I have fond memories of going to the movies with my cousins and brother when we were kids. One of our moms would drive the five of us to the theater and drop us off. As the oldest, my cousin David and I each had a dime tucked away in a pocket for the phone call home. We were also in charge of the three younger ones, although for David that meant putting up my brother, the youngest, to some interesting mischief. I don’t remember many of the movies we saw but we had plenty of fun. We often sat through a couple of showings before calling for a ride home.
A few things have changed about the movies since those days back in the 1960s. Newsreels and cartoons have given way to previews and product advertisements. One can no longer gain admission for 35 cents. Nevertheless, going to the movies is a great way to spend a hot July afternoon.
My husband and I did just that a couple of weeks ago when we decided to see Dunkirk, which tells the little-known story of an incident that happened during World War II in 1940, before the U.S. entered the war.
British and French troops, fighting against the Germans, had been cornered in Dunkirk, France. They were stranded on the beach. Across the channel was England. The military launched Operation Dynamo to evacuate the soldiers from the beach and return them to England. The military were aided by hundreds of civilian craft, dubbed The Little Ships of Dunkirk. These civilians braved enemy fire to make trip after trip ferrying soldiers from the beach to the larger ships which could not reach the shore.
The planners of Operation Dynamo expected to rescue 35,000 troops, a number which turned out to be a gross underestimate. In the end, some 340,000 British and French soldiers were evacuated. (Various sources differ on the actual number, but most of those rescued were British.) Not everyone made it out of Dunkirk. Some 80,000 were taken prisoner by the Germans.
While the evacuation itself makes for a good story, here’s the important thing about Dunkirk. If those soldiers had not been successfully evacuated, Germany would have won the war. Imagine how different our world might be in that alternate version of history.
A small digression is in order. In 1879, eleven year old Annie Nielsen sailed from Denmark to America. She and her brother were traveling with family friends to join their mother who had come to Utah the previous year. One day, Annie went too close to the ship’s railing and nearly fell overboard. She was rescued by a sailor.
In San Diego in the early 1930s, another little girl about the same age was playing on a pier by the ocean. She saw and boarded a raft, thinking it was tied to the pier. It wasn’t. She began to drift out to sea. She was rescued by a stranger who happened along in his boat.
Annie Nielsen was my great-grandmother. The second little girl grew up to become my m other. If either had been lost at sea, I would not be writing this.
As I think back to Dunkirk, I am struck by the sheer magnitude of the rescue, and the possible consequences if it had failed. If those 340,000 men had been lost, who among us would not be here? How would our world have been different? Would the U.S. have entered the war? If not, would my parents have met? (Many Baby Boomers might ask the same question.) Would Germany have come across the Atlantic and caught America unawares? Would we live under a very different government?
While I am glad things turned out as they did, I think it’s interesting to imagine alternate endings to the stories I encounter.
Note: For readers who seek more information, I suggest Dunkirk by Joshua Levine. I found it a bit tricky to keep track of characters and events, but it has a lot of good information about the events leading up and including Operation Dynamo.