Little ships mark ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk

Setting sail: Flotilla leaves Ramsgate, watched by crowds on harbour walls © PA

Ceremonies are taking place to mark the 75th anniversary of thousands of British and allied soldiers being rescued from the Nazis. How proud should Britain be of the Dunkirk evacuation?

By 27 May 1940, France had lost all hope of repelling Nazi Germany’s invasion in World War Two. Hundreds of thousands of British, French and Belgian troops had been encircled at the Channel port of Dunkirk. As ships arrived from England to try to take them to safety, Britain’s prime minister, Winston Churchill, predicted privately that around 20,000-30,000 would be rescued. Churchill had ordered Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk, in hope rather than expectation.

What followed has sometimes been referred to as the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’. 338,226 soldiers were evacuated from the beaches, harbour and coastal defences and taken to England over the course of the next eight days. Many would return to France four years later and help to defeat Nazism.

Veterans have now returned to the French coast to take part in commemorations for today’s 75th anniversary of the evacuation. Many of the little ships which dashed to Dunkirk to try to collect soldiers are also in attendance for the occasion, having taken particular pride of place in popular memories of the operation. Britain’s Admiralty had commandeered civilian boats — sometimes by force — and put them to work alongside the Royal Navy’s battleships. Any vessel considered worthy was used; the smallest known to have been involved was a 15-foot fishing boat.

With death threatened from land, sea and air, those involved managed to achieve something which had seemed impossible. Meanwhile, the soldiers and airmen who continued fighting kept the Germans away from the beaches for long enough to allow the operation to proceed. The term ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was coined afterwards, and is still often used in Britain to describe courageous action in the face of tough odds.

But Operation Dynamo’s success was partly the result of good fortune. Had Adolf Hitler ordered his panzer (tank) divisions to attack the beaches, or had the sea roughened, the result would probably have been very different.

Miraculous defeat?

In a speech at the end of the Dunkirk evacuation, Churchill gratefully spoke of the ‘miracle of deliverance’. This reflects the modern perception of Dunkirk, particularly in Britain. The country is right to be proud of what happened that week; getting so many soldiers out of a dangerous situation required skill, bravery, coordination and calm.

But many in France at the time felt that, with the Nazis overrunning an allied country, the British had run for home and left them to face four years of occupation. Despite the heroics of the evacuation, this was a catastrophic result. Perhaps Britain’s attitude to Dunkirk really shows that the nation eulogises defeats where others celebrate victories.

You Decide

  1. Should we remember Dunkirk as a ‘miracle’?
  2. Does Britain remember its plucky defeats too fondly?

Activities

  1. Write an entry in the diary of either a British soldier awaiting rescue at Dunkirk or a captain of one of the ships sent there.
  2. Research the events of Dunkirk and create your own timetable of commemorations to mark the anniversary. Explain what you have chosen, when and where they would take place and why you have chosen them.

Some People Say...

“I never wanted to come back here, to commemorate a defeat.”

Dunkirk veteran George Kay

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do we still remember Dunkirk 75 years later?
Mainly because it would have been so much worse if the troops had not been rescued. The Nazis would have taken them prisoner or killed them. Britain would have been severely weakened as it faced the prospect of fighting Hitler alone, with the fall of France now inevitable.
What happened next?
The French surrendered on 22 June 1940. Two-thirds of the country was occupied by the Germans and the French army was disbanded. The Battle of Britain later that summer prevented the Nazis from launching an invasion of Britain, but it was not until 1942, after the USSR and USA had joined the war, that the Germans stopped gaining ground and began to fall back. Allied troops returned to recapture the beaches of France on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

Word Watch

Encircled
Little fighting had taken place in France in the first months of the Second World War. But after the Germans attacked on 10 May, they reached the English Channel and surrounded the British, French and Belgian armies within 10 days. French and British commanders had largely prepared for a war similar to the bloody stalemate of 1914-1918. But the German strategy of Blitzkrieg (lightning war) was very different to this.
Admiralty
This was the government department responsible for directing the navy. During the war, the government had sweeping powers to take ownership of whatever it required to win the war. Many ship owners came forward to offer their vessels but one tried to report the ‘theft’ of his to the police.
15-foot fishing boat
This was called Tamzine and can be seen at the Imperial War Museum in south London.
Panzer (tank) divisions
It is disputed whether Hitler himself told the Panzers to stop or not, but after the spectacular success they had had in the previous few days, it seemed very fortunate that he did not order them to attack the fleeing troops.

Subjects

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