… had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought free and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a fishing town whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.

“Behind them lay the sea.

[ … ]

“Now the 220,000 Tommies at Dunkirk, Britain’s only hope, seemed doomed. On the Flanders beaches they stood around in angular, existential attitudes, like dim purgatorial souls awaiting disposition. There appeared to be no way to bring more than a handful of them home. The Royal Navy’s vessels were inadequate. King George VI has been told that they would be lucky to save 17,000. The House of Commons was warned to prepare for “hard and heavy tidings.” Then, from the streams and estuaries of Kent and Dover, a strange fleet appeared: trawlers and tugs, scows and fishing sloops, lifeboats and pleasure craft, smacks and coasters; the island ferry Gracie Fields; Tom Sopwith’s America’s Cup challenger Endeavour; even the London fire brigade’s fire-float Massey Shaw — all of them manned by civilian volunteers: English fathers, sailing to rescue England’s exhausted, bleeding sons.

“Even today what followed seems miraculous. Not only were Britain’s soldiers delivered; so were French support troops: a total of 338,682 men. But wars are not won by fleeing from the enemy. And British morale was still unequal to the imminent challenge. These were the same people who, less than a year earlier, had rejoiced in the fake peace bought by the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich. Most of their leaders and most of the press remained craven. It had been over a thousand years since Alfred the Great had made himself and his countrymen one and sent them into battle transformed. Now in this new exigency, confronted by the mightiest conqueror Europe had ever known, England looked for another Alfred, a figure cast in a mold which, by the time of the Dunkirk deliverance, seemed to have been forever lost.

[ … ]

“In London there was such a man.1

Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace on this date, November 30th, in 1874, the son of a Lord and a famous American beauty; his father died of syphilis, first disgracing himself with the erratic behavior so often associated with the last stage of that disease, and his mother ignored him in favor of casual dalliances. He was a world-famous newspaper correspondent by his early 20’s, then turned to politics and waited 40-years for his hour to strike.

After a decade in the political wilderness, scorned, ridiculed, calumnized for his relentless warnings that Hitler was a menace who had to be stopped, he was summoned to Buckingham Palace and asked to form a government — by a nation that had rejected and very nearly destroyed him for his efforts to save it from its own indolence, cowardice, and sentimental, outright stupidities.

The rest, as the old expression goes, is history.

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