My Dad would sometimes scream in the middle of the night. It was a short sound, quickly muffled, and followed by the murmur of my stepmother’s voice… a distant cough, feet shuffling on the bedroom floor, and then the house would settle back into silent darkness.
In the second World War Dad was a foot soldier in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, an Infantry Regiment with a great history stretching back to the Battle of Waterloo. But Dad didn’t fight in any victorious battles, and the only advance he ever made into another country was turned back in defeat. His night-time screams, years later, were echoes of that defeat.
Gerard Gannon was one of the thousands of soldiers who had marched through France and Belgium in an attempt to hold back the fearsome advancing German Army. War had been declared in September 1939 and barely 8 months later Germany had consolidated its grab of Poland and now was invading Belgium, heading to France. Britain wasn’t in the same war-fit state as the Nazi regime, which had been militarising for years, and our soldiers slogging through the lanes of Northern France were no match for the tanks and planes of the German nation. The armies of Britain, Belgium and France (America looking the other way, fingers in ears, la-la-la) were beaten back to the port of Dunkirk; Thousands and thousands of men were stranded for days on the beach and in the harbour, strafed by German war planes, the bombardment of tanks coming ever nearer. Dunkirk harbour could take only one warship, and the beach was too shallow and sloping to allow large ships to anchor, so the remnants of three armies, three hundred and thirty eight thousand men, were pinned down, helpless. That’s when Churchill broadcast a plea for help, from anyone who had a boat, and that’s when terrible defeat turned into a valiant defiant miracle;
This is a photo from Dunkirk. Imagine the smell of the smoke and the fires, the noise of the stukkas as they screamed out of the grey skies to deliver death, imagine the cries of the dying, the shouts of confusion, the desperate prayers…. imagine.
My Dad had two days of that. Nowhere to hide, no shelter to be had, as the German planes made run after run along the beach, guns blazing, sand, bone, blood and flesh exploding … no wonder that sometimes, in the middle of the night, years later, he was back there. He returned from Dunkirk with a hole through his battledress trousers – a bullet hole – but physically unharmed. His generation didn’t talk about PTSD. How could they? They had a country to rebuild, families to support, this nation of men who had seen things that should not be seen, done things that should not be done. If PTSD had been acknowledged and treated we would have had a nation of invalids, dependants, broken men. So, they pretended that they weren’t broken. Blanked it out. Carried on, regardless. Such pretence and such damage, to them and to the next generation.
But that’s not what I’m thinking about today – today I’ve been thinking about the small ships, some of them barely more than rowing boats with tiny outboards, river launches better suited to a day at the regatta, day boats and yachts…. men and women who had no part in the war, often too old to be called into military service, who took their boats out across the channel, heading into hell on earth, seeing the confusion and clamour of war up ahead and pressing on into it, to save souls. Sorry, to save lives. Imagine the sight as they neared the beach….. today I’m thinking of their bravery.
And I’m thinking about my Dad too…. did he pray? He had been educated at a seminary, trained for the priesthood, in these awful days of fear and exhaustion, did he turn to God? A young father, with a five month old son back home…. surely he prayed? I was born years after Dunkirk, and the Dad I knew didn’t speak of God, and certainly didn’t pray. But maybe, back then, in the heat of battle…
As I grew up, he didn’t talk about the war at all but when something came on the TV or radio about the small ships, he would say some thoughtful thing about the bravery of those rescuers. He was so mindful of their courage and so appreciative.
I wish that I’d spoken to him about bravery. He was a man’s man, and he could have talked about that in a way that he could never talk about love. But bravery sometimes is love and we could have shared an unspoken code. I wish that I had said to him “Dad, those men and women were wonderful risking their lives to rescue you, but there’s someone who did more than risk His life. He gave His life. He walked into His death, into pain and shame and fear and horror, knowingly, willingly, because you needed rescuing and you couldn’t save yourself. He was born to die for you.”
I wish that I had said that. He would have understood that. I think he would have let even me talk about bravery, and he might, just might, have listened.
Dunkirk was a great lesson to Britain. When all seems lost, there is hope. And hope may come from the most unexpected quarters. It may come from shabby little boats and old weak people. Today’s defeat may be the next best step towards victory. When those thousands of men returned home there was a renewed sense of unity and determination in Britain. The bully boys might be bigger and stronger and more brutal, but they will never win. Even when they are celebrating victory, they are in the middle of defeat.
Even today, maybe even more so today, evil can be oppressive and disheartening, but it will never win. There are thousands, countless thousands, of souls to be saved. Individually we are small battered craft, unfit for purpose, buffeted by the tides and sometimes daunted by the sights up ahead, but we’re on a rescue mission. God is the wind in our sails and the fuel in our engines, God is our Commander-in-Chief, the battle is His, right is His, and the victory is His. All we have to do is listen and obey.
Keep a straight course, never mind how small and shabby we are, how high the waves, how fierce the enemy, how hopeless the task ahead, it’s not us who will win the battle, it’s God.
Psalm 44:5- 8 (it’s taken me ages to find this, it was lurking at the back of my brain and google was no help, so do please read it! The bold print is mine)
Through you we push back our enemies;
through your name we trample our foes.
I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name for ever.
Our brave God, our courageous Jesus, walking into the jaws of death for me.