At this time of year I think not only of June 6, 1944 – D-Day – and the allied Normandy landings that heralded the end of World War II, but also of Dunkirk. All Brits – or former Brits – of my boomer-age group and older know what that word means. It signifies the evacuation by sea back to England in late May and early June 1940 of more than 300,000 soldiers.
Principally, the British Expeditionary Force, or BEF, but with many thousands of French fighters, they were taken off from the coast near Dunkirk, a seaside town of Northeast France. And, this summer, with the imminent release of Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk,” I’m wondering again why this event matters so much.
The Dunkirk evacuation, in itself a terrible British defeat in the face of the German advance through western Europe, was also an event that meant that Great Britain wouldn’t lose the war – at least not right then. The BEF – sitting out the “phony war” on the continent since September 1939 with their French allies – was suddenly “cut off” by the swift movement of the German army. Under commander Lord Gort, the BEF’s only option short of surrender was to retreat to the English Channel coast.
The “rescue” – Operation Dynamo – fascinates, too, because it supports the ever-enticing “Great Man Theory of History.” According to historian John Lukacs, who wrote “Five Days in London: May 1940”, Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s personal argument – against the wishes of senior cabinet colleagues – rejected a negotiated peace and brought the army back to fight another day. They left their weapons behind, but the nation’s fighting force was preserved.
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Dunkirk matters especially to me and my two sisters, because the man who became our father was one of the thousands delivered across a miraculously calm English Channel by small boats and big ships. Under fire from German planes, those troops – some very young (Dad was not quite 20) and some much older – waited back on the sand dunes, sometimes for days, for their turn to stand in long saltwater queues, gripping rope-lines in the surf. If they were lucky, they were able to clamber aboard a small craft, or grapple the scrambling nets up the side of a ship, to be hauled aboard by men on deck. Our father told us his story: “A big Froggy “matelot”(French sailor) hauled me up over the side of the ship. The first thing I saw was an enamel bath, full of tea.” Home sweet home?
Not everyone made it home, however. The heroic “stand at Calais,” for example, involved men who had been told by their commanders to fight to the end. They would be neither relieved nor rescued. French and British troops fighting rearguard actions there and elsewhere were left behind.
Soon after Dynamo concluded, Churchill told his countrymen that Dunkirk was not a victory – wars are not won by evacuations. But of course it must have felt like a victory: Avoiding disaster is better than experiencing it. Many of those telegrams sent out to desperate families (your son, brother, husband, father is missing in action) turned out to be gloriously wrong, as our own grandmother found out.
Dunkirk continues to draw the gaze because it was a huge deal – perhaps a turning point in history.
When the film comes out, I look forward to seeing stars Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh telling the story on screen.
I will study, too, the many “extras” who will be standing chest-high in the sea or hunkering down among seagrass. Some extras will act out the violent death that is the other side of the Miracle of Dunkirk. Many died under enemy fire, on one of those nine Dynamo days. Some, desperate and terrified, ended their own lives.
But when one of your own relatives was an “extra” – a tiny cog in a huge war machine – those shots of scores of anonymous tin-hatted private soldiers and NCOs touch the heart. I’m proud, and grateful, that our “extra” arrived home safely.
Rosemary Haskell lives in Chapel Hill.