blaxland in a beautifully written and detailed account of the BEF falling back from the Dyle to the Escaut, fighting all the way, ‘swiping in all directions like men beset with hornets’. Fight they did, to the point of exhaustion and seemingly forever moving 70 miles westwards ‘grey with fatigue, clammy with sweat, coated in dust, and had no idea where it would end or when they would be allowed to stop marching’

    Now ensconced along the Escaut, Gort had to turn his attention to protecting his southern flank, plugging gaps with his more inexperienced and less well armed Divisions. The fighting moved across the old frontlines of the Western Front. Advances which took months in the Great War were eclipsed in minutes by the Panzers driving for the coast. There are many tales of individual endeavour detailed by Blaxland such as the Despatch rider from the 5/Buffs who, on just a 10 mile journey to Doullens, had two motorbikes shot from under him, three close encounters with enemy tanks and had to shoot two Germans with his revolver. There was also the young man from the 150th (Yorkshire) Brigade who was sent 25 miles to fight at Vimy Ridge, sacred ground he saw as being akin ‘to being asked to play for England at Lords’.

    Along the Escaut the British awaited the pursuing Germans. It’s true that this river acted as an obstacle but as Blaxland states ‘there is no such thing as an obstacle unless it is covered with fire’. It was at the Escaut where Gort issued his order, with a nod to Smith-Dorrien at Le Cateau during the retreat of 1914, stating ‘News from the south reassuring. We stand and fight. Tell your men’. Bridges demolished, the BEF stood ready at the river. One German advancing yelled ‘Heil Hitler, you democratic swine!’ To be met with a curt East Lancashire reply of ‘You square-headed bastard’ along with a single .303 round which ended the debate.

    Gort already had one eye on an eventual evacuation from the Channel Ports. He was scornful of the French stating ‘as yet, however they were not prepared to fight, nor did they show any sign of doing so’. He also felt there was no coordination of allied forces, made worse by the car accident involving and the subsequent death of General Bilotte following a meeting in Ypres. A fact Gort highlighted with the pithy remark ‘The coordinator has had an accident and coordinates no longer’

    But still the BEF hung on, fighting tenaciously at the Canal line and holding key towns like Cassel which being at the top of a hill enjoyed views of ’32 towns and 100 villages’. As the soldiers headed towards Dunkirk the Germans swept along the channel coast. First to Boulogne and then Calais. Two ports where the embattled garrisons fought tenaciously as Blaxland describes. With the surrender of Belgium on 28 May the fighting intensified. Along the Ypres-Comines canal and at Messines Ridge the BEF stood its ground. Every hour spent holding the Germans meant salvation for others. Here, Blaxland chronicles the fighting skilfully on towards the final denouement at Dunkirk and the evacuation from its port and the beaches to the east towards the Belgian border at De Panne, all done under the ‘perpetual smoke from burning oil tanks’

    As we all know, the BEF escaped with what it could carry. The mountains of food and equipment left behind littering the roads they had travelled along. South of the Somme were the remnants with which Blaxland concludes his narrative with describing the stand of the 51st Highland Division at St Valery. With little chance of escape they still stood and fought. At the end of it all Rommel met with the Divisional Commander who identified himself as ‘General Fortune of the British Army’

    ‘And what do you command?’ Rommel asked.

    ‘You, sir, should know that’ came the reply. Rommel laughed but the appreciation and respect was there.

    Blaxland wrote a stirring account. Although there are many more recent works of high standard and the evidence is at times anecdotal only this is a book which is a required inclusion in any library on the campaign in 1940 and a tribute to Gort’s Army. As one officer wrote of them later in when in captivity..

    I wish I could write and tell the story of the unselfish heroism of those who fought, and laughed, and died without complaint, although they knew they had no chance of getting home, and that all they could do was to fight to the end and give time to others to get home instead. Frankly, I love them and their unconscious gallantry.

    Destination Dunkirk

    Last edited: Mar 10, 2019
  2. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    I treasure my tatty copy, with its garish 1970s dust jacket. Are they reenactors on the cover of the new edition ?
    Jonathan Ball likes this.
  3. Jonathan Ball

    Jonathan Ball It's a way of life.

    Ditto, Rich. There’s no picture acknowledgment for the cover of the new edition. It's not a photo I recall seeing previously.

  4. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    If it's an original photo then I think that it's the first time that I've sen the '39 pattern entrenching tool being carried by the BEF.
  5. Drew5233

    Drew5233 #FuturePilot 1940 Obsessive

    They are Guards from 7 Bde I believe at Louvain. 10th ish May 1940.
  6. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    There are a number of similar views taken along the road Brussel-Leuven, but I don't recognise this one. The refugees have no bicycles either, which is odd. There is what looks to be a Belgian FN sidecar outfit but that doesn't rule out a reconstruction.
  7. Orwell1984

    Orwell1984 Senior Member

    It does to be similar to the series you mention taken by Captain Len Puttnam in the location you mention.



    Accredited to Lt. Kessel, same area and time.
    von Poop likes this.
  8. Rich Payne

    Rich Payne Rivet Counter Patron 1940 Obsessive

    I've been through all the Puttnam Leuven photos that I can recall...lots similar but not the cover photo.


    The_British_Army_in_France_and_Belgium_1940_F4410 Leuven.jpg

    Carrier Leuven.jpg

    large_000000 2.jpg


    foto_LHG_kaft_nieuwsbrief 2015-45 - WO II - Vlucht uit Leuven _ Stedelijk archief Leuven.jpg
    von Poop likes this.
  9. TTH

    TTH Senior Member

    My elementary school teacher was a young Jewish girl in Antwerp in 1940. She was one of the refugees on the roads, for all I know she and her mother might be in one of these pictures somewhere.
    von Poop likes this.

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