Dunkirk: A Story of Courage

The little fishing boats braved death and danger rescuing soldiers trapped on Dunkirk.


Stories abound.

Just look around.

Sometimes you find them.

Sometimes they find you.

Just come floating by, so to speak.

Tell you a story:

We were in Scarborough, England, a town on the North Sea coast of North Yorkshire.

Just out for a mid-day stroll.

Happened upon a little ship at dockside.

Sign said we could go for an excursion around the bay for a few pounds.

Why not.

We boarded, along with a couple of dozen or so others.

Water was relatively calm.

Temperature comfortable.

To the starboard was this.

At port was that.

Perfect day for sightseeing.

You’ve been on such excursions.

From the water, you get a glimpse of what is before you in and about the town – in this case, Scarborough.

Thirst came calling.

We went below deck to get drinks.

On the way back up, a small plaque caught our eye.

The words on it let us know we were not aboard just any boat but a boat from time, from history.

From a place that mattered.

From daring.

From derring-do.

A boat of rescue.

Of commitment.

And, yes, a boat of courage.

One of a proud moment.

Of making a difference.

A simple fishing boat.

Until the urgent call came.

And it – and those in command of it – responded.

Post haste.

Without hesitation.

Without regard for self.

It was a call to duty.

Significant, selfless, life-saving duty.

They were called the Little Ships of Dunkirk.


Dunkirk, where in World War II hundreds of thousands of British and other soldiers were cut off by the German forces, pushed back into the water – the beaches of Dunkirk.

Some of the troops in water up to their shoulders, their noses.

Some there for hours.

Some with hope quickly washing away.

With no place to go.

Staring into the watery face of death.

To the rescue, military ships tried to go.

But the water of Dunkirk beaches was too shallow for them.

Not so for the little ships, whose boat bottoms were of “shallow draft” that would enable them to maneuver the waters of Dunkirk beaches.

Plus, the courage of the little ships and those in command of them ran deep.

The call went out to the little ships – pleasure boats, fishing boats and such:

Come. Come quickly. Come help.

Several hundred of the little boats – some manned by owners, some requisitioned and manned by military personnel – responded.

Individually, they rescued trapped soldiers by the dozens, by the hundreds, by the thousands.

The effort went on throughout the day, throughout the night.

For hundreds of hours.

Back and forth.

Back and forth.

From May 26, 1940, through early June the little ships came and went.

From the beaches of Dunkirk in France and across the English Channel to Ramsgate, a seaside town in Kent, England – though some of the small boats took rescued troops from the shallow water to military ships in deeper water.

When it was over, almost 340,000 troops had been rescued by some 800 boats in what was called Operation Dynamo.

To this day, much is made of the “Dunkirk Spirit” – the spirit of courage – associated with the little ships at Dunkirk.

As it should be.

Our excursion ship there on that carefree day at Scarborough was the Regal Lady.

She made several trips to Dunkirk, rescuing hundreds of troops.

There were, of course, dangers on those days, on those trips – German mines below the water, German bombs from above. And more.

Some of the boats, some of the troops did not make it.

But the countless, brave stories of those little boats, such as the Regal Lady, which we were aboard, and their troop-saving efforts did.

Those stories live to this day.

Live in honor.

Live in respect.

Surely snappily saluted by all who happen across a small plaque on a little now-excursion boat that tells their brave story or who come across the story in other ways.

As they should be.

(Roger Summers is a journalist, author and essayist. He spends time in England, New Mexico and Texas. With pride, he recently became a member of the Association of Dunkirk Little Ships. Dunkirk the movie opens in theaters July 21.)

Please click HERE to purchase Roger Summers’s collection of short stories: Heart Songs from a Washboard Road.

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