Does the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ live on?
There’s little doubt that when it comes to modern history, nothing holds such a powerful grip over the public imagination as the Second World War. Of course, for a long time this was because most of us had parents or grandparents who’d been directly involved in the war, perhaps because many of us still had our own memories of the war. But clearly, this direct connection is fading. Not so our fascination.
Obviously, this is partly down to the fact that so much film footage survives from that time as well as stills, radio broadcasts and first person testimony. And the fact that the Second World War represents the last time in Britain that civilians – and not just members of the armed forces – were directly affected and caught up in war.
So part of our fascination with it is down to the temptation to put ourselves in the place of those who lived through it – and to ask ourselves how we would have responded if we were put in a similar position. And it’s a compelling question.
I was reminded of this today whilst filming at the newly opened Dunkirk Experience museum in the tunnels of Dover Castle.
It was here that Operation Dynamo was coordinated – the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk following a crushing defeat by the Nazis in the Battle of France. Over a period of ten days, more than 330,000 British and French troops were rescued by a hastily assembled fleet of 850 boats – many of them private yachts and pleasure cruisers.
And the new museum does a brilliant job of reconstructing the tunnels from which the rescue mission was coordinated in 1940. Like many modern museums, it also uses film and audio exhibits to create what English Heritage calls an ‘immersive experience’ through Operation Dynamo. And for the most part it works very well.
But what’s perhaps equally fascinating about the story told in the museum is what happened after Operation Dynamo. And the way in which Winston Churchill used the success of the rescue effort to transform one of our greatest military defeats into a story of heroism to boost wartime morale – in the process creating the legend of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’.
And a sense of this ‘spirit’ very much pervades the new museum. Perhaps part of the reason why it creates such an impact is because as we look around we can’t help asking how we ourselves would have responded to the call to rescue our defeated troops from the advancing Germans on the beaches of Northern France. Would the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ have compelled us to act in the same way as the heroes of 1940?
Of course, since 1940 the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ has become shorthand for tabloid journalists wanting to describe any general sense of solidarity through adversity – to the extent that over-use has diluted the true meaning of the term.
So does the Dunkirk spirit still exist today – even as a latent force? It’s impossible to say, although there are parallels with what happened in New York in the wake of 9/11 and the coming together of so many New Yorkers during the huge powercut that occurred in the city shortly afterwards. There are even parallels with the communal outpouring of emotion in Britain following the death of Princess Diana – and the unexpected national pride prompted by the recent royal wedding.
I suspect that the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ does still exist – albeit more and more incongruously in our increasingly de-personalised modern world. And this incongruity might explain why we’re so taken aback when it does occasionally bubble over the surface.
And a continuing existence of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ might also explain why a museum opening in the tunnels of Dover Castle is able to create such emotional engagement – 70 years after what Winston Churchill called that ‘miracle of deliverance’.