“The British nation is unique in this respect. They are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.” Sir Winston Churchill Hansard, June 10, 1941
World War II veterans have begun a series of events to mark the 70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation.
It’s just about the last hurrah for the 3% of evacuees still alive. Fifty small vessels have just headed to France to commemorate the anniversary of Operation Dynamo in a poignant pilgrimage, as old soldiers remember the ‘miracle of deliverance’ when 338,000 British and French troops were snatched off the beach at Dunkirk under the noses of the stalled German blitzkrieg by a flotilla of little ships which sailed from Kent to the French coast, often several times, between May 27 and June 4, 1940.
On the day that Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, Germany had invaded Holland and Belgium. Churchill was not his keeper’s brother: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”
The Phoney War had finished abruptly; this was the real thing. Unlike the stationary war a generation earlier, which bogged down in the trenches of France, Hitler’s powerful Panzer divisions had quickly punched their way through to the French coast. On May 26 the order for total evacuation was given.
For the retreating British Expeditionary Force and its allies, Dunkirk was the only practical point of departure, but its beach was on a shallow slope. No large boat could get near to the actual beaches so smaller boats were needed to take on board men who would then be transferred to a larger boat based further off shore. 800 of these legendary “little ships” crossed the channel, the smallest being the 18 foot open fishing boat Tamzine.
Despite attacks from German fighter and bomber planes the Wehrmacht never launched a full-scale attack on the beaches of Dunkirk. Panzer tank crews awaited the order from Hitler but it never came. In his memoirs, Field Marshall Rundstadt, the German commander-in-chief in France during the 1940 campaign, called Hitler’s failure to order a full-scale attack on the troops on Dunkirk his first fatal mistake of the war.
One of the reasons put forward for Hitler not ordering an attack was that he believed the BEF debacle would cause Britain to come to peace terms with Hitler and join in fighting the real foe, Communist Russia.
Dunkirk was certainly a humiliation for British forces but thousands of people cheered the bedraggled returnees and belated preparations were going on apace for the expected invasion. The Battle of Britain was about to begin. New Zealander Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park was to be in tactical command during the most significant air battles in the European theatre in the Second World War.
The “Spirit of Dunkirk” became a powerful morale booster at a critical historical juncture. The episode, which relied on the “quiet heroism” of many civilian volunteers, was later described by Winston Churchill as “A miracle of deliverance, achieved by valour, by perseverance, by perfect discipline, by faultless service, by resource, by skill, by unconquerable fidelity.”
That famous “Dunkirk spirit” has entered Britain’s national mythology and has often been invoked since. A current newspaper poll is asking whether Britons, potentially at least, still have the Dunkirk spirit in the different society of 21st-century Britain, though victory in something really important like the Football World Cup is probably more top of the collective mind.
At least they have finally sorted a permanent memorial to the long unsung Kiwi hero of the war in the air. Sir Keith Park commanded Number 11 Group of Fighter Command, responsible for the defence of London and the South East of England. These were the squadrons which bore the brunt of the Battle of Britain.
The failure to defeat the RAF in 1940 is seen as Germany’s first major setback in the Second World War, culminating in the abandonment of the planned invasion of Britain, though the missed opportunity of Dunkirk was a huge factor and Hitler’s eyes had already turned eastwards: to Russia, with hate.
The belated memorial statue of Sir Keith, who the Germans rather than the British called, at the time, “the Defender of London” was removed from Trafalgar Square earlier this month. A permanent bronze statue will be unveiled in Waterloo Place on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September 2010.
#Lyall Lukey 29 May 2010
*BLINKS Pr-print Vid-Video Mus-Music Mm-multimedia
Park: The Biography of Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park, GCB, KBE Vincent Orange Pr