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.
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.