One of the foremost pivotal points in the history of Great Britain was the semi-miraculous recovery of 338,226 British and Free French soldiers from the beaches, moles and bombed and smoking piers of Dunkirk harbour in late May and early June 1940 . The leaders of a stricken Britain had attempted, hopelessly they thought; to rescue the shattered remnants of a beaten British Expeditionary Force before they were either killed or made prisoner of the Nazi Wehrmacht. Under orders, two French Divisions remained behind to cover the evacuation, they were all either taken prisoner or killed. The hundreds of small ships, cabin cruisers, skiffs, launches, even a lumbering Thames barge, they were all marshalled by the Royal Navy; some came crewed by owners, many had volunteers at their helms. They came from all over, they motored across the Channel, guided by the larger vessels.
The soldiers, those tens of thousands of desperate men of a beaten B.E.F., saw a strange sight as they climbed over the Dunkirk dunes. They saw long lines of patient soldiers which stretched out over the shallow waters, ending at a point which was established by the simple measurement of how deep a man’s body could be immersed in water before he lost his footing and floated away. There the small ships sailed in, loaded their human cargo, most of whom still carried their weaponry, which was then ferried out to the larger ships which stood in deeper water. When they were loaded, the larger ships headed for Dover and freedom, the ‘Small Ships’ returned to find more and ever more from those long, wet, patient lines of soldiers. Destroyers came to moor at the harbour piers to rescue even more of those men who thought that they had been forgotten, some of those same destroyers were sunk by German bombs, but more survived and made that perilous trip. The ‘Small Ships’ made history in those nine days; nine days which transformed a defeat into the strangest of victories. Some of those same ‘Small Ships’ were themselves destroyed, but most made it back to England’s shores, the same as those soldiers; to fight again and eventually to hear the solemn words of victory after the signing of the Surrender documents at Luneberg Heath.
Operation Dynamo was not a victory; a nation does not and cannot celebrate the total retreat and transfer of a vanquished Army; but it can be represented as the point in our Nation’s history when, through a combination of luck, diligence, sheer guts and bravery; over three hundred thousand beaten, but strangely enough not demoralised, soldiers were rescued from what should have been a ‘killing ground’ by the ‘small ships’, the yachts, cabin cruisers, pleasure steamers who ferried the sodden remnants of the British Expeditionary Force either to the decks of the destroyers, or to the quaysides and dry land of Dover. Some believe that Hitler stayed his Panzers from the final attacks which surely would have bulldozed the beaten British Army into either annihilation or mass surrender; but I believe that the little-remembered Battle of Arras, where the stubborn resistance of British bayonets and a few tanks worried the junior Wehrmacht commanders so much that the attack was slowed until reinforcements arrived. Whichever the truth, the Army survived, the experienced soldiery formed the basis of the new Regiments; and we went forwards with our Empire allies and later the Americans and the Russians, to final victory.
I am not, these days, a religious man; but it is quite acceptable to believe that a ‘Higher Power’ either governed or intervened in the thinking of a few very senior officers of the Royal Navy, which gave them impetus to state to Winston Churchill that the rescue was not only possible, but vital to the survival of the Nation!