For those with a greater-than 7-second attention span, here is William Manchester’s take on the subject:
The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought free and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a fishing town whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.
It was England’s greatest crisis since the Norman conquest, vaster than those precipitated by Philip II’s Spanish Armada, Louis XIV’s triumphant armies, or Napoleon’s invasion barges massed at Boulogne. This time Britain stood alone. If the Germans crossed the Channel and established uncontested beachheads, all would be lost…
Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On Flanders beaches they stood around… like purgatorial souls awaiting disposition. There appeared no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI had been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.” Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters; the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw – all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted, bleeding sons. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Visions of Glory, 1874 – 1932 © 1983 by William Manchester.
In the end, over 338,000 men, to include French support troops were evacuated. Why did it work to well? For the very simple reason that no one was in charge. There was a need, and highly motivated men came to fill it. There was no government bureaucratic oversight getting in the way, no EPA fascist standing on the dock conducting emissions testing before a boat could launch, and certainly no one checking the specs on the water craft prior to launch. Come to think of it, I’m certain there were plenty of watercraft that could not make the crossing, held back by the boat operators through commonsense.
A total of 39 British destroyers participated in the evacuation during the nine-day operation in the Spring of 1940, but the lion’s of the British Expeditionary Force owed their lives to the 800 private vessels in what became known as the “Miracle of Dunkirk.”
And that, may explain why we’ve all but erased this event from our national consciousness. Big Government can’t take credit, and therefore has no incentive to put it into the curriculum in government schools.
The inescapable fact is that individuals, sometimes acting alone, sometimes working in concert, but always acting willingly execute great events in history. No one ever did anything great with a bureaucrat’s gun to his head.
Tragically, William Manchester passed away in 2004. Two strokes suffered after the death of his wife in 1998 left him unable to complete the trilogy. Manchester requested his friend, Paul Reid finish the work. Together, the 3 volumes of The Last Lion are a great read and stand as the definitive biography for Winston Churchill.