Books: Cockleshell Armada

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Beaker of Gin. On the beach, the army waited. For some, the tension before rescue was too much. Captain George Anderson watched 100 men fight like wolves for a loaf of bread; even combat veterans went screaming mad as they waited on queue. Yet for most of the B.E.F., the defeat in France had been a badly needed but well learned lesson; they prepared for Operation Dynamo with a calm, stiff-lipped nonchalance that was unmistakably British. Attending to his toilet on the way to Dunkirk, Captain Robert Gordon of the Royal Ulster Rifles devised an intriguing substitute for shaving lotion: a beaker of hot gin. Marching his East Surreys toward embarkation, Colonel "Nipper" Armstrong accepted a grimy straggler into his unit—but not before roundly lecturing the guardsman on the Surrey's tradition and ordering him first to wash and shave. Aboard the minesweeper Leda, Surgeon-Lieut. Richard Pembrey wept as he watched a dying soldier strip off his own blanket, gently place it across the shivering body of the pneumonia-stricken trooper in the next bunk.

In any war, more battles are lost than are won, and Dunkirk was plainly an opportunity that the Germans tossed away. In Author Collier's view, the principal mistake was made by Hitler himself. Foolishly expecting the British army to surrender intact, he held back the Panzer divisions that could have wiped out the B.E.F. on Dunkirk's beaches, instead ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy the port and the embarkation fleet. At least 235 ships were put out of action, but the Stuka dive bombers were not enough. The armada sailed grimly on, and by the time the German divisions pushed the British and French rearguard to the sand dunes, only 40,000 soldiers were left behind to throw down their rifles.

Dunkirk was the kind of defeat that turns losing armies into winners, and Author Collier found that survivors of Operation Dynamo, in the retrospect of victory, were uniformly proud to have shared in the humiliation of rescue. "If Dunkirk had to happen," explained Sergeant Leslie Teare of the gth Sherwood Foresters, "I guess I'd not have missed it. You saw how low a man can sink, yes, but something finer too—how high a man can rise."

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