In June 1940, the British Army faced disaster. France had fallen to the Nazis and they were trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk. They were saved by a fleet of “little ships” which sailed across the Channel to rescue them. A humiliating defeat was transformed into a miracle of survival. The courage of the rescuers (many of whom did not return) helped inspire Britain as the country faced the threat of invasion during the perilous summer that followed.
Bradford-born author and broadcaster J.B. Priestley played a key part in the creation of the Dunkirk story, thanks to a BBC radio broadcast on 5 June, the first of his celebrated Postscripts series. We see Priestley turning the raw news into history – and legend. “Doesn’t it seem to you to have an inevitable air about it – as if we had turned a page in the history of Britain and seen a chapter headed ‘Dunkirk’?”.
Priestley doesn’t blame anyone or dwell on the defeat. Instead, he pays tribute to the little ships, especially the frivolous little pleasure steamers, evoking the English sea-side world his listeners would know so well: “pierrots and piers, sand castles, ham-and-egg teas, palmists, automatic machines, and crowded sweating promenades”. The steamers had left this to go into “the inferno” and face unimaginable dangers for the greater good. Some would not come back but would be remembered forever, like “Gracie Fields”, a ship Priestley had taken many times to his Isle of Wight home. Priestley’s listeners were doing the same: he was reminding them that it would be worth it, that they were part of an incredible story already turning into history.
Listen to Priestley’s Dunkirk Postscript.
Find out more about the Postscripts:
- An Excursion to Hell: Priestley’s 1940 Postscripts.
- Our 2010 online exhibition following the Postscripts seventy years on, Priestley’s Finest Hour (from which some of the above text is taken).
- BBC radio documentary about the Postscripts