'A strange fleet appeared'
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 Armada, Louis XIV's triumphant armies, or Napoleon's invasion barges massed at Boulogne. This time Britain stood alone. . .
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 had been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for 'hard and heavy tidings.' (Manchester biography of Churchill)
But an unsung hero, a mastermind, was at work, and all around Britain, sailors and fishermen, men and women were stirring, hearing a call. Vice-Admiral Bertram Home Ramsay was working like a dynamo with his men and women in the tunnels under Dover Castle. Beyond, across the Channel the cities and fields of Europe were engulfed in the fiery Nazi whirlwind, and 300,000 soldiers of the British and French armies lay trapped at Dunkirk.
In his history of World War II Churchill wrote -
. . . By intense effort Fighter Command maintained successive patrols over the scene, and fought the enemy at long odds. Hour after hour they bit into the German fighter and bomber squadrons, taking a heavy toll, scattering them and driving them away. . .Unhappily, the troops on the beaches saw very little of this epic confrontation in the air, often miles away or above the clouds. . .
The soldiers waited, to die or to be captured, they were not certain which. Escape appeared impossible. Meanwhile,
The French in Lille fought on. . .These Frenchmen, under the gallant leadership of General Molinié, for four critical days contained no less than seven German divisions which otherwise could have joined in the assaults on the Dunkirk perimeter. This was a splendid contribution to the escape of their more fortunate comrades and of the British Expeditionary Force. . .(Churchill)The men and women of Britain heard the call from Dover Castle -
. . .from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, 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. . . (The Last Lion, William Manchester).
By the night of the 27th a great tide of small vessels began to flow towards the sea, first to our Channel ports, and thence to the beaches of Dunkirk and the beloved Army. . .Everyone who had a boat of any kind, steam or sail, put out for Dunkirk. . . (Churchill, The Second World War).
The little boats defied the incessant German air bombardment, while high above, Fighter Command fought German fighter and bomber squadrons. Guarding the bridgehead, several thousand British and French troops fought on to hold the perimeter so their comrades could be rescued to live and fight again. By June 4th, when Operation Dynamo ended, 338,682 British and Allied troops had been landed in Britain. It was a tremendous united effort.
Britain was 'the home of the free because it was also the home of the brave'. The 70th Anniversary of Dunkirk is May 26th - June 4th 2010.