• Sourabh De

6 life changing and positive outcomes from a temporary setback

The Miracle of Dunkirk: Life Lessons from an unlikely battle


On 31st May 1940, as the trains were rolling into the outskirts of London, thousands of British troops were inside the carriages waiting to be jeered at and perhaps manhandled by their fellow citizens.

After all, they were coming back, or rather rescued from the battlefield, many of them not having fired even a single bullet.

This retreat was perhaps one of the most humiliating defeats faced by the Allied forces in the early phases of the Second World War. So decisive was it, that the outcome of the ‘Battle of Dunkirk’ was an indicator of the certain victory for the Axis Powers and forebode the Nazi Germany’s domination on the whole of the civilized world.


Why then, when the trains stopped at the stations, these defeated, beleaguered and broken soldiers received a Hero’s welcome and treated with Tea, Sandwiches and Cigarettes?

What did they bring along (apart from the Nazi helmet in the picture below) that would change the course of world history and the political landscape thereafter?


More importantly, why would we tell the story about the 'Battle of Dunkirk', 82 years later and try to find lessons for our lives from this unlikely battle.

© IWM H 1634


The Background


The formal trigger of the WWII came when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, invaded Poland on 1st September 1939.

Just two days later, being allies, Britain and France jointly declared war on Germany. And to support its ally France, Britain sent the BEF (British Expeditionary Forces) to France.

But for the next 10 months, military action was limited until in the beginning of May 1940 when the Nazi forces invaded Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

Thus, began the ‘Battle of France’ on 10th May 1940. The Belgian, Dutch and Canadian soldiers, and several army units from the then British colonies like India were pulled in to fight the Germans.

However, the German offensive, with the feared Panzer Tanks proved to be too strong. Tides turned fast, and by the 21st of May, the BEF and the smaller allied troops were getting hopelessly trapped along the Northern Coast of France.

The allied forces had by then, already lost about half a million men and a further 400,000 were like 'sitting ducks', to be roasted by the Panzer Tanks and the air raids by the German Airforce (Luftwaffe). If that continued, the World War would be as good as over and would mean the establishment of a 1000 years’ German 'Reich' (German Kingdom and domination over Europe), as envisioned by Hitler.


The Plan:

To salvage the situation and save whatever number of Allied forces from a definite annihilation, a 'mass evacuation' was planned. The only way the troops could be saved was to ferry them away across the English Channel into Britain. The closest and the best option was to assemble at the port city of Dunkirk and get large ships and vessels to pick the soldiers up.


The Challenges:


1. Large ships couldn’t get near the sandy beaches of Dunkirk where the soldiers were huddled.

2. The sheer number of retreating soldiers was huge and chaotically concentrated at one place.

3. The German Panzer tanks were constantly advancing towards the Dunkirk.

4. The ruthless German Air Force was raring to drop hellfire on the sitting ducks on the beaches.

5. An extremely low morale amongst the allied forces and resentment against the British Royal Airforce, which the British men on ground thought was missing and not supporting their own army.

6. The only defense was on the periphery of the Dunkirk city which was defended by a few French and British units (referred to as the peripheral rearguard units) standing between the Germans and the vulnerable allied forces on the beach.


Faced with the above challenges, the ‘Allied War Office’ estimated that even in the best-case scenario, a maximum of 30000 to 40000 soldiers could be rescued in the next 3-4 days before the marauding German Tanks and Airforce overwhelm them in a sure-shot carnage.


The Theatre of Execution:


The desperate rescue plan was given a Codename ‘Operation Dynamo’, also called the ‘Dunkirk Evacuation’, and between 26th May to 4th June 1940, the world saw the weather and tides of fortune change in many ways for the allied armies. In the process, Dunkirk left behind a few valuable lessons that apply to our lives too.


Life Lesson 1

Sandy beaches, Big ships:

The long stretch of Sandy beaches along the Dunkirk city was where the thousands of escaping allied forces waited. Their only hope of survival being the Big Naval ships pressed into the evacuation service. However, it was a case of ‘So near yet so far’.

The ships were just too big to come near the shallow shore and pick up the soldiers. The process of the soldiers walking through the shallow waters and then somehow making it to the Naval vessels was painfully slow and inefficient. At that rate, saving even 30000 soldiers would be far-fetched.

Precious hours were lost until the new in-charge of the rescue operations, Captain William Tennant came up with a radical idea. Though he was a very experienced, Senior Naval officer, was there enough time to try anything new?


One cannot expect situations to be conducive always. In fact, at times when you wished things were easy, you would actually be pushed to the corner. So, expect the unexpected.


Life Lesson 2

The Halt order and the Cloudy skies:

With just a couple of days to organize the evacuation, and the German Airforce and Tank divisions approaching Dunkirk for the kill, the British and the allied forces were staring at disaster.

If nothing changed from thereon, more than 350,000 lives would be snuffed out by the German assault.

Yet in the face of the inevitable the leader of the evacuation continued his planning. Surprisingly 2 days passed, but the German Tanks and the Airforce didn’t attack yet.

The evacuation teams in the meantime, made substantial progress as they got this unexpected breather.


So, what happened that the Germans didn’t attack as anticipated?


1. A thousand miles away at the German Military Headquarters, decisions were taken to subject the Tank columns to some repairs and get more infantry support, before they proceeded to confront the Allied Armies. Hitler also agreed to this proposal, and a halt order was passed. The fierce tank columns which were only a few miles from the City of Dunkirk, therefore stopped further advance.


2. The German Air Force Luftwaffe, which had been waiting to dive down and carpet bomb the beaches, just couldn’t get past the cloud cover due to a sudden change of weather.


Put together, the halt order and the cloudy weather both were lucky coincidences, which enabled the allied forces to implement some great improvisation in the evacuation plan.



Keep at it, even when logic says that the chances are low.

Do what best can be done given the constraints. There is overwhelming evidence now, that a common reason for all successes in the face of adversity; is Resilience or Grit.

And coupled with a calm composure, and adaptability one can get ‘lucky’ and come up with the solutions that are needed.

So, dig your teeth in, keep at it but remain flexible to bite another way, and you might just get lucky.


Life Lesson 3

Best out of Waste:

On the ground, Captain William Tennant, had the toughest job as the current plan was simply not working, and he knew, there had to be a better way. With decades of experience behind him and a great deal of luck, he looked around and in the next 10 hours, 2 things happened:


1. On the far East and West sides, there were 2 long piers (called moles) extending almost a mile into the sea. Captain Tennant saw the only and the best opportunity to line up the thousands of troops right from the beach to the end of the piers. The large Naval ships could then reach at the end of the Piers and pick the soldiers up. The piers were never meant to serve that purpose. But then new uses had to be invented.


2. Hundreds of jeeps, lorries and other abandoned armored vehicles were lying useless on the beaches. The troops lined those jeeps into the shallow waters in long columns stretching in the sea. Those served as makeshift pontoon bridges or piers, for the troops to walk over and reach some of the ships.


By the time the Germans could gather their thoughts and the halt order was lifted, they had to confront the Royal Air Force in the air, and the Tank divisions were resisted by the allied, mainly French forces on the outskirts on Dunkirk.


In the meantime, the evacuation of the thousands of soldiers continued from the beaches under Captain Tennant's supervision.

There is always a better way. Experienced folks vouch for it. But even if you have not experienced it yet, believe it.

Every moment is the perfect and conducive time for innovation, Ingenuity, Leadership, Experience and Tact.


Life Lesson 4

Call out to the common public:

While all the drama was unfolding at the beaches of Dunkirk, the British establishment urged all its citizens living on the coastal areas along the English channel, to chip-in their own way. Anyone who possessed boats which can ferry soldiers from Dunkirk back to the English coast was requested to enlist and register for this rescue mission.

Not only the British boats and small ships, but also Belgian and Dutch citizens responded by setting sail in their fishing boats, leisure cruises, yachts, and other smaller ships, lifeboats and barges.


Extraordinary stories of enthusiasm and purpose came out from these sorties made by around 800 private vessels.

While the main Naval ships were in the process of evacuating amidst various challenges, this bonus effort from the citizens also enabled thousands of soldiers to be saved.


The timely call for help ensured that the Operation Dynamo ended up saving tens of thousands of more numbers, than it would have if the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ had not stepped in on time.


Reach out. All skills matter. If there is a greater goal to be achieved, sometimes it’s best to ask for help. There’s no glory in a lost opportunity.

Everything counts; 'all hands on deck'.

At the end of the day, it wouldn’t matter who gets the credit.


Life Lesson 5

Individual glory, sacrifices and selfless valor:


Carl Sandburg (American Author, 1878-1967)


Amongst the countless instances of despair and trauma that the stranded troops at the beaches faced, there were few which went unnoticed, and the heroes remain unsung.


1. The Little Ships of Dunkirk

The world saw how the crew of the private ships and boats took unimaginable risks in getting into the troubled waters to rescue the stranded soldiers and how they didn’t care about their lives and their boats in case the German Airforce spotted them.

Collectively everyone saw the immense value and courage these folks showed when it was needed the most. However, there were instances of individuals who went above and beyond their personal capacity.

One of them was Charles Lightoller, a Merchant Seaman and Naval Officer, who in the past had also served as the second officer for the ill-fated Titanic.

When he heard about the opportunity to serve his countrymen, he insisted that he will himself commandeer his ship, called the ‘Sundowner’. He took one of his sons along and demonstrated his superior maneuvering skills while rescuing almost 130 soldiers in his boat, under heavy gunfire from the German planes. Lightoller did everything to rescue as many soldiers as possible, packing the entire ship to an extent that it almost sank near the English coast.


2. Brigadier Claude Nicholson and the siege of Calais

Around 20th-21st May Germans had secured major wins and were approaching fast towards the Channel Ports (Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk).

The British war office sent several units as reinforcements. They were tasked to provide cover to the escaping allied forces and keep the ports open. However, most of the units were not very well prepared, including the newly raised Brigade commanded by Brigadier Claude Nicholson, which reached Calais on 23rd May.

The mandate, directly from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill, was to defend Calais port at any cost and buy enough time so that the allied troops can be kept secured till they are evacuated.

Nicholson led from the front, refused several German offers to surrender and took it as his ultimate goal.

His unit was able to defend the allied positions and delay the ‘Fall of Calais’ by 3 days.

With supplies dwindling and mounting casualties, Nicholson’s unit was eventually overrun on 26th May, and he along with several soldiers were taken as prisoners.

Back home the entire British establishment lauded his efforts, however, far away in the German captivity, Nicholson felt disappointed that he couldn’t defend Calais.

In reality though, what he had done was far more than anyone could’ve hoped for, given the mammoth German advance. Yet Nicholson held himself totally accountable and in 1943 allegedly took his own life as a prisoner of war. A poignant outcome for a very proud man.

Partly because of the impact he made, the allied troops could escape in such large numbers to the beach.


3. Rearguards army units-Sacrifice in the face of death

By 26th May it became amply clear that the allied forces have to keep retreating towards the Dunkirk port in order to survive the German onslaught.

Several towns and villages surrounding Dunkirk were guarded by the British and French forces. They were expected to resist and stop the German advance to the last man. The longer they could hold on, the better were the chances of thousands of allied forces to escape to the Dunkirk coast.

These British and French units manning the rearmost areas, were called the ‘Rearguards’.

These men saw waves upon waves of escaping soldiers and provided them with safe passage, while waiting for their certain annihilation in the days to come. Despite knowing the inevitable, they accepted this as their fate and went by the assigned duty with single-minded focus. They knew that their own sacrifice would mean saving thousands of lives. In that sense, each rearguard fighter was worth thousands of his fellow allied soldiers.

By 29th May, the battle between the rearguard forces and the advancing Germans reached a crescendo, and the rearguards were themselves retreating now, leaving only a few French units to defend whatever could be, till 3rd June 1940.

Many rearguard soldiers from the French units who eventually survived were dealt with the cruelest methods by the Nazis.

Collectively, the rearguards submitted themselves to the highest level of self-sacrifice, and it was certainly not futile in the larger scheme of things, in the years to come.


Life Lesson 6

The Miracle of Dunkirk

By the 4th of June, when the final batches of the allied soldiers were evacuated, it meant an astonishing count of 340,000 souls.

The best-case scenario before the Operation Dynamo started was saving at the max 30-40000 soldiers. At the end an astounding 10x soldiers were rescued. Nothing less than a miracle.

Most of these troops were soon redeployed on the other major fronts where the allied armies were taking on the increasingly aggressive German forces in Europe and Africa.


Picture courtesy: Mirrorpix


The Spirit of Dunkirk

Common sense would say that such a major drumming at Dunkirk, would have severely damaged the reputation and the chances of the British and the allied forces. But it did quite the opposite.

Operation Dynamo gave a bonus of 340,000 soldiers, who would’ve simply perished otherwise. And this retreat aka defeat, gave the allied armies and their governments enough time and opportunity to regroup, assess their strengths and weaknesses, manage public opinion on their side by saving their countrymen from an imminent slaughter.


Even though it meant taking a hit on the British pride and ego, at that critical juncture of WWII, losing 340,000 soldiers would have meant a certain and immediate defeat.

In the larger scheme of things, when one looks at the defeat and retreat from Dunkirk, it actually proved to be an invaluable lesson for all the major battles that followed, including the D-day landing at Normandy and the African campaigns. Thousands of the ‘Defeated’ Dunkirk soldiers fought in these battles and helped turn the tide of the WWII in favor of the Allies.

For that one ‘humiliating’ episode at Dunkirk, the World order today is what it is. It wouldn’t be if the Allies and the British public thought of it as their last battle.

82 years later, why is Dunkirk relevant even today to each one of us?


To sum it up, the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’ and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ tell us a few things.


“It’s never over, until it’s over. You lose not when you fall, but when you fail to get up”.

At any moment in time, what we see in front of us is just a small preview of the ‘Big Picture’. It's neither the beginning nor the end.

The ability to imagine and zoom in and out of the current situation is what makes one look forward and visualize the bigger and the better picture.

This may mean absorbing small defeats on the way. But the trick is to stay in the game. A decisive win is rarely in one stroke. So, step back once in a while to better visualize the Big picture.


Any career, be it of the Corporate or of an Entrepreneur is bound to have its ups and downs. There would be tough years, bad appraisals and botched projects. They are inevitable. What matters is persistence and consistency in how we remind ourselves of the points below:


· Expect the unexpected. Good or bad, there would always be surprises when you least expect.

· Cultivate the power of Resilience and Grit. Dig your teeth in and keep at it

· Understanding the big picture helps in deciding when to slow down or step back.

· There’s always a better way. Experience makes it easier to find that. You never know which skill of yours would come handy at what juncture. So be like a sponge and absorb.

· Valiant efforts and moral courage would always find a place in history. So never be afraid of writing your own story.

· And while all that is playing out, there is always a stroke of luck awaiting at the corner.


Whether it is a battlefield, corporate boardroom or life goals, the ‘Dunkirk Spirit’ is here to stay.


So what next?

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Signing off, Sourabhde.com



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