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Memories of Dunkirk: a short story by cam
British Troops Aboard Royal Destroyer: Dover, U.K. 31 May 1940
Harold Airington stood barefoot in the shallows of the harbor, the pant legs of his black suit soaking up the seawater as memories from seven and a half decades before flooded his mind. His efforts here, and those of hundreds of others like him, had saved the lives of nearly 340,000 men.
That those men had gone on to experience long and happy lives was a gem of personal pride that Harold treasured in his heart, and he had come to this place, the beach of Dunkirk, France, to remember. Behind him, three men and two women who had come to help him honor the memories of the fallen ones, watched from the shore.
British Troops Await Evacuation 26-29 May 1940
In the spring of 1940, the Germans were on the move across France, driving the home forces, along with those of Great Britain and Belgium toward the English Channel where they would be massacred. At least, that had been the intention of the Third Reich.
As battle weary soldiers stumbled onto the crowded beach near Dunkirk, the impending disaster became ever more apparent, not only to the men who would face a dreadful end with their backs to the sea, but also to those commanding the fleeing troops. They were arriving by the tens of thousands each day, and hope did not increase with their numbers.
The 75th Commemoration of Dunkirk
Twenty year old Harold sat next to his Emerson radio as the news reporter described the plight of the allied forces. Harold thrust himself from the chair when he heard of the operation underway all across southern England, but especially from the Port of Dover.
He made his way to the port and saw history being made, a history he was determined to help create. Yachts, fishing boats, barges, tug boats and car ferries were on the move, a flotilla set on delivering the stranded troops on the other side of the English Channel to safety.
Early Watson Class Lifeboat
A 40 foot Watson Class Lifeboat was tied to the dock, and Harold approached the old man on board.
“You going to Dunkirk?” Harold asked.
“Aye, I’ve got my papers from the Admiralty. If I can find a worthy mate, I’ll go.” said the old man. “I can handle the crossing, but I’ll need help.”
“Who owns her?” asked Harold.
“I do. Built in ’08 and decommissioned in ’32. I bought her as soon as she was retired. She’s a good boat.” Harold shook hands with the old man whose name was Walter and they spent the next hour collecting supplies of water and food.
SS Mona's Queen Sinking Near Dunkirk 29 May 1940
The two men threw off the deck lines and headed for the outer harbor and the English Channel beyond, joining a fortuitous fleet of hundreds of civilian boats. At 8:00 am on 31 May 1940, they entered the Channel heading southeast toward Dunkirk, France. Four hours later, they entered the war zone.
Walter and Harold spun about at the sound of an explosion and saw a steamboat off their port side listing starboard. She had hit a German mine. Other boats, nearer to the scene were already on the way to rescue the surviving crew if there were any, so Walter proceeded toward the beach. Smoke shrouded the burning city of Dunkirk and drifted over the crowds of soldiers on the sand and in the water, waiting to be picked up.
Burning Oil Tanks at Dunkirk.
Luftwaffe fighters strafed and bombed the city of Dunkirk, then circled back, striking against the activity on the beach and in the water. Some of the soldiers were so far out into the channel that they were fighting to keep their faces above the chop. Destroyers were floating farther out with no hope of getting closer. The larger of the civilian boats were able to get somewhat nearer, but still too far to expect the exhausted men to reach them.
Walter was the first to engage the motor of his smaller craft, and he idled toward the waiting British, French and Belgian soldiers. A fighter, seemingly from out of nowhere, dove at the mass of boats which were riding the waves close together. Water and blood sprayed into the air as the projectiles ripped across the harbor, splintering wood and bone.
A Dornier DO 17 Z Airplane (German Luftwaffe) drops bombs
“I think that was meant for you and me,” Harold called out.
“All it did was make me mad,” shouted Walter as he eased the boat forward. The lifeboat drifted the last few feet until the men in the water caught hold and stopped her advance. They were only fifty feet from shore and dared not venture any closer without becoming grounded. Men were climbing from the water onto the deck from both sides. Walter was moving around, shouting to the men climbing on board.
“I only have room for twenty of you now. I’ll be back, please move away from the boat.” But the men continued to board the vessel until she was sitting low in the water. Walter engaged the motor once again and the men moved away. As the boat turned parallel to the land, Harold spotted a lone figure further down the beach. The person was smaller than the other men, sitting on the sand with his head covered. The next time around, Harold would try to catch the young man’s attention and get him on board.
After two more trips, Walter had an idea. This time he stopped just out of reach of the waiting men and motioned to another of the lifeboats to come closer. He guided the boat to the bow of his own and tied the two together. After a brief conversation, the man in charge of the second boat motioned for another small craft to approach. One by one the boats were connected far out into the channel where a barge moved into position at the end of the line.
Walter pressed the throttle forward ever so slightly, engines screaming, as they pulled the entire chain forward until the men could once again climb aboard. Walter pointed them toward the bow and soon there was a line of men climbing from boat to boat, using them as a bridge. When the barge was full, it moved away toward the destroyers and another boat moved in and began taking on men. While the rescue continued, Harold was waving to the youth sitting on the beach, but he made no move to join those who were waiting to be evacuated.
Lifeboats at Dunkirk 1940
Someone discovered that at one end of the harbor, the water was deep enough for a larger boat to pull in next to the stone and wooden jetty. As a result, the operation shifted into high gear.
As night became day and day, night, thousands of men were being transferred from the beaches and the jetty out to the waiting destroyers. But the Germans were attacking so fiercely from the air and with inland artillery, that the rescue operations had to be slowed down and done only under the cover of darkness.
By the morning of 4 June, the British rear guard had been evacuated. The boats were being filled with French soldiers who feared that the Germans would soon break through the defensive lines around Dunkirk. Harold’s thoughts continued to return to the youth on the beach. In the morning light of that final day, Harold saw him lying on his side in the sand.
The word went out that the defensive perimeter around Dover had indeed been breached. All of the smaller crafts took on as many Frenchmen as they dared, but forty thousand still watched from shore.
Harold’s gaze settled on the small form in the sand. Who is he? Why hasn’t he made any attempt to save himself? Walter headed out into the channel and Harold continued to watch the shore. Someone tapped him on the shoulder. A soldier was holding out a pair of Walter’s binoculars. Harold put them to his eyes just as the youth rose from the sand. The hood that had been pulled up to cover his head now fell away revealing a woman’s flowing hair, a pretty face, and eyes that, in spite of the distance, seemed to meet his own.
During the four hour trip to Dover, Harold saw, not the men around him for whom he had labored so hard, nor the sea, nor the sky, nor his hometown growing ever closer. He saw the eyes of a woman pleading with him to be her savior.
In Dover, the rescued men were shuttled away in every kind of vehicle that could be rounded up by the British military. Walter’s boat drifted to the dock where Harold jumped out and threw the lines to the old man.
“Back there, on the beach….” Harold began.
“There was a woman,” said Walter, causing Harold to pause for a brief moment.
“She waved to me as we left.”
“To you? Out of all those men, you know that she was waving to you?”
“I know it.”
“The Germans are there now.”
“Yes, the Germans are there.”
“She has most likely been captured….or worse.”
“I don’t think so. She was climbing up from the beach the last I saw her.”
“You want to go back?”
“You have no boat.”
“I have no boat.”
Harold reached out and helped the old man from the craft. Walter walked to the end of the dock and threw off the bow line.
“Bring her back safe,” he said.
“The woman or the boat?” asked Harold.
“Both,” said Walter.
Harold was guided by the light from the fire that was Dunkirk. He thought of the German mines that had been planted in the channel and of the fighter planes of the Luftwaffe. German soldiers would be guarding the beach when he arrived. Would the woman be there too?
Four hours later, the boat was idling forward through the empty harbor which had only hours before been the site of so much suffering. Most of the bodies of dead soldiers, killed by the strafing of the Luftwaffe and by shrapnel from exploding bombs, had been taken during the evacuation. In their place, helmets floated upside down as empty memorials to fallen heroes.
British Troops, Dunkirk, France 1940
Harold killed the engine and let the momentum carry him through the darkness toward the shore which seemed to have been abandoned. A searchlight came on and panned the harbor, just missing the lifeboat in which a man, foolish, valiant or both, planned his next move. Somewhere in this dark place was a woman whom he did not know, whose fate had led her to this horrible beach.
Harold inched the lifeboat forward, using a wooden pole, until the bow touched the sandy bottom. He anchored it fore and aft before wading through the still water and onto the beach where the woman had been sitting. Harold climbed up along the same path she had taken hours earlier. Everywhere he looked were the shadowy shapes of abandoned trucks, tanks and jeeps, the spoils of war, left for the Germans to reap.
The muffled sound of footfalls on sand was approaching from the darkness ahead. Harold slid under a truck and waited. Two German soldiers walked past, speaking in low voices and laughing. Harold waited several minutes, then resumed the search which seemed to be in vain. Then from somewhere in the shadows that surrounded him, he heard a woman’s voice.
“Here,” she said.
“Where,” said Harold, scanning the silent chaos around him.
The dark shape, head and face hidden within a hooded garment, stepped from between two military trucks. The footfalls of the guards returned and Harold ran to the woman, pulling her back into her hiding place. They waited in silence as the two soldiers walked past. One flicked a cigarette butt that landed just a few feet from where the man and woman were huddled.
“I’m the man from the boat. You were watching me.”
“I’ve come back for you.”
“I’ve been praying that you would.”
“Why didn’t you come when I waved for you from the boat?”
“Those poor men, the soldiers, needed to be saved from the Germans.”
“Do you also need to be saved from the Germans?
She dropped her gaze and fell silent.
“You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” said Harold.
“I am,” said the woman.
“What is your name?” he said
“Rachel, I am Harold, and I have a boat waiting for us on the beach.”
Harold pushed the lifeboat off the sand, then got in and paddled farther out into the harbor. He started the engines and the sound traveled across the water to the beach and up toward the city. The searchlight flashed to life and began its slow scanning of the dark water. The damning circle of light came to rest on them, and there was nothing either of them could do but stare back at its source. The light went out, and silence followed.
Harold urged the craft forward into the night. No more lights appeared. No boat came for them. No alarms sounded.
“Rachel, have you been praying again?” said Harold
“Yes,” said Rachel. “And for the second time tonight, My God has answered.”
Harold nudged the throttle forward and the boat slipped away into the dark waters of the English Channel.
Harold walked out of the water and joined his three sons and two daughters on the beach.
“This is the place you first saw mother?” said his daughter.
“This is the place,” he said as he knelt in the sand. One of his sons stepped forward and handed his father a wooden stake and placard that held the words which he had formed in his heart.
My Dearest Rachel Neuberger Airington, light and joy of my life. Once, long ago, you prayed that I would come to find you. Your God answered that night and gave us many happy years together. Pray now, that I may soon come and find you again and that forever we may live, the horrors of yesterday gone, and the joyful memories of our children and each other the only heaven we require.
“Would you all mind waiting at the top while I spend a few minutes here alone?"
The five siblings climbed up the path while their father pushed the stake into she sand. He knelt and poured out the grief of his loss.
After a few minutes, one of Harold’s daughters looked down at the beach. Her father lay on his side, smiling, while out on the water, a small boat drifted quietly into the channel.