‘[T]he heroism of the ordinary person’: on the 80th anniversary of Dunkirk

22 May 2020


This week marks 80 years since Operation Dynamo, when over 300,000 Allied troops were evacuated from the beaches and harbours of Dunkirk during the Battle of France. Although the event has been since immortalised through various star-studded blockbusters, docuseries and history books, I wanted to dig into our resources to find out how those living through the war experienced and responded to news of the evacuation. I turned to Mass Observation Online and its collection of diaries, sent in monthly instalments by about 500 men and women between 1939-1967.

Diarist 5057, August 1939 - July 1940, © Mass Observation Archive. University of Sussex Special Collections

One account which stands out is that of Diarist 5057, a 28-year-old schoolmaster from Plymouth. Like others, he expressed concern for the operation; on 29th May he wrote “Can there be any hope for the BEF [British Expeditionary Force] but to surrender?” However it is his reaction to the work of the so-called Little Ships of Dunkirk, the 850 private and civilian boats pressed into service to aid with the rescue operation, which captures the significance of the events beyond a military or strategic perspective:

Thur May 30. Beginning of Dunkirk evacuation, which thrilled one in a way that very few historical facts have ever done. It’s the heroism of the ordinary person: the rather Three Men in a Boat young men in flannels who took his boat from Maidenhead to the rescue

This diarist’s emphasis on the role of the “ordinary” people in shaping his response to the events is fascinating when set against the backdrop of the Second World War and other historical events alluded to by the writer. For me however, reading the diary in the midst of a very different crisis, the line resonated more. There has recently been a proliferation of wartime language, references and comparisons in the media, some arguably more valid than others. Recently a BBC article quoted Sir Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick research institute, saying in reference to coronavirus testing that “We are a lot of little boats and the little boats can be effective”. (2nd April 2020)

These “little boats” of 2020 – the garden laps of Captain (Sir) Tom Moore, endless shifts of key workers, individual facilities carrying out tests, communities’ efforts to come together – remind us once again to consider the “heroism of the ordinary person”, just as Diarist 5057 did 80 years ago.

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About the Author

Emma Woodcock

Emma Woodcock

Since I started at Adam Matthew in the summer of 2018, I've worked on a range of projects including Socialism on Film, Food and Drink in History and America in World War Two. My academic interests lie in Early Modern book history, literature and politics.