Seventy-five years ago this week, Operation Dynamo got under way - the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk in France. Its survival meant that Britain could continue the war against Nazi Germany, standing alone until the USA entered the war in December 1941.
Evacuation was initially thought so difficult as to be practically impossible, because there were no major ports along the coast at or near Dunkirk. Ships could not get close enough to load the troops directly. However, a massive appeal was launched to all boat-owners along the English coast for any suitable craft to be brought to Dover. Some, whose owners could not be traced in time, were simply commandeered. Several hundred of the so-called "Little Ships" eventually made the crossing to Dunkirk. There they ferried soldiers from the beaches and makeshift jetties (some formed by driving Army trucks into the waves until they stalled, then pushing them further out by means of other trucks shoving from behind, until a line of trucks half a mile long extended into the sea). Some of the small craft even tackled the relatively long voyage back to England under their own power, because there weren't enough larger rescue ships to take aboard their 'cargo' of rescued soldiers.
In total, about 220 warships and large vessels and about 700 of the "little ships" were involved in the evacuation. Six British and three French destroyers were sunk, along with another nine larger vessels plus about 200 of the small boats; many more were damaged. However, their sacrifice helped to achieve the rescue of 192,226 British and 139,000 French soldiers – a total of 331,226 in all. The British troops were re-equipped to form the core of Britain's army. Some French soldiers chose to be repatriated to France after the Armistice, but many others stayed on in England to form the core of the Free French forces.
Last week about 50 small craft sailed from Ramsgate in England to Dunkirk to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the evacuation. Among them were a number of the original "Little Ships" that have been preserved to this day.
The last surviving veterans of the evacuation are telling their stories for possibly the last time, as the next commemoration will only be held in five years time. It's doubtful whether many of them - or any of them - will be either alive, or healthy enough to attend again.
I can remember my mother describing the emotion in England as the tens of thousands of rescued soldiers were ferried to their bases aboard trains and buses. She told me of how she wept to see them so bedraggled and exhausted, and joined other young women in providing sandwiches and cups of tea to sustain them on their long journey. She and others listened to Winston Churchill's address to the House of Commons and the nation at the conclusion of the evacuation, and took fresh heart from it. (She met my father shortly thereafter, and married him in early 1942.)
Dark days indeed . . . but the darkness turned to dawn, and five years later the full light of victory brought freedom for Europe. Let's not forget what our parents and grandparents went through to bring that about, this Memorial Day weekend.