…you get to see period-piece movies about events which you were witness to. Well, not Ben Hur or even Gone with the Wind but here comes Dunkirk. That pivotal World War II battle is soon to become a summer blockbuster.
In the spring of 1940 I had mastered Dick and Jane but not much else. Yet that name, Dunkirk, had reached my ears through RKO Pathe News. The five minute newsreels sandwiched between Saturday afternoon double features was our window to the world.
Six years later I was fairly well-politicized having followed the progress of the war on two fronts daily in print and pictorially in Life magazine. We lived it with air-raid wardens and blackouts and in the classroom collecting tin foil, knitting squares for quilts and filling books of war savings stamps sufficient to buy a $25 bond for a mere $18.75. In this we competed with other classes for top contributors. Our sixth-grade had a wealthy girl name Claire Weiss going against the seventh-grade who boasted of an affluent contributor represented by Patricia Yellen. Could that be the same Yellen family whose Janet now heads the Federal Reserve?
Dunkirk was the small beach town in France from which the Brits evacuated nearly 350,000 Allied troops including over 100,000 French over a nine-day period. It was celebrated as a brave and brilliant effort by a combined fleet of 900 small craft and the British navy. In his inimitable oratory, Churchill, who had just taken office a month before, turned a colossal disaster into a rallying cry which proved decisive in turning the tide.
Now one wonders how that ill-conceived deployment of troops and equipment ever got launched. If Britain was dumb Hitler was dumber. Had the Germans acted more forcefully the war could have ended right then and there. Hitler had the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) trapped but failed to act. By waiting three days he gave Great Britain time to recoup. Ten days after Dunkirk the French surrendered.
I can’t help but think of the Gilbert & Sullivan lines from the Gondoliers.
In enterprise of martial kind
when there was any fighting
He led his regiment from behind;
he found it less exciting
But when away his regiment ran his place was in the fore-O
That celebrated, cultivated, underrated nobleman, the Duke of Plaza-Toro
In today’s world of cable news Dunkirk would probably be regarded as a case of masterful spin. Wars aren’t won by retreat however masterful. It was a victory in the same way that Pearl Harbor may have lost the day but might be seen as a brilliant strategy to get us into the war and preserve Western Civilization. It would seem to me that 1940 landing of the BEF is a classic example of military blunder. They penetrated too far from their supply lines, totally underestimated the size of the Nazi tanks and air power and had no exit plan in place.
I have little appetite for military thinking. There hasn’t been a conflict or skirmish since in which tactics hold even the slightest interest for me. However over lunch with my octogenarian friends this war we lived through remains a continuing fascination. We relive the battles moving salt and pepper shakers around the table along with packets of sweeteners as if we are generals. At no point did we come so close to losing…..and the U.S. was still eighteen months away from formally joining the fray.
There was a story in circulation, at the time, that Hitler saw Great Britain as a potentially willing partner in terms of sharing their empire. Indeed there were proto-fascist elements in England welcoming a German invasion. However Churchill had better words than Gilbert & Sullivan, in his Blood, Tears, Toil and Sweat speech before the House of Commons.
We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.
Two weeks later in a radio broadest he stiffened every British lip with …..