SURPLUS ORDNANCE Episode 8: Atonement


By Dennis Meyers

Relevant experience: U.S. Army, 1974-1980, BA & MA Economics, Economist for 30 for State of California,
Community College Adjunct Faculty

Historical Context:
A principal character in Atonement is Robbie Turner who is released from prison after being convicted of
rape to join the British army and ends up fighting in the Battle of France and dies at Dunkirk.

The battle of France began on May 10, 1940 when Germany invaded France, Belgium, Luxembourg and
the Netherlands.
The Allied defense plan, Plan D, called for the BEF and the First and Ninth French Armies to rush into
Belgium once it was invaded by Germany. They were to defend the Dyle Line which ran from Antwerp in
the north down to the northern end of the Maginot Line near Sedan. The rest of the French Army was
committed to the Maginot Line defenses that was believed to be the most likely invasion route.
The Ardennes was considered to be easily defended. It was thought that Its dense forests and narrow
winding roads made it difficult for a large force, particularly an armored force, to penetrate.
The Germany army did, however, quickly penetrated the Ardennes and crossed the river Meuse and
captured Sedan on May 12. From there they made a furious armored advance to the English Channel
which they reached on May 20. This split the Allied forces in two.
The German forces in the north that had invaded Belgium and the Netherlands forced the Allies back
towards the Channel. After the Netherlands capitulated, French and British forces consolidated along
the coast in Dunkirk, Boulogne, and Calais.

The retreat of Allied forces across Belgium caused the UK to initiate Operation Dynamo to
withdraw the BEF to retain its strength to defend against the anticipated German invasion of
Great Britain.
The evacuation took place from May 26 to June 4 which allowed the recovery of about 340,000
BEF soldiers.
The evacuation fleet included 860 vessels from the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and France
including a cruiser, destroyers, minesweepers, coastal launches, yachts, fishing boats, barges,
ferries and others.
During the operation 6 British and 3 French destroyers were sunk, along with nine other major
vessels. Over 200 British and Allied craft were sunk.

A large part of the success of Operation Dynamo was due to an order from Hitler to halt the
advancing German armor which delayed the breach of the Dunkirk perimeter. It is unclear what
the exact reasons for this order were. One is that Goering requested that the Luftwaffe be
allowed to finish off the Allies from the air so that it could get more credit for the victory.
Another reason given is that the Army wanted to husband its resources in order to turn south
toward Paris and fight a still formidable French army. The least likely explanation often given
was that Hitler may have wanted to allow the BEF to escape in hopes of making a peace treaty
with Great Britain. For whatever reason, the Panzers were halted for 3 days starting on May 24.
During this respite, the Operation Dynamo fleet was assembled, Allied defenses on the
perimeter were strengthened and a large contingent of troops were evacuated.
In the first phase of Germany’s offensive, Fall Gelb, which lasted only 26 days, German forces defeated
the Netherlands and Belgium, forced the BEF off the continent and destroyed 30 French divisions.

Following the evacuation, the German army took a 6-day pause to reorient itself for the invasion of
France proper. This phase of the German operation, Fall Rot, began on June 5. Despite putting up stiff
resistance, Paris fell to the Germans on June 14. Resistance continued until an armistice was signed that
took effect on June 25, 1940.
During the Battle of France (including Dunkirk) the BEF suffered 66,000 casualties—25,000 killed or
wounded and 41,000 taken prisoner or MIA. The RAF lost over 900 aircraft and suffered 1,500
casualties. Almost all of the 445 British tanks that had been sent to France with the BEF were

[Note: I could not find specific information about pre-war British Army recruiting or enlistment policies.]
The essence of the plot of Atonement rests on Robbie being let out of prison to enlist in the army on the
eve of WW2. Given the seriousness of the crime Robbie was convicted of—rape—and the fact that
apparently Robbie had actually gone to prison, while possible, I think is somewhat implausible. The
urgent manpower needs in the runup to WW2 may have allowed this to happen. But the seriousness of
the offense has historically been a bar to enlistment in modern professional armies.
Paroling convicts to enlist seemed only possible when a service was faced with a severe shortage of
enlistees. During the pre-war buildup in the late 1930s, the British Army habitually lagged behind in
recruitment. In 1937 the Regular and Territorial Armies together were 72,000 soldiers below their
authorized levels.
In the postwar era until 1996, the British Army banned all convicted criminals from enlisting, after which
this ban was relaxed but still explicitly banned those serving sentences for rape, sex or drug offences.
For comparison, in the US during the draft era (1940 - 1973) there were instances, and stories of
instances, where prison sentences were avoided if the accused enlisted. But outside of WW2, this
seemed to be an option only in cases of minor offenses and was normally an action taken by the courts
before a conviction.

From 1877 – 1940 federal statute barred enlistment of persons convicted of felonies. This ban was
relaxed in 1940. The pressing manpower needs of WW2 led to cases where inmates were paroled from
prison contingent upon their service with the U.S. Army.
This practice was severely curtailed with the creation of the all-volunteer military in 1973 and the
waning need for manpower after the Viet Nam war and the end of the Cold War.
Currently, US military regulations prohibit military service in lieu of incarceration. Courts cannot compel
the military to accept someone. Recruiters are barred from attending trials and sentence hearings. All
enlistees are subjected to a thorough background check. Further, anyone with a criminal record could
not receive a security clearance which would effectively bar them from most military occupations.
However, it is possible for a court (judge or prosecutor) to allow an offender to avoid pending criminal
charges if they agreed to enlist in the military. Again, this seemed to be an option only in cases of minor
crimes or misdemeanors.
While a felony conviction will bar enlistment, sometime a waiver can be obtained. However, a waiver
cannot be given for a number of specific crimes including rape and statutory rape.

Alistair Horne. To Lose a Battle: France 1940. 1969. Little, Brown.
Lloyd Clark. Blitzkrieg: Myth, Reality and Hitler's Lightning War - France, 1940. 2016. Atlantic Monthly
Roger Broad. Conscription in Britain, 1939-1964. 2006. Routledge
David Dressler. Men on Parole as Soldiers in World War II. Social Service Review. 1946.
Travis Wade Milburn. Exploring Military Service as an Alternative Sanction: Evidence From Inmates'
Perspectives. 2012.
Quora. Can I join the military if I have been convicted of a felony and some misdemeanours?. 2020
Quora. Can people avoid jail by agreeing to join the military?. 2018
Houstan Chronicle. Can I Join the Army With a Felony on My Record?, 2018
The Irish Times. British army looks to the prisons for new recruits in reversal of policy. 1999
Wikipedia articles: Battle of France, French war planning 1920–1940, Battle of Sedan (1940), Dunkirk