Small Boats, Epic Courage   Leave a comment

Late May, 1940, was a desperate time for the Allied Forces of Europe.  Germany had invaded France, Denmark, Luxembourg, and Norway and Holland and Belgium had formally surrendered. The Soviet Union had a non-aggression pact with the Nazis and the United States maintained its neutrality for another 18 months until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  By late May, 1940, Britain was standing alone against the Nazis.

Leaving aside the things Britain did to rile up Germany in the first place, the country had been strafed by the Luftwaffe and was hopelessly outgunned by the German Army, forcing the troops of the British Expeditionary Forces to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk, France. There was little hope of rescue because the water was too shallow for British destroyers to navigate.

A call went out from the British Admiralty for small boats to be used to rescue the trapped British and French soldiers.

Over 900 boats–pleasure boats, fishing trawlers, lifeboats, paddle steamers and just about anything else that could float, some captained by sailors of the Royal Navy, but most by ordinary civilians–set sail to save these men by transporting them back to England or getting them onto British destroyers.

Standing in shoulder-high water for hours, the soldiers waited to be rescued by the little boats.

I remember hearing about this in history class and I think there was an episode of the Waltons that covered it, but it became real to me a while back when my friend Carolyn shared how her grandfather was one of these ordinary sailors who participated in the rescue.


Can you imagine what it was like for this young man to set sail on a tiny boat into a war zone, and to carry back wounded soldiers? It must have taken extraordinary courage. These civilians volunteered to risk their lives to save the lives of others.

I have no way of verifying Carolyn’s grandfather’s story, but I could imagine myself in the English Channel in a tiny boat, the Nazis strafing the waters around me, bombs landing nearby while exhausted, bloody men clamored into my boat desperately hoping I could get them to safety.

The original estimate was that 30,000 men would be saved without the boats, but folks like Carolyn’s grandfather sailing the little boats managed to get 338,000 British and 80,000 French soldiers off the beach to safety.

To me, that is a triumph of the human spirit.


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