Friday, 10 July 2020

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.

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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.

To stay abreast with our content, please follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Linked-In!

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