May 27, 1940 The Miracle of Dunkirk

The first full day of the evacuation was May 27,  7,669 were evacuated.  By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until the Great boat lift of September 11, 2001.

The Nazi conquest of Europe began with the Sudetenland in 1938, the border districts of Bohemia, Moravia, and German speaking parts of Czechoslovakia. Within two years, every major power on the European mainland was either neutral, or under Nazi occupation.

The island nation of Great Britain alone escaped occupation, but its armed forces were shattered and defenseless in the face of the German war machine.dunkirk evacuationIn May of 1940 the British Expeditionary Force and what remained of French forces occupied a sliver of land along the English Channel. Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt called a halt of the German armored advance on May 24, while Hermann Göring urged Hitler to stop the ground assault, let the Luftwaffe finish the destruction of Allied forces. On the other side of the channel, Admiralty officials combed every boatyard they could find for boats to ferry their people off of the beach.

Hitler ordered his Panzer groups to resume their advance on May 26, while a National Day of Prayer was declared at Westminster Abbey. That night Winston Churchill ordered “Operation Dynamo”. One of the most miraculous evacuations in military history had begun from the beaches of Dunkirk.dunkirk-evacuation.-1-june-1940-troop-positions.-operation-dynamo.-hmso-1953-map-[2]-272563-pThe battered remnants of the French 1st Army fought a desperate delaying action against the advancing Germans. They were 40,000 men against seven full divisions, 3 of them armored. They held out until May 31 when, having run out of food and ammunition, the last 35,000 finally surrendered. Meanwhile, a hastily assembled fleet of 933 vessels large and small began to withdraw the broken army from the beaches.

Larger ships were boarded from piers, while thousands waded into the surf and waited in shoulder deep water for smaller vessels. They came from everywhere: merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats and tugs. The smallest among them was the 14’7″ fishing boat “Tamzine”, now in the Imperial War Museum.Dunkirk EvacuationA thousand copies of navigational charts helped organize shipping in and out of Dunkirk, as buoys were laid around Goodwin Sands to prevent stranding. Abandoned vehicles were driven into the water at low tide, weighted down with sand bags and connected by wooden planks, forming makeshift jetties.

The first full day of the evacuation was May 27,  7,669 were evacuated.  By day 9 a total of 338,226 soldiers had been rescued from the beach.  The “Miracle of Dunkirk” would remain the largest such waterborne evacuation in history, until the Great boat lift of September 11, 2001.dunkirk1It all came to an end on June 4. Most of the light equipment and virtually all the heavy stuff had to be left behind, just to get what remained of the allied armies out alive. But now, with the United States still the better part of a year away from entering the war, the allies had a fighting force that would live to fight on. Winston Churchill delivered a speech that night to the House of Commons, calling the events in France “a colossal military disaster”. “[T]he whole root and core and brain of the British Army”, he said, had been stranded at Dunkirk and seemed about to perish or be captured. In his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech of June 4, Churchill hailed the rescue as a “miracle of deliverance”.dunkirk_marqueeOn the home front, thousands of volunteers signed up for a “stay behind” mission in the weeks that followed. With “Operation Sea Lion” all but imminent, the German invasion of Great Britain, their mission was to go underground and to disrupt and destabilize the invaders in any way they could. They were to be part of the Home guard, a guerrilla force reportedly vetted by a senior Police Chief so secret, that he was to be assassinated in case of invasion to prevent membership in the units from being revealed.

Participants of these auxiliaries were not allowed to tell their families, what they were doing or where they were. Bob Millard, who passed in 2014 at the age of 91, said they were given 3 weeks’ rations, and that many were issued suicide pills in case of capture.  Some 400-500 elaborately concealed underground “operational bases” are believed to have been built, from which Home Guard units were to carry out the arts of guerrilla warfare including unarmed combat, demolition, sabotage and even assassination.

Left, Operational base, reconstruction at Parham Airfield Museum. Right, Auxiliary Units, Operational Base, emergency exit. H/T Wikipedia

Even Josephine, Millard’s wife of 67 years, didn’t know a thing about it until the auxiliaries’ reunion in 1994. “You just didn’t talk about it, really”, he said. “As far as my family were aware I was still in the Home Guard. It was all very hush hush. After the war, it was water under the bridge”.

The word “Cenotaph” literally translates as “Empty Tomb”, in Greek. Every year since 1919 and always taking place on the Sunday closest to the 11th day of the 11th month, the Cenotaph at Whitehall is the site of a remembrance service, commemorating British and Commonwealth servicemen and women who died in 20th century conflicts. Since WWII, the march on the Cenotaph includes members of the Home Guard and the “Bevin Boys”, the 18-25 year old males conscripted to serve in England’s coal mines. In 2013, the last surviving auxiliers joined their colleagues, proudly marching past the Cenotaph for the very first time.

2E3BB40600000578-3308996-image-a-222_1446983695741Historians from the Coleshill Auxiliary Research Team (CART) had been trying to do this for years.

CART founder Tom Sykes said: “After over 70 years of silence, the veterans of the Auxiliary Units and Special Duties Section, now more than ever, deserve to get the official recognition that has for so long been lacking. ‘They were, in this country’s hour of need, willing to give up everything, families, friends and ultimately their lives in order to give us a fighting chance of surviving”.

January 29, 1944 Operation Pied Piper

This weekend, Superbowl LIV will be played at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens Florida, in front of an expected crowd of 65,326. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days alone, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside.

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Nazi propaganda depicting German “Anschluss” with Austria

Intent on avoiding war with Nazi Germany, Italy, France and Great Britain convened in Munich in September 1938, to resolve German claims on western Czechoslovakia.  The “Sudetenland”.  Representatives of the Czech and Slovak peoples, were not invited.

For the people of the modern Czech Republic, the Munich agreement was a betrayal. “O nás bez nás!” “About us, without us!”

On September 30, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned to London declaring “Peace in Our Time”.  The piece of paper Chamberlain held in his hand bore the signatures of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Édouard Daladier as well as his own, annexing enormous swaths of the Sudetenland, to Nazi Germany.

To Winston Churchill, the Munich agreement was an act of appeasement.  Feeding the proverbial crocodile (Hitler), in hopes that he will eat you last.

For much of Great Britain, the sense of relief was palpable.  In the summer of 1938, the horrors of the Great War were a mere twenty years in the past.  Hitler  swallowed up Austria only six months earlier as British planners divided the home islands into “risk zones”:   “Evacuation,” “Neutral,” and “Reception.”

In some of the most gut wrenching decisions of the age, these people were planning  the evacuation of millions of their own children, in the event of war.  “Operation Pied Piper”

94330When Nazi Germany invaded Poland the following September, London Mayor Herbert Morrison was at 10 Downing Street, meeting with Chamberlain’s aide, Sir Horace Wilson.  Morrison believed that the time had come for Operation Pied Piper.  Only a year to the day from the Prime Minister’s “Peace in our Time” declaration, Wilson protested.  “But we’re not at war yet, and we wouldn’t want to do anything to upset delicate negotiations, would we?

Morrison was done with the Prime Minister’s dilatory response to Hitler’s aggression, practically snarling in his thick, East London accent “Look, ’Orace, go in there and tell Neville this from me: If I don’t get the order to evacuate the children from London this morning, I’m going to give it myself – and tell the papers why I’m doing it. ’Ow will ’is nibs like that?

Thirty minutes later, Morrison had the document. The evacuation, had begun.

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This weekend, Superbowl LIV will be played at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens Florida, in front of an expected crowd of 65,326. In 1938, forty-five times that number were mobilized in the first four days alone, primarily children, relocated from cities and towns across Great Britain to the relative safety of the countryside.

BBC History reported that, “within a week, a quarter of the population of Britain would have a new address”.  Imagine for a moment, what that looked like.  What that sounded like.

operation_pied_piper-poster (1)This was no mindless panic.  Zeppelin raids had killed 1,500 civilians in London alone during the ‘Great War’.  Since then, governments had become infinitely better at killing each other’s citizens.

As early as 1922, Prime Minister Lord Arthur Balfour had spoken of ‘unremitting bombardment of a kind that no other city has ever had to endure.’  As many as four million civilian casualties were predicted, in London alone.

BBC History describes the man in charge of the evacuation, Sir John Anderson, as a “cold, inhuman character with little understanding of the emotional upheaval that might be created by evacuation”.

Children were labeled ‘like luggage’, and sent off with gas masks, toothbrushes and fresh socks & underwear. None of them had the slightest idea of where, or for how long.

thumbnail_ww2evacueesAll things considered, the evacuation of all that humanity ran relatively smoothly.  James Roffey, founder of the Evacuees Reunion Association, recalls ‘We marched to Waterloo Station behind our head teacher carrying a banner with our school’s name on it. We all thought it was a holiday, but the only thing we couldn’t work out was why the women and girls were crying.’

Arrivals at the billeting areas, were another matter.  Many kids were shipped off to the wrong places, and rations were insufficient.  Geoffrey Barfoot, billeting officer in the seaside town of Weston-super-Mare, said ‘The trains were coming in thick and fast. It was soon obvious that we just didn’t have the bed space.’

Kids were lined up against walls and on stages, and potential hosts were invited to “take their pick”.

For many, the terrors and confusion of those first few days grew into love and friendships, which lasted a lifetime.  Others entered a hell of physical and/or sexual abuse, or worse.

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For the first time, “city kids” and country folks were finding out how the “other half” lived, with sometimes amusing results.  One boy wrinkled his nose on seeing carrots pulled out of muddy fields, saying “Ours come in tins”.  Richard Singleton recalled the first time he asked his Welsh ‘foster mother’ for directions to the toilet.  “She took me into a shed and pointed to the ground. Surprised, I asked her for some paper to wipe our bums.  She walked away and came back with a bunch of leaves.

John Abbot, evacuated from Bristol, had his rations stolen by his host family. He was horsewhipped for speaking out while they enjoyed his food while he himself was given nothing more than mashed potatoes. Terri McNeil was locked in a birdcage and left with a piece of bread and a bowl of water.

an-evac-killed-by-bus-near-blackpoolIn the 2003 BBC Radio documentary “Evacuation: The True Story,” clinical psychologist Steve Davis described the worst cases, as “little more than a pedophile’s charter.”

Eighty-odd years later, the words “I’ll take that one”, are seared into the memories of more than a few.

Hundreds of evacuees were killed because of relocation, while en route or during stays at “safe havens”.  Two boys were killed on a Cornish beach, mined to defend against German amphibious assault.

Apparently, no one had thought to put up a sign.

Irene Wells, age 8, was standing in a church doorway when she was crushed by an army truck.  One MP from the house of Commons said “There have been cases of evacuees dying in the evacuation areas. Fancy that type of news coming to the father of children who have been evacuated”.

When German air raids failed to materialize, many parents decided to bring the kids back home.  By January 1940, almost half of evacuees had returned.

980x (4)Authorities produced posters urging parents to leave the kids where they were and a good thing, too. The Blitz against London itself began on September 7. The city experienced the most devastating attack to-date on December 29, in a blanket fire-bombing that killed almost 3,600 civilians.

Sometimes, refugees from relatively safe locations were shipped into high-risk target areas. Hundreds of refugees from Gibraltar were sent into London, in the early days of the Blitz. None of them could have been happy to leave London Station, to see hundreds of locals pushing past them, hurrying to get out.

This story doesn’t only involve the British home islands, either.  American Companies like Hoover and Eastman Kodak took thousands of children in, from employees of British subsidiaries.  Thousands of English women and children were evacuated to Australia, following the Japanese attack on Singapore.

By October 1940, the “Battle of Britain” had devolved into a mutually devastating battle of attrition in which neither side was capable of striking the death blow. Hitler cast his gaze eastward the following June, with a surprise attack on his “ally”, Josef Stalin.

battle-of-britain-cleaning-up“Operation Steinbock”, the Luftwaffe’s last large-scale strategic bombing campaign of the war against southern England, was carried out three years later.  On this day in 1944, 285 German bombers attacked London in what the Brits called, a “Baby Blitz”.

You’d have to be some tough cookie to call 245 bombers, a Baby Blitz.WWII_London_Blitz_East_London-ChildrenLate in the war, the subsonic “Doodle Bug” or V1 “flying bomb” was replaced by the terrifying supersonic V2.  1,000 or more of these, the world’s first rocket, were unleashed against southern England, primarily London, killing or wounding 115,000. With a terminal velocity of 2,386mph, you never saw or heard this thing coming, until the weapon had done its work.

15092_0 (1)In the end, many family ‘reunions’ were as emotionally bruising as the original breakup.   Years had come and gone and new relationships had formed.  The war had turned biological family members, into all but strangers.

Richard Singleton remembers the day his mother came, to take him home to Liverpool.  “I had been happily living with ‘Aunty Liz and Uncle Moses’ for four years,” he recalled. “I told Mam that I didn’t want to go home. I was so upset because I was leaving and might never again see aunty and uncle and everything that I loved on the farm.”

Douglas Wood tells a similar story.  “During my evacuation I had only seen my mother twice and my father once.  On the day that they visited me together, they had walked past me in the street as they did not recognize me. I no longer had a Birmingham accent and this was the subject of much ridicule. I had lost all affinity with my family so there was no love or affection.”

The Austrian-British psychoanalyst Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud, commissioned an examination of the psychological effects of the separation. After a 12-month study, Freud concluded that “separation from their parents is a worse shock for children than a bombing.”