Was Dunkirk a Miracle or a Disaster? Essay

September 4th 1939, Germany invaded Poland and refused to leave, in return Britain declared war. For the next six months Hitler did nothing, tricking Churchill into thinking he was satisfied with his regained land naming it a ‘Phoney War’.

April 1940, the end of the Phoney War. Hitler attacked Norway and Denmark and by the end of May Hitler had invaded Holland as well as Belgium! Churchill realised this anti-clockwise pattern and new that France was next. He decided to send in the British Expeditionary Force and promised to defend the country from invasion.

June 1940, Germany won their attack. The soldiers fled to Dunkirk and 328,000 men out of 400,000 were saved, but was this really a Miracle or a Disaster?

After World War I, the Maginot Line was built on the French and German border in hope of preventing further attack. The British thought Germany would attack through Belgium using Blitzkrieg, so placed the BEF along the border. To their amazement, the Germans had a surprise attack through the Ardennes. France didn’t expect this as the Ardennes has dense forestry and is mountainous so the idea of Blitzkrieg was seen as impossible because German tanks wouldn’t be able to transport through. Germany trapped the BEF in a pincer movement and the only place to go was the coast.

As hungry soldiers hurried to the channel ports of Dunkirk with the fear of death, many felt guilty as they past hardships of Dunkirk such as children’s corpses in town ruins.

Operation Dynamo was launched. Admiral Ramsey persuaded anyone with boats to help with evacuations, but Germany didn’t make this easy, they mined the sea forcing Britain to travel the long way round. Also the Luftwaffe destroyed jetties stopping ships docking and bombed boats and soldiers on the beach. The evacuation took nine to ten days.

Churchill described the soldiers as heroes but many felt ashamed of needing rescuing and failing. Others felt relieved to be alive.

The evacuation of the BEF from Dunkirk in May 1940 was seen as a Miracle to many Historians. For example in source 1 David Knowles explains how ‘A miracle is the best description of what happened,’ and brings up how private boat owners such as fishermen helped to rescue soldiers at their time of need. This information’s extracted from his book ‘Escape from Catastrophe’ in 2002 meaning it’s a Secondary piece of evidence. The source is reliable as the Historian has gathered many pieces of evidence and conjoined them into one but it’s also his opinion, ‘ A miracle is the best description of what happened at Dunkirk’ making it non-reliable because it only shows one side of the story. This source was published for people to buy the book so a negative aspect is points being exaggerated, ‘The escape captured the minds and hearts of the British people.’

Source 2 gives statistics and facts adding onto source 1, ‘Almost 340,000, 71 heavy guns and 595 vehicles were rescued’, and tells us the RAF ‘shot down three German planes for every British plane lost.’ This source is from an ‘Essential Modern World History’ book by Ben Walsh. The information could be valid as it is from a book of learning but where the book is modern world history it doesn’t cover the topic in great accuracy and gives little detail. For example it says, ‘The efficiency of the operation showed how powerful and effective the Royal Navy was,’ but does not explain how and why.

The next source is especially made to provide people with information. The front page of the British newspaper ‘The Daily Express’ was edited on 31st May 1940 to inform people of Britain that ‘one of the most magnificent operations in history’ is occurring. The bold main heading ‘Tens of thousands safely home already’ gives the reader a positive attitude about this operation. By using the word ‘already’ exaggerates on how fast paced this operation is and stating that ‘many more are coming by day AND night’ raises the morale of people because it makes them think that the operation is going well and Britain is not going to give up.

Also, the newspaper emphasises on the strengths of the British and how they work as a team, ‘under the wings of the British fleet, under the wings of the Royal Air Force’ giving the impression that without the British Fleet and the RAF these soldiers would not have made it back to England, and gives the reader a sense of dedication towards their country to keep fighting. This source doesn’t actually provide any negative statements about the operation as a newspaper is something someone would want to read about and if there was a negative points towards Operation Dynamo, British people would worry and loose hope. The whole idea of newspapers was propaganda and Churchill was the King of it. He only told his people what he thought they wanted to hear.

This leads onto the next source. Source 6 is a cartoon by British Artist David Low. It’s a primary piece of evidence as it was published in the London newspaper, ‘The evening Standard’ 8th June 1940. He’s named the painting ‘to fight another day’. The painting shows boats of different sizes carrying soldiers to safety while gunfire spray the water from German planes.

Even though some people saw Dunkirk as a Miracle, many people thought of it as a Disaster. Italy was yet to choose a side of the war, after Dunkirk they decided to join with Germany. An Italian cartoonist published a cartoon showing the Great British Lion being chased out of France retreating to Britain. It’s a primary source, published a short while after Dunkirk which is good reason to call it reliable, but it can also be classed as non-reliable because it is an Italians point of view of how Germany looked the stronger side. The cartoon is valid as it shows that Germany won Britain as they ran away and Hitler regained land.

There are many reasons why Dunkirk is seen as a disaster. Source 8 is a school History textbook on Global War by Josh Brooman, 1999. Immediately this tells me it is a book of learning so will state facts and will had collected different evidence because it is secondary, but where it covers such a large area of war history it will not be in great detail. The book states, ‘Nearly 70,000 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The survivors left 2,500 big guns, 90,000 riffles and 64,000 vehicles.’ Many families and friends will say how this event is a disaster because hey had lost someone close which gave them a negative attitude towards war. Thousands of pounds were lost as British were forced to leave all equipment on the beach. Soldiers destroyed what had to be abandoned because they didn’t want the Germans to have use of them.

For soldiers who escaped German attack at Dunkirk, faced the cheers of people back home. People saw the soldiers as heroes and praised them but many of the soldiers felt this great feeling of guilt inside. Source 8 states ‘they also abandoned 150,000 of their French allies to become prisoners of the Germans.’ Britain’s mission was to protect France from German attack and to stop Hitler’s army entering. They had failed and ‘France was soon defeated and surrendered to the Germans.’ Not only did they fail to stop Germany, Britain was now totally alone as an island without any help knowing that they were next on Hitler’s list.

There were many books and interviews published about the tragedies of Dunkirk many years after the event. Brian Horrocks, an evacuee from Dunkirk wrote an autobiography about his memoirs of the event – published in 1960. He’s an eyewitness that makes it a primary piece of evidence written on behalf of all the soldiers when he states, ‘If you ask anybody what they remember most clearly about the retreat to Dunkirk they will all mention two things – shame and exhaustion.’

This is a very valid source as it tells you straight to the point what his and other people’s thoughts are about the incident. Men had gone for days without food or water and had to keep running for safety from the Germans. Again the negative aspect of an autobiography is that things can become exaggerated to make their selves sound good for example ‘All I could do as I passed these groups of miserable people was to mutter “Don’t worry – we will come back.” Over and over again.’ This makes him look like a head strong, never giving up attitude person when the chances are he was as miserable as the other people and scared.

Another primary source is Ivan Daunt, he was at Dunkirk and was interviewed in 2004 for BBC. 2004 is many years after the event and the soldiers’ might have forgotten some detail about Dunkirk. ‘There was no food and we thought we were going to starve.’ Ivan seemed to remember a lot about the negative parts of the story and to add to this he says ‘I had just a few months with a rifle and no proper field training and there they were all this equipment and organisation.’ Britain obviously was not as well organised as Germany as they sent untrained men on one of the most important missions with rifles they have never used before and little experience. Whilst Hitler on the other hand had new technology, well equipped, trained soldiers who knew what they were doing. Britain could be compared as shambles to Germany’s response to Dunkirk.

I think Dunkirk is mainly a disaster because Britain failed their mission to protect France from Hitler’s army attacking. Also, Britain lost huge amounts of money due to machinery such as vehicles and guns was destroyed or abandoned and even though morale was on a high in Britain the soldiers who had witnessed this event felt ashamed of running away like cowards. I think it was stupid of Churchill to send untrained soldiers to France on a very important mission, this shows how very little organisation there was.

Also, Italy had seen this as a failure to Britain and looked at Germany as the stronger country and joined their side, as well as France just taken over leaving Britain alone.

Dunkirk did also have upsides; it was a miracle how many people were actually saved and how British fishermen were prepared to sacrifice their lives to help save the soldiers. America also agreed that it was a miracle as they were stunned how many were rescued and unharmed. I think the British people’s thoughts of Dunkirk were only a miracle as they were lead wrongly by the press and propaganda. They were told only good points about operation Dynamo and Dunkirk to keep morale up and not for people to doubt Churchill. So in conclusion, Dunkirk was a short-term disaster but a long-term defeat,

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