Covid-19 and the Dunkirk spirit 

We’ve all (I’m going to assert on the basis of no proof whatsoever) heard about the Dunkirk spirit, and then (ignoring my assumption) I’m going to explain what it is anyway. Because we all know better than to believe me entirely. 

We’ll get around to Covid and why Dunkirk is suddenly relevant. Stay with me.

Lord Google tells me the Dunkirk spirit is ”an attitude of strength, determination, and camaraderie, especially by the British people as a whole, during a difficult and adverse time or situation.” 

Thank you, Lord G. I have left my data in more places than I realize and I trust you’ve scooped it in by now. I also trust that you’ll accept data as a singular even though we both know it’s technically plural.

The Dunkirk spirit has been evoked a lot lately because, what with the pandemic and all, we’re wading through rising water, wondering where the shore is and whether we still have one. Not to mention (so I can stretch the metaphor closer to the breaking point) wondering how high the water’s going to rise. 

Being of the short persuasion, I’m particularly concerned with that last bit.

Semi-relevant photo: This is called honesty, which comes into the story toward the end, when we talk about myth-making.

So what happened at Dunkirk

Let us go back, children, to May 1940, which is so long ago that not even I had gotten myself born. Yes, history really does go back that far and, lo, even further than that. Germany was ruled by the Nazis. Not Nazis as in a couple of syllables you carelessly tack on to something you don’t like (feminists and grammar come up a lot in this context, although you may notice that those aren’t closely related categories)–

Let’s start over, because I’ve wandered. It’s your own fault for leaving me in charge.

The people running Germany were real Nazis. The kind who killed first their political opponents and pesky unionists, then the disabled, then the Jews and the Gypsies and the gays, then assorted categories of people I’ve forgotten to mention by name but yes, even you might have fallen into one of them. The kind of Nazis who invaded lots of other countries and forced people into slave labor. The kind who–

Okay, you get the point: that kind. The kind also called fascists. Not the dangerous kind who pester you about your use of who and whom or don’t put up with jokes about their breasts

By May 1940, Nazi Germany had already signaled that it had its eye on expansion. Most recently, it had invaded Poland. How did the other European powers respond? They told themselves they were playing a long game. If they waited, they could defeat Germany through economic warfare.  

Oh, and Britain–since that’s the country we’re focused on here–dropped propaganda leaflets on Germany and passed the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act, giving the government amazing internal powers in case of a war. It could detain anybody it decided was a threat and take any property needed by the government other than land, which sounds like a strange exception, but remember the aristocracy’s base is in land ownership. It could also enter and search any property and change any existing law if it was necessary for the war effort.

As an opponent commented at the time, those were fairly fascistic powers with which to combat the fascists.

Winston Churchill, the country’s newly minted prime minister, wasn’t what you’d call a natural antifascist. In 1927, he’d told Mussolini–who led Italy’s equivalent of the Nazis–that he’d “rendered a service to the world” by destroying the Italian labor movement. “If I had been an Italian, I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism.”

To be fair–and I do occasionally want to be fair, if for no better reason than that it confuses people–Britain and France were more or less expecting to fight a war, but they were torn about whether Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union was the greater threat.

France was prepared to fight a better version of the last war with Germany. This would be a version where they didn’t (slight exaggeration warning here) lose the male half of an entire generation. One where they won a decisive victory and they came away with undisputed bragging rights. 

In comparison, Hitler had tried out all sorts of new war toys in the Spanish Civil War. He’d saved the instruction manuals and was prepared to fight the next war. 

After its invasion of Poland, Germany turned west and invaded the Netherlands and Belgium, which were (and still are) a whole lot closer to France and Britain than Poland was and is, and all of a sudden playing the long game didn’t look like as good an idea to France and Britain as it had the week before. 

Belgium and the Netherlands joined Britain and France in an ad hoc anti-fascist coalition, complicating what sounds like an already chaotic command structure. Governments and orders contradicted each other. Belgian and Dutch resistance collapsed. The allied troops retreated and the Germans advanced. 

Some of the best French units didn’t do much fighting. Their orders had them chasing hither and yon without anyone getting much use out of them. Read enough articles and you come across descriptions of generals being unable to take decisive action and of other officers being without orders for eight days. The word farcical comes up.

Churchill prime ministerially promised France that it would have British military support. Meanwhile his secretary of state for war, Anthony Eden, was (apparently) agreeing with Lord Gort, who was in command of the British troops, that the only possible thing they could do was fight a retreat to the coast.

The French defenses collapsed and the Germans swept into northern France. By May 15 the French government considered itself defeated, although a BBC article (and a few other sources) say that a concerted allied attack at this point could have stopped the German advance. They were vulnerable, exhausted, and low on fuel. A lot of their tanks had broken down.

Instead, French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud called Churchill and said, “We have been defeated. We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” The French government was burning its archives, assuring the public that everything was fine, and preparing to abandon Paris.

What was left of the allied forces fell back to the coast at Dunkirk, and French and British troops (which includes Muslim troops fighting under the French flag) formed a perimeter, holding off the advancing German troops. Those who weren’t killed in the fighting were captured and either became prisoners of war or were killed on the spot.

They don’t get a whole lot of acknowledgement.

As soldiers gathered on the beach, Britain launched Operation Dynamo–an evacuation of as many troops as possible. The optimistic goal was 45,000. But the beach at Dunkirk is shallow, making it impossible for the navy’s ships to get in close, and there was only one usable, although less than ideal, jetty. So a call went out for small craft, and some 800 to 1,200 responded, ferrying troops from beach to ship. It was a patchwork collection of fishing boats, pleasure crafts, and just about everything above the level of a rowboat.

Some of the small craft–and according to one source, most of them–were crewed by navy personnel. Others were crewed by civilians–their owners and crew. 

The evacuation went on from May 26 to June 4, with the German air force bombing the beach, the town, and the harbor. Sunken boats quickly added yet another problem to an already messy evacuation.

On the beach, in between runs by bombers, the troops lined up nicely and waited to be evacuated. It was, on the one hand, absurd–the British forming orderly lines as if they were waiting to buy ice cream cones, while bombers shrieked above them and the ships they were waiting to board were blown out of the water. And on the other hand, it avoided panic and people fighting to be first. It surely saved lives.

In the end, some 198,000 British and 140,000 allied troops–mostly French–were evacuated, and many thousands of British, French, Polish, and Czech troops were evacuated from other, less well-remembered, beaches in northern France. 

What made the Dunkirk rescue possible? British air cover helped. The discipline of the troops gets a mention. The heroism of all those civilians in their small boats was part of it, however overplayed. The heroism of the troops who died or were captured protecting the evacuation doesn’t form as large a part of the picture as it should–especially (let’s face it) those who weren’t British.

But in large part it was Hitler who made it possible. German troops were in a position to cut off the allied troops by May 23, but on May 24 Hitler ordered them to pull back. Historians argue about why, and some half a dozen reasons are suggested. It’s probably enough to say that he did give the order, and it was hugely important. 

When people talk about the Dunkirk spirit, they’re talking about a British win. In a masterful piece of propaganda (or spin, to use a more modern word) it was cast as a story about civilians in tiny boats, braving bombs and the angry sea to save not just hundreds of thousands of people but the country and possibly the war itself.

Saving so many battle-hardened soldiers might, arguably, have saved the war, but Dunkirk still wasn’t a win. The British army had to abandon almost all its heavy equipment and lost 50,000 troops. Of those, 11,000 died, a handful escaped, and the rest became prisoners of war. If you count the allied troops, 90,000 were lost. Thousands of French troops were left behind and either taken prisoner or massacred.

At the end of the evacuation, if you were standing on Britain’s coast and looking across to Europe, Germany looked like it could conquer anything and anyone. And the body of water separating you was frighteningly narrow.

Creating the story of the Dunkirk spirit meant the propaganda machine had to (or could, with relief) bury the bungling that made Dunkirk inevitable. It was wartime. People needed hope. They needed something to believe in.

We create our myths–or accept them if we’re not their creators–only by being selective. Are they lies? Well, yes. Not entirely, but they’re not the truth, the whole truth, the et cetera truth either.

And here we are in 2020, with all but a few governments bungling their response to the pandemic and a few bungling it on an epic scale. I was about to write “on a Wagnerian scale” but I’ve never seen a Wagner opera and caution got the better of me. But really, the incompetence with which they’ve met this has been stunning. You almost have to admire how awful they’ve been, because it’s not easy to screw things up that thoroughly and still haul yourself out of bed in the morning, never mind trumpet your successes. And yet they do both.

Britain has responded with the Dunkirk spirit. People make protective gear for hospitals. They deliver food to their more vulnerable neighbors. They raise money for a National Health Service that the government has been starving of money for a decade. Every one of those acts is a triumph of the human spirit and community. 

And they became necessary because of massive government bungling.

As Bertolt Brecht said, Unhappy the land that needs heroes.

62 thoughts on “Covid-19 and the Dunkirk spirit 

    • Sorry. We do all need a break. I need a break. But I’m having trouble getting non-virus posts written. I’ve got one more stacked up and ready for next week, which doesn’t feel like much of a buffer.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Myth-making’s an interesting, and I’m sure ancient, process. The Dunkirk spirit may have been a much smaller part of what happened at Dunkirk than we believe, but it retains its power for all that.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Ah, we are “Lions led by Donkeys” yet again! The chaos before the Fall of France reminds me of the UK gov at the moment. We have probably already lost 50,000 lives to covid-19, more than any other European country. A disaster. Yet, the media covers it up with headlines like “Happy Monday” at the prospect of being able to sunbath in the park. Pretty pathetic really. I for one will not be relaxing my efforts against this disease, one jot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wise.

      Today’s headline in the Guardian has to do with the fear than No. 10 has lost its grip on the exit plans. I haven’t worked myself up to read it yet, but I hope not.


  2. This is brilliant, as is all your writing.
    Am confused though because I thought the UK began war with Germany directly after they invaded Poland?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Jo, and I think compressed time a bit too much when I wrote about the invasion of Poland. It marked the beginning of a stretch of time known the the phony war, which, as the British like to say, it did just what it said on the tin: Officially it was a war, but nothing happened. Britain and France told themselves they were playing the long game. Germany, though, turned out to be playing a different game entirely, leaving Britain and France to play catch-up.

      Sorry–I think I took that game-playing metaphor too far. Anyway, you’re right–and also wrong.


  3. Father was with the Highland Division at St. Valery sur Somme. Their commander asked if they could move to Cherbourg to carry on th fight. Permission refused and they went into the bag. Not father, though. He and friends found a fishing boat which had not been sabotaged according to orders and set off into the Channel where the RN picked them up and returned them to England – where it was proposed to court martial them for disobedience to orders! Finally someone thought that was just a bit daft and it came to naught – but British bureaucratic idiocy never changes…

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Thank you for this piece. I had been wondering if I was the only one who saw the irony in our celebrating a defeat of monumental proportions in the midst of another ‘battle’ for which our government was a late arrival. Sadly, I’m not.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My (step) Grandfather was among those who were evacuated from Dunkirk. He never, ever, ever, talked about his wartime experiences except for to tell me, just the once and when I was too young to push for more, that the most terrified he had ever been was being on that beach for days waiting for his turn to get on a boat, wondering if it would ever be his turn. I, therefore, associate “Dunkirk Spirit” with the tremble in his voice and what adult me understands to the long term damage of that trauma. It isn’t a “hurrah” in my mind. It’s about people rallying around to do what they can in the face of adversity in order to find a way to endure because those in a position of authority have essentially let them down. It’s not about the government or the military but about those small boats crewed by fishermen. It is, therefore, an apt metaphor for this pandemic not because of the plucky resolve of the people but because of all the people sewing masks or distributing food packages etc because of the government’s failure to maintain adequate stocks of PPE etc. “Dunkirk Spirit” is people doing it for themselves because the authorities have let them down.

    Liked by 5 people

    • That’s a powerful story you tell. I don’t know if it was true in Britain, but I’ve been told that in the US the returning soldiers were told, Don’t even try to talk to people about it. No one will understand. And most of them didn’t, carrying the damage inside. And your definition of the Dunkirk spirit does have a real resonance today.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I honestly don’t know whether that was the case with my grandfather or not. He was a man of very, very, very few words anyway. My biological paternal grandfather was killed in the War so war wasn’t really a comfortable subject in that household generally. My maternal grandfather, who served in the navy on minesweepers, was a bit more forthcoming about some of his wartime experiences but only when I really prodded him and he stuck to facts. Once I was older, I obviously understood that not talking about it was probably a way of parcelling up that trauma and keeping it apart from the rest of their lives.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You remind me of how many things I didn’t think to ask until my parents had died. My grandparents were much older and died when I was still a kid–too young to have any sense of what I might ask. But my parents? I certainly could have known but somehow didn’t.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Ah, the Dunkirk spirit, one of my favorite WWII memories although each generation of Hollywood movie making about Dunkirk does chip away at my 1942 Mrs. Miniver original story line. Walter Pidgeon, his pipe, Greer Garson, her bravery – the Christopher Nolan 2017 movie about Dunkirk replaces those images with more of an emphasis on reality. Sigh.
    Which brings me to Attorney General William Barr’s response to a question in an interview this morning about how history will remember him and his interference in the Mike Flynn trial? “History is written by winners,” he said.
    I leave you with that and my wishes for yours and Ida’s good health and safety this weekend.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Thanks for an excellent overview of a piece of recent history. I’ve always been fascinated by the British and their distinctly un-European way at looking at things… However: you’ve never seen a Wagner opera?? Looking forward to your comments should you go into reading/listening to/commenting on Wagner in the future…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Although I’ve learned to love some arias, opera as a whole has never really called to me. It’s too mannered, too over the top. I confess, I’ve seen Wagner made fun of enough that I’ve developed some prejudices that aren’t really mine. What do you like about them?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Wagner is a subject you’d better not start me on! It started with an invitation to the Bayreuth Festival, which I only accepted because I had nothing to do that summer, I thought I’d just weather the actual operas…. and I ended up totally fascinated by him, his life, his music. As most modern-day top musicians and directors…. Beware though: with your in-depth serious attitude, you might find yourself completely bowled over too :)

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m always impressed by the English, they are if not the toughest people on Earth they certainly are at the top of the list. Napolean although an unbearable tyrant thought England was the most civilized nation on Earth and wanted to be exiled on an English estate versus St. Helens. That’s the reason I read your blog, it makes sense out of a complicated country.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting comment. I have no way to compare toughness–or civilizedness. But if I’m able to either make some sense of the place (or to complicate its complexities), I’m happy to do it.


  9. PA Pict and Sheila Morris have addressed most of what I wanted to say – though I have no personal knowledge of anything to do with Dunkirk except the prevailing story. (In fact, I am woefully ignorant of much of WWII history except in an overview sort of way)

    The idea of William Barr being toast is oddly appealing though. The fat is in the fire.

    Last column I was not permitted to comment (and it was a G-rated comment) so I will hit send and…

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I love your history lessons.

    If you hadn’t been born and educated here, I’d tell you how we explain what we call the Revolutionary War and, at least according to one book a British friend sent us, you refer to as a Civil War. Purposeful bungling until we could talk the French into helping.

    We’ve bungled testing to the point that the Pres now says “testing is unnecessary and overrated” you know, like living and so many other things. Down the road, we will write the history and it will reflect well on the people from whom the writers descended. I think that’s how it works. Besides, it’s not like pushing a ventilator up the hall at breakneck speed is going to make a good movie.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read–no idea where anymore–that they’re testing the people around the pres regularly, although it doesn’t seem to have kept the little virii away from his magic circle. Funny how that works. Anyway, testing doesn’t matter for everyone else, but around him? It matters.

      I’ve never heard the American Revolution called a civil war here. They had one of their own, capital letters and the whole thing. I might (or might not–damned if I remember) have seen it called the War of American Independence.


  11. To be pernickety, my understanding of the “Dunkirk spirit” is not so much, or not only, the rapid improvisation of the evacuation and its unexpected success in terms of the numbers rescued, as the more or less concurrent decision to hang on and not give in, whatever happened in France and even if an invasion of the UK followed on the collapse of France, as came to be expected all throughout that summer.

    Still not a terribly helpful comparator to the present situation, of course, even if it weren’t 80 years ago, except insofar as they were both the consequence of simply not being prepared enough.

    In this case, it’s not so much a case of having prepared to fight the last war as not having bothered seriously enough even to double-check what even that involved, what all the relevant services might need to do and how they might have to be organised to cope even with that. One might have expected a pseudo-Churchill to have been banging on the table in February or so, as soon as it was clear that this thing was on the move, demanding to know in detail what the pandemic plan was, what the lessons were from the simulation exercise and what the lead times would need to be be for setting up the logistics of equipment and services, and how central and local governmetn would have to be organised to work together. Instead, we have a passive acceptance of central government agencies trying to do everything and a (much lesser) cabinet minister, as late as 28 April, asking his civil servants if everything had been done that the review of the simulation exercise had recommended – and just accepting what they told him. There’s no other word for it (that, in Tory circles, is deeply loaded since Thatcher’s time) than – wet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did you see the articles about the stockpiled PPE having gone out of date–ten years in some cases? They not only didn’t prepare to fight the last war, they didn’t look to see if the rifles barrels were clean and the bullets weren’t meant for muzzle-loaders. They really have raised incompetence to an art form.

      I appreciate your expansion of the Dunkirk spirit definition. I looked it up but should have done a bit of comparison shopping, since it hasn’t been a working part of my vocabulary until recently.


Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.