In 1989 I was commissioned to write and present a programme about the Phoney War for BBC Radio 4. My research took me to the Imperial War Museum’s sound archives and the testimony of a Dunkirk veteran called Anthony Rhodes, who was commissioned into the Royal Engineers shortly before Britain declared war on Nazi Germany in September 1939. At that stage I’d no idea Rhodes had written a book about his experiences, but what he had to say on tape was exemplary.
For instance, on arrival in France Rhodes and his comrades were shocked to discover that the impregnable Maginot Line did not extend along the Belgian frontier to the Channel. So if the Germans overran Belgium, as they had in 1914, there was nothing between them and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), based near Lille, but a line of barbed wire. On the other hand Rhodes, like most Britons, was confident that the ‘mighty’ French Army, in alliance with the BEF, was more than a match for the Wehrmacht. Hitler had only been in power for six years. It took far longer than that to create a modern army from scratch. No wonder people said that the German tanks one saw in newsreels were made of cardboard!
Of course Rhodes was speaking retrospectively, but he didn’t give the impression of being wise after the event. This was confirmed when I began to read his memoir Sword of Bone, the existence of which I learned about from a member of the museum’s staff. It opens with a bombastic pep-talk by a general that does nothing to dispel what Rhodes calls his ‘Passchendaele’ notions of war. He had nightmares about trench warfare, ‘the lowest and meanest form of life to which man has ever been ordered to sink’. But instead of wading through mud under shellfire he took part in that bizarre interlude known as the Phoney War, when it really was all quiet on the Western Front and Rhodes was mocked by a padre, of all people, for refusing a third cocktail before lunch in the front line. Then, in May 1940, not long after the Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared that Hitler had ‘missed the bus’, it became all too apparent that he hadn’t. Within a few weeks Rhodes was literally burying his head in the sands of Dunkirk, a target for the Stukas and Messerschmitts overhead.
If Rhodes recoiled from the prospect of trench warfare this was not simply because it was so horrible. It was also because he and his contemporaries had been told that never again would the British Army
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