What we think of as modern “Western Civilization” was saved by two miraculous evacuations.
In August 1776 the American Colonial Army with its 10,000 men was holed up in Brooklyn, its back pinned against the East River by more than 30,000 British soldiers. Once British ships sailed up the East River, the rout would be complete and the Revolutionary War would be over almost before it began. But a strong northeast wind prevented the British ships from coming up the river, buying time for Washington and his men. Washington chose to evacuate Long Island at night. This is how a National Geographic book described it:
“With neither light nor noise, the ferries moved back and forth that night between Brooklyn and Manhattan. At midnight, the wind changed and an ebbing tide threatened the retreat with disaster. Sloops and other sailing craft were halted…Any men left behind would be doomed. Then miraculously, the wind shifted once more. Sails filled. Some 9,000 men were moved that night…After dawn, as the last of the army sailed away, one young captain noted that the boats now moved under what he called the ‘friendly cover of a thick fog’.”
“Miraculously”? “Friendly cover”? (A cloud by day?)
Now comes Christopher Nolan’s epic new film, “Dunkirk” where he graduates from telling the story of imaginary superheroes to real ones. In May 1940, Nazi Germany swept across northeast Europe with swift ferocity, pinning nearly a half-million British, French, and Belgium forces against the North Sea in the French seaport of Dunkirk. As Germany tightened the net, Allied leaders led by the new British prime minister Winston Churchill realized that their only hope to salvage the war effort was to evacuate as many troops as possible. Germany’s Fuhrer Adolf Hitler needed to just snap his fingers, the German panzers would roll in, and the rout would be complete. But instead of launching a full and final assault, a halt order was given which lasted three days. To this day, historians can’t agree why the Germans didn’t finish the Allies off then and there.
Whatever the reason, the three days gave the Allies breathing space to organize the most audacious, daring evacuation mission in human history. From May 27th to June 4th, Operation Dynamo commenced, and during those nine days, under incessant bombardment from Nazi warplanes, more than 338,000 soldiers were ferried to safety to England (Churchill optimistically hoped at best to rescue 50,000).
According to Churchill, in his famous war memoirs, what was called the “Miracle of Dunkirk” was aided by a number of factors set into motion by the German halt order. Time was given to mobilize the Royal Air Force, which provided fierce resistance to the German Luftwaffe. As it was, Germany would destroy nearly a quarter of the thousand vessels the Allies used in the evacuation. But unimpeded the carnage would have been far more horrific. Meanwhile, the detonations of Nazi bombs that landed on the shore where the soldiers waited were muffled by the sand. Some soldiers even openly began to mock the Germans from below.
Weather even became an ally in the evacuation. After the Archbishop of Canterbury had called for a National Day Of Prayer, the Dean of St. Pauls Cathedral reported to the nation on June 2nd, “The evidence of God’s intervention was clear for those who wished to see it; papers had written of calm seas and the high mist which interfered with the accuracy of German bombers.”
But perhaps the greatest credit must be given to the remarkable response of ordinary British citizens, who responded by the thousands when the government issued a plea for any and all sailing vessels to aid in the evacuation. What Churchill called “the Mosquito Armada”, comprised of ferries, sail boats, pleasure boats, even a few canoes, began crossing and recrossing the channel, over and again, their untrained civilian pilots showing “total indifference to the air bombardment.” As piers were damaged beyond use, the larger Navy vessels could not get near to shore, so the smaller boats became an indispensable lifeline, taking soldiers back and forth between the shore and the ships.
Though a miracle, Churchill was quick to tell the nation, “We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.” All Dunkirk meant was that Britain had survived to fight another day. The real battle was yet ahead, against a foe that Churchill recognized for its insidiousness from early on, when no one else did. Hitler’s philosophy “kills not only men but ideas.” Churchill recognized, as few others did, that what was at stake in this conflict was not just the survival of his nation, but the survival of the thousand year civilization of the West.
The Nazis are long gone, but hatred and opposition of the “West” – its values, its liberty, its spiritual moorings – are under assault today as never before. The assault comes from outside – most clearly seen today in the struggle against radical jihadist Islam, bent on imposing Sharia on the world – but also increasingly from the inside. In a recent speech in Poland, when President Donald Trump made reference to the virtues of the “West”, he came under fierce assault for using language that was decried as “racist” and religiously “bigoted”. It was more than just hatred for Trump himself. It’s a hatred for ideas, and values and a system of thought that a month before George Washington evacuated his men from Manhattan, had only just been put down on paper.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
I haven’t seen Dunkirk yet, but my hope is that it serve as a reminder that there are Truths in life that are to be courageously defended, not just by soldiers, but by all. Churchill wrote down his massive history of World War II in part to show us “how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous.”
Should push come to shove, I wonder, could another “Mosquito Armada” be marshaled in our days? Or would it be just too much bother?