In her middle-age, one of my aunts married a Britisher she had met while working abroad. Like most men of his generation, he was a veteran. In particular, he was one of the 335,000 Allied soldiers trapped and then rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk – what Winston Churchill called “a miracle of deliverance.”
While likely not a miracle in the technical sense, the successful evacuation must certainly have seemed to be an answer to a nation’s prayers. With Germany apparently on the verge of victory and Britain and her hapless allies on the verge of defeat, King George VI proclaimed May 26, 1940 a National Day of Prayer. Millions of people throughout the United Kingdom went to church that Sunday to pray for deliverance. (The photo above - from www.anglican.ink - shows the enormous crowd lined up outside Westminster Abbey.) In the days that followed, a violent storm grounded the Luftwaffe while a calm Channel enabled a flotilla of small boats to sail to France for the seemingly miraculous rescue of more than 300,000 soldiers. The Sunday after the evacuation was then fittingly observed as a Day of National Thanksgiving.
Of course, as Churchill famously told the House of Commons, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
When I was growing up, the story of the war won by our parents' generation (now fittingly known as "the Greatest Generation") was well known to us all. With the subsequent evisceration of the content of so much of American education in recent decades, who knows how much students today actually know about World War II, about who fought it and what it was about? Perhaps some of that ignorance may be may be alleviated by Christopher Nolan's wonderful new war film Dunkirk.
Or maybe not, since the film focuses brilliantly on the life and death experiences of the trapped soldiers themselves and their heroic rescuers, but presumes rather than portrays the macro-components of British and German strategies and policies in a world at war. Indeed, it is unremitting in its portrayal of the life-and-death struggle of the actual participants - unrelieved by the dramatic device of occasionally cutting away, for example, to the deliberations of the Government in London, as another movie might do. So, while not a remedy for widespread ignorance of 20th-century history, this fantastic film does dramatically portray 20th-century people. It effectively portrays the actual micro-experiences of the participants, soldiers and civilians caught up in the consequences of a world war, which left nothing and no one unchanged. In the process, it provides us with one more memorable panegyric to “the Greatest Generation.”