John Marriott: Are we approaching a new Dunkirk?

This story is over

My wife and I went to see the film about Dunkirk at Woodhall Spa this week and I agree with The Lincolnite film critic, Adam Brannon. It was well worth the trip.

Sitting there hearing the screaming sirens of the Stukas, seeing the burning oil, the flying bodies, and finally the triumphant arrival of the small boats led by Mark Rylance, all in a peaceful woodland setting, and following a leisurely lunch nearby, made me realise just how easy I’ve had it all my life.

Mind you, if I had been born in 1923 instead of 1943 I could have been there. In fact, my late father, as a 39-year-old member of the British Expeditionary Force, actually was. You can do the maths. Had he not managed to make it back to Blighty I wouldn’t be here today. I know that the story lines were largely symbolic rather than factual; but that it does not detract in any way from the overall impact of an outstanding movie.

My dad, who died in 1968, would never talk much about his experiences in that summer of 1940. He told me about the eight hours he claimed to have spent up to his waist in sea water waiting for a boat, the dead cows he saw in the fields as they retreated, taking pot shots with his rifle at marauding Stukas and Heinkels and the uncorroborated story of the drunken soldier on one of the small boats, perhaps his own, who was allegedly ‘silenced for ever’ by a Scottish sergeant in charge so that his singing and shouting would not attract German torpedo boats.

After landing at Ramsgate and catching the rheumatic fever that precluded further active service he spent the rest of the war as a Sergeant, plying his recently acquired civilian trade of surgical shoemaker at Kingston Barracks for the benefit of young squaddies with dodgy feet.

The fact that my father, together with over 330,000 troops, managed to escape is still the subject of controversy today. What is clear is that, had Hitler not ordered General Heinz Guderian to halt his Panzer divisions just short of Dunkirk to allow Hermann Goering’s Luftwaffe to finish the job, it is unlikely that many troops would have made it back and it is quite possible that the British government would have been forced to ask for an armistice.

As a potential vassal state of the Third Reich, we would probably have ended up without our colonies and with a Vichy type government led by the likes of Sir Oswald Mosley with the Duke of Windsor as Head of State.

To those of you who find this hard to swallow, don’t forget that, before the war, there were large sections of the ruling class and the middle and working classes, egged on by newspapers such as the Daily Mail, who favoured a rapprochement with the Nazis as a means of fighting communism. North Hykeham even had its own branch of the BUF (British Union of Fascists) that, it is alleged, used to meet at the old Hykeham Hall where ASDA now stands. Indeed, when war was finally declared, whilst most answered the call to arms, at least one member that I know of found himself interned for the duration. There was even a rumour, for which my late colleague Bill Wilson and I failed to find the evidence, that the infamous William Joyce a.k.a. “Lord Haw Haw” worked briefly at the Malleable down Station Road in the 1920s!

It’s now 77 years since those dark events were turned into a kind of victory which, thanks above all to the sacrifice of all those brave young men in their Spitfires and Hurricanes in the skies over Kent not long afterwards, managed to sustain us until the Americans decided to join in, thus probably sealing Hitler’s fate.

So, are we about to face a new kind of Dunkirk? Mass Observation was a UK based social research organisation which operated from the late 1930s to the 1960s and was revived 20 years later. The responses from the general public back then make interesting reading as they show an attitude in large sections of the population towards the importance and influence of the UK amongst other nations that has hardly charged to this day. What chimes particularly is the sense of entitlement that many of us did and still seem to feel, possibly because, as an island people, we have been used to punching above our weight, which the resources, both human and material, from our Empire enabled us to do for so long.

This really did not bear scrutiny even back then, given the reality of Dunkirk nor from what could well be emerging today both pre and post Brexit. The ‘defeat’ of the British and French forces in 1940, because that’s what it amounted to, came as a shock to many people, who still believed that Great Britain was a world power, as was reflected in the findings from Mass Observation. The rest, as they say, is history.

Seventy seven years ago, by holding back, the German Führer allowed our forces precious time to escape to fight another day. I wonder whether the putative ‘leaders’ of modern Europe will be as generous. Indeed, I wonder whether a Trump led USA will be as generous a friend to us as its Roosevelt led predecessor proved initially to be back then.