My great-uncle Reg, an ambulance corpsman, was one of the last men off the Dunkirk beaches.  For the British, this was the darkest time in their fight against the Nazis.  Four hundred thousand British troops were trapped on the beaches of France, unable to be rescued by navy ships because of the shallow waters. Then came a miracle of salvation when hundreds of little boats, captained by ordinary civilians, were sent from England to rescue the 338,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force.

The “little boats” at 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 http://www.rania.co.uk/dunkirk/html/history.htm

Without these little boats, the British army would have been decimated, and the Nazis enabled to achieve their plans of invading Britain, complete their domination of Europe and put it under Fascist control, at the same time annihilating the entire Jewish race.  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 yet in the war;  the Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with the Nazis, and America was to maintain 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 of the shallow waters of the channel.  A call went out from the British Admiralty for small boats that could be used in the rescue of the trapped British and French soldiers.

Courtesy of Getty Images

Over 800 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 either transporting them directly back to England or ferrying them out to British destroyers waiting offshore in deeper waters.

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.

Recently I was talking about the “little boats” with one of my uncles, when he 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 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

It must have taken extraordinary courage, 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 how it must have been on the English Channel in a tiny boat, the Nazis strafing the waters around you, bombs landing nearby, while exhausted, bloody men scrambled on board, desperately relying on you get them to safety.  And then imagine that instead of the 30,000 men it was estimated might 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:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TT8roUQsrmU 

A 5-minute British government film about the Battle and Evacuation of Dunkirk:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdAaZFpxdLM&feature=related

An article about a 95-year-old man, believed to be the sole surviving Dunkirk veteran:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HdAaZFpxdLM&feature=related

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