Thursday, May 27, 2010

Seventy Years of 'Dunkirk Spirit'

Bombed on the beaches, British soldiers use Lee Enfield rifles to fire back at the German Luftwaffe. (BBC.)

It's 70 years since the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk from the temporarily-halted German forces between 26 May and June 4. It was officially 'Operation Dynamo' As is well known, much of the rescue work, coordinated and supported by the Royal Navy, was by the 'little ships' resulting in one of the rarest, and most cherished yacht badges seen since. (The St George's Cross flown from the jack staff is known as the 'Dunkirk jack' and is only flown by civilian ships and boats of all sizes that took part in the Dunkirk rescue operation in 1940. The only other ships permitted to fly this flag at the bow are those with an Admiral of the Fleet on board.)

Those fishing boats, ferries, yachts and dinghies ferried the soldiers from the beaches to the larger Royal Navy ships that could get no closer, and sometimes they took them all the way back - when the Channel must have seemed its widest.

This year 50 ships, many original survivors, set out to recreate that remarkably flotilla's incredible achievement.

In the middle of a war being lost, it was not a simple task, or one that was all good, nor as black and white as often portrayed. Herman Goering convinced Hitler that his Luftwaffe could finish off the soldiers on the beaches. The Royal Air Force (RAF) did their best, at significant cost, to stop them, but back and away from the beaches - a job often not appreciated by the soldiers bombed by those German bombers who got through. Time was bought by rearguard actions, particularly the 'last hope' garrison at Calais, dropped water and ammunition (but without hope of rescue or other relief) by a scratch force of RAF Westland Lysanders and outdated Hawker Hectors - two aircraft types named for military heroes of yore. Some French soldiers were rescued, others turned away - and later those rescued were mostly repatriated to France, after the French surrender.

"Wars are not won by evacuations" Churchill reminded a relieved Britain, but though denuded of their arms, those soldiers were going to be the last line of defence for European democracy - after the Royal Navy and the force tested next - the RAF, soon to come though victorious by a narrow margin in the Battle of Britain, and the high water mark of fascist fortune.

Here in the Imperial War Museum, London, is one of the little ships of Dunkirk- in fact the littlest, Tamzine - sailed by amateur or professional civilian sailors that brought the soldiers off the beaches. Author.

Since then the Dunkirk Spirit has rightly been an iconic symbol in British culture.

The BBC report on the flotilla here. The BBC also present an audio-slideshow, including original accounts recorded in 1990, here.

Interestingly, the event has been a popular topic for children's authors. [Edited to add I've done a review of a pre-eminent example here.]


No comments: