I saw the movie “Dunkirk” (2017) the other day. I thought it was excellent. And I would heartily recommend it to anyone, especially parents with their adolescent or teenage kids (since they will probably never be taught real history in school). It’s not gory like “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) or laced with profanity (I might have heard one vulgar word, but it’s hard to tell with those thick English accents sometimes).
Anyway, the movie spurred me to do some of my own research about this event in 1940. (Although I remember reading about Dunkirk when I was a kid, I was stunned to find out through casual conversations that almost NO ONE my age or younger had ever heard of it before the movie came out! So, the absence of teaching real history has been going on for some time now apparently.)
The British/French disaster in France and evacuation at Dunkirk reminded me of several key spiritual lessons I have gleaned from the Bible:
1. Unpreparedness leads to disaster.
The Allies thought they were safe behind their defenses. The French had built a string of impressive fortifications (called the Maginot Line) along their border with Germany. Supposedly, there was no way for the Germans to penetrate those steel and concrete bunkers, trenches, and minefields.
However, the Maginot Line ended with the Ardennes Forest in Belgium. Why fortify that area? The forests are way too thick for German armor to pass through. And the Dutch thought that if the Germans attacked them, they could just flood their fields, and the German tanks could not maneuver.
They all underestimated the enemy. The British, French, Belgians, and Dutch were all lulled to sleep. They all believed that fighting a defensive war–merely sitting behind fixed fortifications forever—would prevent the Nazis from hurting them.
Christians certainly underestimate the spiritual enemy today. The Bible says that Satan is “a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He is on the prowl. At times Christians almost convince themselves that they are not in a real spiritual war every single day. You don’t win too many battles by ignoring the enemy or playing defense all the time and thinking he will never attack.
In the same passage the Apostle Peter tells Christians to “be sober, be vigilant” (v8) and to “resist him, steadfast in the faith” (v9). The Apostle Paul tells the Ephesians to strap on the whole armor of God every day, and to go out and do battle, not just sit around and wait for things to happen (Ephesians 6:14-17).
Christians are to be soldiers, trained and hardened for battle, not sitting around (2 Timothy 2:3-4). We are commissioned to take the fight to the enemy, as God’s royal ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:17-21) and set captives free with the liberating message of the Gospel. We can’t do that if we are constantly on the defense.
The Germans invaded Holland so quickly (from the air with paratroopers as well as with armored divisions on the ground), that the Dutch were overwhelmed in days. The British and French woodenly followed their plan from the last war and marched north to meet the Germans in Belgium. Then the trap was sprung.
A second German army plowed through the “impenetrable” Ardennes Forest, completely by-passing the French fixed fortifications of the Maginot Line. Within days the German armies in the north and the south had surrounded and cut off almost half a million Allied troops in a little area around the city of Dunkirk.
2. The “experts” can be wrong.
The “experts” said evacuation of the entire army was impossible. The Royal Navy told Churchill that at the most they could evacuate maybe 30,000 British troops. The French had a navy too, but doubted they could get many of their men out of that pocket. I don’t criticize the two navies; they were working with what they had.
One of the few “piers” accessible to the navy was “the mole” — a jetty reaching out into the English channel — but only a few hundred men at a time could be on it (watch the movie, which was filmed at the actual site of Dunkirk’s beaches!). The large warships could not run themselves up on the shore; they would be beached and could never get away.
The Allies also did not have landing craft (like the Higgins boats of D-Day fame a few years later). Five hundred thousand men had their back to the sea, and the armies of an evil dictator were bearing down on them. How do they escape to freedom, only a few dozen miles away?
Be careful about the “nay sayers” in life. When I face tough times or long odds, I like to think about what God says in Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” He is God and I am not, and what seems impossible to us is not difficult to Him. I think of the many stories of God’s faithfulness and how He brought His people out of bondage, out of exile, out from tyranny.
I think of the Apostle Paul in his writings telling us that “all things were together for good, to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). The God of the Bible is never defeated, and His people should never stay discouraged. “With God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
3. Prayer does indeed work.
On Friday, May 24, 1940, His Majesty King George VI called for a National Day of Prayer. He asked that all his subjects throughout the commonwealth beseech heaven for divine assistance two days later on Sunday, May 26. Here, courtesy of YouTube, is the recording of the King’s request for all his people to pray for deliverance. You can hear his appeal specifically at the 9:40 mark:
A funny thing happened on May 24. Not only did King George ask for a National Day of Prayer, believing that heaven would indeed hear, but on that very same day, the tyrant Adolf Hitler issued his famous “stop order” to all his generals. On May 24, he ordered his tanks and infantry to stop attacking the Allies in Dunkirk.
I did not get this information from some Christian magazine. My sources for this are the Time/Life book “Blitzkrieg” by Robert Wernick (1979) and “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany” by William L. Shirer. Both books (and other secular sources I have consulted) go into all sorts of theories why Hitler ordered his troops to stop attacking, but the end result is that no one to this day knows for sure why he stopped when he could have annihilated half a million Allied troops.
So, did Hitler issue the stop order right after the British king asked his people to pray? I don’t know exactly the time line, so I cannot answer that question. I do know that on May 26, the churches and cathedrals of Great Britain were packed. The people were praying. And on that day, the Royal Navy began “Operation Dynamo”: the launching of every conceivable type of ship or boat that could reach Dunkirk. I have also read that the seas were unusually calm at this time for the “little navy.” (By the way, some of the sailboats and paddle wheelers and fishing boats you see in the movie were actually there at Dunkirk, 77 years ago!)
As a Christian I firmly believe that the God of heaven hears our sincere cries. He listens, and He acts. The Bible tells us that God has directly intervened in human history, whether it is with Moses leading the trapped Israelites through the Red Sea, or by sending the Lord Jesus to rescue all who would believe in Him.
The miracle of Dunkirk (as it is called on p. 731 in Shirer’s book) reminds me of Isaiah 65:24 (“Before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear”) and 1 John 5:14 (“Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us”). Indeed He does. Indeed He did during those dark days 77 years ago.
4. The Lord uses the “little guys.”
All in all, almost 900 ships and boats of every size and shape participated in operation dynamo. It was not a pleasure cruise however. Almost 200 of the vessels never made it back. As the movie depicts, the Germans were gunning for those rescue ships with cannon fire from the shore, bombs from their Luftwaffe, and torpedoes from U-boats.
The Royal Navy commandeered many of the ships, but some were piloted by their owners. They had to sail through areas loaded with German mines, and often had to run through a gauntlet of fire and steel. Shirer on p. 736 says, “Where was the famed Luftwaffe? Part of the time, as Hitler noted, it was grounded by bad weather.”
They also had a difficult time hitting some of their targets near Dunkirk because of pillars of smoke rising up from burning buildings and ammo dumps.
As “Blitzkrieg” notes, “inside Dunkirk everything seemed to be on fire. Yet Dunkirk’s flames also helped make the evacuation possible. By day the billowing clouds of smoke covered the city, and many waves of dive bombers returned to their bases without attacking; they couldn’t find targets. By night the fires illuminated the harbor entrance and the few quays and warehouses that had not been reduced to wreckage” (p153).
Interesting. They were helped by a cloudy pillar by day, and by a fiery pillar at night. Hmmm.
Remember what the “experts” said? They could rescue maybe 30,000? Well, from May 26 to June 3 the Royal Navy, the French Navy, and the “little navy” rescued 338,000 British troops. They also rescued 140,000 French, Belgian, and Dutch troops. Sadly, thousands could not be rescued. Some 40,000 courageous French troops fought to the very last in order to give time for their comrades to get away. They surrendered on June 4 to the Nazis.
God uses big warships and little tiny boats (the smallest boat, the “Tamzine,” was only 15 feet long and could hold only 5 people!). He used Peter the fisherman and Ruth the outcast foreigner. He used David the shepherd and Matthew the tax collector and Paul the Pharisee. All He needs are people who are willing and able and He will pull off a miracle.
5. The immediate battle was not the final victory.
Dunkirk was not a victory, and it was not the end. Churchill said afterward that “wars are not won by evacuation.” Oftentimes, things get a lot worse before they get better. France surrendered shortly thereafter, and the British had to endure the famous “Battle of Britain.” The British Army and thousands of French troops lived to fight another day, but the war was not over until May of 1945. The Allies had to fight grueling, bitter warfare for years.
Also, remember that the way things are now, they will not be forever. If you were a neutral third party in France in 1940, who would you say would win the war? “Everybody thinks the Germans will win.” But everybody was wrong.
Over three years later, the Germans were crushed at El Alamein and Stalingrad. Then there was D-Day. Finally in 1945 the seemingly “invincible” Nazi war machine was ground into the dust (thank God). God is the One who is ultimately in charge of history, and He has the final say (read Psalm 2) and all the tyrants of the world will never defeat Him or His people.
Never give up. Never surrender.
Click “Load More” to see the trailer for “Dunkirk.”