The Battle for Dunkirk was originally solely a strategic retreat from mainland Europe, in order to save lives. The battle only took place to stop the invading Germans from reaching the escaping Allies, or to at least give the Allies more time to retreat. The popular propaganda that was released after the evacuation led to people viewing it as a heroic retreat, because a clear image was created for the British public. This image was the British army being very brave and heroic, and achieving a clear victory in the face of the power and aggression of Germany.
This image became commonly known as the ‘Hell of Dunkirk’, because the conditions were believed to be a sort of hell on earth. However, this image of the ‘Hell of Dunkirk’ can vary, when eyewitness reports and sources are read. Source A here views the Navy as the saviours of the British army, and it explains how crucial the role of the rescuers was. This source is clearly not propaganda, since it is very clear about the negative elements, and also the army is put in a poor light.
This source tells us little about the actual battle itself, and instead keeps referring solely to how the army is useless, and puts a negative image over the whole of the evacuation aspect of Dunkirk. It also helps dissipate the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’ myth, since that involved heroic soldiers as far as the eye could see, but yet here there were only ‘odds and ends’ of an army. This source offers little to help change our understanding of events, apart from the comment that there were very few soldiers, hardly any officers, and they were not all lined up neatly, but in a ‘rabble’.
Source B again here does not tell use anything new about the battle; in fact again, like source A, all it refers to is the evacuation that took place from the beaches. Its perspective is from that of the Navy again, so this man cannot tell us about the battle, or even actually tell us what took place on the beaches. However, this man does not just continually state the hopelessness of the army, but in fact praises their courageousness. He says that they are almost standing up to death, as the German pilots’ machine guns were ‘cutting through those columns of soldiers’.
He also criticises the accuracy of the German pilots, because although they were very powerful, a bomb did go wide. This source does help tell us that there were German pilots who bombed the beaches, but also says that the Germans’ accuracy wasn’t brilliant. It does help confirm the ‘myth of Dunkirk’, because of so many deaths, but since the eyewitness is on a ship, he cannot tell us anything about the battle. Source C is from the point of view of a seaman who was presumably aboard his ship at the time, since he would have been aiding the evacuation process.
He does not tell us anything about the actual battle for Dunkirk, but does tell us how the soldiers defended the beaches. This man may not be so critical of the army because he is not in the navy, or it might be just because he was so impressed by the bravery of this one particular soldier. This source helps contribute to our perception of the battle by telling us how this sergeant fought back against the German planes, and succeeded. This source confirms the myth of the ‘hell of Dunkirk’ because he saw so many men die, but yet he also saw tremendous bravery.
He also states that the man who was so brave was a sergeant, confirming that there were senior officers to help keep order. All the sources are written by men aiding the evacuation process by ship, but source A was written by a naval officer, and so criticises the army. The other two sources seem to be fairer, and less biased. None were written from the perspective of a soldier, so we cannot find out anything about what the battle for Dunkirk was like. And from the position of a boat, you cannot accurately see anything on the beaches.
The sources could all well be biased, either by the ‘myth of Dunkirk’, or simply because the eyewitness may not trust the army. The sources also may not be reliable, since they may have been influenced by other accounts, rumours, or by hindsight. Source A is a personal account, since he was only on one section of the coast, and witnessing only one group of soldiers. Source B appears to be objective, because the Germans were bombing the whole beach, but again in this source, only one part of the beach was being viewed.
And finally in source C, it is clear to see that it is personal and subjective, because he is only viewing the heroic actions of one man. Sources B and C are clearly positive, as they praise, not criticise the actions of the soldiers, unlike source A. These sources, although they are eyewitness accounts, cannot be completely trusted, because the ‘myth of Dunkirk’ image may have affected them to a certain extent. For example, although there may have been an extremely brave man, it is much more likely that this individual act of bravery was just exaggerated.
These accounts may have been distorted by time, and the perspective with which they were looking at the events with may be limited. These sources are not particularly representative and typical, because another source says that the soldiers were all lined up on the beaches, and since that is in a picture, it is probably accurate. Also another source says that it was the officers who kept the calm, and not the naval officers.
These sources give us a very limited view of the battle because there is no information about the defending of the surrounding land to give the soldiers on the beach more time to escape, there is no account from an ordinary soldier who was on the beach, there are no accounts from officers who could prove that there were many soldiers, contradicting source A. To make these sources more representative, we would need there to be information about the German approach, instead just focusing on the army being evacuated by seamen and the navy.
In conclusion, these sources are useful in finding out the seamen’s perspective on the evacuation from Dunkirk, for finding out that there were incidences of bravery, which does concur with the myth of Dunkirk, and to see from an unaffected position how the evacuation went. You can also find out that the ‘myth of Dunkirk’ was similar to the reality in some areas of battle, but not in all. None of these sources refers to the battle that was taking place, and therefore cannot help us to understand the battle. However to find out what the battle for Dunkirk was like, these sources are not useful.