CHARLOTTE, NC. Until the 2017 movie Dunkirk was released, one of the greatest miracles of World War II — the “Miracle of Dunkirk” — seemed largely lost in the annals of history. Lost for many, except for students and historians exploring the two greatest conflicts of the 20th century.
Today, we count down to celebrations this year of the 75th anniversary of D-Day. The near-fantastic story of Dunkirk and the role civilians played during the dramatic evacuations of Operation Dynamo in 1940 remain among the small number of truly remarkable events during WWII. They define the very essence of British perseverance and pluck as they battled against Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.
A hopeless situation for British soldiers on the northern shores of France
During the early years of WWII, the Allied armies were cut off by German forces who had separated French troops from their British allies. German actions left the Brits stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk with their backs against the North Sea. And their passage back to England, and relative safety.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had only been in the Prime Minister’s office for 16 days, suddenly confronted an overwhelming task. Namely, figuring out how to evacuate more than 338,000 men from total annihilation without the primary means to do so.
A miracle was needed to save the British forces: The Miracle of Dunkirk
Film director Christopher Nolan explained the significance of the Miracle of Dunkirk.
“This is an essential moment in the history of World War II. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate, and the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate. The Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the U.S. would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment.
“And the success of the evacuation allowed (Sir Winston Churchill) to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily, it is a defeat. On the human plane, it is a colossal victory.”
The evacuation of Dunkirk proved an incredible success. Yet some historians suggest that, until the Fall of Singapore in 1942, the Dunkirk evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was the worst defeat in British history.
The historical significance of the Miracle of Dunkirk
Despite Nolan’s somewhat equivocal assessment of the Miracle of Dunkirk, the number of soldiers trapped on the beach only represented about one-tenth of the total number of British fighting forces available in 1940. Furthermore, even if Germany had captured the troops at Dunkirk, the Nazis were incapable of invading England at that time. That’s because the British Navy still controlled the English Channel.
Regardless of one’s perception of the relative success and / or failure of Dunkirk, no one can reasonably deny the miracle that took place there some 79 years ago when Operation Dynamo commenced on May 26, 1940.
Lacking enough ships to transport over 338,000 stranded troops, the British Admiralty made a desperation call to all British citizens who possessed any seaworthy vessel to come to the aid of their fellow countrymen trapped across the channel. British citizens readily responded. In force.
Imagine the private armada of fishing boats, yachts, ferries, lifeboats and all manner of seagoing craft of every size and shape that braved its way across the Channel to participate in the rescue efforts. These small, nonmilitary, civilian-manned boats braved German mines, torpedoes and the airborne German Luftwaffe to cross the channel, pack British soldiers on board and once again risk encountering mighty German forces on their brief but dangerous return voyage.
An ad hoc, ragtag civilian rescue flotilla faces the full force of Nazi Germany’s war machine
As the ad hoc British rescue operation continued, Germany’s air attacks bombarded the beaches, destroying numerous small boats while chasing larger ships within just a few miles of the British coast.
When Dunkirk Harbor was bombed out of use, the smaller more adaptable civilian vessels began to ferry soldiers off the sand to larger waiting warships. The evacuation continued for nine days during a time when most Allied commanders and soldiers had all but given up hope of rescuing the stranded British forces.
As German forces closed in for their final surge, Operation Dynamo came to an end on June 4, 1940. This heroic and seemiongly impossible effort saved nearly 340,000 men over the course of the week-long engagement.
The historical accuracy of Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk
During the filming of the re-enactment of the Battle of Dunkirk, producers actually used at least a dozen of the original small ships that participated in the actual combined military / civilian operation. This added a genuinely authentic touch to the film.
Also of interest to movie and history buffs: Filmmakers shot the movie on-location at the actual beach where the rescue mission took place. Director Christopher Nolan claims that during his site location research, he even chanced to a button from an English soldier’s uniform buried in the sand.
One final and ironic fact
The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would be incomplete however, without something unique for history and trivia buffs. During the Dunkirk evacuation, the most senior surviving officer of the Titanic tragedy, Charles Lightoller, participated in the operation, using his private motor yacht, “The Sundowner.” Today, Lightoller’s vessel is preserved in the Ramsgate Maritime Museum in England.
Indeed, reality often is stranger than fiction.
— Headline image: Wounded British soldiers evacuated from Dunkirk make their way up the gangplank from a destroyer at Dover, 31 May 1940. Image created and released by the Imperial War Museum on the IWM Non Commercial Licence. A member of Britain’s active duty forces took this photograph. Crown Copyright provisions cover such photos. However, these provisions expired in 2000 – 50 years after the event photographed. The image is now in the public domain.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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