When we were living in London, as my wife was speaking in French with our children in a bus, an old woman approached them. The woman introduced herself, in French. Only a few minutes later, they were talking together, engaged in a lively discussion … and soon, the woman told them her unbelievable story.
She was of French roots, born in Dunkirk in the middle of the twenties. At the beginning of WWII, she was a teenager, a beautiful one in my imagination, and with her Scout troop, she was engaged in helping British soldiers in their amazing evacuation process …
The operation had been decided upon when large numbers of British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops were cut off and surrounded by the German army during the Battle of France. Without telling the French, the British began planning on 20 May 1940 for so-called “Operation Dynamo”.
The first day of the evacuation, only 7,669 men were evacuated, but by the end of the eighth day, a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of over 800 boats. A wide variety of small vessels from all over the south of England were pressed into service to aid in the Dunkirk evacuation. They included speedboats, Thames vessels, car ferries, pleasure crafts, and many other types of small crafts. The most useful proved to be the motor lifeboats, which had a reasonably good capacity and speed. Some boats were requisitioned without the owner’s knowledge or consent !
At some stage, as the vivacious teenager was under the heavy fire of Germans, to protect her, a British soldier picked her in his small craft. She couldn’t come back on the beach. And what had to happen just happened : she reached Dover. Her parents didn’t know what happened to her at the time, and to avoid to put them at risk, she didn’t give them any news before four years !
The rest of the story brings less surprises : she felt in love with a young English medicine student, married him at the end of the war … and she spent a long and happy life in London.
The British press presented the evacuation as a “disaster turned to triumph” so successfully, that Churchill had to tell the country, in his We shall fight on the beaches speech to the House of Commons on 4 June : “we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.”
She is probably a very old woman now ! I don’t even know whether she is still alive.
Did she or will she see the movie ? “Dunkirk” had its world premiere on 13 July 2017 at Odeon Leicester Square in London, and is scheduled to be released in France tomorrow, 19 July, two days before the general release in the UK and the US.
I will go to see it for sure : two hours to remember how Great Britain is a great country, with whom we still have so much to do, maybe not through a “European defence”, but for the defense of Europe for sure.
Iconography : British soldiers on the beach, in “Dunkirk”, by British producer and director Christopher Nolan, release July 2017.