What started as an awful military defeat, with thousands of men stranded on the beaches of Dunkirk, strafed by the Luftwaffe, disheartened and desperate…..almost magically overnight this defeat, became a magnificent British victory. The public far from worrying over the vast losses of men and machinery, saw this as a triumph in keeping thousands from the Nazi clutches; and the “Little ships” that came to symbolise everything about the new “Dunkirk spirit” were passed into popular mythology.
Dunkirk, was certainly a defeat, and a mass military debacle; the Royal Air Force had few working airfields left, and couldn’t supply much cover the retreating British army, the Navy could not moor close enough inshore to take the vast numbers of men to safety quickly, and vast lines of men stretched unprotected into the sea waiting for rescue by the myriad of little ships, whilst taking heavy fire from an almost unmolested Luftwaffe. However what this action came to mean in the hearts and minds of the British people was something no one could have foretold. Yes, we lost a lot of equipment, and more than a few men, but we managed through sheer British pluck to bring the majority of men home safely, to their families, through, as the Daily Express headline wrote “Through an inferno of bombs and shells the B.E.F. is crossing the Channel from Dunkirk – in history’s strangest armada”. The emotion that these phrase conjured up with something so innexplicably linked to our British psyche was that of winning as an underdog. From Drakes Armada against the mighty Spanish fleet, to Dunkirk, we have always been underestimated and sneered at, however we have always won through. The headline of “Tens of Thousands Home Safely Already” made people feel better that somehow because we had rescued so many in such a short time that we had won a victory, rather than lost vast amounts of machinery and weaponry. That is why Dunkirk, and it’s Spirit is so dear to our hearts and why we should remember the valour of every one of those men and women, those who stayed behind voluntarily to care for the wounded, to those trying to keep order, to the men who dared to pilot their river craft across 26 miles of sea through the German guns and planes…..
By the end of the operation, 338,226 men had been rescued from Dunkirk, and over 220,000 men from other ports. A truly marvellous “failure” if ever there was one. 🙂 The loss of 1 million allied prisoners in three weeks however was overshadowed by the efforts at Dunkirk and did much to buoy British spirit. Winston Churchill admitted, he had hoped at best to save 20, or 30 thousand men, for half a million to come home was a remarkable success.
In the aftermath of Operation Dynamo, Winston Churchill uttered these immortal words:
“We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender.”