CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Dunkirk

Aug 3, 2017

The new epic war film Dunkirk is doing quite well in the cinemas. I just went to see it, and it is well worth going to. It celebrates and commemorates one of the more amazing operations carried out during WWII. The story is this: as the Germans advanced through France in May 1940, Allied troops were trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, on the northernmost coast of France, just next to Belgium.

On May 25 the War Office decided to evacuate British forces from there. With air and ground cover from British and French forces, troops were evacuated from the beach during nine days from May 27 to June 4. Every serviceable naval and civilian vessel that could be found was utilised. All up around 900 vessels were involved, with the majority of them owned and manned by civilians.

Over 338,000 men managed to escape on the 900 vessels, of which over 200 were sunk during the operation. The week-long event was called Operation Dynamo, and it was the largest evacuation in military history. As is often the case, films may not always fully line up with actual historical events.

Operation Dynamo - men wait in an orderly fashion for their turn to be rescued.

This one was pretty close, but at least two things were left out or downplayed. First, there were so many more civilians involved in this rescue effort than what the film let on. As mentioned, the bulk of the boats were owned and sailed by civilians, so we need to give them credit. Ordinary people can help change the course of history.

Second, the spiritual side of all this was left out. This was in fact a miraculous event, and plenty of prayer went into the effort. Often in times of great national crisis, dedicated public prayer is called for and heartily entered into. That was certainly the case here.

Just as the operation was to begin King George VI declared a national day of prayer while attending a special service in Westminster Abbey. Of interest, General Alan Brooke had said at the time that “Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] now.” And this seems to have been just what happened.

It is said that the failure of Hitler and the Nazis to capture the British army at Dunkirk was one of the great turning points of the war. Had they been taken, the British may have had to surrender and the entire course of the war, and of history, would have been much different.

One writeup about this time of prayer is worth quoting from:

When Britain was close to defeat during the 2nd World War, and the entire British Army was trapped at Dunkirk, in desperation George 6th called for a National Day of Prayer to be held on 26th May 1940. In a national broadcast he instructed the people of the UK to turn back to God in a spirit of repentance and plead for Divine help. Millions of people across the British Isles flocked into churches praying for deliverance and this photograph shows the extraordinary scene outside Westminster Abbey as people queued for prayer. Two events immediately followed. Firstly, a violent storm arose over the Dunkirk region grounding the Luftwaffe which had been killing thousands on the beaches. And then secondly, a great calm descended on the Channel, the like of which hadn’t been seen for a generation, which allowed hundreds of tiny boats to sail across and rescue 335,000 soldiers, rather than the estimated 20-30,000. From then on people referred to what happened as “the miracle of Dunkirk”. Sunday June 9th was officially appointed as a Day of National Thanksgiving.

And Jonathon Van Maren has also just written about the “Miracle of Dunkirk”. He says in part:

Just as the trapped British soldiers on the beach seemed sure that they would be destroyed or captured by the oncoming Nazis, a British naval officer cabled three simple words to London: “But if not.”
Those three words tell us volumes about what it means to still be in possession of a Christian culture—they were derived from Daniel 3:17-18, the King James Version—which most Britons still heard in church and was still considered the pinnacle achievement of the English language. Those three words were spoken by the three brave friends of Daniel as they faced the scorching furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar, willing to be burned rather than serve an idol.
“Our God whom we serve,” they told him, “is able to deliver us from the fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, let it be known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
But if not. The British officer who sent those words to his superior fully expected them to understand where they came from in Scripture and what they would mean. God was yet able to deliver the British from what seemed a certain fate, but if not they would resist the Nazis with all their might. In three words, we get a glimpse of what a culture—derived from the word “cultus” or centre—actually looks like. That three seemingly innocuous words would be immediately recognized and their meaning understood shows again how far we are from there to here.

Everyone was amazed by the time the evacuation had ended. Instead of 20 or 30,000 rescued, well over 335,000 were. Winston Churchill gave a speech on June 4 calling this “a miracle of deliverance”. He concluded his speech with these words:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

PC invading history

Although a terrific film, we had – typically – at least one rather moronic reviewer feeling the need to make a ludicrous PC point about the film. Brian Truitt, writing for USA Today, actually whined about the film not having major female characters nor “people of color.”

Thankfully John Nolte provided the necessary smackdown to this foolishness:

Where in the world do these freaks come from? Did Truitt do any homework about the background of this movie? He does appear to know that Nolan’s latest is based on a true story, which I guess is a start, but he probably learned that from the trailer. The real question, though, is just how clueless about history, about the biggest world event of the 20th century are you when you find it “jarring” that Wesley Snipes doesn’t show up to save the day or that Sandra Bullock is not driving a tank that will explode if it goes under 50 miles per hour?
Complaining about the lack of women and minority actors in a movie about Dunkirk is like complaining about the lack of Sinatra music in Straight Outta Compton or wondering why cancer failed to get equal time in Philadelphia or hectoring Hollywood over the omission of realistic sex scenes in the Toy Story trilogy.
And we cannot only blame Truitt, who is probably a victim of public schools. How did his trigger warning, one so feeble-minded it ranks as a non sequitur, make it past the USA Today editors? Are they all half-wits or does someone personally dislike Truitt so much they have stopped protecting him from himself?
Sorry if the following is inconvenient to your McCarthyistic desire to bully filmmakers into thinking and believing a certain way, but the settled science tells us the following: Trapped at Dunkirk were young, white males. Saving those young, white males were other white males. Trying to kill those young, white males were other white males.
Journalism is dead, and it was a suicide.

Conclusion

Let me finish with something a friend of mine recently posted on the social media:

We went with our son to see Dunkirk last weekend. I was reminded of a poem I studied in elementary school in Canada and did an internet search to see if I could find it. I did, and here it is. I love poetry, and this one captures the spirit of what was truly a miraculous event. Without the “little boats” the British (and French) armies would have been lost at Dunkirk, and England almost certainly have made peace with Hitler. The courage of ordinary people can change history.

THE LITTLE BOATS OF BRITAIN (A Ballad of Dunkirk) by Sara Carsley

On many a lazy river, in many a sparkling bay,
The little boats of Britain were dancing, fresh and gay;
The little boats of Britain, by busy wharf and town,
A cheerful, battered company, were trading up and down.

A voice of terror through the land ran like a deadly frost:
“King Leopold has left the field, our men are trapped and lost.
No battleship can reach the shore, through shallows loud with foam;
Then who will go to Dunkirk town, to bring our armies home?”

From bustling wharf and lonely bay, from riverside and coast,
On eager feet came hurrying a strange and motley host,
Young lads and grandsires, rich and poor, they breathed one frantic prayer:
“O send us with our little boats to save our armies there!”

Never did such a motley host put out upon the tide:
The jaunty little pleasure boats in gaudy, painted pride,
The grimy tugs and fishing smacks, the tarry hulks of trade,
With paddle, oar, and tattered sail, went forth on their Crusade.

And on that horror-haunted coast, through roaring bomb and shell,
Our armies watched around them close the fiery fangs of hell,
Yet backward, backward to Dunkirk they grimly battled on,
And the brave hearts beat higher still, when hope itself was gone.

And there beneath the bursting skies, amid the mad uproar,
The little boats of Britain were waiting by the shore;
While from the heavens, dark with death, a flaming torrent fell,
The little boats undaunted lay beside the wharves of hell.

Day after day, night after night, they hurried to and fro;
The screaming planes were loud above, the snarling seas below.
And haggard men fought hard with sleep, and when their strength was gone,
Still the brave spirit held them up, and drove them on and on.

And many a grimy little tramp, and skiff of painted pride
Went down in thunder to a grave beneath the bloody tide,
But from the horror-haunted coast, across the snarling foam,
The little boats of Britain brought our men in safety home.

Full many a noble vessel sails the shining seas of fame,
And bears, to ages yet to be, an unforgotten name:
The ships that won Trafalgar’s fight, that broke the Armada’s pride,
And the little boats of Britain shall go sailing by their side!

www.anglican.ink/article/national-day-prayer-time-dunkirk-1940
thebridgehead.ca/2017/08/01/the-real-story-of-the-miracle-of-dunkirk/
www.speeches-usa.com/Transcripts/winston_churchill-dunkirk.html
www.dailywire.com/news/18799/usa-today-complains-about-lack-women-and-no-lead-john-nolte#exit-modal

[1940 words – and no, I did not deliberately seek to have this many words!!]

27 Responses to Dunkirk

  • After the defeat of the Spanish Armada, a medal or coin was struck saying (I think in Latin): “God blew and they were scattered.”
    This time, God withheld the wind, and they were saved.

  • Thank you, Bill, for reminding us of God’s gift to us of the mighty power of prayer and how it can change the course of history.

    This is the sort of stuff that deserves to be preached in our churches and taught in our schools.

    As the Bible reminds us, “Where there is no vision [i.e., no redemptive revelation of God], the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

  • Thank you, Bill.

    This is both apt and timely a reminder.

    You’ve linked one of my favourite historical accounts with one of my favourite Scriptural accounts (of course, also historical!).

    Let me intertwine another of my favourite Scriptural accounts: the Israelites are stranded between Pharaoh’s army and the Red Sea. And then….

    All definitely good to be reminded of when we feel caught in the pincer movements of the “cultural wars”.

    Thanks again, Bill. I needed this article more than you could possibly know just now, and I appreciate it more than I could possibly describe.

  • Wonderful piece Bill !

  • Thanks, Bill for such a terrific article! We need to be reminded of the many times that God has intervened in man’s crusades!

  • One thinks of men like Rees Howells the founder of the Bible College of Wales, a man of prayer. He had learnt to trust God in both the small things and the big things. He may not have known when it would happen but he had a sure hope that God would deal with Hitler even when to those around all seemed lost as was the case at the time of Dunkirk.

    He and others prayed for hours regularly through the war and fasted at times as well.

  • By deal with I meant to take him out, to bring his days to an end. Probably could have made a better choice of words.

  • Many thanks indeed for this article. It is a shame that the film made no mention of the national day of prayer. I have produced an evangelistic tract for cinema-goers here in the UK on this subject, which, with your permission, I give the text of below.

    DUNKIRK AND THE MIGHTY HAND OF GOD ON OUR NATION

    The Warner Bros. film Dunkirk is vivid and dramatic, focusing as it does on the real life drama of over 300,000 British and Allied troops being rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. What many people may not know, however, is the vital part that prayer played in the miraculous rescuing of so many soldiers.

    We need to understand just how serious – strategically and militarily – the situation was in the Spring of 1940. The Low Countries and France were being quickly overrun by Hitler’s troops and the British Expeditionary Force, comprising the main body of the British army, was located in western Belgium and becoming trapped, with only one possible port to head for and escape from, namely Dunkirk.

    On Monday 27th May the German High Command asserted that “The British Army is encircled and our troops are proceeding to its annihilation” (1). So serious was the army’s predicament that Prime Minister Churchill initially expected that only some 45,000 men would be rescued from the beaches.

    However, this nation was blessed with a God-fearing king, George VI, who called for a national day of prayer on Sunday 26th May. All across the country vast numbers of people desired to join in earnest prayer, and churches were packed. The nation was being dreadfully humbled by a powerful enemy, but many, who had perhaps been careless spiritually, were at least now willing, in the nation’s hour of need, to cry out for help to the God who is the Ruler of all the nations.

    The operation to rescue the British and Allied forces began on Monday 27th May, the day after the national day of prayer. A large German tank division was under 15 miles from Dunkirk, where over 300,000 British and French soldiers were either heading or congregating. Hitler did not order his tanks to advance, thinking that the Luftwaffe on its own could prevent the soldiers amassed on the beaches from escaping. However, on Tuesday 28th May a violent storm broke out over Flanders, preventing the German Air Force from taking off. This enabled the British soldiers heading towards the beaches to reach them without coming under attack from the air.



    On Thursday 30th May fog was still grounding the Luftwaffe, facilitating the evacuation of thousands of soldiers onto waiting naval vessels. There was a further remarkable occurrence regarding the weather. The storm in Flanders notwithstanding, the English Channel during the period of evacuation became as calm as a mill pond. This enabled large numbers of “little ships” to cross the Channel to aid the rescue process, ferrying troops from the beaches to the destroyers offshore. By May 30th 126,000 soldiers had already been rescued (2). 

    The evacuation would continue over 9 days until 4th June, and this enabled altogether a total of 338,226 soldiers to be rescued (3). This outcome was nothing less than the one true Trinitarian God answering the prayers of a humbled nation. The success of the rescue mission shows us that when a people realise their need and sinfulness and cry out to God for mercy, remarkable things do indeed happen.

    Contemporary Britain in all its God-rejecting political correctness should consider the truth that its national well-being is determined by the hand of the Lord. God judges nations which defy Him. Each individual must examine his or her own heart, and turn in repentance and faith to the only Saviour of men, the Lord Jesus Christ, who died on the Cross bearing the penalty for sin, so that all who believe in Him might be acquitted and saved. Christ’s salvation of sinners is the greatest rescue mission that this world will ever know.
    Pastor Peter Simpson, Penn Free Methodist Church
    (1) The Trumpet Sounds for Britain, Jesus Is Alive Ministries, David  E. Gardner, Vol. 2, p48
    (2) www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/dunkirk_spinning_01.shtml
    (3) www.evangelical-times.org/archive/item/4265/News/Operation-Dynamo/

  • Thank you Bill.

  • Thank you also for that particular reminder, Matt. Very motivating.

  • Thanks guys. In my newest article I look in depth at prayer, Howells, and Dunkirk:

    Most people know nothing of the deep and protracted times of prayer and intercession by many godly saints who helped to bring about the “Miracle of Dunkirk”:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2017/08/03/prayer-nations-rees-howells-dunkirk/

  • Thanks for the review Bill. One question. I heard that the movie blasphemes the Name of Jesus several times. Is that true? If so, should followers of Jesus engage in entertainment that does this? I avoid this so that I’m not spending His money on on things that dishonor Him, and I don’t desensitize myself to blasphemy. I wish they would use the name of Mohammed or Allah instead.

  • To be perfectly honest John, I didn’t even notice, because I was too taken up with the film. Not because a Hollywood version of events brings spiritual inspiration, but because I knew of the spiritual realities which took place behind the actual events of 1940. I document the amazing things of God that many do not know about in my newest article:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2017/08/03/prayer-nations-rees-howells-dunkirk/

    As to some swear words in the film, there may well have been some. In times of war such would be expected I guess. As I said, I did not notice. So your call as to whether you see it or not.

  • No film I know has ever been made about Operation Hannibal in early 1945 where 1.5 Million German civilians and soldiers were evacuated from East Prussia from the utterly vengeful and rapacious Red Army and NKVD.

    On VE Day 8 May 1945 some 200,000 soldiers of Army Group North in Korland waited for the last few vessels to load – in great discipline only those with families and children were given allowed to board. The remaining 180,000 surrendered and were marched east into captivity most never to be seen again.

  • Thanks for your diversity in writing Bill. Little did I expect you to cover the latest Dunkirk movie. Now that you have given it the thumps up, I must go and see it as well. I never knew of the Dunkirk miracle, and the day of Prayer set by King George VI. The outcome of WWII would have been different had all these men been taken as prisoners of war.
    Seems such a great shame that movie directors leave out these points about the significant weather events at that time. Giving credit to the Almighty is just too much to expect.
    Bill Heggers

  • Thanks for this. I was aware Dunkirk was a miracle, but I wasn’t aware of any divine intervention – that aspect tends to be overlooked in secular history books.

    As for John’s question about blasphemy and profanity in the movie, might I suggest: .

  • Thank you Bill for this insight into the circumstances surrounding Dunkirk. I had not considered it a miracle but, by any standard, you are right in pointing out it was. The rescue operation must have been a miracle owing to the disparity in the expectation that circa 40,000 troops only could be rescued and, God in his mercy, brought home nearly 10 times that amount. I had never reflected on this and am grateful you have shone a light on this.
    I also have the prayer that George VI gave to the nation just before “D Day” in a frame standing on top of our display cabinet so that I see it every time I sit down on the sofa. There is also another well-known prayer of George VI written to herald the start of one of the years during the War which speaks of God holding a lantern and lighting our way and that we should hold fast to Him. It is humble and inspiring. God bless George VI.
    I am an expat pom who has lived in Australia for nearly 30 years and weep when I think of the England I left and the once unthinkable climate of the England of today. Still there is hope, a supreme gift of God and courageous spiritual battlers like yourself who uphold us. God bless you Bill.

  • We have a copy of the original film production of” Dunkirk” and one scene is particularly vivid. It depicts an army Chaplain holding a Sunday service which was well attended despite the threat of bombing. Of course for the dramatic effect this did happen but for me, it is a fine example of faith driven courage in the face of difficulties.

  • Bill,

    There was a famous Christian Rees Howells who was an intercessor who prayer also during WWII. I read the book when I was a young Christian. I highly recommend it.
    He changed the history of the world.
    The thing that amazed me was his obedience to God.

  • Thanks Scott. Yes I discuss in detail Rees Howells and the “Miracle of Dunkirk” here:

    billmuehlenberg.com/2017/08/03/prayer-nations-rees-howells-dunkirk/

  • I heard Major Ian Thomas (founder of Capernwray International Bible Schools) speak on his experience of Dunkirk – of the prayers of the men, of the miracle of the fog that enveloped them and how God delivered them so wonderfully. So I went to see Dunkirk to see that. I was bitterly disappointed. TO me – the film is a failure. When God has intervened in grace = you can’t cut God out and get away with it. I found the movie boring and hollow . . . and it is because they had ripped the guts out it. VERY disappointed.

  • Dear Bill,
    Thank you for this truly illuminating article.
    I was three when the war started and nine when it ended and I remember my mother talking to a former soldier when I was eleven who was rescued from Dunkirk ‘with a big gash’ [his words] down his leg.I also remember him saying it was a miracle although then I didn’t know what a miracle was. During the war I didn’t know what ‘peace’ was either when adults talked about ‘peace’.

    I was glad to see many young people at the session I went to.

    I also managed to spot one woman standing on one of the ‘little boats’ so I am sure there must have been a few. It would be interesting to find out just how many there really were.

    I also think the black and white version starring John Mills had a better story line but of course they didn’t have the technology to make the event so realistic then.

    My husband says it was the noisiest film he had ever seen but I suppose the noise would have been part of the ghastly reality.

  • Thank you for your comments. I know exactly what you mean. My wife and I stood outside two central London cinemas yesterday handing out leaflets about the national day of prayer and the hand of God in overruling all that happened. We all know that war is horrible and terrifying, but in a film 106 minutes long one needs a little relief from an ongoing attack on the senses.

    If the main characters at the end had just smiled a little more at the reality of being saved and had uttered some words of thanksgiving to God, how much more positively one would have left the cinema. Even the secular newspapers at the time were acknowledging the hand of the Almighty, and so the film should have done so as well.

  • Dear Patricia
    I thought Dunkirk was a restrained film with sparse dialogue and seemed to be surreally quiet for what was actually taking place. Not perfect but probably more realistic than the usual attempt by film makers to bring thunder and mayhem to the screen and drown our senses with noise! But, this is a film review not a comment on what was really happening in the heavens to bring these men home which through Bill’s blog I see as truly a Godly miracle. I am so pleased to read of Pastor Simpson handing out the real story behind Dunkirk outside London cinemas! Wonderful witness.

  • “There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our Island from end to end” – Winston Churchill wrote this after Dunkirk (The Second World War. 1940. Vol. 11: 88).

  • Sorry, the date for Churchill’s publication should read 1948.

  • I would not be too hard on godless Hollywood. In the introduction on the screen it talks about a ” miracle of deliverance” in smaller print but visible none the less. This is film producers way of acknowledging something beyond human understanding – in these Godless days this is an extraordinary acknowledgement.

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