England’s exhausted, bleeding sons

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the great rescue at Dunkirk. On May 27, 1940, the British army had fallen back to the beaches of Dunkirk in the north of France. In front of them was the German army, and behind them was the sea. These British soldiers and their French allies were the last line of defense between England and Hitler, and they were about to be crushed. There were over 300,000 of them trapped on the beach.

What happened next is the stuff of legend. Some say it was nothing short of a miracle. In his biography of Winston Churchill, William Manchester narrates it best:

‘The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought free and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a fishing town whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

‘Behind them lay the sea.

‘It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges massed at Boulogne. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost…

‘Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around in angular, existential attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI has been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.” Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure crafts, smacks and coasters; the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw—all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted, bleeding sons.’

When it was all said and done, this rag-tag armada of leisure crafts and fishing boats evacuated 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French). It was one of the most impressive escapes in history, and it enabled the Allies to fight another day. And fight they did. When the Allies returned to the northern beaches of France on June 6, 1944, the tide was about to turn.

William Manchester, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory (Little, Brown and Company, 1983), 3.

3 Responses to England’s exhausted, bleeding sons

  1. Martin Massinger May 31, 2010 at 10:05 pm #

    My father was a first-generation American of German decent. He was also a reformed premillenialist who grieved deeply over what had happened to the homeland of the reformers, culminating in the barbarism and godlessness of Nazism. On several occasions he spoke of what he believed to be the clear hand of God in the rescue of the Allied armies at Dunkirk.

    One thing the article didn’t mention (that I believe to be the case) is that there was a dense fog that came inland from the sea, preventing the Germans from pressing the attack, and allowing the evacuation to proceed unhindered.

  2. Denny Burk May 31, 2010 at 11:06 pm #

    Martin, great go hear from you, brother! Thanks for the comment. I didn’t know about the fog.

  3. Donald Johnson June 1, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    From a distance of 70 years, it may appear to us that the outcome of the war was a sure thing, but it was not at all.

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