By: Jack Swift
Johnson County Historian
The evacuation of Dunkirk has been interesting to me since I studied the poem “Dunkirk” in Mrs. Cook’s Literature class when I was a freshman at good old Johnson County High School.
The Battle of Dunkirk, a heroic effort to evacuate a large number of British soldiers from the coast of France to England, saw more than 300,000 allied troops being evacuated in small boats as the German army had destroyed the larger vessels.
The Battle of Dunkirk was the scene of one of the most memorable naval actions in history when allied troops were cut off by German advances on channel ports and their only hope was to evacuate. The battle took place between May 26, 1940 and June 4, 1940. Dunkirk was destroyed but many lives were saved. Many small boats were utilized in the evacuation process and civilians became helpful for the endeavor.
A flotilla of hundreds of merchant marine boats, fishing boats, pleasure crafts, yachts, and lifeboats were called into service from Britain.
There were many poems written about the event. The one I remember is titled “Dunkirk.” By Robert Nathan. It is one of the great poems to come out of World War II. Strangely enough, I still remember a few lines from the poem that I studied many years ago. The part of the poem I remember follows:
“Will came 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 sky was pale,
And a daze in the east that looked like smoke. The poem continues to describe the heroics of young Will, 16, and his 14-year-old sister Beth as they braved the water and gunfire to be a small but important part of the rescue operation.