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The beaches of Dunkirk were full of menace

In May of 1940, she started dreaming about the beach. But the dreams were not of sun and sand and picnics; instead they were full of fear and menace. Now that all the beaches were off-limits to everyone except the military and were covered with heavy 8-foot-tall coils of barbed wire, and some, it was rumored, were even mined, the beaches had become a symbol of the ever-present danger and fear with which they all lived.

She lived in a small house near the sea, in Weymouth on the English Channel, and she and her family and the whole of the British Isles were focused on that small strip of water between the coasts of England and France and the desperate struggle the British Expeditionary Forces were waging as they were being driven back mile by mile, foot by foot, to the French coast by the German Panzer divisions. They had only days to reach the sea and then what would happen? No one wanted to think about it.

But the unthinkable happened and the British arrived at the beach at Dunkirk before anyone was prepared.

At first they were simply trapped there, exhausted and beaten, but even though they had surrendered, the Germans were still strafing and bombing them. There wasn’t much shelter in the fields on the cliffs above the beach. Casualties mounted as the small stream of men grew into the hundreds and then to thousands. And then the rescue mission began.

The Royal Navy, the merchant marine, the fishing fleet, all began converging on the Dunkirk beaches and taking as many of the harrowed and desperate men aboard as they could cram onto their decks, all in the face of heavy enemy fire. The operation went on for days. Many vessels were sunk before they could even turn around, and it soon became clear there were not nearly enough of them.

A call went out to anyone along the southwest coast of England who had a boat to join in the rescue attempt. And from every coastal village, every resort town, every port and harbor, the call was answered as hundreds of boats — sailboats, motorboats, tugs, scows, even rowboats — everything from the fanciest sailing launch to outboards and ferries, anything that floated, put forth into the choppy waters of the English Channel, made their way to the French coast and gathered up as many of the soldiers as they could and took them home. And then, turned right around and went back for more. Night and day, a steady stream of boats plied back and forth between the two coasts. Many of them were lost in the merciless German attacks.

The English on the other side set up receiving stations, first aid facilities, canteens and resting places for the exhausted and traumatized men, many of whom were wounded, many covered in oil from the sunken ships and most of whom hadn’t eaten in days. Although Dunkirk itself is almost directly across from Dover and Folkstone, the boats spread out and brought survivors back to different harbors along the coast. Weymouth is quite far to the southeast, but still many boats put in there as other ports began filling up.

Weymouth set up a receiving station near the wharf where a canteen dispensed food, hot drinks and warm clothes, as well as arranging places for men to rest and sleep.

The girl volunteered at one of the canteens. She was only 14 and her mother wasn’t sure about it, but the girl was completely determined and her mother gave in and joined her. They stood together behind the counter smiling and handing out buns and thick china mugs of tea. The two of them stood for hours as the boats kept on coming, unloading their weary passengers. And when they finally went home and fell into bed, they both had bad dreams. They got up and went back the next day, and the next, until the flood of refugees lessened to a few stragglers and finally, no more.

Three hundred thirty thousand troops in all were stranded on the beach at Dunkirk, but more than half of them were rescued in that heroic effort. That effort was surely one of the bravest and most selfless acts of the war, made by more unknown heroes than any other.

It was also one of the most unsung. But the fact of all those hundreds of people, volunteering themselves and their boats despite all the hazards must be a high point of that or any other time as an example of selfless service in the face of high peril.

Dunkirk was a turning point of the war. “The Fall of France” was a phrase to make everyone’s blood run cold. Now there was nothing between the British and the whole might of the massive German forces except the 22 miles of water of the English Channel.

At night now, the girl’s dreams were nightmares about the goose-stepping German gestapo, the fear of invasion by the most cold-blooded and cruel of their enemies and suffused by the feeling of helplessness she sensed all around her.

No one knew what was going to happen. It could not be anything but terrible.

Chloe Scott is a member of Lake Oswego Adult Community Center.




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