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Dunkirk Friday, 2 June, 2000, 18:10 GMT 19:10 UK
Dunkirk: The propaganda war
As the British army withdrew from Dunkirk, crushed by the German war machine, a different kind of war was being waged right across the globe. It was the propaganda battle - and it was fought in the newsrooms and print works of the newspapers in Britain, Germany and the United States.

Media correspondent Nick Higham has delved into the archives for a unique insight into how Dunkirk was reported.

Click here to watch Nick Higham's report for BBC News Online or read the transcript below.

Today we remember Dunkirk for the heroism of those caught up in it. At the time it was a military disaster - and one that took the British public by surprise.

It was less than three weeks since the Germans had launched their Blitzkrieg. Fierce fighting had been reported. The British Expeditionary Force was known to be in retreat. But the scale of the collapse had been kept from the British people.

The first troops had actually left France on 18 May, barely a week after the German attack began. Operation Dynamo, to rescue the army trapped at Dunkirk, began on 26 May. Yet the British media didn't report it until three days later, 29 May - when the authorities had to appeal for civilian ships to help.

Manufactured myth

But almost at once, victory was being plucked from defeat, and the newspapers had begun to manufacture the Dunkirk myth.

The Washington Post reported that the Germans believed they'd soon be surging into the UK
Tens of thousands of British troops were safely home already, the Daily Express reported on Friday 31 May.

"Tired, dirty, hungry they came back -- unbeatable" ran the headline above an eyewitness report from an unnamed south coast town.

The reporter was one of the first to pay tribute to the crews of the civilian ships -- the "old tramp steamers, ships of all sorts, even barges in tow" whose crews "went into the blast and hell on the other side."

Three days later the Daily Sketch reported -- over a photograph headlined "The Navy's here -- with the army" -- that four-fifths of the BEF had been saved.

By Wednesday 5 June the withdrawal was complete.

"Dunkirk at last abandoned", reported the News Chronicle, quoting the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill's first great speech, in which he told the Commons "We shall fight them on the beaches... We shall never surrender."

He was praised for his realism. Dunkirk may have been an epic, a miracle of deliverance, which brought hundreds of thousands of men out of the jaws of death, he told the Commons. "But it was not to be confused with victory. Wars were not won by evacuation."

The New York Times praises the bravery of the young RAF pilots
Yet some were tempted to see it as something close to a triumph -- and not just in Britain. Even in neutral America the papers were looking on the bright side.

On 1 June, the New York Times reported not only that three-quarters of the BEF was out of Flanders, but that the allies had successfully counter-attacked on the Somme.

The British Air Force, New Yorkers were told, was doing its bit against superior odds. "Between flights the young pilots of the RAF calmly sipped tea at their home fields."

The Washington Post led with reports of that French counter-attack on the Somme. But it also reported from Berlin that the Germans believed they'd soon be surging over open roads to Paris and London.

The German newspapers, naturally, were proclaiming a famous victory.

Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung reported 40,000 British drowned in the Channel
"Dunkirk Taken" ran the headline in the Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, over reports of 40,000 British prisoners, another 40,000 drowned in the Channel.

And the Nazi party paper, the Volkischer Beobachter, under the headline "Breakthrough in Dunkirk", taunted the British for abandoning their French allies to their fate.

But in Britain the Dunkirk spirit had taken root. The government encouraged it to flourish -- and allowed nothing to be published which might damage morale.

When a few days after Dunkirk a troopship was bombed in the Western French port of Saint-Nazaire, killing thousands of British soldiers and sailors, not a word appeared in print.

Dunkirk was a military defeat - but a propaganda victory.

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