As a national day of prayer heralded the nine-day evacuation of Dunkirk, what lessons can we learn from the famous deliverance of 1940?
On 10 May 1940, Winston Churchill took over the coalition government from former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Just 16 days later, Churchill would face the toughest military and political challenge of his career.
The 500,000-strong British Expeditionary Force had set out months earlier, along with volunteers from Canada, France and Belgium, in confident counter-defence against Germany’s Blitzkrieg (Hitler’s Panzer-led lightning strikes across Europe).
But the BEF was soon overwhelmed. The Belgian army capitulated and Nazi tanks moved into Holland and France. Vast columns of the Allied armies were stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk, with the sea before them and the enemy advancing.
And so it was that, on Sunday 26 May, King George VI called for a day of national prayer. In every town, city and village, British people gathered to pray, even those who rarely entered places of worship.
In the presence of the royal family in Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop of Canterbury read out prayers for deliverance. In his memoirs, Chamberlain wrote, ‘This, the blackest day of all … the day of prayer’.
Waiting for rescue
Ships from the British navy gathered at Dover, waiting for the signal. Then, in the early hours of 27 May, Operation Dynamo was launched. The first large ships broke through and under heavy fire rescued just 7,001 men. Altogether, some 850 boats, from large navy vessels and commercial ships to civilian fishing craft and lifeboats, ploughed through the Channel, continuously evacuating British forces.
During the evacuation the Royal Air Force lost 474 planes, compared with 132 German planes, as the full weight of the RAF was thrown against the Luftwaffe. Even so, many Luftwaffe bombers pounded Dunkirk, sinking rescue craft and killing soldiers as they waited, waist-deep in water, for their evacuation.
On the Continent the weather remained dire, thwarting the German advance, which was further hampered by the RAF and strong, last-ditch local resistance. But strangely, the final blow was held back by Hitler himself. Some claim he never intended to subjugate, only ‘liberate’ the ‘Germanic’ English, for whom he held respect.
Whatever the reason, Operation Dynamo was a near-miraculous deliverance. The original British plans had been to rescue 45,000 soldiers within an expected two days’ grace before advancing German armies arrived. In the end, a total of 338,226 soldiers (198,229 British and 139,997 French) were rescued over nine whole days.
Miracle of deliverance
In Churchill’s famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech to Parliament on 4 June 1940, he said: ‘A week ago today, I feared it would be my hard lot to announce the greatest military disaster in our long history. The whole root and core and brain of the British Army seemed about to perish or to be led into captivity … But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted’.
This ‘miracle of deliverance’ was ascribed to the RAF, although the nation knew it was not by might of men alone that so many were rescued against such odds. The day of prayer had galvanised people to petition a higher power, one who could turn the heart of the enemy as ‘water in the king’s hand’.
It was a miracle indeed. The prayer had been answered, just as other similar national prayers had worked deliverance – the failed attempt by the Spanish Armada to invade England 300 years previously, for example.
The resonances with the Exodus story are evident. The people of Israel, retreating from Egypt, are locked between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s superior forces. The cloud of God remains behind the people of Israel, protecting their backs and terrorising the enemy (Exodus 14:24-25); slowing down the Egyptians as Israel goes forward in a march of miraculous deliverance through the parted waters of the sea.
‘The enemy said: I will pursue, I will overtake… But you have led in your steadfast love the people whom you have redeemed’ (Exodus 15:1-18). But the underlying lesson of that distant event is far deeper than national deliverance from military enemies. It vividly portrays, in typological form, the salvation from sin that is obtained through faith in Jesus Christ.
What if the UK were to gather again in prayer, crying out in repentance to the Lord? The pattern shown in Scripture suggests that God would have mercy on us, as he had on Israel, and as he had, in temporal terms, on those 380,000 soldiers 70 years ago.
But who is our enemy? There’s no aggressor baying for our blood, no flotilla waiting to invade. Materially, we have probably ‘never had it so good’ as a nation, recession notwithstanding.
Our real enemies are sin and Satan, manifested in widespread atheism, hedonism, immorality, selfishness and idolatry. Truly ‘we wrestle not against flesh and blood’ (Ephesians 6:12), but ‘the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:4).
So, would the UK ever again consider a national day of prayer? The nearest we got to it was on 12 September 2001, as we showed solidarity with the USA after its 9/11 atrocities.
The prayers of the remnant – God’s people, saved through faith in Christ – must be offered up continually. We must pray for our monarch, heads of state, politicians, those running the media and all our institutions. The enemy is no longer without: he is within our very shores. Pray for another miracle of deliverance!