Today, eighty years ago, the first of the ‘little ships’ that helped rescue the defeated British Expeditionary Force appeared off the coast of Dunkirk. Thanks to the ferocious resistance put up by the garrison at Calais, and Hitler’s hesitation, the bulk of the men were safely taken off the beaches at Dunkirk to fight another day. Whatever their private feelings during those terrible hours may have been, most of them knew even then, that they would return to Europe to finish the job. This they did in 1944 and 1945. After all, their ancestors had been intervening in Europe for as long as anyone could remember.
From Shakespeare’s Henry V, who had exhorted his men ‘unto the breach’ once more, through Elizabeth I’s support for the Dutch revolt, the ‘Second Hundred Years War’ against Louis XIV, the Revolution and Napoleon, and the First World War, the English and then the British had always been profoundly invested in the continent. Defending the ‘liberties of Europe’ and thus British freedoms was what Englishmen and Britons did, it was part of what they were. This was a very different heritage from that of the rest of Europe, most of which was either an occupier or occupied during the Second World War.
What all this means for the United Kingdom (UK) today is not clear. Until a few months ago, the framework within which we tended to see Dunkirk, on both sides of the divide, was that of Britain’s relationship with Europe. The remainers tended to stress the way in which the events of 1940 showed Britain’s deep involvement in Europe; leavers tended to emphasise the extent to which Britain could ‘stand alone’ in the face of European Union (EU) antagonism. In 2017, shortly after the Brexit referendum, Private Eye satirised this debate with a cover showing still from that year’s blockbuster Dunkirk. It depicted a group of Tommies being bombed on the mole at Dunkirk, and carried the caption ‘It’s harder to leave Europe than we thought’.
At the start of the year, with the irresistible force of a self-consciously ‘Churchillian’ Prime Minister with a large parliamentary majority on collision course with the immovable object of the EU over the post-Brexit relationship, it looked as if these tropes would be revived. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, and everything changed. After a brief hesitation, the British government rowed in behind the European (and indeed world consensus) and ‘locked down’. Brexit, in this context, has counted for little. The Covid-19 experience on both sides of the Channel has been remarkably similar. Britain toyed with ‘herd immunity’ but it ended up following the crowd. There was a country which ‘stood alone’ in Europe, but it was Sweden, not the UK. It is hard to see any relevance for Dunkirk here.
To be sure, Her Majesty the Queen has spoken movingly that we ‘will meet again’, alluding to the iconic song ‘We’ll meet again’. As a veteran of those times, she had every right to make the connection and people were moved by her words. But in the mouths of most politicians and commentators the echoes sound strained. The parallel, in any case, is not flattering to the government. At the start of the crisis, the lack of screening capacity and ventilators made one wonder how the Battle of Britain would have worked out without sufficient Spitfires or radar sets.
If there is a parallel worth exploring, it is this. Churchill famously remarked shortly after Dunkirk that ‘wars are not won by evacuations’. He knew that extricating oneself from the continent could only be preparatory to returning to it. This is a sentiment the government is well aware of as it wrestles with the exit strategy after, or better during, Covid-19. ‘Protecting’ the National Health Service (NHS) was not an end in itself. Protecting society and enabling as much of it to function as normally as possible, is. The ‘lockdown’ was originally intended to gain breathing space for the provision of ventilators and personal protective equipment; it was not supposed to be a semi-permanent state of emergency.
It is perhaps in this sense that Dunkirk retains its relevance, by reminding us that while the British could leave Europe, they were also fated to return there.
The stakes here are not just societal but geopolitical. If the country exits too soon, it risks being forced back into lockdown. If the government is too timid, the result will certainly be a reduction of Britain’s relative global and European weight. This will have implications for the post-Brexit trade discussions and the relationship with China. Churchill did not just sit in the home islands in 1940-1941, but sent men and tanks to Egypt to attack the Italians. In the same way, the government cannot simply pause ‘Global Britain’ while it sorts out the pandemic. It must press ahead with a vision for the UK’s place in the world after Covid-19.
Most importantly of all, whatever one thinks of the ‘evacuation’ from Europe that was Brexit, it should only be the prelude for a renewed, if altered, engagement with the continent. The ‘mainland’ remains Britain’s near abroad. As we have seen, the relationship between the four nations of the UK is inextricably bound up with the relations with the rest of Europe (even more so than in 1940). The EU is also hugely important market, and by far the most important of Britain’s neighbours. A powerful Brussels is potentially a challenge to the interests of the UK. A weak or even fragmenting EU would be an even greater threat, as the resulting economic, demographic and geopolitical fallout would fall into Britain’s lap.
The modern UK is not, of course, the British Empire of 1940, but it is still the most important single European actor today. It is one of the world’s largest economies (it is much bigger than Russia) and strongest militaries (more powerful than that of Germany, say). Despite the heavy weather it is making of the virus, and the substantially better job being done by, say, Berlin, London’s view will be, or should be, a critical factor in European politics in the decade ahead.
Planning for a ‘second front’ began well before D-Day. Today, the government is, perhaps understandably, fixated on ending the transition period, but it is what comes after that really matters. Virus or no virus, the post-Brexit trade deal and political agreement with the EU will be the most important issue confronting all of us this autumn. It is perhaps in this sense that Dunkirk retains its relevance, by reminding us that while the British could leave Europe, they were also fated to return there.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Centre for Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.
When Germany surrendered unconditionally on 8th May 1945, most of the country was already occupied by Allied troops. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in his underground office in Berlin as the Red Army in bitter street fighting had come close to it and all real or imagined German military efforts to relieve the siege of Berlin had failed. Hitler had designated Admiral Karl Dönitz, the commander-in-chief of the German navy, to be his successor, and the latter put together something of a governing cabinet in the city of Flensburg in the northernmost part of Germany. It was from there that he authorised the signing of unconditional surrenders on 8th and 9th May. Soon after he and his new government were arrested. German forces in Italy had surrendered a few days earlier; Finland had signed an armistice and then, when attacked by Germany, had joined the Allies; and Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria had all been crushed by the Soviet Union in the preceding year. The conflict in Europe was truly over; and the people of the United Kingdom (UK), though still subject to rationing, no longer had to worry about German bombers or the arrival of the V-1 and V-2 missiles that had been designed to level British cities, no doubt as an indication of the love for the British that some have attributed to Hitler.
The author of this article remembers fellow students in the boarding school in Swanage on the Channel coast betting in the summer of 1940 on which day of the week the Germans would start their invasion of Britain. The danger of a German invasion had disappeared some years earlier, but the UK was still mobilised. Its military in Germany would by mid-July be the occupying force in what was designated the British Zone of Occupation of Germany. This zone would become a part of the new West German state, that state would become a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and with German unification and the end of the Cold War, a further reduction of British troops in Germany became possible.
The war with Japan, however, was still very active after the German surrender. The Japanese army had in 1944 won a major military victory in the fighting in China that had begun in 1937. At about the same time as it was doing well in China, the Japanese army suffered its largest defeat of the Pacific War in Burma. As British forces followed up on this victory and cleared the remaining Japanese out of Burma, they also began preparations for a landing in Malaya in late 1945 to drive the Japanese out of Malaya and Singapore.
At the time of Germany’s surrender, American forces were engaged among other operations in what became the battle with the highest casualty numbers of the fighting in the Pacific: the fight on the island of Okinawa. The American army had landed there on 1st April, supported by the United States Navy and a contingent of the Royal Navy, and would not complete the conquest of Okinawa until well into July.
It had for some time been assumed by both American and British leaders that the war against Japan would last about a year and a half after victory over Germany and that some fighting would quite possibly continue even longer since Japanese forces tended to continue fighting even in hopeless situations. A plan for the invasion of the southern Japanese home island of Kyushu, codenamed Olympic, was tentatively scheduled for 1st November 1945, and an invasion codenamed Coronet was to follow in Tokyo Bay of the main home island of Honshu in the spring of 1946. While the Olympic landing force would be entirely American, in Coronet the initial American landing force would be reinforced by units including both British and French divisions. While the fighting in the Japanese home islands was going forward, Allied forces would continue battling Japanese troops on the islands of the East Indies and Southwest Pacific that the Japanese had seized in the first seven months of the Pacific War.
The British and Americans were pleased to have been promised by the Soviets that they would join in the war on Japan, and Harry Truman was very pleased when Joseph Stalin renewed this commitment in July 1945 as the Allied leaders met in Potsdam. Truman had just learned of the successful test of an atomic device and shared the news with Stalin who enthusiastically urged him to drop such a weapon on Japan. The American and British governments had earlier agreed to utilise atomic bombs only by agreement between them, and the British government had already approved the American plan to drop some on Japan.
The Americans and British had cooperated in the development of atomic weapons in competition with the Germans of whose efforts in this regard they had learned. The Germans had essentially given up this race in 1943 because they figured that it would take too long to make a bomb, and ironically they had been fortunate enough to lose the war before the Americans could make the first ones. A weapon that had been developed for use against Germany was now available for use against Japan.
The Americans had made a short list of Japanese cities on which first one and then, if necessary, a second bomb would be dropped in the hope that this would lead to a Japanese surrender. If these two did not have that effect, all that became available thereafter would be utilised in support of operation Olympic; and the American air commander was instructed orally and in writing that he was under no circumstances to drop the third one on another city.
The governing Council of Japan had earlier unanimously decided not to surrender unconditionally but to continue fighting at the likely cost of twenty million Japanese casualties until the Allies came up with better terms. The Soviet repudiation of the 1941 neutrality pact with Japan and its declaration of war did not alter this decision. Under the impact of the second atomic bomb dropped on the city of Nagasaki (after the first one had been dropped on Hiroshima) a new meeting of the Japanese Council divided evenly between those who argued for continuing the war and those who preferred surrender. The latter argued that the Americans no longer needed to mount a costly invasion of the home islands because they could kill all or almost all Japanese with this new bomb (an idea that had never occurred to anyone in the American leadership).
It is likely that these Council members were influenced by the American announcement that the Japanese could keep the imperial system if they wanted to, under the condition that the emperor would be under the authority of an Allied Supreme Commander. It was in the face of an evenly divided Council that Emperor Hirohito was brought in and called for an agreement to surrender. An attempted coup to overturn the resulting surrender decision of the Council and instead continue fighting failed when the man who was expected to lead the coup, Anami Korechika, the Minister of War, committed suicide in the mental conflict between his preference for continuing the war and his loyalty to the Emperor whom he had personally heard tell the Council to surrender.
There followed an end to hostilities and a formal surrender ceremony in which, at the suggestion of the British government, a Japanese minister and not the Emperor signed on behalf of Japan. Japanese military forces obeyed the imperial order to surrender, and while a small number of individual Japanese soldiers hid rather than become prisoners into the early 1970s, the continued organised resistance that had concerned the British and Americans never occurred.
Unlike Germany and the restored separate Austria, Japan was not divided into zones of occupation with the capital divided into sectors. The Japanese government continued to administer the country under the supervision of General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. There was an American occupation force on the northern island of Hokkaido, the northern and central parts of Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. A British occupation force, the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), was in the western portion of Honshu. The majority of this force was usually Australian. Allied troops were withdrawn after a peace treaty was signed in 1952.
With the German surrender followed by the surrender of Japan the greatest war in history, with over sixty million deaths, was finally over. There were some incidents in occupied Germany, of which the assassination of the newly appointed mayor of the city of Aachen was the most dramatic, but the Allies could be confident that the three powers – Germany, Italy, and Japan – that they had defeated were not about to attack them again for a very, very long time. The horrendous conduct of the German military and related forces on the Eastern Front had converted Stalin from a feared and even hated dictator into the admired saviour of his country. The peoples of the three major Allied Powers, the UK, the Soviet Union, and the United States, could look back on a huge and costly effort with a mixture of relief and satisfaction.
This article was made possible due to the kind support of the Engelsberg Programme for Applied History, Grand Strategy and Geopolitics at the Centre for Geopolitics, supported by the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit.
In this interview, James Rogers, Editor of The British Interest, talks with General David Richards, Baron Richards of Herstmonceux, about Operation PALLISER, the United Kingdom’s (UK) military operation in Sierra Leone in 2000.
JR: 20 years ago today you began deploying to Freetown in Sierra Leone to evacuate British citizens as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) looked set to descend on the city. Why was Sierra Leone so unstable and what were your objectives in Operation PALLISER?
DR: Sierra Leone had had a very fraught ten years in the run-up to Operation PALLISER. In many respects, it had never really successfully transitioned from the colonial era to what our forebears had hoped of it – a modern democracy. Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s it was run by very corrupt, very autocratic and sometimes violent leaders. The army became involved in politics often because it was the only force that could impose its will on the population. Whilst that was bad, it probably did save lives, ironically. Some sort of rule was better than no rule. In the last three years before Operation PALLISER, things deteriorated further, as the RUF gained in numbers and capability. In 1998, it nearly seized the whole of Freetown, leading to an evacuation operation. In 1999, it nearly did the same again, and looked set to do the same a third time in the Spring of 2000. I was there in January and February of 1999, watching and advising the Sierra Leonean government, so I had a very good feel for the dynamics of Sierra Leone’s situation. As far as my objectives were concerned, my orders were very clear. It was to conduct a non-combatant evacuation operation. But because I was aware of how Sierra Leone ticked and what its major players were trying to do and achieve, I decided – somewhat unilaterally – to do more than just evacuate and leave the country to its own devices. I felt that would be endorsed by the British political leadership, in particular Tony Blair, then Prime Minister, and Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, who both had a rather soft spot for Sierra Leone.
JR: The British intervention in Sierra Leone has been described as a model humanitarian intervention: Why do you think it was so successful? Was it because the objectives were limited, or because your forces demonstrated their ability to overwhelm their opponents – the RUF? Would it be right to describe the operation as ‘proactive deterrence’?
DR: On your last point, I have never viewed it in that way. I think it did, rather like the Falklands, demonstrate that Britain would intervene when necessary in line with the ‘Doctrine of the International Community’ that Blair had been strongly pushing and advocating. Within Sierra Leone, it probably did deter the RUF downstream.
I would like to say that all war is essentially psychological, to persuade your opponent or enemy of the inevitability of their demise. Britain had a preponderance of force in Sierra Leone. We did not actually, but we created a picture in the minds of everyone in Sierra Leone that we were almost militarily omnipotent. Strategically, this was important, because we were consistently at risk of not following Teddy Roosevelt’s great dictum, ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ To do otherwise is very dangerous, because when one deploys on a military operation, one has got to be able to dominate the agenda. This was what I described in my Commander’s Intent to my forces, that they were to act in a way so as to persuade the RUF of their defeat. We built the campaign based on that precept.
Why else was it so successful? Because we lived by my Intent, and we made sure that we were always playing on our enemy’s mind. At the same time, concurrently, we reinforced and bolstered the morale of the population and the government and of our own rather polyglot friendly forces, which we called the ‘Unholy Alliance’. This included the United Nations (UN) and the so-called ‘West Side Boys’, who had a very mixed previous record, and would go on to do some unpleasant things. But at that point, we persuaded them to fight with us. Along with the rump of the Sierra Leone Army and the tribal militias, we pulled them altogether into a semi-fighting force, allocating tasks as appropriate.
The UN would not fight aggressively, but I did persuade them to at least defend their positions, and we could work the others around them. The objectives were quite limited, very to begin with. But tactics required for a ‘neo’ as we call it, were rather similar to those which were required to prevent the RUF entering Freetown and getting hold of the airport. I concealed the real intent from my political masters and my military superiors in Britain, because I did not want to be prevented from doing what I knew we could do.
The vital importance of command and control is underestimated in armed forces around the world, but also amongst our political leaders. If one fails to get the command and control right, lots more will not follow. It does not matter how good one’s soldiers or logistics are; effective command and control is the most important thing, because that actually stitches everything together.
Lastly, I would just say the importance of tempo is really critical to success. It is critical to get ahead of the enemy. It is vital to force the enemy to respond constantly to one’s design, necessitating the creation of genuine tempo. It does not necessarily mean one has got to be fast, just that one has to be faster than an enemy can respond. A lot of people do not get that right, and are often prevented from getting it right by political leaders and other constraints. On Operation PALLISER, we deployed very quickly, and we completely seized the opportunity for a high tempo operation, winning that vital principle of war: surprise.
JR: Subsequent interventions – in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – have, arguably, been less successful than operations PALLISER and SILKMAN in Sierra Leone: why do you think this was?
DR: I am under no illusions, having been involved in all three, as well as being the ISAF Commander in Afghanistan when NATO expanded its authority, and being central to the management or ‘mismanagement’ of the Libyan campaign. One, is a matter of scale; another goes back to my point about command and control. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, we were part of a complex coalition. All of them were designed for and by politicians. In Sierra Leone, I was a national commander with no obligation, other than military common sense, to work under and with other components. In practice, I did, but because I was not obliged to, I could pick and choose and then dominate those rather ad-hoc coalitions. In Afghanistan, sometimes the operation was being run by NATO’s twenty-nine capitals all at the same time, and it became necessary to find a route through it. Those operations were also constrained by the business of ‘red cards’, concerning what governments will do and what they will not do.
The other thing is that in Sierra Leone we had a very clear political objective, albeit one I dreamt up for myself initially, that was then accepted by Britain’s political leadership. We consistently connected the military and the political. I saw Ahmad Kabbah, then President of Sierra Leone, virtually every day, and I was very closely involved in the management of the wider campaign with Alan Jones, then British High Commissioner. Those things were very difficult to achieve in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. It comes back to command and control. In Sierra Leone, I had the freedom to act in the way that any good staff college would teach. In the other three operations, that was very difficult to achieve. I also had sufficient force so I could apply that psychological ascendancy that I talked about earlier.
JR: What lessons do you think the intervention in Sierra Leone has for British military commanders should Britain decide to intervene in future crises? Are there any lessons also for politicians?
DR: I do worry that we have over complicated the business of command. When I was a Commanding Officer, partly as a result of being a member of the Directing Staff at the Staff College Camberley under people like General Rupert Smith, we sought to apply something called the ‘Ten Commandments of the Manoeuvrist Approach’. This included things like: ‘Act faster than the enemy can react’; ‘Avoid enemy strengths, attack enemy weaknesses’; ‘Be unpredictable’; ‘Exploit tactical opportunities’; ‘Use reserves to reinforce success not failure’, and so on. I think the British Army and all armies need to go back to basics, rather than over ’doctrinise’. I am a doctrine agnostic. Doctrines are a guide, not a set of rules. Too often we look on them as a set of rules to follow slavishly. Instead, commanders should be encouraged to use their initiative in line with certain principles. That is all I did in Sierra Leone, and I ensured my subordinates did the same. I would encourage British military commanders to go down that route and get back to basics.
As far as politicians are concerned, they ought to give military commanders the tools to do the job. If politicians cannot provide for some reason then they should trust commanders and give them the freedom – as I had in Sierra Leone – to create the conditions a preponderance of force would otherwise give them. If a commander has not got the forces they really need then to some degree they can create the conditions which those forces would otherwise have done. We did that in Sierra Leone. I know this is an area of great interest for academia, and there have been some very good books written on the relationship between senior military commanders and their political leaders. Political leaders should not try to fight battles for soldiers but instead focus on creating the strategic conditions for success. If politicians do not trust their commanders, they should sack them. Otherwise they must let them get on with the exacting business of operational command.
JR: Thank you for your time in answering these questions!
- Lord Richards’ autobiography – Taking Command (2014) – is available from Headline Publishing Group.