The trials of the book’s main character, Dacre AJ, begin when he first decides to join the Royal Navy but finds the RN desk at the recruiting office unmanned and so ends up joining the Royal Marines instead. (Random life-changing decisions really do happen: Field Marshal Montgomery chose his regiment because he liked the cap badge!) From recruiting office to the Royal Marine training depot at Deal in Kent, to the RM barracks at Eastney, close to Southsea, to Dover’s old Napoleonic fort called the ‘Drop Redoubt’— White describes it all. There is a boxing tournament in Eastney. Dacre is good at boxing. And the Drop Redoubt has its one-hundred-and-forty-feet deep ‘Grand Shaft,’ whose multitudinous steps are good for maintaining the fitness level of new recruits.
Dacre’s environment is one of square-bashing, of rifle training, of sleeping in trenches half-full of water, and embraces all of the spit-and-polish regimens of barrack life. He may live in a unique, even insular, world, but it is just as solid and valid as anyone else’s. Plus Dacre has a few good mates. He experiences being with a woman for the very first time—a watershed event that is engineered by those same good mates. The fact that the young woman is the daughter of ‘First Drill,’ the most senior of Dacre’s RM instructors, adds extra spice and danger.
The writer steadfastly tracks the tumultuous events of 1939 and 1940, often using conversations between historical figures such as Antony Eden, Winston Churchill, and Vice-Admiral Bertram Ramsey. The latter was charged with organizing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk.
The German Blitzkrieg rolls through Belgium and into northern France. The British and French armies are in full retreat. Meanwhile, in harbours along the southern coast of England, small boats, fishing vessels, ferries and yachts are gathering, preparing to sail across to France and ‘bring our lads back home.’
Churchill was first to remark, afterwards, in the House of Commons, that ‘wars are not won by retreat.’ Nonetheless, the Dunkirk evacuation remains firmly fixed in the British psyche as one of the great events of history, alongside the victories of Henry V’s soldiers at Agincourt and the RAF fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain. Thus White’s novel, Never Surrender, takes a sudden turn, midway through the book.
Dacre, already a fully trained Royal Marine, is not yet eighteen and so not eligible for active duty. But Britain’s stranded expeditionary force is need of help and Dacre is experienced at sailing and canoeing. He is assigned as a one-man crew to Mr. Leslie Thomas of Maidstone, Kent, owner of the thirty-five foot cabin cruiser, the Gypsy Rose. Dacre and Thomas make several trips to France, returning each time with a boat-load of grateful Tommies. Thus White’s Never Surrender, joins other famous novels of Dunkirk, most notably The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico and Atonement by Ian McEwan.
All in all, Never Surrender is an interesting novel and well worth reading.