The Four Miracles of Dunkirk

During the darkest hours of World War II, King George VI called for a national day of prayer and churches across Great Britain were filled with people. See how those prayers were answered.

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- Posted on Nov 14, 2017

Lines of soldiers wade to a civilian craft rescuing them from Dunkirk.

You may have seen the hit movie Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan’s powerful tribute to the real-life World War II drama that unfolded over 10 days in 1940, on the shores of France. But there’s more to the story than what was shown on the screen. To wit, four miracles that changed the course of the war.

For Winston Churchill, the new British prime minister, it all began with an early phone call on May 15 that roused him from sleep.

“We have been defeated,” said the French premier, Paul Reynaud. “We are beaten.”

Churchill was well aware of the Nazi advance. Days earlier, Adolf Hitler’s army had taken Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, with Denmark and Norway already in his grip. England had sent more than 200,000 troops to France and Belgium. All for nothing, it now seemed.

“Surely it can’t have happened so soon?” the stunned Churchill said.

“The front is broken,” Reynaud said. “The Nazis are pouring through in great numbers.”

The Allies had severely miscalcu­lated the path the Nazis would take. The Germans had swept south, through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes Forest, a region the Allies had barely bothered to defend. Now British and French troops found themselves surrounded, in disarray. Their only possible escape was across the English Channel. Through Dunkirk, a city in northeast France. A mass evacuation would require funneling thousands upon thousands of soldiers, spread across hundreds of miles, into one space while the Nazis closed in with 1,800 tanks and 300 Stuka dive-bombers.

For days, Churchill resisted that escape plan. It seemed like a suicide mission. They’d be lucky to get 20,000 men home via the English Channel, let alone more than 300,000 Allied troops. But there was no other option. On May 23, Churchill met with the British monarch, King George VI, to brief him. Though a naval rescue operation were under way, pitifully few ships were ready to sail. The lo­gistics of defending against the inevitable German air attack while ferrying the troops seemed impossi­ble. Allied soldiers were scrambling to reach Dunkirk. They barely knew which direction to go.

“We must pray,” King George VI said. “This next Sunday, I’m calling for a national day of prayer.”

Famously nonreligious, Churchill was surely not looking at prayer as the answer. But he could hardly refuse the king. On May 24, King George VI addressed the nation: “Let us with one heart and soul, humbly but confidently, commit our cause to God and ask his aid, that we may valiantly defend the right as it is given to us to see it.”

On May 26, at Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop of Canterbury called on God to protect the troops. Across Great Britain, tens of thousands of people responded to the king’s call, uniting as never before. Cathedrals and churches, mosques and syna­gogues were packed to overflowing. At Westminster Cathedral, the line extended for blocks and hundreds kept vigil outside. The people didn’t know exactly why they were praying, yet they prayed even so. “Nothing like this has ever happened before” was how one English newspaper described the scene.

The following day, though, the Ger­man High Command reported, “The British army is encircled, and our troops are proceeding to its annihila­tion.” The war, it appeared, was over for the Allies. Few would have argued otherwise. Certainly not James Brad­ley, a British machine gunner. His unit had made it to Belgium before en­countering overwhelming force from the Germans.

The soldiers were instructed to “get back to Dunkirk.” Where? Most British soldiers had probably never even heard of Dunkirk. Handed a rifle with a bayonet, Bradley was told he was on his own. “If they had said [get to] New York, I couldn’t have been more surprised,” Bradley recalled, years later. “I didn’t know where Dunkirk was.”

Everywhere, the roads were filled with British and French soldiers. Abandoned tanks and equipment lit­tered the countryside. Thousands of refugees marched with escaping troops, some driving cars, everyone fleeing in advance of the Germans. From out of the skies would come the Stukas, strafing everything in sight. The scene was horrific.

But all was not as it appeared.

Something happened that histori­ans, even 77 years later, can’t ex­plain. With German tanks rumbling just 10 miles from Dunkirk, Hitler did the unthinkable. On May 24, the day King George VI called the nation to pray, Hitler inexplicably halted the offensive. For nearly three days, as England knelt as one, those tanks remained grounded. Nothing moved.

It was the exact window of time the British needed to form a defen­sive perimeter, to temporarily fight back the Germans and establish a funnel for their troops to flow through to the English Channel.

Then came something else. Rain and clouds. German planes bombed Dunkirk on three separate days, but each time, for days afterward, the city was enveloped by inclement weather, making any effective follow-up from the Nazis difficult. What’s more, a breeze seemed to collect smoke emitted from the German bombs and distribute it over the area the British were using to load men into boats. The Allied exodus went undetected for days.

Meanwhile, word was spreading across England of the need for boats to cross the channel to Dunkirk. For what purpose no one was exact­ly sure. Almost any vessel would do. Rowboats. Fishing trawlers. Tugs. Motorboats. Hundreds of would-be skippers responded. Some had nev­er been out of sight of land before. Many of the crafts lacked compass­es. None of them were armed.

Robert Hilton, a physical educa­tion instructor, and Ted Shaw, a cin­ema manager, were among those who answered the call. They joined a makeshift crew with a motorboat, Ryegate II. But when they reached the town of Ramsgate, off the tip of southern England, the only supplies they were given were two cans of water. Not even a cup to drink with. The two of them went to a pub, downed a pint, pocketed the glasses and set off toward France.

The English Channel is notoriously rough, choppy—no place for novice seamen—but once again something peculiar happened. The water Hilton and Shaw encountered was like that of a bathtub, with barely a ripple to disturb the journey. No one had ever seen anything like it. There were so many boats that in places the waters resembled a freeway at rush hour.

James Bradley, the machine gun­ner, eventually reached De Panne, Belgium, just east of Dunkirk. Over the sand hills, he could see thousands of soldiers huddled, a line of small boats coming in to the shore and ferrying the men to larger vessels in the deeper water, guarded over by ships with guns. They’ll never get these people off here, he thought.

But it was happening. From De Panne and Dunkirk. A few boats at a time, offloading a few dozen men, then coming back for more, round the clock, a dizzying spectacle.

The Ryegate II limped into the wa­ters off France, her engines broken, her propeller twisted by wreckage. Robert Hilton and Ted Shaw tied up to a larger boat and manned one of its lifeboats. For 17 hours straight, they rowed soldiers from shore to ship.

In the first five days of the rescue mission, more than 100,000 soldiers were evacuated. That still left more than 200,000 men, tens of thousands desperately fighting to hold the perimeter. They’d be the last to go.

Bradley never forgot the hero’s welcome he received when he at last reached the shores of England. The tables loaded with tea and buns. The crowds of people waving, cheering. This is England, he thought. You’re worth fighting for. Hilton and Shaw would also remem­ber the cheers that greeted them. Exhausted, they and the other crew members somehow managed to get the crippled Ryegate II back to Eng­land, throngs of jubilant well-wishers at every bridge on the Thames River.

By then, 338,000 soldiers had made it safely across the English Channel as well, thanks to the efforts of about 850 “little ships.” There was a feeling of determination, not surrender. Deliverance by a divine hand. It was exactly what the British soldiers—and civilians—needed to forge ahead. Especially so early in the war.

On June 4, Churchill went to the House of Commons to deliver the news. “We shall fight on the beaches,” he thundered. “We shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets.”

The Prime Minister called it a mira­cle, a word he was not known to often use. There seemed no other word to describe it. Not just one, but a whole series of miracles. Without any one of them, the entire operation would have failed. Hitler halting the blitzkrieg. The thick, protective cloud cover. The English Channel growing still. The hundreds of tiny boats, appearing seemingly from out of nowhere.

What turned the tide? For the king, there was no question.

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