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“A strange fleet appeared”

The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British Army, trapped, fought free and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a fishing town whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

Behind them lay the sea.

It was England's greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II's Armada, Louis XIV's triumphant armies, or Napoleon's invasion barges massed at Boulogne. This time Britain stood alone. . .

Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around in angular, existential attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for 'hard and heavy tidings.' Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters; the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw – all of them manned by civilian volunteers. . . (The Last Lion, William Manchester).

"By the night of the 27th a great tide of small vessels began to flow towards the sea, first to our Channel ports, and thence to the beaches of Dunkirk and the beloved Army. . .Everyone who had a boat of any kind, steam or sail, put out for Dunkirk. . ." (Churchill, The Second World War).

The little boats defied the incessant German air bombardment, while high above, invisible to the troops on the ground, Fighter Command fought German fighter and bomber squadrons, taking on forty and fifty aircraft at a time. Guarding the bridgehead, several thousand British and French troops fought to hold the perimeter so their comrades could be rescued to live and fight again.

By June 4, when Operation Dynamo ended, 338,682 British and Allied troops had been landed in Britain.

Britain was 'the home of the free because they also were the home of the brave'.

Will we ever see their like again? We dare say.

This post was first published on 27 May 2007. If you are interested in the books -

The Manchester quote introduces the first volume of his biography.

The volume below is Churchill's abridged account of World War II.