From the Editor: august 2000

Time has a way of tarnishing the glories that used to gleam proudly in history's trophy cabinet.

Sixty years after the Dunkirk evacuation, there is no escaping the fact that it was a feat of improvisation unique in these islands’ history – and for a nation that has always been more skilled in the execution than the planning that’s saying something.

Time has a way of tarnishing the glories that used to gleam proudly in history’s trophy cabinet. Only long after the initial euphoria has faded, and the version of events deemed necessary at the time by official ‘historians’ has begun to reveal itself as wishful thinking (at best) or propaganda (at worst), do we start to find out the truth about our past.

So, for example, it turns out that our generals in the First World War were worse than useless, most British casualties at Loos were victims of British mustard gas, RAF bombing raids occasionally hit the wrong country, the USSR did more to defeat Germany than the UK and the US put together, and Churchill was an alcoholic, interfered in matters he didn’t understand and was (good heavens) half-American.

But the astonishing thing about Dunkirk is that there is no historical revision to be done. About the facts there is no argument. The French campaign was a military disaster; nearly 350,000 soldiers were rescued from the ports and beaches of northern France in May 1940. Of that total over 100,000 owed their salvation directly to the famous ‘little ships’.

Requisitioned and mostly crewed by the Royal Navy, these were the Sealines, Brooms and Princesses of their day. It was an operation for which no plan existed, because no plan so half-baked could ever have been hatched, even in Whitehall. As a piece of naval improvisation it was a work of genius – and it secured for all time the Little Ships’ place in the history books.