The "little boats" of Dunkirk

The evacuation of Dunkirk in which 338,000 British troops were rescued from the Nazi onslaught in June 1940 by the “little boats,”  From the website

Seeing the “little boats” in the Flotilla of Boats on the Thames River during the Queen’s Jubilee almost made me cry.

More than anything else in the pageant, these boats mean something profound, because it was these same boats–and another 800 just like them–that helped save the lives of 338,000 British troops during the evacuation of Dunkirk.  Without these little boats, the British army would have been decimated, and the Nazis would have been able to achieve their plans of invading Britain, completing their domination of Europe, and annihilating the entire Jewish race, with even more devastating consequences than what actually happened.  Sounds incredible, but it’s true.

Late May, 1940, was a desperate time for the Allies.  France, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Norway had been invaded by the Germans, and Holland and Belgium had formally surrendered.

Neither the Soviets nor the Americans were in the war yet;  the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with the Nazis, and America maintained its neutrality for another year-and-a-half until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  By late May, 1940, Britain was standing alone against the Nazis.

Strafed by the Luftwaffe, hopelessly outgunned by the German Army, the troops of the British Expeditionary Forces retreated to the beaches of Dunkirk, France. There was little hope of rescue because the water was too shallow for British destroyers to navigate.

A call went out from the British Admiralty for small boats to be used to rescue the trapped British and French soldiers.

Courtesy of Getty Images

Over 900 boats–pleasure boats, fishing smacks, trawlers, lifeboats, paddle steamers and many other types of craft, captained by sailors of the Royal Navy and by ordinary civilians–set sail to save these men by transporting them back to England or getting them onto British destroyers.

Standing in shoulder-high water for hours, the men waited to be rescued by the little boats.

This was a defining moment of World War II, which Winston Churchill called “a miracle of deliverance,” in which the lives of those who were “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army” were saved.

Three of my maternal grandmother’s brothers fought in World War II. One of them, my great-uncle Reg Durward, an ambulance corpsman responsible for helping wounded soldiers, was one of the last men off the beach at Dunkirk.

Last night I was talking about the “little boats” with one of my aunts and uncles, when my uncle left the room and returned with a photograph of a man in a small boat.  It was his uncle, a man named Brightman who, with his own brother, sailed their boat to Dunkirk to help rescue British troops.


Brightman, one of the civilians who rescued British soldiers at Dunkirk using his own “little boat.”  Courtesy of Ian Wellby

Can you imagine what it was like for the Brightman brothers to set sail on a tiny boat into a war zone, and to carry back wounded soldiers? It must have taken extraordinary courage to have done this, especially for the civilians who volunteered, and yet there were many of them willing to risk their lives to save the lives of others.

Imagine yourself in the English Channel is a tiny boat, the Nazis strafing the waters around you, bombs landing nearby, exhausted, bloody men climbing into your boat desperately hoping you can get them to safety.  And then imagine that instead of the 30,000 men estimated to be saved without the boats, you and the others sailing the little boats managed to get 338,000 British and 80,000 French soldiers off the beach to safety.  What a cost–and what a triumph of the human spirit in this, their “finest hour.”

Here are several videos and an article that might give a sense of what it was like:

A short one-minute video about the little boats of Dunkirk: 

A 5-minute British government film about the Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk:

An article about a 95-year-old man, believed to be the sole surviving Dunkirk veteran: