But If Not
In today's religion column for the Tribune & Georgian I reflect on the miracle of flight 1549, by looking at the miracle of the little boats of Dunkirk in 1940 when the three words "But If Not" launched a massive evacuation effort. The article is online here: But If Not. It begins:
“But if not.” These three words were the sum total of the communiqué sent from the British Expeditionary Forces facing a rising tide of German forces threatening their annihilation while at their backs lay the North Sea. In May 1940, these three words galvanized Britain into action sending a ragtag fleet of boats into harms way to effect a miraculous rescue.The full article continues here: But If Not
More than 345,000 English and French soldiers lined the beach at Dunkirk. The flat sandy beach was 400 feet wide at low tide and half that in high tide. The gentle slope of the shore made it impossible for many of the British Navy’s ships to get in close enough to bring the stranded soldiers to safety.
A well-placed combined French/English attack had caused the Germans to think the force larger and better able to effect a defense than they were. This led to some regrouping and a small opportunity for evacuation. The first day of the evacuation, a mere 7,000 men were taken to safety.
It was clear that it would take a miracle to get the remaining 338,000 soldiers off that beach in time given the ships at the disposal of the Royal Navy. Then came the three words, “But if not.”
The three word message spoke deeply to a nation with a strong shared tradition of biblical literacy. The words were from the King James Bible’s translation of Daniel 3:18. Three young men—Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego—had refused to bow down and worship an image of gold that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, had set up. As Jews, they worshipped God alone and would not do as ordered by the king even though they were told that if they remained stubborn, they would be burned alive in a furnace.
The three men told the king, “If it be so, our God, whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.”
With this story in their national memory, the words from Dunkirk resonated deeply with a clear message. The troops trusted that they would be rescued miraculously from the beach somehow, but if not, they would never bow before Hitler’s armies. They would die in honor on the beach before they would disgrace their nations with surrender.
The three words hit home. A ragtag flotilla of fishing boats, yachts and other merchant ships and pleasure craft took to the sea piloting straight into harms way counting on being the miracle for which the men with their backs to the sea were praying. A total of 860 little ships brought the miracle evacuation snatching men shoulder deep in the frigid sea to the safety of larger ships waiting further off shore.
Labels: religion column