I came upon this spectacle by sheer luck, though it’s only five hundred yards from my door.
I happened to try a new route for my early-morning bike ride, hoping to find a way around traffic by crossing the lawns in front of the National Maritime Museum. Ahead I beheld a field of white lilies, or perhaps a flock of flamingos.
Coming nearer, I saw that they were paper boats, on three-foot stalks.
There were hundreds of them, arranged in rows to fill a sweeping shape that seemed to be a gigantic S, straddling the path that crossed the lawn. I supposed it was an installation by an artist. There was no one around, and we returned later to take a look. Now there were some yellow-jacketed men, and I asked what it was all about.
“I was hoping you could tell me!” said Andy, deadpan.
Then he explained, with well-prepared concision.
The paper boats, exactly seven hundred, represent the civilian craft that on 26 May 1940 – seventy-seven years ago – began to rescue thousands of British, French, Belgian, and Canadian troops from their entrapment by Hitler’s armies.
The seven hundred vessels were not all: they were “the Little Ships,” merchant cargo ships, fishing boats, car ferries, tugs, yachts, pleasure dinghies, lifeboats – everything that could put to sea from ports, jetties, and beaches around hundreds of miles of England’s southern and eastern coasts. Many were meant for rivers and lakes, not the sea. Some were sailed by their owners at their owners’ insistence. Some weren’t exactly volunteered: the government scoured the banks of the Thames and made off with every usable boat. And there were even boats sent by the Dutch and Belgians and French who were already under German occupation. All these irregular craft supplemented the cruiser, destroyers, and another hundred or so vessels of the British navy.
It would be good to get a view of the paper-model array from the air, but this is the best overview I could get, from the raised portico of the building:
For, as Andy pointed out to us, the model boats were not arranged in a simple sweeping shape: they mapped the lanes across the Channel, from Dover to Dunkirk, that had to be strictly followed by all the vessels. Otherwise, collisions between destroyers and yachts, minesweepers trampling rowboats, would have compounded the disaster that the whole operation was averting. Though it had had to be planned in haste, it had had to be planned massively.
You probably know the history. The British Expeditionary Force was sent over to help defend France against the threatened German invasion. But it was a strategic mistake: Germany overran the Netherlands and Belgium, then sent three Panzer corps around to the French coast, thus encircling the B.E.F. along with fragments of the forces of Belgium and France. The French, by defending Lille, helped to delay the tightening of the encirclement and give time for the B.E.F.to withdraw to the port of Dunkirk. If it had not been for the evacuation, the whole expeditionary force would have been killed or captured.
Some men were able to jump from the jetties into the boats; others had to wade from the beach and stand in shoulder-deep water for hours until they could be taken aboard. On this first day, fewer than 8,000 were taken to safety, but the operation went on for eight days and saved more than 300,000.
It was such a “miracle of deliverance,” as Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, that he had to remind the public that it was not a victory: “Wars are not won by evacuations” (or, as he might have said, retreats, however successful). I wonder whether anyone drew the parallel with the Israelites’ crossing of the Red Sea. That, however, did turn into a victory, since the Egyptians tried to follow and got swallowed up.
The installation was commissioned by the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships and was carried out by a contractor.
And we were told that, in the afternoon, some of the surviving craft from that original heroic flotilla were to appear on the nearby reach of the Thames. However, as far as we could see, it didn’t happen.
Dunkirk Jack is the flag that may be flown only by civilian craft that took part in the evacuation. It’s the cross of St. George of England “defaced” (as the heraldic language is) with the arms of Dunkirk.