Eyewitness views of Dunkirk; The Miracle of Dunkirk, by Walter Lord. New York: The Viking Press. 290 pp. $17. 95.
The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) from France in 1940 has been the subject of many books, some of them little more than eyewitness accounts, some the carefully researched products of trained historians. Walter Lord's book uses the technique which he, Cornelius Ryan, and others have used successfully in the past. It is based on interviews with as many of the surviving participants as the author was able to locate. Although Lord's conclusions do not differ markedly from those of earlier writers, he has unearthed some new facts and has included many new and heretofore unrecounted anecdotes. This makes for lively and interesting reading.
If there were many who believed in the ''miracle'' of Dunkirk during World War II and the years immediately thereafter, such individuals must be few today. Mr. Lord correctly portrays Dunkirk not as a ''miracle,'' nor as a succession of critical days, but as a series of major crises, one following closely upon another, which were met with varying degrees of success by those responsible for withdrawing the BEF.
For those interested in why Hitler stopped his panzers short of the beaches and the perimeter protecting them, why the Luftwaffe was not more effective, whether Calais's defense was critical to the survival of the Dunkirk beaches, and how the British evacuation plans gradually evolved and were modified by changing conditions, ''The Miracle of Dunkirk'' will provide rewarding reading, even for those who believe that most of the story has already been told.
Despite the author's reliance on interviews with those who were at Dunkirk, he is such an experienced craftsman that the historical background is handled with skill. Sufficient details are included to provide an understanding of how the evacuation was decided upon, the events which led up to it, how it was carried out, and its importance at the time. Although this is a rather complicated story, it is well told. Among the book's strengths is its fleshing out of the story of the evacuation with many new personal experiences of military and naval personnel, weekend yachtsmen, fishermen, and many others. This gives his story color and a warm, human dimension. Mr. Lord has even managed to include the experiences of one of the heroes of his earlier book, ''A Night to Remember.'' It is Second Officer Lightoller of the Titanic, who, at the age of 68, served as skipper of one of the myriad fleet of small boats which went to Dunkirk to take off the Expeditionary Force.
Another interesting fact Mr. Lord has included is the British high command's original plan not to withdraw the force northward to Dunkirk, but to try to break through to the French lines on the Somme. Winston Churchill concurred in this strategy at the time and also in the naval command's early estimate that a maximum of 20,000 to 30,000 troops might be taken off. The final total, of course, was more than 10 times this estimate.
To his credit Mr. Lord has been careful to bestow praise, not only on those who played major roles, such as Admiral Ramsay and his naval staff, but also on many who have not previously been recognized, such as those who organized the defensive perimeter that held off the Wehrmacht, the naval beach masters who controlled troop embarkation, those in England who located such essential items as maps of the Dunkirk area, and the flotilla of small craft and those who manned them.
It is pleasant to note that Mr. Lord has been especially fair to the French Army units whose key role in making the evacuation possible is not generally known, even today. The French in the Dunkirk area fought well and hard, as did those in the garrison at Lille, which pinned down several German divisions at a key time while the withdrawal of the BEF was being organized.
For those who like a good tale, skillfully told, Walter Lord's book makes fine reading. One does not have to be a World War II buff to enjoy it, though a familiarity with the events of the time is helpful. Dunkirk was, above all, a triumph of the indomitable human spirit and its refusal to accept defeat even under the most discouraging circumstances. The jacket blurb claims this is the definitive account of Dunkirk. Though this may be an overstatement, it is the most complete and readable account yet to appear.