Why Brexit MPs love Dunkirk

Little ships, little planning and little responsibility. Brexit-as-Dunkirk is the last refuge of a Government that knows it has failed.

John Bull
Jan 14 · 8 min read

“This is not Dunkirk”, Dr Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade assured listeners of BBC Radio Four this morning. No-Deal Brexit, he continued, was better than that.

“Better than Dunkirk’ is such an *interesting* historical analogy, isn’t it?” Mused Historian Dr Charlotte Ridley on Twitter in the aftermath. “What a sell.”

“Nearly seventy thousand British Expeditionary Force soldiers were dead, missing, injured or captured at the end of the Dunkirk expedition” she continues, “and the British had to abandon all of their military hardware in France so… I am not sure where we are with this analogy.”

During the war…

Fox’s invoking of Brexit-as-Dunkirk is not unusual. In fact, perhaps the only thing unusual about it is that he did not do so in a universally positive light. That, after two years, the best way to rally the troops to May’s deal is apparently to say that it’s not quite as bad as one of the most iconic disasters in British history is somewhat telling, wherever you sit on the Brexit spectrum.

Whatever the mild negatives in Fox’s use of the metaphor, that it was used at all was still considered and deliberate. “We’ve handled worse situations, and come through!” Is the not-so-subtle suggestion. “And we didn’t do any planning then, either!” Is the more subtle one. Both are familiar and tired refrains.

“For Brexit to work, we need Dunkirk spirit not ‘Naysaying Nellies’” Trumpeted the Telegraph back in 2017. Dunkirk and its close sister — the Blitz Spirit — have received a thorough run out at all levels of public and political discourse ever since, particularly as the deadline for a deal has loomed ever closer.

The Ladybird Book of World War Two

Of course, the Dunkirk that the Brexiteers find so attractive is one in which cold, hard efficiency (represented — handily — by the Germans) is beaten by British stubbornness and muddling through at the last minute. It’s a metaphor for Brexit that subtly abdicates any need to have organised, planned or coordinated… well… anything. At the same time, it is one that allows them to hint that doing any of those things would have been positively traitorous on their part. The kind of things that only nasty Europeans would do.

The problem, of course, is that this image of Dunkirk is utter bollocks. It’s so heavily and willfully drawn from The Ladybird Book of World War Two that it would be hilarious, were it not for the nagging suspicion that the current Government’s entire Brexit strategy was carved out during an evening of Brexflix and chill. In fact, it was probably a late-night viewing of Dunkirk. Not the recent one either, that’s too gritty. The one from the fifties where John Mills and Dicky Attenborough practice their stiff upper lips and no one says anything nice about the French.


As pretty much any historian — or A-Level student — will tell you, Dunkirk wasn’t a victory. It was a survivable defeat snatched from the jaws of a potentially catastrophic one. Operation Dynamo (to give the evacuation its proper name) saw the bulk of the human element of the British Expeditionary Force snatched off the beaches of France before that country was overwhelmed. Through bravery, brilliant logistics and an awful lot of luck, they were returned to Britain alive, though (as Dr Ridley pointed out) that came at the sacrifice of most of the army’s equipment and its ability to fight a continental war. By way of proof, it is often said that in the aftermath of Dunkirk the only fully equipped and battle-ready unit remaining in the British Isles was Canadian.

Indeed perhaps the only similarities Dunkirk bears to the current situation are that once again we’re looking hopefully towards Canada and that it’ll only work if the Germans help us out.

How did they help? Because they hesitated and didn’t inflict the final blow. As Rear-Admiral John McBeath explained on the landmark ITVseries The World at War in 1973:

“Any moment, a breakthrough by the German army could have stopped the operation. I don’t think, despite the valiant endeavours of the British troops who were keeping the Germans back that they could have stopped the might of the German armour getting through if Hitler had wanted to do it.”

McBeath is quoted here for one good reason and one bad one.

The good reason is that he was there, in command of the destroyer HMS Venomous. Venomous made five trips to Dunkirk, lifting over 3,500 men off the beaches. Indeed in the days before that, the destroyer had been pulling Dutch, Belgian and French refugees out of the Channel. One suspects Venomous and her crew had no illusions about just how chaotic, complex and close the situation had been.

And then there’s the bad, but necessary, reason. McBeath’s words aren’t controversial. Many hundreds of thousands of words have been written by historians saying the same thing — that for all the obvious skill and bravery involved, Britain also got lucky.

McBeath, however, is part of the generation that actually fought in World War Two. As such, even the most ardent of Daily Mail commentators would struggle to claim that his comment is part of some kind of traitorous campaign to remain. Nor can The World at War be branded as the kind of modern lefty historical revisionism that Boris and Gove like to occasionally rally against. Far from it. It has untranslated Latin quotes in it, lots of footage of Spitfires and Laurence Olivier does the voice over. It’s exactly how they want history to be shown.

An awfully big adventure

This is, of course, one of the big reasons why they like the Dunkirk metaphor so much. As children of the ‘greatest generation’, the leading Brexiteers have experienced Dunkirk (and the War in general) primarily through popular culture and second-hand memory. They see it as an adventure story and they want one of their own.

In their heads Johnson, Fox, Davis, Javid et al. no doubt imagine that if Dunkirk happened today they’d be the ones using their own mixture of spunk and grit to get Britain’s ‘brave boys’ off the beaches. But on the evidence of the last two years, this is an even larger myth than anything they ever wrote on the side of a bus.

On current form, if Dunkirk happened today, Johnson’s ‘firm leadership’ would take the form of a few cutting, but vague articles in the Spectator while he waited to see who ‘won’. Fox and Davis would have leapt right in without thinking and already be floundering in the Channel in a pedalo. Meanwhile, Sajid Javid would probably be on the deck of HMS Venomous ordering McBeath to take all those refugees the ship had picked up back to where they came from.

A meticulously planned operation

What’s worse is that the attraction they all feel to Dunkirk doesn’t just ignore the role that luck played (from the unnaturally calm weather that week to the role of the Germans) but the serious amount of planning involved too.

Just because Operation Dynamo had to be pulled together quickly didn’t mean that it didn’t require intense planning on the part of the Royal Navy. It’s just that the Navy, as much through luck as judgment, had the right people in the right places to do so, at the right time. They got lucky too.

Perhaps the greatest example of that was the fact that (later) Admiral Bertram Ramsay had recently been dragged, somewhat reluctantly, out of retirement and put in command at Dover. Ramsay was seen as a nice chap and a highly experienced destroyer Captain, but he was also thought to be terribly uninteresting. In the pre-Dunkirk days, he seemed like a solid choice to keep the seat warm at Dover, freeing up more interesting navy people to do more useful things elsewhere.

One of the luckiest pieces of British military history is perhaps that the situation in France deteriorated so rapidly in 1940 that the Navy didn’t have time to replace Ramsay before the evacuation began. Over the following, critical days it soon became clear that Ramsay was a brilliant naval logistician — indeed one of the finest naval logisticians in military history. He also had a fine eye for talent.

From Dover, Ramsay and his team (including Captain Bill Tennant and others over at Dunkirk itself) engineered the rescue of 335,000 people from the beaches — way over the Army’s ‘wildly optimistic’ target of 45,000.

From Dunkirk to Normandy

Ramsay followed this up with naval commands in the invasion of North Africa and Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily). By 1944, his talent for naval logistics was so obvious that he was permanently recalled to command, given the rank of Admiral and promptly put in charge of Operation Neptune by General Eisenhower — the naval part of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

And that, if we really must insist on using tired World War Two metaphors here, is where the real comparison with Brexit lies. Dunkirk was a sudden crisis where near-defeat was snatched from the jaws of actual defeat. Brexit isn’t that. It’s the invasion of Normandy, a long-planned, insanely complex operation executed by experts once again.

Or rather, it should be.

That it isn’t is further evidence, if any more were needed, of how shamelessly the leading Brexiteers have failed everyone — regardless of who voted to leave or remain. Dunkirk comparisons are often simply their last, flailing attempt to hide that failure from others — or perhaps to try and justify it to themselves.

Tired of experts

Of course, whether the correct military metaphor is Dunkirk or Normandy doesn’t really matter. There is no Admiral Ramsay lurking in the Brexit Bunker to save them in either scenario now. Ramsay was an expert and as Michael Gove was so keen to point out, Britain (for which read Brexit Britain) doesn’t ‘do’ experts. The last two years have made that abundantly clear and, in the Ministers who now form much of the Government’s ranks, it shows.

In 1944, at Normandy, Ramsay (once again assisted by Captain Tennant) commanded over 7,000 ships and delivered 160,000 men onto the beaches on D-Day alone. By the end of June, 875,000 men were ashore thanks to his meticulous planning and leadership.

Now imagine Chris Grayling trying to do the same. Sleep well.

I am an historian and journalist. Currently, I’m perhaps best known for my satirical ‘Brexit Adventures’ series on Twitter (the first one is here). You can follow all my nonsense (and get pretty pictures of trains!) on Twitter here.

You can find more of my general history writing on my Medium profile, such as how the TV show Quincy changed medical history or how a Pan-Am passenger flight accidentally circumnavigated the world.

Oh, and if you like coffee, then you can buy me one here!

John Bull

Written by

John Bull

Writer and historian (military & transport). Editor of London Reconnections and Lapsed Historian. I focus on ordinary people who did extraordinary things.

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