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

I am delighted to see that a movie has been made about Dunkirk, a crucial event in the Allied Victory over the Nazis, which is well-known in Britain, but nowhere else.

One of my great-uncles, Reg Durward, an ambulance corpsman with the British Expeditionary Force, was one of the last British soldiers to be rescued from the beach at Dunkirk . Three hundred thirty-eight thousand British soldiers and 30,000 French soldiers were rescued by a flotilla of “little boats,” that set sail from England to save them from certain death by the Nazi strafing.  The two uncles of one of my uncles were among the civilians who sailed their own boats to rescue these men, including my great-uncle Reg.

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 338,000 troops of the British Expeditionary Forces and the 30,000 French soldiers 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, 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 like my uncle’s uncles–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.

Recently 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 and back home to Britain.  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: