Dunkirk: 'The motliest armada that ever went to sea' - Macleans.ca

Dunkirk: ‘The motliest armada that ever went to sea’

From the archives in 1940: As Allied troops flee Dunkirk, former British MP and Canadian-born journalist Beverley Baxter describes a nation facing the onslaught of fate


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    LONDON, June 5. (By cable) — I have just come home after listening to Winston Churchill tell us the heroic story of the grandest rearguard action in history, when the British Expeditionary Force, surrounded and betrayed, outnumbered and outgunned, fought its way to the sea.

    With a splendid honesty he warned us not to confuse this with a victory, that wars are not won by evacuation. Later he said: “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches and the landing grounds, in the fields, in the streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender.”

    That was the climax to the most intense, heartbreaking fortnight my memory can recall.

    I am writing these words in the library of my lonely house. The garden lawn is already looking parched from the sunlight that never seems to stop for an hour until it reluctantly gives way to twilight and dusk. There has never been such a spring in living memory. Nights are lit with starry magic and days glow with a delicious golden warmth that transforms England into an island paradise. Yet there is such an ominous silence over the whole country that the wireless with its tom-tom jungle fox-trots sounds like a lunatic’s mirthless laughter.

    I think London today must be something like Atlanta in the American Civil War, as the armies fell steadily back and the noise of gunfire grew louder each hour.

    (GERMANY OUT) 2.WW Campaign in the west / battle of France 10.05.-22.06.1940: Dunkirk evac?ation of british BEF and french troops (26.05.-04.06.). : Allied troops on the beach waiting for evacuation. about (ullstein bild/Getty Images)

    Allied troops on the beach waiting for evacuation (ullstein bild/Getty Images)

    To understand the change that has come over life in Britain I shall try to describe a few incidents which reveal in simple fashion the altered tempo of events.

    At an East Coast port a British destroyer was in for repairs. You have never seen such a disreputable craft. Her paint was all gone and she looked as if she had been for a six-months carouse.

    As I was speaking in the town at lunchtime, the officers invited me on board for a little preliminary hospitality.

    They were a charming bunch of youngsters, good-looking, merry, and full of quaint stories.

    A month before, they had sunk a submarine and taken a German captain on board. “We fixed him up with dry clothes,” they said, “and then the captain asked him to join us for a drink. The captain introduced him by saying: ‘Do you know Lieut. Smith? Do you know Lieut. Jones? Do you know Commander Green?’ The German said no in each case and shook hands.” When they were ordered home to England the whole destroyer’s crew had a sixpenny sweepstakes as to when they would enter harbor. As the German captain had no money, they loaned him sixpence and he bought a ticket. You can guess the rest. He won the sweep and went ashore with three pounds, fifteen shillings, in his pockets.

    When the time came to leave my hosts, they all came on deck, when suddenly a gust of wind brought the pounding of guns from across the narrow strip of sea. At once their faces changed.

    They became grimly alert. “It looks like a spot of bother,” they said. Then they shouted “cheerio,” and waved goodby. The thunder of guns grew louder. The war on the Continent was reeling drunkenly toward the Channel Ports and Britain.

    Heroes of the Air

    FOR more than twenty years I have enjoyed the friendship of Sir Arnold Wilson, former High Commissioner in Mesopotamia, a colleague in the House of Commons and an aerial gunner in the last war. For a long time he believed in Hitler and worked openly for friendship with Germany.

    When this war came he was fifty-five years of age, and one day he took me aside in the House of Commons. “I was wrong,” he said, “and because of my pro-Hitlerism I may have played some part, however small, in helping the Nazis. There is only one thing I can do. I shall rejoin the Air Force as a gunner, and I shall do what I can to make restitution.” He was offered staff jobs at his old rank of Colonel, both in the Army and Air Force, but he refused. Taking the most junior rank, he joined the puzzled boys of eighteen and nineteen and went into the air with them.

    When the Norway show came, he was in the fight by day and by night. Then he returned to the House of Commons for the two days debate that brought down Chamberlain, and spoke to a House that was deeply moved. There was a startling change in his appearance. He was gaunt. His eyes had deep shadows beneath them. I asked him if it was not time for him to take an administrative job as he had cleansed his soul.

    “I could not do that now,” he said. “You see, those young boys have come to look to me for guidance when things go wrong in the air. They laugh at me, but they love me, and for their sake I shall stick it to the end.” 

    Four days ago Lord Beaverbrook sent for me and asked me to join his Ministry of Aircraft Production, paying special attention to creating a closer bond of understanding between aircraft workers and the Royal Air Force. At once I determined to get hold of Arnold Wilson and send him on a speaking tour of the aircraft factories. Then I thought I would leave it until today, when he would be certain to be at the House to hear Churchill. But he was not there. Tonight on the way home I bought an evening paper. Arnold Wilson had been posted as missing. Every day he had been in the air over the Battle of Flanders and by night he carried the war into Germany.

    I know that the tragedy of war is the slaughter of youth and the heartbreak of women. Yet my very body aches with grief for the Englishman of fifty-five who joined up to clear his conscience, and remained because the youngsters needed him.

    Loel Guinness was a rich young man with a most attractive smile, who entered Parliament. A week-end on his yacht was always something for his friends to remember. His other hobby was flying, and he became a Territorial peacetime pilot. Frankly, Guinness was not much good as an M.P. The House frightened him, and he never spoke.

    When war came he was given command of a squadron of Spitfire fighters. Last week when Leopold betrayed Gort’s British Army, Loel’s squadron was given a job harassing the German Air Force. Today, stories of that squadron’s achievements have become a legend. They fought literally without sleep. Sometimes three times a day they took off from England and made for the inferno across the Channel. Nothing could keep Guinness on the ground. His pilots pleaded with him. but with his grin and his baldish head he led his reckless flights into such battles as men had never dreamed of.

    One of his bravest young officers was Max Aitken, the handsome boy who is Lord Beaverbrook’s heir. He is also an excellent speaker.

    “What about getting Loel Guinness to transfer Max to me for a short tour of duty?” I asked Beaverbrook.

    Beaverbrook’s lips trembled as he answered: “I would be so glad.” he said. “But Max wouldn’t come. You see, none of them would leave Loel Guinness now.”

    Glorious Armada

    IN THOSE far-off days when my wife and children lived here, my son Clive developed a great liking for Brighton. Particularly was he intrigued with the sailing boats drawn up on the shingle with an ancient mariner calling out: “Now, then, who’s for the Saucy Sue? Only a sixpence for a trip on the briny.”

    Another type of ship that fascinated both Clive and his sister, Meribah, was the Brighton Belle, a preposterous paddle steamer that used to sidle into Brighton pier like a flirtatious elephant and take the hoi polloi for journeys down the coast. There was the Crested Eagle, too, that would pass the House of Commons terrace on its way to the sea. and there was quite a swell called the Brighton Queen.

    War and Conflict, World War II, pic: May/June 1940, The Battle of Dunkirk (Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)
    The Battle of Dunkirk (Paul Popper/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

    Five days ago an order went out that all and any craft that could float was to make its way to Dunkirk and await orders. From all over the coasts they set sail, the motliest armada that ever went to sea. There were dinghies, launches, paddlesteamers, trawlers, lifeboats and barges.

    Eight hundred strong they straggled across and came under a hell of fire from German bombers by day and by night as they plied their way back and forth, bringing French and British wounded and dying, blinded soldiers, and others who joked and sang the whole way across.

    As bombs and shells fell around them the ancient mariners of the English beaches shouted: “Now, then, who’s for a sail on the Saucy Sue? Half price today and you can have it on tick if you can’t pay.” And as they played their part in the rescue of more than three hundred thousand British soldiers, the Brighton Belle went down, and the Brighton Queen quivered with a last gesture of stateliness and sank slowly beneath the waves. The Crested Eagle, that used to skim the very terrace of the House of Commons, was broken in two and died, and the Medway Queen and the Grade Fields and other little boats that were Saucy This and Saucy That went down before the devilish onslaught from the skies.

    When my children come back in happier times and we go to Brighton and walk along the beach, I shall never hear the cry of "Who’s for the Saucy Sue?" without memories of the time when they put to sea to bring the Army of Britain home.

    There is trouble in Little Essex. At the Port of Aldeburgh they had two new lifeboats, manned by volunteers, and had done some excellent rescue work with wrecks. When the order came to send lifeboats to Dunkirk, there was a call for twenty-eight volunteers to go with the two boats. Every place was filled immediately, and they duly set off. But forty-eight hours later the twenty-eight men returned full of oaths and frowns. The Admiralty had taken their boats and sent them home. I am told that Aldeburgh is no place to visit just now. There are twenty-eight men so filled with anger that a chance remark in the village pub might precipitate an all-English Blitzkrieg of its own.

    Island of Incognito

    LAST Sunday I set off to address the employees of a factory somewhere in the West Country. It would have been easy to reach by taking the Great West Road turning off for Staines and passing Sunningdale and so on. But where was Staines? Where was anything? Every road sign had been removed during the night. Even the village signs had gone, and crossroads were unmarked by a single post. England has become the Island of Incognito. If you want to ask your way, it will be pretty tough for you if you have come down by parachute and have a German accent.

    At twelve o’clock noon the workers of the factory gathered to hear my message of thanks and encouragement from the Government. They work two shifts, twelve hours each, seven days a week. They have surrendered the rights and privileges which have been won through the years.

    There is no freedom in Britain today. The people of these islands have put their freedom in pawn until the day of victory comes. No worker can seek another job without consent, nor accept an offer at higher pay. No farm laborer can leave the land for the town. If the Government decrees it, anyone of any position can be sent to the mines or the shipyards, and there is no appeal. If I am an industrialist and my profits exceed the level of the last peace year, the entire extra profit is taken by the State.

    It took less than four hours for both Houses of Parliament to pass the bill that ended our liberties, and to receive Royal assent. Not one voice was raised against it.

    Here is a letter sent to one of our newspapers. “My husband was killed in a battle of the B.E.F. I loved him so dearly that I send my golden wedding ring with the request that you will send it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It is in memory of my husband, and he would want me to do what I can to help our beloved country.”

    Ten minutes ago I bought a newspaper from a man so old that he shivered slightly even in the warm sunshine. “I wouldn't be doing this for five minutes,” he said, “if I was younger.” And his old frame straightened for a moment before it bowed again to the weakness of the years.

    Yesterday I ran into a friend of mine who had just come back from Dunkirk. His face was haggard and there was the look in his eyes that can only come to men who have gazed into the face of Hell.

    "On Friday," he said, "we were holding the line to let some of our battalions fall back. The Germans were pressing us hard and getting their tanks and armored cars into position. Then, suddenly on our right we heard the most blood-curdling yells. It was a company of Seaforth Highlanders who suddenly fixed bayonets and went at the enemy like savages. I don’t know whether it was their shouts or their bayonets that terrified the Germans most, but they squealed for mercy and ran about like rabbits. Of all the dramatic things I saw in the battle the one that haunts me is the glaring eyes of the Scots and their wild cries as they leaped on the Germans.”

    Three months ago Sir Andrew Duncan was appointed President of the Board of Trade. He had been a big man in the steel industry but never a politician, and there was a slight resentment in Parliament that the Government had seen fit to go outside to fill the job. But Andrew Duncan soon made friends. His modesty, his smile, made friends of us all.

    One night we had a drink together in the smoke-room and fell to discussing the subjects of happiness and success.

    "I don’t know about success,” said Sir Andrew, "nor do I care greatly. But I have found my happiness in the companionship of my wife and my two boys.” Yesterday when Churchill was speaking about casualties at the front, he stopped and turned toward the front bench.

    “The President of the Board of Trade is not in his place today,” he said quietly. "He has just received word that his son has been killed at the Front.”

    So the hours pass and the days are heavy with grief, though the sun is never absent from the sky, and the moon touches everything with the magic of a shimmering loveliness. If Britain should be beaten to her knees and the Pax Britannica be succeeded by the Pax Germanica, I wonder if the world begins to realize what will be lost?

    Condemn Britain for her slothfulness, for her over-reverence of tradition, for her bankruptcy of vital leadership, for her confused thinking. But where else will tolerance and fairness and honor and justice find their home?

    We await the onslaught of fate. I do not doubt the ultimate decision, for I do not believe that this people will ever admit defeat. But whatever comes, who would not be proud to stand with them at this hour, playing what part he can for all that is decent and of good repute in this cruel mechanized world.

    "Who lives if England dies? Who dies if England lives?"

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