Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat Into Victory by [Korda, Michael]

Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory- Michael Korda
Liveright Publishing Co
Release Date: September 19, 2017

Rating (out of 5):

Synopsis: Bringing to vivid life the world leaders, generals, and ordinary citizens who fought on both sides of the war, Michael Korda, best-selling author of Clouds of Glory, chronicles the outbreak of hostilities, recalling as a prescient young boy the enveloping tension that defined pre-Blitz London, and then as a military historian the great events that would alter the course of the twentieth century.

May 1940 was a month like no other. The superior German war machine blazed into France, as the Maginot Line, supposedly "as firmly fixed in place as the Pyramids," crumbled in days. With the fall of Holland and Belgium, the imminent fall of Paris, the British Army stranded at Dunkirk, and Neville Chamberlain’s government in political freefall, Winston Churchill became prime minister on this historical nadir of May 10, 1941. Britain, diplomatically isolated, was suddenly the only nation with the courage and the resolve to defy Hitler.

No one, after all, could have ever imagined that the most unlikely flotilla of destroyers—Dutch barges, fishing boats, yachts, and even rowboats— would rescue over 300,000 men off the beach at Dunkirk and home to England. The miraculous return of the army was greeted with a renewed call for courage, and in the months that followed, the lives of tens of millions would be inexorably transformed, often tragically so, by these epochal weeks of May 1940.
It is this pivotal turning point in world history that Korda captures with such immediacy in Alone, a work that triumphantly demonstrates that even the most calamitous defeats can become the most legendary victories.

Michael Korda's new book Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory examines the the early days of World War II.  Alone covers a lot of events, mostly from the British point of view but also French and German: Chamberlain's failed appeasement policy, France and England reluctantly being drawn back into war, Churchill becoming Prime Minister, Germany rewriting the use of tanks in warfare, conflicting personalities and agendas among allied generals.  All leading up to the evacuation of over 300,000 English and French troops from the beach of Dunkirk, late May 1940.  Scattered throughout the researched history are personal stories and a bit of family history as Korda reflects on his own memories as a 6 year old in a wealthy family of actors and movie makers.

Based on the book blurb for Alone, I had high hopes this would be a World War II history along the lines of Lynne Olson's Last Hope Island- meticulously researched, written with vivid detail and an eye for making individuals and their experiences leap off the page and into your mind.  Alone is certainly well researched.  I now have a much better understanding of the creation and purpose of the famed French Maginot Line after reading the early part of Alone.  The research into the French and British military leaders, their different approaches, their conflicts among themselves, and the difficulties they had in communicating with each other (not only with radios, and phones, but personal dislikes that often meant one man in charge wasn't on speaking terms with another) was well done and gave you a sense of what the chaos on the ground must have been like. How they accomplished any successes with so many personal clashes going on is (as is the case in most military histories I've read recently) amazing.

The Korda family moments interspersed within Alone were occasionally interesting, but generally felt like they belonged in a separate book.  Instead of showing what life on the home front was normally like, more often than not they showed how money could soften difficulties. Korda frequently mentions how his uncle Alex worked with Churchill and the government to make his (then current) movies into subtle propaganda designed to gain the sympathy and support of the United States.  The Thief of Baghdad and That Hamilton Woman were eventually made in the US to seem like 'regular' big budget Hollywood movies instead of British propaganda.  But the reader never gets an idea of what that meant, or if it worked- which would have made me much more interested in it.  The actual telling of the evacuation from Dunkirk only takes place in the last 100 or so pages of Alone and often seemed scattered and disorienting.  I'm sure that this is what the people on the ground experienced at the time, but I was hoping for a more coherent and understandable account to this interesting and unique moment in history.

Overall I was disappointed in Alone.  Instead of being a vivid account of a slice of history it was often repetitive, and choppily written.  Personal family stories didn't blend in to give us a better feeling for the time but mostly jarred the reader from the military narrative.  Military leaders and personalities blended together, making it hard to remember who was who (often even what side they were on) and even Winston Churchill didn't spring to life here.  The evacuation story itself almost seemed like an afterthought, with a few good, clear moments.  People who have seen Chris Nolan's 2017 movie Dunkirk will recognize the inspiration for the "sea" story of The Moonstone, and find the original story ( in my opinion) even more interesting and gripping- one of the few moments I could say that about Alone.

I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review

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