“We’ve known them, and laughed at them, these fussy little steamers, all our lives. We have watched them load and unload their crowds of holiday passengers – the gents full of high spirits and bottled beer, the ladies eating pork pies, the children sticky with peppermint rock,” he wrote at the time about the flotilla of 900 vessels and naval craft that answered their country’s call.
“There was always something old-fashioned, a Dickens touch, a mid-Victorian air about them...Yes those ‘Brighton Belles’ and ‘Brighton Queens’ left that innocent foolish world of theirs to sail into the inferno, to defy bombs, shells, magnetic mines.”
Yet, as holiday-makers soak up the idyllic views from these boats, it is hard to think of a greater contrast with the carnage that greeted the vessels and their young crews, after members of the British Expeditionary Force became entrapped as Hitler’s soldiers encircled them and took control of northern France with unforeseen speed.
They had to navigate waters heavily mined by the Germans, while dodging bombs being dropped with merciless regularity by the Luftwaffe in the direction of these vessels and those soldiers, bedraggled and starving, waiting on the beaches of Dunkirk, in the hope of rescue. It was so grim that some used the dead bodies of their comrades as protection from aerial attack.
Hopes were not high – Winston Churchill, who had succeeded Neville Chamberlain days earlier, estimated that as few as 20,000 lives would be saved by Operation Dynamo. For once, he was wrong – 338,226 soldiers were rescued by the time the last boat sailed eight days later, shortly before the fall of Paris, while a further 220,000 Allied troops were rescued from other French ports. Many others, including those captured as prisoners of war, were less fortunate – and it would be remiss not to reflect on the gallantry of those who fought to their last breath to buy priceless time for this heroic rescue operation.
Why does this matter? Though this was a military retreat, it became a turning point in history as the “Dunkirk Spirit” galvanised a nation in readiness for the Battle of Britain and the remainder of the Second World War thanks to Churchill’s stirring oratory that culminated with his “we shall never surrender” speech. As the then 19-year-old Roy Jenkins, later a political grandee, remarked: “What he did was to produce a euphoria of irrational belief in ultimate victory.”
But it is also important, as age catches up with survivors, that the emotive misuse of the English language does not detract from the heroism that spared Britain an even greater disaster.
On a Bank Holiday weekend that saw the sporting seasons merge into one, much of the accompanying hyperbole by some of the commentariat was rather incongruous as the last Dunkirk survivors, speaking with a quiet and grateful dignity, made a painful pilgrimage back to the beaches to pay silent tribute to those who perished in what Churchill described as “the miracle of deliverance”.
For example, the word “hero” should never be used to describe the mercenary Liverpool and England footballer Raheem Sterling who has such a high opinion of his own abilities (still unproven) that it will take much more than a measly £35,000 a week for him to lace up his boots. It’s a good job that this was not the prevailing mood when boats and crews were being requisitioned 75 years ago.
Nor was it a “disaster” when the Yorkshire and England batsman Joe Root twice threw away his wicket in the Lord’s Test against New Zealand when on the brink of scoring a century. Such setbacks pale into insignificance when compared to Dunkirk, or the savagery being meted out by IS terrorists in the Middle East or those coming to terms with the Nepal earthquake’s ferocity.
And, according to a Sky Sports commentator, former Leeds United striker Jermaine Beckford is now an “immortal” after a Wembley hat-trick helped Preston North End win promotion. The League One play-off final was hardly the World Cup.
Just three of many examples, such crass and careless comparisons, only serve to diminish events like Dunkirk. Today’s trials and tribulations, however infuriating, pale into insignificance.
Once again, Priestley’s words resonate. In 1940, he said of the Regal Lady: “This little steamer, like all her brave and battered sisters, is immortal. She’ll go sailing proudly down the years in the epic of Dunkirk, and our great-grandchildren, when they learn how we began this war by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion into hell and came back glorious.”
True heroism is about action rather than words and 75 years ago it was the selflessness of ordinary people that gave true meaning to the word. It is a reality check that must not be forgotten as another landmark in global history quietly passes into legend.