70th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation (1940)
Speech by Andrew Robathan, Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans.
Your Royal Highness, mesdames et messieurs les représantants des hautes autorités civiles et militaires, mesdames, messieurs.
As a boy, I was imbued with the story and heroism of the Dunkirk evacuation, and I am very genuinely honoured to be with you here today on the 70th anniversary of that amazing event.
On 26 May 1940, Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Dudley Pound, gave the order for Operation Dynamo to begin, to rescue 45,000 men of the imperilled British Expeditionary Force from the beaches around Dunkirk and the harbour.
In the event, over a third of a million British, French, Dutch, Belgian, and Polish soldiers were evacuated, including men from my own regiment, the Coldstream Guards.
Churchill’s pointed comment at the time, that wars are not won by evacuations, was a salutary reminder of the losses inflicted by Hitler’s forces.
Many men; their arms, tanks, aircraft, ships; and the strategic advantage were lost.
French, British, and other troops who had desperately held the line to ensure others were saved, were killed, sometimes murdered, or sent into captivity for the rest of the war.
France would fall soon after; defeat stared Britain and Europe in the face.
It would be another four years before the Allies returned to the continent to stay, but 70 years ago that possibility was kept alive by events here in Dunkirk.
The British Army, the Free French under General de Gaulle, survived to fight another day.
The Royal Air Force would use their experience in France supporting the BEF to historic effect in the coming Battle of Britain.
And, once again, the Royal Navy proved that an island relies first and foremost on its maritime power for its very survival.
But it was a damn close run thing.
Nearly 900 ships of every description were needed; many were lost.
There was heroism from all ranks, from senior officers and from humble river boatmen, who linked arms with the pride of the Royal Navy and offered deliverance to an army close to breaking point.
French men and women were inspired to resist against terrible odds.
And all the ex-servicemen here today will have their memories of survival and hope, snatched from the jaws of defeat.
Ladies and gentlemen, in Britain we often talk of the “Dunkirk spirit”, of resilience in the face of adversity.
It was embodied in the captains and pilots, the soldiers who struggled to safety, and of course those little ships, and all those on them, civilian, naval, volunteers and servicemen.
And by the French civilians who helped them.
It was four long years before the liberating forces could return to say thank you.
70 years on, we say thank you once more. Merci encore!
Let us remember with gratitude those of all nations who died as we commemorate the events of 70 years ago.
The Dunkirk spirit is alive and well, the resilience lives on still, on our people, but especially in our armed forces, whom I am very proud to represent today.