It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes things ‘connect’?
Although I wasn’t born until long after The Evacuation of Dunkirk, it’s always hung there, over me, throughout my life. My dad was one of the 350,000 men rescued from its beaches in May 1940 by one of the ‘Little Boats’, and I have come to believe it was, perhaps, the defining moment in his life.
My dad was a good, honest, hardworking, honourable man, and I sometimes think any illusions he had about mankind were, literally, shot to hell on the beaches of Dunkirk. He didn’t speak about Dunkirk very often, but when he did, one of his memories was of watching Nazi pilots bomb a hospital ship clearly marked with the Red Cross.
The second ‘connection’… ? A friend and I were talking about our favourite Christmas movies. Mine is The Bishop’s Wife, made in 1947, starring Loretta Young (who looked like my Mum) and Cary Grant. What has that to do with Dunkirk? Well it turns out, the original book of The Bishop’s Wife was written by American writer Robert Nathan who also wrote a poem about Dunkirk.
There weren’t just men on the beach at Dunkirk. British army nurses were rescued from those beaches too. And I love the idea – as in this poem – that at least one of those Little Boats had a girl on board too.
Will came back from school that day,
And he had little to say.
But he stood a long time looking down
To where the gray-green Channel water
Slapped at the foot of the little town,
And to where his boat, the Sarah P,
Bobbed at the tide on an even keel,
With her one old sail, patched at the leech,
Furled like a slattern down at heel.
He stood for a while above the beach,
He saw how the wind and current caught her;
He looked a long time out to sea.
There was steady wind, and the sky was pale,
And a daze in the east that looked like smoke.
Will went back to the house to dress.
He was half way through, when his sister Bess
Who was near fourteen, and younger than he
By just two years, came home from play.
She asked him, “Where are you going, Will?”
He said, “For a good long sail.”
“Can I come along?”
“No, Bess,” he spoke.
“I may be gone for a night and a day.”
Bess looked at him. She kept very still.
She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,
How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,
And the fleet had gone to get them out
But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.
There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.
She looked at him, and he looked at her.
They were English children, born and bred.
He frowned her down, but she wouldn’t stir.
She shook her proud young head.
“You’ll need a crew,” she said.
They raised the sail on the Sarah p,
Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance,
And headed the Sarah out to sea,
To bring their soldiers home from France.
There was no command, there was no set plan,
But six hundred boats went out with them
On the gray-green waters, sailing fast,
River excursion and fisherman,
Tug and schooner and racing M,
And the little boats came following last.
From every harbor and town they went
Who had sailed their craft in the sun and rain,
From the South Downs, from the cliffs of Kent,
From the village street, from the country lane.
There are twenty miles of rolling sea
From coast to coast, by the seagull’s flight,
But the tides were fair and the wind was free,
And they raised Dunkirk by fall of night.
They raised Dunkirk with its harbor torn
By the blasted stern and the sunken prow;
They had reached for fun on an English tide,
They were English children bred and born,
And whether they lived, or whether they died,
They raced for England now.
Bess was as white as the Sarah’s sail,
She set her teeth and smiled at Will.
He held his course for the smoky veil
Where the harbor narrowed thin and long.
The British ships were firing strong.
He took the Sarah into his hands,
He drove her in through fire and death
To the wet men waiting on the sands.
He got his load and he got his breath,
And she came about, and the wind fought her.
He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.
He saw his England were she lay,
The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,
Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,
The English cliffs and the English loam
He had fourteen men to get away,
And the moon was clear, and the night like day
For planes to see where the white sails creep
Over the black water.
He closed his eyes and prayed for her;
He prayed to the men who had made her great,
Who had built her land of forest and park,
Who had made the seas an English lake;
He prayed for a fog to bring the dark;
He prayed to get home for England’s sake.
And the fog came down on the rolling sea,
And covered the ships with English mist.
The diving planes were baffled and blind.
For Nelson was there in the Victory,
With his one good eye, and his sullen twist,
And guns were out on The Golden Hind,
Their shot flashed over the Sarah P.
He could hear them cheer as he came about.
By burning wharves, by battered slips,
Galleon, frigate, and brigantine,
The old dead Captains fought their ships,
And the great dead Admirals led the line.
it was England’s night, it was England’s sea.
The fog rolled over the harbor key.
Bess held to the stays, and conned him out.
And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake
Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,
There at his side sat Francis Drake,
And held him true, and steered him home.
And, at the risk of promoting myself, I have also written a short memoir of retracing my father’s experiences at Dunkirk in, In My Father’s Footsteps.