Saturday, 27 May 2017

Dunkirk - Praying for a Miracle

The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force took place between May 26th and June 4th, 1940. It was a miracle that around 338,000 men were rescued and brought back to Britain. It is a miracle they made it off the beach at all, given the fact that they were cornered, and stuck with nowhere to go, right in the midst of hell. While Hitler had ordered the elite Panzers to stand down, the Germans continued to shell the men on the beach and the Luftwaffe bombed and strafed from the air. It was chaos, everywhere you looked.

A sea of khaki engulfed the beach as tens of thousands of soldiers milled around with nowhere to go. All just waiting amidst the confusion, amidst the bombs, while friends and comrades fell all around them, either dead or wounded. Commanding officers had no idea what was happening and struggled to find out. For the rest of the men, it seemed hopeless. They could almost see England, lying across the Channel - home. 

One eyewitness recalls the sight that met him when his battalion finally arrived on Bray-Dunes. Looking out to sea, columns of soldiers were four-deep, wading out into the sea, only stopping once the water was shoulder-height. They were waiting for the little boats to come and take them out to the awaiting ships further out. Their lines wriggled rhythmically with every rolling wave.

On the beach, the dead and wounded lay all around. Those fatally wounded lay dying, either quietly, or crying out for their mothers, their fear and pain engulfing them as they waited for the inevitable. The medics had done their best, but it was hopeless.

Throughout it all, the Stukas returned, defiant and determined, their attacks relentless as they dived screaming from the sky like a host of angry hornets to release their bombs before swiftly climbing away. Aircraft then machine-gunned the beach, cutting through the lines of men in the water and on the mole - the Dunkirk jetty. More men fell, either killed or wounded, and the dead floated in the water, gently pushed aside by those in the line who were waiting, always waiting, sometimes for many hours. One soldier later recalled counting three tides while waiting in the water before he boarded a ship.

Many of the boys on the beach were a sorry sight. They were not all well-trained, experienced soldiers. Many were simply young lads, eager to do their bit. One such private recalled how his training amounted to firing about ten rounds on Salisbury Plain, prior to being shipped to France. Another recalled being given a rifle, but no ammunition. They were all so poorly equipped. 

As night fell and darkness closed in all around, still the Stukas came, firstly dropping parachute flares, illuminating the sky before dropping their bombs and strafing the helpless troops.

After one Stuka raid, men stood on the beach crying while others sank to their knees and prayed. Some dug holes in the dunes, desperate to have shelter from the bombs. When one soldier found two young privates sheltering in his foxhole, he told them they could stay and he went elsewhere. They were later killed when a mortar landed beside them. 

But even though the Luftwaffe seemed intent on finishing off all those men on the beach, the fact that the Panzers had halted, and the fact that some of the BEF along with the French were still fighting rear guard action against the Germans, gave the BEF a greater chance of being rescued. It bought time and now today, on the 27th May 1940, men were boarding ships. Unfortunately, only around 7,500 men would be successfully evacuated today as a result of the heavy aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe.

For the men still waiting, still praying for a miracle, it must have seemed impossible. For the fortunate number who made it aboard a ship that day, the relief they felt was immense but yet they worried about how they would be received back home. They felt they were running away from the enemy - they were cowards and surely the people back home would see them as such.