Almost a year ago, I returned from my deployment to Poland in support of NATO’s Operation Inherent Resolve–a mission to deter Russian aggression against NATO allies. During the deployment, I traveled to Flanders, Belgium on assignment. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever expect to visit Belgium or France during my deployment. One of the best aspects of my job was that your day to day routine could vary quite unexpectedly—sometimes in good ways. So I flew from Warsaw to Brussels and arrived late in the day. The next morning after completing my mission, I drove an hour and a half or so from Chievres, Belgium to Dunkirk, France.
European Union countries operate under the Schengen Agreement which allows travelers to journey relatively unimpeded throughout most of Europe. When I drove over the border into France, there were no border guards to greet me—just a sign that simply said, “France.”
It was a gorgeous day—mostly clear with just a few cirrus clouds throughout the sky. When I arrived in Dunkirk, I ate lunch at a quaint French café. I ordered pasta with pork. The entrée consisted of a cheese topping and alfredo-like sauce. I found it quite good. After dining, I walked over to a bakery and bought a couple of pastries. I don’t really know how to describe them in English. They were soft-baked sugar-cookies with delicious vanilla icing. Not exactly—like a sugar cookie in the US, but somewhat similar. They tasted very good. A couple of French women worked in the bakery I visited, so I relied on my high school French and reverted back to English when I needed a life line. “Bonjour Mademoiselle, I would like these cookies—deux. Oui. Mercil beaucoup. Au revoir.”
After lunch, I walked to the beach and began to soak in the Dunkirk scenery. Seagulls flew overhead. Behind me were the picturesque views of the city. I wondered how old the buildings were. They looked like many of them survived the bombardment of the battle during the Second World War. Historical markers lined the beach. The markers displayed pictures of British and French Soldiers at certain points along the beach—by the canal, by the makeshift pier, etc. Each marker was located exactly in the spot where the picture was taken. It was a powerful tribute to British and French warriors, and it helped me imagine what it must have felt like for the thousands of men trapped by Hitler’s Nazi war machine. I scooped up some water from the Atlantic Ocean and walked along the beach trying to understand how the Soldiers must have felt seeing their wounded, dead, and dying comrades around them–hearing the terrible sounds of German fighter planes coming to visit more death and destruction on them through strafing runs.
Looking out at the channel, British Soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force must have been thinking, “If I can just make it a few more hours—I’ll have a shot at returning home.” For the British, they looked across the channel and saw hope and freedom. For the French, they looked back at the city, its plumes of smoke, and saw their country and freedom in flames.
Though over 100,000 French and over 200,000 British were saved at Dunkirk, their rescue came with a high cost. Over 30,000 French Soldiers who fought a delaying action to support their rescue were forced to surrender to the Nazis. British Soldiers at Calais saw bitter fighting and eventually surrendered the garrison. The rescue was bittersweet for the French. Almost all the French rescued at Dunkirk were repatriated to southern France and ended up dying or surrendering to the Germans weeks later.
As I toured the Dunkirk war museum (an amazing historical experience), it dawned on that Churchill assumed the Prime Minister role just weeks—WEEKS before “Operation Dynamo”—the name of the Dunkirk rescue operation–commenced. Churchill faced an early crucial test.
As I looked out at the Atlantic, I tried to imagine what it must have been like as a Soldier to see thousands of small boats begin to dot the horizon. Your countrymen were coming for you—to pull you back from the jaws of tyranny or death. I gained deeper appreciation for Churchill’s description of the rescue as the “Spirit of Dunkirk.” What Churchill meant by that terminology was the oneness of purpose the British people exhibited in that effort. They did not scorn the returning British and French Soldiers. They encouraged the war-weary Soldiers and treated them as heroes. The British and French knew in their souls that the cause was just. Though they had experienced set back, the fight would continue, and hundreds of thousands of Allied Soldiers had survived to fight another day. That reality was one they could take comfort in even though many dark days loomed ahead.
The Battle of Dunkirk, fought 80 years ago this month, was unmistakably a military catastrophe for the Allies. But the rescue itself—over 300,000 Allied Soldiers galvanized the British and French—united the nations in a common purpose. The Alliance had been strained by the tension of military defeats and miscalculation leading up to the evacuation, but the French and British military both heroically sacrificed to save one another. The delaying actions at Calais by the British and the French throughout Flanders bought crucial time for the Allies to organize the evacuation.
Two great movies that really capture the Spirit of Dunkirk are Dunkirk and Darkest Hour (both $3.99 rental on Amazon). In April, I began reading The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson ($6.02 on Kindle). It’s a fascinating book detailing Churchill’s leadership and the British fight for survival during the blitz. It made me want to watch Darkest Hour again, and I found I still love the movie. Darkness descended on the French and British allies in the spring of 1940 as the Nazis strengthened their chokehold on France. However, the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940 offered a glimmer of light. The British averted a larger disaster, and the patriotic risk and sacrifice of its citizens reinvigorated Britons. It’s fitting to remember and celebrate the Dunkirk evacuation and recognize the hand of Providence in preserving the lives of so many of our Allies.