Looking Back From Ninety

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Well, it turns out that just about everything we believed about "the miracle of Dunkirk" is wrong! As a British Army officer, Robert Kershaw served a tour in the Bundeswehr and became fluent in German. He has delved the records of all the participants in that crucial battle -- German, British, French, and Belgian -- to produce one of the finest campaign histories I have ever read. The title is a bit unfortunate -- Dünkirchen 1940 -- and the publisher somewhat obscure. (Osprey specializes in military books along the lines of Armies of the Baltic Independence Wars, 1918-1920.)

Mr Kershaw begins with a masterful account of the German panzer blitz through the Ardennes, splitting the Allied armies in France from those in Belgium. The first tanks reached the sea in just 11 days, faster than they'd swept through Poland in 1939. Though greatly unnumbered, with tanks no better than the French and British, they had the advantages of surprise, a radio in every tank, the concept of Aufstragstatik (in which front-line units are given a goal and can decide for themselves how to reach it), faith in Adolf Hitler and the Nazi ideology, and handfuls of Pervitin (methamphetamine) pills.

But what then? The Dunkirk myth holds that Hitler, terrified by his own success, halted the panzers and let the "seed corn" of a future British Army escape. In fact, the halt order lasted a single day, May 24, after which the panzers were directed to what the high command saw as a more important goal: the French capital. Tanks don't fare well in urban fighting, and the seacoast towns were surrounded by canals, marshes, and flooded fields. Taking them was the job of der Landser, the foot soldier and his horse-drawn artillery, who by now lagged miles -- days -- behind the tanks. Nor was it only the town itself: there were 17.5 miles of white-sand beaches from which the British could embark. As for the vaunted German air force, the Stukas were hobbled by bad weather and a four-hour lag between the assigning of a target and the dropping of the bombs. And the Allied defenders, in the end entirely French, fought with the desperation of men who had no alternative but death or captivity.

But most important, the Germans regarded Dunkirk as a sideshow, compared to the 69 French and British divisions awaiting them south of the Somme and in front of Paris. More than any other factor, Mr Kershaw believes, that was what allowed the British to rescue two-thirds of their men, "an army three times the size of the present British Army." Good photos, none of which I've seen before, and excellent maps. (For release September 6.)

John Crawley grew up in New York and Chicago, but with his Irish-born parents moved to the Old Country as a teenager. That was during the "Troubles" of the early 1970s, and he conceived a yearning to join the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Wiser than most boys, he flew back to the US and joined the Marine Corps as soon as he turned 18, so as to obtain some serious military training. Four years later, he was back in Dublin and a member of the Provisional IRA, a vaguely socialist version of the guerrilla army my father had served from 1916 to 1922.

He soon found that the "Provos" weren't much interested in how the Americans did things, instead preferring the folk wisdom they absorbed from one another. (That too reminded me of Dad. It's typical, I think, of men who regard their schooling as imposed by a foreign power.) After a few excursions against the British Army in the Six Counties of Northern Island, he was entrusted with $9,000 to buy arms in the United States, a sum he multiplied to $250,000 from Irish-American donors including the Boston mobster Whitey Bulger. He brought the weapons to the Irish coast aboard a small motor vessel appropriately named Valhalla, to be met by local fishermen and the weapons transferred. As happened time and again to Irish rebels, they were betrayed before the precious cargo came ashore. Crawley spent the next ten years in an Irish prison. That would have sufficed for most men, but he was still in his thirties when he got out, and this time he took the war to London, where he set up an elaborate scheme to bomb the electrical stations that supplied the city and much of England's southeast. Another betrayal and another prison term, this time in Britain. He was freed by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which supposedly ended the Troubles, with the Republicans downing arms in exchange for constitutional changes that were almost entirely cosmetic. Mr Crawley tells his stories well, though he too often goes off on rants about the perficious English and the spineless Dublin government. (Yet again, this mirrored Dad's experience in 1922.) To be released September 6

Daniel Ford's books:

Looking Back From Ninety: Depression, War, the Good Life That Followed
Cowboy: Interpreter, Soldier, Warlord, and One More Casualty of Our War in Vietnam
The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam
Flying Tigers: Claire Chennault & His American Volunteers, 1941-1942
Tales of the Flying Tigers (think of it as a lengthy appendix to the history)
The Lady and the Tigers (Olga Greenlaw)
Poland's Daughter: How I Learned About Love, War, and Exile
Glen Edwards: Diary of a Bomber Pilot
A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America's War on Terror
The Country Northward: A Hiker's Journal
The Greater America: An Epic Journey Through a Vibrant New Country (Ralph Paine)
~ ~ ~ ~
Michael's War: A Story of the Irish Republican Army
Remains: A Story of the Flying Tigers
Incident at Muc Wa: A Story of the Vietnam War
The High Country Illuminator: A Tale of Light and Darkness and the Ski Bums of Avalon

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