The Dunkirk Spirit – A Lesson from History

The Dunkirk Spirit

A Lesson from History

by Carol Browne

Let me begin by setting the scene …

The summer of 1940 finds the beaches around Dunkirk, France, filled with hundreds of thousands of British troops trapped and with no hope of escape. Behind them is the vastly superior German army with its engines of war. Before them lies the cruel sea. Above them the relentless strafing of enemy aircraft.

Despite overwhelming odds, the men of the British Expeditionary Force and their Belgian and French allies fight to defend their positions but, with all escape routes blocked, a desperate retreat to the beaches and harbour at Dunkirk is the only option left.

The only thing these men want is to get to England, home, and safety. They have placed their faith in the navy. Operation Dynamo has been set in motion to evacuate them, even though the transport ships and destroyers can only expect to have enough time to rescue about 30,000 troops. But soon, repeated attacks from the enemy’s aircraft block the harbour with sinking ships. The soldiers must be evacuated from the beaches. How is this possible in such shallow water?

What happens next will leave a permanent impression upon the British psyche, for when the call goes out that small boats are needed to rescue the troops, a motley fleet of plucky ‘little ships’ will chug its way across the Channel to bring the warriors home. They are motor boats, trawlers, paddle steamers, fishing smacks, lifeboats, barges, and other shallow-draught vessels. The majority of them are privately owned. Many are taken across by naval personnel, but an equal number are crewed by their owners and other civilians eager to stand by their country during its darkest hour.

Braving the combined onslaughts of the German army and air force, these civilians will risk their lives again and again to take troops from the beaches and ferry them to the destroyers waiting in deeper water. Some of these boats will take thousands of men all the way back to England. Thanks to their efforts, a total catastrophe will be averted. It will be described by Winston Churchill as a “miracle of deliverance” and what takes place at Dunkirk from May 27th to June 4th, 1940, will live in the hearts and minds of the British people for many generations to come. At a time when Great Britain faces certain invasion, recovering over a third of a million troops has turned defeat into victory. The phrase “the Dunkirk spirit” is born.

****

The Dunkirk spirit. This is a phrase I have heard many times during my life. If you are British, it needs no explanation and yet as the event that created it moves further back in time, I feared that new generations would have no knowledge of it and an important part of my country’s heritage would be lost. I am delighted, therefore, to see that a new movie about Dunkirk has been released this summer. Not only will people much younger than me know about the Dunkirk spirit, but so will people of other countries, and a valuable historical lesson will continue to inspire us all.

What is the lesson? During these uncertain and divisive times, it resonates as much as ever. It shows us what we can achieve when we cooperate. It demonstrates how brave and selfless ordinary folk can be. We are all capable of far more than we know and when individuals work together for the common good, the tide will turn, and even in the most hopeless and desperate of situations, defeat can be transformed into victory. Because the Dunkirk spirit is the human spirit at its best and nothing can stand in its way.

And here is another true story of strength from the same war. Amazing what people can survive when they have spirit.

It’s 2012, the year of the London Olympics, and for young Polish immigrant Agnieszka, visiting fellow countrywoman Krystyna in a Peterborough care home is a simple act of kindness. However, the meeting proves to be the beginning of a life-changing experience.

Krystyna’s stories about the past are not memories of the good old days but recollections of war-ravaged Europe: The Warsaw Ghetto, Pawiak Prison, Ravensbrück Concentration Camp, and the death march to freedom.

The losses and ordeals Krystyna suffered and what she had to do to survive, these are horrors Agnieszka must confront when she volunteers to be Krystyna’s biographer.

Will Agnieszka find a way to accomplish her task, and, in this harrowing story of survival, what is the message for us today?

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Born in Stafford in the UK, Carol Browne was raised in Crewe, Cheshire, which she thinks of as her home town. Interested in reading and writing at an early age, Carol pursued her passions at Nottingham University and was awarded an honours degree in English Language and Literature. Now living and working in the Cambridgeshire countryside, Carol usually writes fiction and is a contracted author at Burning Willow Press. Being Krystyna, published by Dilliebooks on 11th November, 2016, is her first non-fiction book.

Stay connected with Carol on her website and blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

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