11. May 2007 · Comments Off on Fall and Rise, Part 2 · Categories: European Disunion, General, History, Memoir, Military, War

The summer that I was sixteen and a half was the one spent in Britain and Europe, doing the Eurailpass/Youth Hostel/$5.00 a day adventure… which upon reflection at a point nearly four decades later seems nearly as long ago as luxury steamship travel and the Grand Tour. I learned many useful and useless things during that summer, and acquired a certain sort of fearlessness about travel and new places, and strange people, as well as the ability to manage a 70-pound backpack in all situations, including the narrow confines of the little stairway to the top level of an English double-decker bus. It’s an awkward thing to manage, of course, and sometimes total strangers were moved to be of assistance, especially when we were shedding our packs (which were our entire luggage) or taking them up again.

It’s of enormous help, you see, for someone to grab the pack and hold it steady as you slip the straps off your shoulders. Then you turn around and thank them, and taking the pack by the frame, you stow it away in the overhead, or set it down…or whatever. We came to know that there were two kinds of men who would instantly offer this assistance: the young ones were Boy Scouts… and all the older ones had been soldiers.

My travel buddy, Esther Tutwyler and I struck up a conversation with one of those helpful older sorts in an English railway compartment… who of course turned out to have been a soldier, and also confessed that he was always grateful to Americans because Patton’s army had liberated him from a German POW camp. This was an instant bond, as Esther’s father was a career Army warrant officer who had fought his way all across France and Germany and done his share of liberating various bits of personnel and real estate. But when I asked the Englishman where he had been captured, he answered with the name of his unit, and that he had been captured at Dunkirk as part of the British Expeditionary Force. I actually recognized the name of his unit, (I knew all sorts of useless trivia at this time) and remarked that they had been part of the defending force around the pocket where the British forces had been driven, upon the opening of the German drive into France,
“Oh, yes,” he said, with great good humor, “But if I had known then it was the perimeter around the bloody place, I would have made Jesse Owens look like a turtle!”

The German offensive of May, 1940 punched through the weak point— Belgium, Holland, and Luxemburg— and split the Allies in two. The bulk of the British Expeditionary Force fell back towards the flat sandy coast between Calais and the Belgian frontier… towards Gravelines and La Panne, Nieuport and Bergues… and Dunkirk, with its inner harbor and much of the town smashed to rubble and rendered useless by German air raid. Black smoke from burning oil stocks shrouded the town, and set up a column of black smoke that could be seen for miles. But the outer harbor was sheltered by a long jetty, or mole; wooden gangways spanning concrete plinths reaching out from the shore and sheltering the outer harbor. The moles were not intended as a means of landing or loading personnel, but in a pinch, ocean-going ships could tie up and take on troops… but it was a tricky maneuver at best, and made even more of a hazard by constant German air raids. German artillery dominated most of the sea routes approaching the town… but still, according to most accounts, more than three-quarters of those rescued from Dunkirk were taken off from the moles, by ships who packed in human cargo wherever there was room. It took about seven hours to load 1,000 men on a destroyer, for example… and every minute of those hours, that ship and the men lined up on the mole, patiently waiting their turn to board would be a target of everything the Germans could throw at them. On the evening of 27 May, 1940 the Navy officer on station in Dunkirk sent a message to his superior, saying essentially that evacuating from the moles was too slow, too hazardous. He asked for ships to be sent towards the beaches, east of Dunkirk… and for all available small craft to serve as ferries between the beach and the larger craft.

There were already hundreds of regular Naval and merchant-marine vessels at hand to serve in the evacuation, plus a number of requisitioned Dutch coastal transports, known as “scoots”… but during the night of the 27th, Navy officers scoured boatyards, yacht-ports and wharves all through the south-eastern coast and rivers of England for small craft that could be of use. Fishing trawlers and tramps, tug boats, motor yachts and countless numbers of row-boats, fire-boats and cross-channel paddle-steamers were pressed into immediate service, with crews formed by a mix of reservists, regulars, volunteers, civilians and owners… hastily equipped and fueled up, sketchily armed, formed into convoys or taken under tow, they all went straight into the thick of it… to get their soldiers out.

The legend of the little boats was born out of Dunkirk, of civilian boat-owners sailing into hell … even though it wasn’t quite like that, there’s enough truth in it to stir the blood of anyone inclined to step forward in a time of crisis. Though most of the BEF that escaped did so through the harbor, the image of shallow-draft little boats sailing close into the shore, and of columns of soldiers standing chest-deep in the water, waiting for their countrymen to come for them and bring them safe home … oh, yes; there is the image imperishable, of nine days of glory in the midst of defeat. The British Army left their armor, their heavy artillery, their transport behind; with luck all of it spiked, scattered and burned all along the sandy dunes along the shore from Dunkirk to La Panne. They came away with what they carried, their weariness and pride, for they were still alive.

Arms and transport, armor and artillery, they could be replaced… at a cost, and in some little time; but in only a fraction of the time it takes to train an officer or an NCO, or to raise up an Army. And that was the victory of Dunkirk, delivered out of defeat and captivity at the hands of Hitler’s marvelous war machine; an Army that would return. And that was the victory of the little boats, the volunteers, and the organization of everything that could float, and head towards the column of smoke in the sky…and carry away a soldier or two. It must have been all the sweeter, a victory and an army, snatched from the wreck following on the defeat of an ally which had been until then thought stout and strong.

I couldn’t resist this coda, found from one of my reference books: A very junior Navy officer on the destroyer HMS Grenade was later asked by his commanding officer to write an account of his experience, after the ship was fatally disabled by a bomb which went straight down the funnel and exploded in the boiler. He wrote

“Dear Sir: there was a bloody great bang. I have the honor to be, Sir, Your Obedient servant.”

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