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Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered and said to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” Daniel 3:16-18
Without a doubt, Christopher Nolan’s powerful rendition of the evacuation of Dunkirk is one of the great cinematic hits of this summer. But a significant limitation of his telling is that the movie opens on the outskirts of Dunkirk in late May of 1940 with little explanation of the “what, when, why and how?” for those not familiar with the early days of World War II. The battle for Dunkirk follows on what historians call, “the Phoney War”, an eight-month period of relative quiet land actions immediately after Germany’s blitzkrieg invasion of Poland in September 1939. On May 10, 1940, the German advance to push Britain off the European Continent began again in earnest. The Germans avoided the much-touted defenses of the Maginot Line to attack through the lowlands of Belgium—exploiting the French’s defensive weaknesses in the Ardennes Forest. The result was a retreat and eventual entrapment of 350,000-plus men of the British Expeditionary Force and French and Belgian defenders on the shores of the English Channel around the French town of Dunkirk.
However, in the midst of this advance, the German high command initiated a mysterious three-day halt on May 24, 1940. Whether it was caused by Rommel’s reluctance to commit his Panzer tank forces to the marshy fields of the Flanders region, or a desire for the Germans to regroup for a further push south, or an over reliance on the Luftwaffe’s air power to eliminate the British forces, historians are unsure, but the Germans stopped. And sometime during this period, a British commander transmitted a simple, three-word message that would galvanize the British public. The message simply read, “But if not.”
At that time in their history, the British were not a biblically illiterate people, so they knew in an instant that these words were a reference to the plight of three young Israelite captives in Babylon whose story is recounted in the Bible. See Daniel 3:18. King Nebuchadnezzar had directed these captives and everyone else in the kingdom to bow down to an idol in his likeness—a directive these three young men politely refused to fulfill at the threat of death in the “burning fiery furnace”. They confidently announced that their God could deliver them from the furnace, but if not, they would still not bow down and worship the gods of Babylon or the King’s likeness. The British people understood from this cryptic encoded message that their soldiers were trusting in God’s deliverance from the beaches of Dunkirk, but in no case were they going to surrender to the tyranny of the Germans.
The message motivated the British people in a time of great crisis and turmoil. Churchill had become Prime Minister on May 10th, and just begun to form a cabinet. Upon receiving the message from Dunkirk, King George VI (remember the movie, “The King’s Speech”?) called for a Day of Prayer on May 26th.
“In a national broadcast, he instructed the people of the UK to turn back to God in a spirit of repentance and plead for Divine help. Millions of people across the British Isles flocked into churches, praying for deliverance. The picture in this post shows the extraordinary scene outside Westminster Abbey as the British people queued for prayer.”
Two “unexplainable” events occurred immediately following that Day of Prayer. First, a storm over Dunkirk grounded the Luftwaffe fighters. It was then another unusual weather phenomena—low clouds that inhibited air operations and an unseasonal calm of the English Channel that permitted the flotilla of 233 large ships and more than 700 small vessels of Operation Dynamo to stream across to rescue those at Dunkirk. All totaled, 338,225 men were rescued between May 27th and June 4th , when the British command believed that at best, only 30,000 of their only trained army could be recovered. From then on, the British people referred to what happened as “the Miracle of Dunkirk” and Sunday, June 9th was officially appointed as a Day of National Thanksgiving.
With this background, be aware that Christopher Nolan chose to tell the story of this nine-day ordeal through the actions of men in three different locations but over three different timeframes as well! The first location is, “The Mole”, and the time period covers one week of the evacuation. The Mole was merely a breakwater for the Dunkirk harbor that was pressed into use to load troops onto large ships after the docks had been destroyed by German bombardment. The second scene of the story is on “The Sea” and only covers a period of one day. It is a representation of the hundreds of British citizens and professional seamen who sprang into action at their own peril to rescue their brave young men. The smallest of these boats was only 14 feet. The third scene of the action takes place in “The Air”, recapping the heroic efforts of a flight of three Spitfire fighter pilots launched to interdict the German bombers and fighters attacking the boats and the beaches. While the timeframe for their actions is only one hour, Nolan weaves these three story lines and timelines of one week, one day, and one hour into a powerful action packed non-linear depiction of the “Miracle of Dunkirk”.
Best of all, the movie’s popularity provides every Believer an entree into a spiritual discussion—an opportunity to talk about faith and God’s providence. It is also a vehicle for us to share our own walks of faith with a non-believer—if you know what Paul Harvey would always call, “the rest of the story”. That is God’s unfolding story. Ultimately, it is His history and He continues to write it with yours and my lives.
Postscript: The evacuation operation was not without its price.
1. Over 200 of the 861 boats and ships of Dynamo were destroyed by German U-boats, fighters, and mines during the nine days of the operation. On May 29 the destroyer Wakeful was torpedoed and sank in 15 seconds with the loss of 600 lives. It is estimated that around 3,500 British were killed at sea or on the beaches and more than 1,000 Dunkirk citizens in air raids.
2. The Royal Air Force fought hard to combat the fighters and bombers raining steel down on the beaches, flying a total of 3,500 sorties and losing 145 aircraft to the Luftwaffe’s 156.
3. Almost 60,000 British, French and Belgian forces never made it across the Channel. Their efforts at providing a rear guard helped the remainder to escape. Most were captured and spent the war in German POW camps. One exception was the Royal Norfolk Regiment that ran out or ammunition on May 27th and was forced to surrender near the village of Le Paradis. They were lined up and gunned-down by the German SS.
National Day of Prayer at the time of Dunkirk 1940
Lukacs, John, Five Days in London