Great escape that led to victory

SUN JOURNAL

Dunkirk: The rescue of its troops gave Britain a chance to withstand Nazi Germany. The response of soldiers and civilians to near-disaster is recorded in an exhibition in London.

May 21, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Christopher Seton-Watson recalls the desperate British retreat, roads jammed with trucks, refugees and soldiers, and a 20-mile walk to the French port Dunkirk."We saw the blue sea and the ships, and we thought we were home," he says. "Then, all at once, German planes sank two of our ships, and we thought, we're not quite home yet."

Sixty years ago, Europe's future hinged on soldiers such as Seton-Watson and on Britain's standing alone against Adolf Hitler's Germany.

It was 1940. Winston Churchill had become British prime minister, proclaiming, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat." At Dunkirk, more than 330,000 British and French soldiers were rescued by an armada of military ships and pleasure craft, an operation historian William Manchester saluted as "English fathers, sailing to rescue England's exhausted, bleeding sons."

And the Battle of Britain began.

That dramatic chapter of World War II is recalled at the Imperial War Museum in an illuminating exhibition, "Spitfire Summer," which takes its name from the British warplanes that helped hold off the German Luftwaffe.

Mixing photos, diaries and mementos such as scraps of downed German aircraft and a blood-stained flag used to stanch a wound at Dunkirk, Britain's "finest hour" is brought to life in an exhibition that runs to Nov. 26.

There may be a blend of old songs and Churchill's voice playing over loudspeakers, but this is no nostalgic waltz down memory lane. There's a letter from Princess Elizabeth, the future queen, to her grandmother, Queen Mary, telling of the "horrible attack on Buckingham Palace" and of a visit to a working-class neighborhood where she saw "ghastly" damage, yet remarked that "the people are ... full of fight."

There's Denis Wissler's love letter to Edith Heap, written three weeks before the pilot's death in the autumn.

And there's 12-year-old Stephen MacFarlane's drawing of an aerial dogfight.

The exhibition deals with difficult days, when Britain rescued its troops, prepared for invasion, absorbed German bombardment and staved off defeat - all in the year before the United States entered the war."It was an exceptional year, with a whole series of extraordinary events taking place" says Penny Ritchie Calder, head of exhibitions at the museum. "We look at the lives of ordinary people doing extraordinary things in an extraordinary way."

The Imperial War Museum, in a gray neighborhood south of the Thames River, is an uncommon gem that lies just off the usual tourist trail. Its collection of vintage weaponry and informative displays tells the story of two world wars in vivid detail, from the valor of soldiers to the toll war takes on civilians. Visitors can also experience the stench and darkness of life in a World War I trench and the claustrophobic feel of a World War II air-raid shelter.

Next month, Queen Elizabeth II will open a permanent exhibition on the Holocaust.

The museum's other sites include the Cabinet War Rooms, the fortified basement near the prime minister's 10 Downing Street residence, from which Churchill directed operations, the HMS Belfast, a World War II cruiser, and Duxford airfield near Cambridge, which houses historic military aircraft and vehicles.

After the mid-1990s rush of 50th anniversary programs marking such events as D-Day, VE Day and VJ Day, planners at the museum realized that the public had an appetite to know more about World War II's crucial points. They decided to launch another anniversary exhibition, focusing on 1940.

It was a time when politician Henry (Chips) Channon wrote: "I wonder as I gaze upon the gray and green Horse Guards parade with the blue sky, the huge silver barrage balloons like blowing elephants, the barbed-wire entanglements and soldiers about, is this really the end of England?"

Another political diarist, Harold Nicholson, noted, "We are really proud to be the people who will not give way."

Dunkirk, a defeat turned great escape, fired the country's imagination and fit Britons' self-image as sturdy, stubborn and, ultimately, unconquerable.

With France about to fall and Allied soldiers cut off, the British saved their army and, eventually, their island. In late May and early June, under enemy fire, rescue ships headed across the English Channel and plucked the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk.

Playwright J.B. Priestley wrote of the evacuation: "And our great grandchildren, when they learn how we began this war by snatching glory out of defeat, and then swept on to victory, may also learn how the little holiday steamers made an excursion to hell, and came back glorious."

The other day Dunkirk veterans returned to the museum, to pose for pictures by the smallest of the rescue ships, a 15-foot fishing boat, Tamzine. With the veterans was 10-year-old Tamzine Neale, great-great-granddaughter of the boat's builder.

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