Dunkirk: Leadership lessons in a hard school.

Andy Johnson is a Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Business and HRM at Anglia Ruskin University London and was formerly Regimental Sergeant Major, 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards.

With the release of Christopher Nolan’s long awaited film ‘Dunkirk’, it is worth reflecting on the 1940 campaign which resulted in the legendary evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). The analysis of this piece of military history could fill several volumes, but this paper will briefly consider some of the issues surrounding leadership during the campaign, and whether these lessons have any value today.
Katz (1955) produced a three-factor model suggesting three key skill-sets required by leaders. The first skill listed is Conceptual Skill; the cognitive ability to plan, forecast and anticipate frictions and consequences. Next comes Interpersonal (or Human) Skill; the ability to develop and maintain healthy professional relationships with a range of stakeholders. Finally comes Technical Skill; the ability to physically engage in the minutiae of one’s profession.
Katz suggests that leaders require different levels of these three skills depending on their position in an organisational hierarchy (Northouse, 2016). Realistically however, the mix of skill-level required in each of these areas is also dependent on the situation, rather than an individual’s job title. The Dunkirk campaign provides an interesting opportunity to apply these skills to an historical context.
Conceptual Skill
The Commander-in-Chief of the BEF, Lord Gort, was widely acknowledged for his personal bravery (he was a VC holder) and fighting spirit. Contemporaries however were sceptical of his Conceptual Skill. Major General Sir Edward Spears described him as “a simple, straight-forward, but not very clever man.” (Sebag-Montefiore, 2007). General Brooke, the incisive and ruthless commander of II Corps during the campaign (later Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff), though an admirer of Gort’s inspirational fighting spirit, frequently lamented the C-in-C’s total lack of strategic ability. This frustration is mentioned several times in Alanbrooke’s war diary, well before the German offensive began (Alanbrooke, 2002).
Gort was not a lone offender in Alanbrooke’s opinion. The latter believed that most of his fellow senior officers lacked Conceptual Skill. He suggested that the lack of strategic ability amongst British senior commanders was due to the best thinkers of his generation being lost in the Great War (Alanbrooke, 2002). Alanbrooke’s theory is questionable, for the Germans also lost many talented officers in the Great War, yet between the wars, actively promoted intellectual stimulation amongst its officer corps. Amongst the leading thinkers were Heinz Guderian, often regarded as the father of Blitzkrieg, although in his own book, Panzer Leader, Guderian (2000) is the first to admit that he took British ideas and developed them into something that worked. The British, it seems, were less stimulated by their own initial thinking on modern war.
This does not imply the Germans were unequivocal masters of big thinking. Many German army commanders were as locked into traditional thinking as their Allied opposite numbers. Guderian asserts that the sole reason the BEF was allowed to escape from Dunkirk was because the German Army High Command issued repeated halt orders to Guderian’s panzer corps, allowing the British the breathing space needed to avoid total defeat (Guderian, 2000).
Interpersonal Skill
Both sides suffered in this area, and the problems arose mainly at senior level. Despite many British commanders speaking good French, the respective commanders on each side of this coalition had radically different opinions of how operations should be conducted and coordinated. There was virtually no attempt to ensure interoperability before May 1940 and the Anglo-French coalition was, at best, a well-mannered but reluctant partnership which did not stand the test of high-tempo operations well (Alanbrooke, 2002).
The lack of trust between the Allies ultimately drove Gort to contradict direct orders and use his last reserves to shore up the BEFs northern flank, rather than fritter them away in a joint counter-attack with the French that was dead in the water before it was launched. (Sebag-Montefiore, 2007). By the 25th May, just two weeks after the opening of combat operations, the Anglo-French coalition was crumbling. Bizarrely, this decision by Gort to abandon the French actually testifies to his one great moment of Conceptual Skill. He realised he was essentially committing career suicide when he ordered his troops towards the coast, but he also had the foresight to realise that the battle for France was already lost and that his sole duty from then on was to save Britain’s army (Thompson, 2008).
The Germans also suffered frequent breakdowns in interpersonal relations, which in turn, and thankfully for the BEF, reduced their effectiveness at critical points in the campaign. At one point, Guderian had a blazing row with his immediate superior and resigned. Later the same day, his one-up formation commander arrived and told him he was not allowed to resign and that he should get on with his ‘reconnaissance in force’ (Guderian, 2000). Such frictions however, proved to be the grit in what should have been a very well-oiled German war machine.
Technical Skill
At battalion level, the BEF were technically competent. At formation level, they were less so; and the bigger the formation, the less technically competent they were. Only a handful of BEF formations, including Montgomery’s 3rd Division, managed to retain discipline and structural cohesion during the last, fraught week before evacuation (Alanbrooke, 2002, and Sebag-Montefiore, 2007).
German commanders were generally technically competent at every level. Even when momentarily caught off-guard by a cobbled-together British and French force that had no artillery, engineer or air support, south of Arras, the German response was, after initial panic, resolute and decisive, helped enormously by General Rommel who rushed back from his division’s spearhead to personally assemble and command the anti-tank screen that stopped the Allied thrust in its tracks (Deighton, 1981, and Sebag-Montefiore, 2007).
Interestingly, the German after-action review of the campaign, though largely critical of the French army in every area, professed genuine respect for the discipline, resilience and fighting spirit of British troops, especially when in defensive positions. The report was less effusive however in its praise for British strategy and generalship (Sebag-Montefiore, 2007).
And what of today?
At present, the British Army is still fortunate enough to have a cadre (but a shrinking one) of tough, professional soldiers and junior commanders who know their trade; their Technical and Conceptual Skill honed by recent operations. Theoretically, this should provide a strong core for the Army for at least another decade, however the Army is leaking people badly and there is a possibility that like the BEF in 1940, the Army of 2020 may lose its best thinkers and fighters.
There has been some criticism, not all of it fair, in both the media and amongst US defence sources, of the Conceptual Skill of Britain’s senior officers in the recent expeditionary wars of the early 21st Century. Was Britain guilty of conceptual complacency; assuming that its experience of counter-insurgency in Northern Ireland would be enough to see it through the complexities of post-liberation Iraq and Afghanistan?
How detailed and honest has the lessons-learned process been in the wake of these recent campaigns? Certainly, at the operational and tactical levels, there have been many improvements. An infantry battalion of 2017 is virtually unrecognisable compared to how it looked in 2007, but has the Army’s doctrine benefited in the same way?
Now is the time for a renewed drive in intellectual professional development in the British Army, at every level, which is why it is heartening to see warrant officers at last being offered in-service degrees. Likewise, Britain must develop its relationships and interoperability with its likely warfighting partners of the future as a matter of urgency, for it is unlikely to go to war alone any time soon.
It was widely acknowledged by big-thinkers at the time, and asserted now by historians, that the BEF of 1940 was out-thought, not out-fought. Do we now need to relearn the lessons of history post Iraq/Afghanistan if we do not wish to face our own Dunkirk at some point in the not too distant future?


Reference List
Alanbrooke (Ed. Danchev, A, and Todman, D) (2002). Alanbrooke War Diaries. London; Phoenix Press.
Deighton, L (1981). Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk. London; Grafton.
Guderian, H (2000). Panzer Leader. St Ives; Penguin.
Katz, R.L. (1955). Skills of an Effective Administrator. Harvard Business Review, 33(1), (33-42).
Northouse, P.G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and Practice, International Student Edition (7th Edition). SAGE Publications Inc.
Sebag-Montefiore, H (2007). Dunkirk: Fight to the last man. Harvard; Harvard University Press.
Thompson, J (2008). Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory. London; Pan Books.

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Image courtesy of © IWM (HU 41240)

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