Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk looks set to be a summer blockbuster and it recalls one of the most extraordinary events of the Second World War: Surrounded by an overwhelming enemy and faced with imminent annihilation, an entire army escaped to safety by sea. It is a gripping story. And a thought-provoking one, too, because even today the word ‘miracle’ hangs over it.
On 23rd May 1940, King George VI requested that the following Sunday should be observed as a National Day of Prayer. Late on the Saturday evening the military decision was taken to evacuate as many as possible of the Allied forces. On the Sunday, the nation devoted itself to prayer in an unprecedented way. Eyewitnesses and photographs confirm overflowing congregations in places of worship across the land. The same day an urgent request went out for boats of all sizes and shapes to cross the English Channel to rescue the besieged army, a call ultimately answered by around 800 vessels.
Across the Channel, in a decision that infuriated his generals and still baffles historians, Hitler ordered his army to halt. Had they continued to fight, the destruction of the Allied forces would have been inevitable. On the Tuesday bad weather grounded the Luftwaffe, allowing Allied soldiers to march unhindered to the beaches. On Wednesday the sea was extraordinarily calm, making the perilous evacuation less hazardous. By the time the German Army was finally ordered to renew its attack, over 338,000 troops had been snatched from the beaches, including 140,000 French, Belgian, Dutch and Polish soldiers.
Now you could argue it was all a coincidence, but I think not. It certainly wasn’t considered so at the time. Sunday 9th June was declared a National Day of Thanksgiving and, encouraged by Churchill himself, the phrase ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’ began to circulate.
We live in a world where most are not simply sceptical or cautious about miracles, instead our culture dismisses miracles as impossible.The view is that, while we may pray, there is no one on the other end of the line. However the events of Dunkirk may suggest we ought to reconsider the elimination of God as an actor in history and politics.
Indeed I think Dunkirk stands as an extraordinary encouragement to pray in faith. However great our problems, God is greater than them all. That ‘Dunkirk encouragement’ to pray in times of need applies at every level of life and to every challenge, from what may be a petty domestic crisis to a national disaster. And although our nation may not face imminent military catastrophe on the scale that it did in 1940, we don’t have to look that hard to see major and overwhelming problems. Dunkirk was a military epic that deserves to be remembered. But, far more importantly, it is an encouragement and reminder to pray. (With thanks to J.John)
with every blessing. Philip de Grey-Warter, Vicar