‘It was Dunkirk and the summer of 1940 repeating itself, but instead of the R.A.F. and the Battle of Britain the monsoon and the Assam mountain barrier gave us the time in which to recover for the second round.’
TNA, HS 7/111
The film ‘Dunkirk’ is having a tremendous impact on those who have seen it. If you are a Tweeter, then you’ll know this from the #Dunkirk feed. If you are not on Twitter, you will surely not have escaped exposure to opinion:
The Guardian The Telegraph The Independent The New York Times and let’s not forget the USA Today review which caused such controversy with its line about a lack ‘of women and no lead actors of color’. Moving swiftly on…
As I write this, I am booked for an 8pm viewing tonight, so what follows will not review the film. The aim of this post is to explore the parallels, if any, between what might be described as a ‘Far Eastern Dunkirk’, and the one that we are more familiar with, thanks in part, to a block-busting movie.
The ‘Far Eastern Dunkirk’ was a retreat from Burma to India. Of course, there is no sea that separates the two countries, but if you invert the idea of the English Channel as a great big anti-tank ditch and make the mountains dividing India from Burma into over-sized ‘dragon’s teeth’ anti-tank defences like these…
…there is, then, a parallel of an important natural defence dividing the opposing armies. As if the mountains were not enough, the rivers and chaungs in this part of the world are huge and often ferocious waterways during the monsoon, and several men drowned trying to make good their escape. One such was SOE’s Corporal Sawyer, who was swept away while making a river crossing in early June. Transition of these waterways was made possible for some by a rescue mission, this time not of the ‘Little Boats’ and the Royal Navy, but by the Elephants of Gyles Mackrell. Lives were also saved by the RAF which dropped supplies to those military personnel and civilians from Burma trying to reach safety.
Crossing the mountains and rivers of the Burma-India border and crossing the English Channel is what saved two armies, almost exactly two years apart. The men lifted from the Beaches of Dunkirk were British and French troops in the main, but there were also Canadians and Indians, and civilians. Similarly, those that reached India were not only British soldiers, but Burmese, Indian and Chinese, as well as civilians. Behind the two natural defences, both armies were able to re-equip, retrain, and, in 1944, take the offensive into the country from which they had retreated, helping to bring the war to a conclusion.
Perhaps there are more parallels to be drawn, such as a period of ‘Phoney War’ in the Far East after the Japanese occupied French Indochina (FIC) in August 1940 as a result of the German victory in western Europe; the British colonial authorities in Burma thinking they were safe behind the hilly jungle border separating Burma from FIC and Siam (read Maginot Line); the tactics used by Axis forces which threw Allied armies into confusion and retreat; or even command decisions by the Germans and Japanese which allowed both armies to escape (the much debated ‘Halt’ order for France, and the remarkable Japanese adherence to orders to take Rangoon for Burma); lastly the role of armoured units at Arras and Yenaungyaung that checked the advancing forces.
A statistical exploration gets a bit tricky because of the difference in numbers involved. There were approximately 144 Allied divisions involved in the Battle for France, and just 11 in the first Burma campaign (two British & Commonwealth plus 7 Armoured Brigade, and nine Chinese). I’ll leave statistics with the fact that one of 7 Armoured Brigade’s tanks made it out to India; so far as I know, no tanks made it off the beaches of Dunkirk.
In sum, whatever we think of this idea of a Far Eastern Dunkirk, that both the armies escaped and survived to fight on is remarkable, and the sacrifice was huge amongst those who fought to allow others to escape. Two of those who escaped from the beaches of Dunkirk were from my family, men who later went on to fight back into Burma from India with the men of the Far Eastern Dunkirk.