At the end of this week I shall be going back to France, a country whose language, culture, food, wine and climate I love. As a welcoming liberal modern democracy, it is a far cry from the country it was when my father made that journey seventy-seven years ago. He went along with hundreds of thousands of others as part of the British Expeditionary Force to help defend France. At that time Nazi Germany had invaded Belgium and the Netherlands, and Panzer divisions were attacking France through the Ardennes, driving the British troops back towards the northern coast around Dunkirk. There they were trapped with no means of escape until Churchill and his war cabinet drew up a plan, which was codenamed Operation Dynamo, to evacuate all the allied soldiers from the beaches and harbour of Dunkirk at the end of May 1940. Churchill, in a speech to the British Parliament had described the events in France as “a colossal military disaster” and that “the whole root and core and brain of the British army had been stranded in Dunkirk” and were about to perish there. What happened there seventy-seven years ago, he also later described as “a miracle of deliverance”.
Because between 26th May and 4th June 1940, thousands of soldiers were rescued by a hastily assembled flotilla of over eight hundred boats of varying shapes and sizes, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats, and merchant marine sent from the south coast of England. On the first day of the evacuation only seven and a half thousand were rescued; but by the end of the evacuation three hundred and thirty-eight thousand, two hundred and twenty-six soldiers had been saved from certain death or capture. As it was, over sixty-eight thousand soldiers lost their lives, and almost all of the tanks, vehicles and other equipment were abandoned in northern France.
I am proud to say my father was there and certainly saved in that evacuation. He never spoke to me of those events in Dunkirk or of eventually being rescued; I am sure that something like that left deep scars on the psyche of a twenty-two year old. And so in this Thursday Thanks, I want to thank my father (who died sixteen years ago in 2001) and pay tribute to all those others who have allowed my generation to have the freedom that we enjoy today, and in particular for me, being able to make those regular journeys to France which I so enjoy.
My father is pictured just to the left of the striped post in the centre of the photograph, on his return to England after the evacuation of Dunkirk.