The Summer That Saved the World

By Neil Earle

September, 2020 will see many churches and organizations mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain across the nations of the British Commonwealth.

September 15 is the official date – the day 70 years ago when the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) sent at least 600 bombers and fighters against Southeast England in attacks that lasted from morning till evening. September 15 is selected as significant in hindsight because at noon on that day Air Vice-Marshall Park guarding the strategic Southeast and the London approaches had no reserves left to throw into the battle.

As Michael Korda remarks in his bold retelling of the battle, if the Luftwaffe had sent another two waves when Park’s squadrons were refueling that noontime it would have been all over for the RAF (With Wings Like Eagles, page 279). As England’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote afterwards: “The odds were great: our margins small; the stakes infinite.”

The Miracle of Dunkirk

Mid-September was not the only occasion that year when the British and their allies around the world – including many in my home island of Newfoundland – had occasion to reflect whether “God was an Englishman” in R.F. Delderfield’s phrase. That May and June of 1940 witnessed another extraordinary narrow escape from defeat and degradation – the Dunkirk Evacuation. In late May and early June, 1940 – 70 years ago this summer – nearly 336,000 British and French troops were extricated from the beaches of death and shame by Herculean efforts from the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the 1000 or so “little boats of Britain.”

That effort stunned and startled the world. “The Miracle of Dunkirk” – as it was called then and since – gave heart to the British and their dominions to carry on the struggle against the Nazi leaders who had wrested control of the German people in 1933. Nazi Germany’s mechanized legions had sliced through France and Belgium in a remarkable combination of infantry, armor and air forces. The speed of the advance was such that the British Expeditionary Force was sent reeling back on the French port of Dunkirk where there seemed little chance of their safe return to England. But return they did through a popular surge of self-sacrifice that made the world marvel. The oddly-matched volunteer craft carried out what the Navy could not do on its own. Without the Dunkirk miracle there might have been no Battle of Britain when barely 2000 Allied airmen in total handed Adolph Hitler his first defeat of the war and – just maybe – saved the world.

Dunkirk’s significance was not lost on a University of Toronto professor of English who had been born in Western Bay, NL. As E.J. Pratt he was destined to become Canada’s greatest narrative poet. Pratt was the son of a Methodist minister who would hold postings in Cupids (1885), Blackhead (1888), Brigus (1891) and Bay Roberts (1898). It is one of the contentions of Memorial University of Newfoundland’s emeritus Professor David G. Pitt in his magisterial first volume biography of Pratt titled The Truant Years, 1882-1897 that the poet had carried in his head indelible images of his boyhood spent in small Newfoundland outports (page 43). Pratt’s poetry included such staples as “The Ice-Floes,” “The Sea-Cathedral,” “ Sea-Gulls,” “Newfoundland Seamen,” and “The Way of Cape Race” – sympathetic depictions of an outdoor boyhood clearly rooted in human and natural experiences that touched him deeply.

The desperate miracle of Dunkirk, so dependent on the sea and the people who plied it, permeates one of Pratt’s most neglected poems, titled simply “Dunkirk.” The lines and phrases reveal that though the British Tommies trapped at Dunkirk are Pratt’s main subject his poem is pungent with a background sunk deep in the realities of Newfoundland and Labrador.

“The sea was their school; the storm, their friend.”

Pratt had italicized this line in “Dunkirk” as well he might. This was the poet of “doors held ajar in the storm,” after all. A Methodist pastor’s son who often accompanied his father on hardship visits to families where the breadwinner had been lost at sea, Pratt knew all about “the drama of the sled and dory.” In “Dunkirk,” Pratt sketches with admirable efficiency the long history of the British:

“They had swept the Main with Hawkins and Drake.
Morgan-mouthed vocabularians,
Lovers of the beef of language,
They had caved with curse and cutlass
Castilian grandees in the Caribbean.
They had signed up with Frobisher,
Had stifled cries in the cockpits of Trafalgar.”

Trafalgar, Frobisher, Hawkins and Drake were once names to conjure with in Newfoundland school “readers.” The phrase “lovers of the beef of language” could fit a puncheon tub full of Newfoundland politicians and public figures who need no naming here but who exhibited an unconsciously Shakespearian love of speech. Colorful speech even in our place names in such rhyming roundelays as “Hearts’ Content,” “Heart’s Desire” and “Heart’s Delight” or “Fogo-Twillingate-Moreton’s Harbour.” That gift for lyrical robust speech lingers today in Rex Murphy and Bill Rowe.

Comedy and Spirituality

Pratt’s ever-present gift for what Pitt calls “fanciful humor” also shows up in “Dunkirk.” Note the poet celebrating the motley crews that traversed the English Channel to bring the army home – herring smacks, row-boats, barges or even private yachts, it was a community of seamen that saved the British in 1940:

“The Dean and his lordship, the Bishop, are here,
And your sloop, sir, is ready down at the pier.
And may I go with you?” Meadows said –
“No,” roared the Colonel, as he creaked out of bed,
Blasting out damns with a spot of saliva,
Yet the four of them boarded the lady Godiva.

Who but a boy raised on the salty rhythms of workaday speech would duck the challenge of rhyming the almost improper noun “saliva?” Joey Smallwood, John Crosbie and Buddy Wasisname would understand (and reflect) this latent wit lying behind everyday speech. Pratt’s keen ear for dialogue, dialect and fascinating language sunk down deeply, as did the religious sense of the miraculous near the end of the poem. In his final stanza he pays full regard to the otherworldly features of Dunkirk – the fog that sheltered most of the little boats and blinded the dive bombers while the treacherous Channel remained as calm as a mill pond. His Methodist father would have been pleased with the denouement:

The Blessed fog –
Ever before this day the enemy,
Leagued with the quicksands and the breakers –
Now mercifully masking the periscope lenses,
Smearing the hair-lines of the bomb-sights…
And with it the calm on the Channel,
The power that drew the teeth from the storm,
The peace that passed understanding,
Soothing the surf, allaying the lop on the swell.

“Blessed fog” – surely an oxymoron for any sailor but effective in context. Pratt’s “peace that passeth all understanding” is of course, biblical, from Philippians 4:6-7 and it must have been a verse Pratt heard often as he squirmed through his father’s sermons in Cupids, Blackhead and Brigus. Linked with the quite descriptor “Blessed” it conveys a sense of benediction both on the Dunkirk Miracle and on Pratt’s finale, underscoring the point that there is sometimes more going on than meets the eye in human affairs.

The Few

After Dunkirk came September 15. There may have been only 1000 pilots engaged in the decisive battle over England that week in mid-September, 1940. Ninety-five Canadians and Americans fought and 21 of them died. But there were millions like Pratt who were there in spirit that heroic summer as exhausted pilots pointed their Spitfires and Hurricanes yet once again up the deep delirious blue, smashed into German attackers at odds of 3 to 1, landed gingerly on fields pock marked with bombing holes and sometimes fell asleep instantly on contact while their plane’s motors kept on running, their ground crews sometimes thinking they were dead in their cockpits.

As Korda summarizes:

“Perhaps without even realizing it, in mid-September 1940 Hitler lost the war, defeated by the efforts of perhaps 1000 young men. Unable to invade and conquer Britain he would turn against the Soviet Union, sacrificing the German army, and thereby prolonging his war until, at last, the Americans were dragged into it by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor…. All this was to come and nobody could foretell it in the autumn of 1940. But [Air Chief Marshall Hugh] Dowding and ‘his chicks’ had prevailed, and it is perfectly fitting that September 15 should be celebrated every year as ‘Battle of Britain Day.’”

Neil Earle teaches history online and in various public forums.