Dunkirk anniversary: 'We didn't feel defeated or exhilarated. We just felt bloody scared'

Seventy years on, veterans recall the 'miracle' of Dunkirk

The Dunkirk spirit is alive and well in George Kay. George, aged 90, climbed into his car in south London last week and drove (alone) to Dover. There, he boarded a ferry, and sailed for free, courtesy of Norfolk Lines, to Dunkirk. He was repeating, in reverse, for the first time in 70 years, a journey that he last made when he was one of 198,229 British soldiers who crossed the Channel under attack from German Stuka dive bombers and Messerschmitt fighters.

A makeshift cross-Channel ferry that he boarded on 29 May 1940 – the J-Class destroyer HMS Jaguar – was struck by German bombs while still in Dunkirk harbour. George, then a 20-year-old soldier and artilleryman from Sheffield, was flattened to the steel deck by two heavy objects. They turned out to be the headless bodies of two British soldiers. Switching to a minesweeper, he sailed to Kent. Later, he fought in Normandy and then at Arnhem in 1944. By the time the war ended he was a sergeant in the SAS and a German prisoner of war.

"In all these years, I have never wanted to go back to Dunkirk," he said yesterday. "To me, it was a defeat. You could only look at it as a fucking defeat. We were all terribly depressed because we thought we had failed. We knew we had fucking failed, even if it wasn't our fault. I have been to Arnhem and Normandy anniversaries because I thought of those as victories. I never wanted to come here, to commemorate a fucking defeat, but then someone said, 'George, you are a Dunkirk veteran, this time you should go'. So I got in my car and I came."

George Kay was probably the only one of the 200-odd nonagenarian Dunkirk veterans at the main 70th anniversary commemoration yesterday who had travelled to France on his own. Even after all these years, he blames the Dunkirk debacle – and subsequent miracle – on the French. "They collapsed and left us in the lurch," he said. "We were let down by our allies."

Dunkirk myth number one: the French collapsed and left the British in the lurch. It is true that the powerful French army (and the small British one) failed to anticipate, and check, the lightning German thrust through the Ardennes in May 1940. But it is misleading to say that the French collapsed. More French soldiers died, in defeat, in May and June 1940 (almost 100,000) than died in repulsing the German attack of August 1914. In the final days of the Dunkirk evacuation, it was mostly self-sacrificing French units who held back the advancing Germans.

On the evening before yesterday's ceremony, the beaches stretching 10 miles north from Dunkirk to Belgium were almost empty. It was here, in May 1940, that British and French soldiers queued, sometimes up to their shoulders in the sea, to be rescued by the most unlikely armada ever assembled, from trawlers and Isle of Man steamers to small pleasure craft.

Arthur Taylor, then a 19-year-old RAF radio operator from Mortlake, joined one of the queues on the beaches at 10am on 29 May 1940. He finally boarded a navy-commandeered trawler in the harbour 26 hours later. "The Stukas were coming over every few minutes," he said yesterday. "We were being bombed and strafed, and every time they came the queue of soldiers would scatter to make a harder target. The water's edge was littered with bodies."

Dunkirk myth number two: all our boys were rescued by yachts and rowing boats. The contribution of the 800 "small ships" was vital but "only" 98,780 troops were rescued from the beaches. The Royal Navy lifted many more soldiers – 239,446, including George Kay and Arthur Taylor – from the blazing Dunkirk harbour half a mile to the south.

Seventy years is a long time. The dunes to the north of Dunkirk, in which British and French soldiers sheltered, have now been obliterated by beach-front apartments and bars. There is also an ugly new Dunkirk casino, which looks like a giant, customised car bumper washed up on the beach.

On Friday night, in front of the main 1940 memorial, two teenage girls were carving in the sand the words "Adéline, je t'aime". Who was Adéline? "I am," said one of the girls, grinning. Did they know, or care, about what happened on these beaches 70 years ago? "Of course," said Adéline. "The English ran away and left the French soldiers behind. We learned about it at school." This is, indeed, the version still taught in many French schools.

Dunkirk myth number three: the British sailed away and left the French in the lurch. A total of 338,226 soldiers were rescued from Dunkirk port and the beaches to the north between 27 May and 4 June 1940. Of these, 198,229 were British and the rest – 139,997 – were mostly French, with some Belgians, Poles and Czechs. Two-thirds of the French soldiers chose to return to the battles further south, where many were captured or killed before the French surrendered in mid-June.

Not all the French go along with the "selfish British" version of Dunkirk, first promoted by the collaborationist Vichy regime after June 1940. At yesterday's French-organised commemoration ceremony, there were scores of ordinary French people, including many young couples with children. There were also older French people, with their own harrowing memories of Dunkirk in 1940. France's most northerly town, besieged and bombarded again in 1944-45, is an often forgotten victim. Yvon Dubaelle, 83, was a child when he and his family were shelled by both sides in May 1940. "Young people here don't talk much about these things any more," he said. "But, for me, those days are engraved in my memory. I come every year to remember the civilians and soldiers who died, both British and French. They weren't to blame for what went wrong. It was a debacle and both the French and British governments and high commands were at fault."

The 70th anniversary ceremony was both moving and irritatingly stiff and formal. Fifty of the surviving small ships gathered offshore; a French military band played; wreaths were dropped by French army helicopters into the sea; Prince Michael of Kent and other dignitaries inspected French and British troops. French pupils read in French, and excellent English, an account of the blazing, body-strewn Dunkirk of late May 1940, written by the French author Joseph Kessel.

The British veterans listened and remembered. Lionel Tucker, 93, a mechanic with the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in May 1940, said: "People are always asking us what it felt like to be on these beaches. We didn't feel depressed or defeated or exhilarated. We just felt bloody scared. Every time a bomb struck, you hoped it would hit someone else. It was not until we got back to Dover that we appreciated what the people on the small boats and the Navy had done for us. It really was a miracle."

Does George Kay agree that Dunkirk was a "miracle"? "First, it was a fucking defeat, but, yes, it was a miracle that so many of us got away," he said. "If you saw the mess here in 1940, you'd say that it was a miracle."

Dunkirk myth number four: Dunkirk was a miracle, a German victory that helped to lose the war for Hitler; a British defeat that helped to prepare for eventual Allied victory. This is one myth that is, at least partly, true. Hitler, for reasons still disputed, held up the German attack on Dunkirk for three days. That helped the British and French to prepare a defensive ring and allowed almost 200,000 British soldiers to escape.

If they had been captured, Britain's will, and capacity, to continue the war might have been crushed. The escapees included senior officers – Gort, Alexander, Montgomery – who would lead the British Army through the rest of the war. Just as crucially, they included thousands of junior officers and NCOs who provided the backbone for the British forces in the desert war of 1941-43 and in Normandy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany in 1944-45. Including George Kay, Arthur Taylor and Lionel Tucker.

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