For those of us stuck in social isolation, which would be just about everyone these days, binge watching TV and cable series has turned from an occasional weekend activity to a national pastime. Stuck in a post-“Game of Thrones” void, I asked my students for suggestions on what to watch. They turned me on to “The Man in the High Castle,” a four-season drama about a dystopian alternate universe in which the Axis powers win World War II and establish puppet states in North America. The plot, which melds visions of life under Japanese and Nazi rule with elements of science fiction, is quite intriguing. It took my wife and me only a month and a half to watch all forty episodes. Fortunately for us, PBS has recently released “World on Fire,” part of the British Masterpiece drama series, which follows the lives of ordinary people caught in the maelstrom of World War II. Its first season ended with the evacuation of British and Allied forces from Dunkirk, the German conquest of France, and the beginnings of resistance movements on the European continent.
The episode that featured the evacuation from Dunkirk, other than the improbable appearance of Polish soldiers who had somehow transported themselves across Nazi-held territory to France, was quite stirring. The evacuation of Dunkirk, code-named Operation Dynamo, which began eighty years ago this week, has gripped the imagination of the West ever since the Royal Navy accomplished the seemingly-improbable feat of withdrawing nearly 340,000 soldiers from France during a ten-day period from May 26 to June 4, 1940. Dramatized three years ago in the movie “Dunkirk,” the evacuation has entered British folklore as the triumph of ordinary people in the face of the Nazi juggernaut. Prominent in historical memory are the “little ships,” small boats requisitioned to evacuate soldiers from the beaches of France. Indeed, the bravery of the crews who manned these ships is undeniable. The undertaking was hazardous by any measure; of the 850 small craft employed in Operation Dynamo, nearly 30 percent ended up on the bottom of the Channel.
But the focus on the little ships overlooks the larger reasons for the success of the Dunkirk evacuation. Hitler halted the drive of the panzer divisions, trusting in the word of Hermann Göring that the Luftwaffe could finish the destruction of the Allied northern armies trapped in the Dunkirk pocket. The Royal Air Force prevented this outcome by committing precious Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons to protect the skies over the Channel. Although the Luftwaffe sank 243 ships including nine destroyers, the evacuation was able to continue until the Royal Navy had withdrawn all but the 40,000-man French rear guard. The vast majority of troops embarked not on little ships but on destroyers and other large vessels from an intact mole, or pier. Commander James Campbell Clouston, a Canadian officer in the Royal Navy who masterfully organized the pier operations, would lose his life when a Stuka dive bomber sank the boat in which he was sailing on the final night of the evacuation.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill understood the significance of Operation Dynamo, which saved nearly 200,000 British troops and thus established the foundation for the rebuilding of the British Army. But they had left behind vast amounts of weapons and equipment, meaning for the moment they were combat ineffective. In a speech to the House of Commons on June 4, Churchill remarked, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” He then continued with a call to action for the British people and an appeal to the United States: “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, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
Dunkirk, in the end, signified hope for the future.