Evacuation seemed the only option. After all, Dunkirk was only 40 miles across the English Channel. But German tanks were closing in and the Allied Forces were already beaten and in disarray. To pull off a rescue operation of the necessary magnitude seemed beyond the resources of either the British or French military. Churchill estimated only 10% of the British Expeditionary Forces might be saved.
But in only 10 days, from May 26 – June 4, 1940, nearly 340,000 troops were rescued by a fleet that included over 800 private boats. Pleasure cruisers, fishing boats, trawlers, and barges – they were all put into service. Of course the “little ships” effort was planned and coordinated by the military. But it is also true that the people of Britain decided to go get their boys, and they did. Pub owners and solicitors and artists and retired military and shopkeepers all volunteered.
They saved the British Expeditionary Force, and probably western civilization. Because if Britain's army fell, who would have stopped Hitler?
I don’t think I had even heard of the evacuation of Dunkirk before I watched the first season of Foyle’s War on PBS.* The second episode of that wonderful series had a plot line about the captain of one of the “little ships” headed across the Channel to rescue the British Army. Even that brief fictionalized account was inspiring.
Then my wife and I saw Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk a few weeks ago and I was determined to read more about this pivotal battle.
There were plenty of books about Dunkirk to choose from, including a couple written to capitalize on the release of the movie. But I’m glad I read The Miracle of Dunkirk:The True Story of Operation Dynamo, by Walter Lord.
Originally published in 1982, Lord was able to interview hundreds of men still living who had survived the Battle of Dunkirk. (One of the book's appendices has a “List of Contributors” – the names and ranks of about 500 men.)
Lord wrote a book of meticulous detail. His text is peppered with vignettes of the men who fought and died, or lived to make it home and fight again. Still, he didn’t lose sight of the big picture. The first few chapters tell the story of how the Allied Forces, already beaten, had to traverse an improbable escape corridor north between German forces to make it to Dunkirk if evacuation was even to be a possibility.
Though Lord’s book is not overtly spiritual, I don’t think you can read it without agreeing with the title – Dunkirk was a miracle. God intervened in at least three major ways– in the weather during the evacuation, in the Nazis' inexplicable “halt order” immediately prior to it, and in the rallying of the little ships.
I think you’d be blessed by reading Lord’s book.
If I could suggest some overall lessons, four come to mind.
1. A terrible defeat isn’t a final defeat. In Churchill’s famous address to Parliament on June 4, 1940, he said, “Wars are not won by evacuations.” True. But the grievous loss at Dunkirk, and subsequent fall of France, were part of the overall Allied victory. The Allies were far down but definitely not out, and Dunkirk's miracle became a rallying point for the rest of the war.
2. Good and evil are real, and each of us must pick a side. Today nuance and moral equivalence have undercut our certainty of what should be, undeniably, right. Stories of how the SS butchered surrendered troops or bombed Red Cross ships remind you that the Nazis were evil and had to be defeated.
3. Optimism and perseverance will win the day over brilliance and superior resources. Lord recounts story after story of irrepressible British officers, neck deep (literally) in the ocean, encouraging their men and continuing to calmly get them on the rescue boats.
4. The real heroes are ordinary people who do their duty. The Dunkirk story gives us plenty of great leaders, like Admiral Bertram Ramsey, who oversaw the rescue operation at Dover, and Captain William Tennant, in charge of making it work at Dunkirk. But the real heroes were regular soldiers and civilians who were called upon to sacrifice, stand, protect, hold on, fight on, and they did. It makes you believe you would too, if you had to.
*My wife and I love Foyle's War and continually rewatch all 9 seasons on Netflix.