The Forgotten Heroes of Dunkirk
Critics have been raving about Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk since its release around the world. Because of this film, more people than ever will understand the implications behind one of the greatest stories of survival and determination in human history.
Operation Dynamo was the biggest evacuation in military history. Between May 26 and June 4, 1940, nearly 338,000 allied troops were rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk, France. This could not have been accomplished without the help of British civilians who in their “little ships” sailed to Dunkirk to bring troops back home. The Royal Air Force also did everything in its power to secure the air while the evacuation was conducted. It is estimated that RAF pilots flew a total of 3,500 sorties and lost 145 aircraft during the operation.
Troops on the beach at Dunkirk awaiting evacuation. (Photo: dailymail.co.uk)
Nolan tells the story of the evacuation by focusing on the three distinct groups previously mentioned. There are the troops stranded on the beaches, the civilians sailing to their aid, and pilots from the Royal Air Force defending the evacuation from the air. While these groups unquestionably help to tell the miraculous story of survival at Dunkirk, there is another set of individuals that the film did not include.
There were many heroes involved in Operation Dynamo, but the ones with the hardest task might have been those who defended the perimeter around the beaches. It is written on theunknownwarriors.co.uk that, “For the evacuation to be a success a rearguard had to be formed, these men had to resist the blitzkrieg at all costs and do everything they could to slow the German advance.” The allied troops who formed this rearguard shouldered the ultimate burden of responsibility.
According to bbc.com, John Borland was a Cameron Highlander serving with the 51st Highland Division during the evacuation. He never made it to Dunkirk but was fighting to help hold the allied line further west. Borland said, “The odds were stacked against us, but we fought on.”
A British anti-tank crew holding their position at Louvain. (Photo: warfaremagazine.co.uk)
Bert Evans was another soldier who was part of the effort to hold the German advance against Dunkirk. He was serving with the Warwickshire Regiment near the town of Wormhout where they fought against an elite German SS division. Evans echoed the importance that regiments like his had on the outcome of the evacuation, stating, “We were the ones who stopped them breaking through.” He added further, “And we suffered for it.” Evans and 80 other soldiers were eventually captured by the SS and herded into a small barn. The German SS soldiers threw hand grenades into the barn and then fired into the structure indiscriminately. According to bbc.co.uk, “Fewer than 20 of the men forced into the barn came out alive.” Evans was one of the few survivors. He explained, “I was saved because I was under a pile of bodies.” While he had escaped with his life, his injuries, "eventually cost him his right arm." When reflecting on this experience, Evans said, "It's an ordeal just thinking about it... I don't want to remember what happened, but it keeps me awake at night."
Accounts from men like John Borland and Bert Evans show just how difficult of a job the men of the rearguard had. Without their sacrifices, the evacuation would not have succeeded and the course of World War II and that of human history would have dramatically changed. Around 40,000 British troops were not rescued during Operation Dynamo. Most of them ended up being captured and imprisoned. John Borland from the 51st Highland Division was among them. He endured five years of captivity following the operation.
British prisoners of war, captured at Dunkirk in June 1940. (Photo: telegraph.co.uk)