Why Lessons from History
are Lessons for Today
It has been wisely said that the best way to study history is by studying the lives of those who lived it. Of course there are those who lived through history, and those who lost their lives in the process. Both need to be remembered.
Autobiographies are great sources of information coming from the actors themselves (even if written with the help of diligent ghost-writers). Biographies also include helpful insights and quotes from historical figures. Either way the advent of digital publishing has altered the integrity of many accounts. When editing and republishing books was done by the traditional process, entailing the many hours and costs of hard-copy reprinting and distribution, it was harder to tamper with truth. Too much is taken for granted that internet sources hold all the original information! They do not! Hard-copy reading also used to provide more opportunity for contemplation, meditation and time to correlate the contents with the present. That is in contrast to the multi-tasking blitzkrieg of information most online readers are distracted with today.
Connecting history to the present takes thought!
So why bring up Dunkirk? What is/was Dunkirk?
Operation Dynamo, as it was called, still ranks as the biggest evacuation in military history. Wars are not generally won by evacuations, but despite the necessarily crushing abandonment of huge numbers of vehicles and equipment involved in the process, redeeming the priceless asset of well-trained soldiers was key to the eventual victories.
This blog is not intended to provide a detailed history. Links to informative articles will be provided at the end and many more are easily found. The purpose here is to draw a parallel between the wisdom, courage, stealth and miracles required to pull off the events which saved over 335,000 Allied troops from a certain death trap on the northern coast of France in 1940. It is to point to what natural and supernatural miracles were involved in the success of the venture.
It is important to place Dunkirk in context with the duration of World War II, which began in September, 1939 and did not officially end until September, 1945. Failure at the point of Dunkirk so early in the conflict would have changed all outcomes. In fact it would have been immediately devastating.
Quoting from Winston Churchill when contemplating the unexpected encirclement of the deployed 200,000 plus British Expeditionary Force by the Germans: “I thought — and some good judges agreed with me — that perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 men might be reimbarked [out of close to 400,000 at risk including French, Belgian and other allies]. The whole root and core and brain of the British army… seemed about to perish upon the field, or to be led into ignominious and starving captivity.”
The only plan being proposed seemed almost as risky as doing nothing… but nothing is not an option.
For purposes of geography, Dunkirk is a town and beach located on the northern coast of France, east of the port of Calais. Its beaches face the inevitably choppy, never calm waters of the English Channel. The three nautical routes from Dunkirk to Dover, England varied from 39 miles to 55 and 87, each bearing different risks.
When inland troops were instructed to drop everything and march towards that location, most had no idea where it was. But march they did.
The beach at Dunkirk is comprised of an extremely shallow shelf stretching a long distance to waters deep enough to accommodate naval destroyers, quite beyond the breakwater. The only access from deep waters to the actual shore is by very small craft, usually fishing boats, or by walking and wading. One very long boardwalk, referred to as the “mole”, was able to accommodate three to four soldiers walking abreast. It provided the only shortcut to directly boarding larger ships. All others needed to be rescued directly from the beach.
The English channel turbulence was eventually the reason for the development of hovercrafts, vessels encased and buoyed up with inflated tubes to allow a level of coasting above the waves, but in 1940 it was a flotilla of approximately 850 small volunteer citizen ships, all small craft, which courageously contributed to Operation Dynamo’s success. They were ready to venture before they had any idea what remarkable events were to render their task even possible. Of those rescued, 239,465 were able to board larger ships via the mole, but another 98,761 were rescued directly from the beaches by the small boats.
If the small armada had faced typical English Channel waters, the Operation Dynamo would have had a different story to tell.
The English Channel acting up, British side:
The usual expectation for rowers of small boats, even on a good day:
There is an enormous difference between what was possible in terms of stealth and planning in 1940 versus the challenges involved in today’s digital/social media era wherein all information is at risk and considered to be promiscuously “everyone’s business” (which it is NOT!). Similar to the Dunkirk event, the D-Day invasion itself, in June, 1944, had to be pulled off in great secrecy in order to succeed. Mistakes not allowed. Life and death scenarios at play for thousands and eventually, millions.
What changed the outcome to victory at Dunkirk
Clearly, what faced the British Empire in May of 1940 was a time of grave crisis for the entire civilized world. But several factors changed the odds “against all odds”. In fact there were FOUR such factors.
First, His Majesty King George VI, recognized as a godly Sovereign, requested that Sunday, May 26 be observed as a National Day of Prayer. In a stirring broadcast, the King called all people of the Empire to commit their cause to God. It is recorded that an extraordinary and historic response took place, in that churches, synagogues and mosques were filled beyond capacity with people praying on the designated day.
Second, what was to be considered the first miracle (but really was the second if one counts the response of the people to prayer!), was that on the same day the people of Britain were praying, Hitler mysteriously halted the advance of his armored columns within ten miles of where the allied troops needed passage to escape. Winston Churchill penned in his memoirs his speculation that Hitler’s arrogance may have led him to believe he could simply wipe out the vulnerable assembly of soldiers once it gathered with his presumed superior air power. In a way, the Dunkirk idea may have looked to him like the proverbial “sitting duck”.
However, higher powers can produce other results!
The next (or second/third) miracle, is that a storm of enormous power broke out over Flanders on Tuesday, May 28th, completely grounding the German Luftwaffe and allowing the British army formations which were at a point eight to twelve miles from the beach, to continue their progress on foot, without any threat from overhead.
The next phase of the miracles was the extraordinary stillness of the water on the English Channel spanning Dunkirk at the Strait of Dover, described as “still as a mill pond” or “like a bathtub”. Something never seen before. It was the stillness which enabled the vast armada of little ships to cross and recross with their rescues. For days the methodical exodus went on undetected. Dunkirk itself was easy to segregate from wrong landing areas by the huge cloud of black smoke rising straight up into the grim, windless sky, emanating from oil tanks which were ablaze just inside the harbor. Also in addition to the heavy cloud layer, smoke from German bombing activity elsewhere was coaxed by breezes into the Dunkirk arena, further shrouding visibility.
But that was not all. Some German squadrons did venture through the storm. Reports surfaced afterward that troops who had been lying on the beaches and targeted by the enemy aircraft were miraculously shielded. Up to 400 at one point were strafed with gunfire by as many as 60 enemy aircraft. Of all those machine-gunned, NOT ONE suffered wounds. Not. One. One of the survivors was a military chaplain who testified that the sand where he had been lying was pitted with bullet holes after the incidents.
As a sequel to the deliverance of the 335,000, a National Day of Thanksgiving was declared in England for Sunday, June 9, 1940. Churchill, not a religious man, boldly referred to the victory as a “miracle of deliverance”. 193,000 of those rescued were British and another 140,000 were predominantly French and Belgians, with mention of Canadians and others.
Not to be forgotten… There were approximately 80,000 troops who were not rescued, half British and half French. Some later escaped but many more perished under the cruelty of German captivity. Many of those had been holding the perimeter for those who did escape. There are always heroes who never get to go home.
What can we take away from Dunkirk
1. Never underestimate the power of prayer. Especially the power of the many. Churchill himself, not a religious person, asked Brittons to pray for just one minute a day during the war. Just one minute a day — prayer for the nation for God’s protection. Can be done anywhere. No excuses not to.
2. Pray for the guidance of right-minded leaders.
3. Faith, hope and courage are tested in many ways but perhaps no more aggressively than in time of war. The war could be spiritual, material or a combination of both. Action must accompany where possible. Every small boat counts.
4. Storms can be good.
5. Stealth is mandatory for success.
6. Never be deterred by choppy waters. They may be only illusions.
7. Peace is not free. Never forget the valiant ones who fight for all the others. Every day some are doing it, unseen and too often unthanked.
Copyright 2021 (March 30, 2021) Nancy Diraison/Diraison Publishing. All Rights Reserved. (Sharing permitted only with full publication credits).
Suggested reading links:
Time-Life new special edition, WORLD WAR II: DUNKIRK
What happened to those left behind? 40,000 French and 40,000 Brits https://time.com/4869347/dunkirk-aftermath-history/
Also of interest: Trilogy entitled ‘The Trumpet Sounds for Britain’ written by Rev. David E Gardner, who died just before the trilogy was republished. Whilst serving in the Royal Navy during WW2, an emergency in a submarine caused him to recognize the miraculous deliverance of God.