The coronavirus pandemic has thrust us in a crisis of global proportions, the like of which was never seen since the Second World War (WWII), as mentioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation Thursday. Like the terrible war, nations are staggering under an attack that is devastating countries and killing thousands. While the number of casualties is incomparable to WWII, the widespread fear and chaos is similar.
On that occasion too, a war begun in foreign lands seized India in its wake. The hubris of several European countries that they would be spared the Nazi onslaught, is uncannily similar to those who believed that the pandemic had been ‘contained’ in India or that we are somehow immune to the virus. Even as country after country was ravaged by Hitler’s war machine, others, including France, believed that their much-vaunted armies would stop the German advance. They couldn’t.
It is a matter of days before the pandemic enters the third stage in India spreading its deathly wave exponentially. Projected mortality rates expressed in fractions; understate the millions those percentages will be. Comparisons with flu or road accident casualties are misleading because those don’t wipe out an entire generation of old people or destroy national economies. India will be especially ravaged by the inequitable distribution of misery. The poor as always will bear brunt of the decimation. At a time when India is teetering towards the precipice, perhaps, we could gather strength from the darkest hour of the Second World War.
While WWII had several pivotal and poignant moments, none comes as close to the darkest hour for the Allies — as the complete rout of British troops at Dunkirk, when indeed it seemed that all was lost.
When Germany attacked Poland in September 1939, a British Expeditionary Force (BEF), was sent to help defend France. After a brief interlude of seven months, Germany began its blitzkrieg and invaded Belgium, Netherlands and France on the 10th of May. The defences based on the Maginot line proved useless and the German war machine tore through the French and Belgian armies breaking west towards the English Channel. The entire British Expeditionary Force was trapped along the northern coast of France. Fearing total annihilation, the BEF commander General Vort, decided to evacuate from the port of Dunkirk — which was the closest port that could enable evacuation of the 350,000 British soldiers caught within a tightening noose.
While the remnants of the French army tried to delay the onslaught of the advancing enemy, they were no match for the seven German divisions, of which three were formidable panzers, that crashed through them. The enclave of Dunkirk was shrinking by the hour while German Luftwaffe pummelled the helpless troops. These 350,000 troops were — as Churchill put it — the whole root, core and brain of the British army. Their capture which seemed a certainty, would leave Britain defenceless against the German invasion which would follow the conquest of France. Britan stood alone against Hitler. The US had not yet joined the war because of the neutrality pact they had signed.
The British war cabinet itself was split, with the former prime minister Chamberlain’s insisting on suing for peace to save what was literally the entire British army in the European theatre, while Churchill was firm on fighting to the very end. The troops stranded in Dunkirk were essential if Britain needed to continue the fight but their evacuation was impossible with the depleted British and French navy. There simply weren’t enough vessels and those that were, could not be berthed near the shallow beaches where the wounded and weary soldiers were being strafed and bombarded by the Luftwaffe unchallenged.
The British Armed Forces realised that they needed far more than their own resources to achieve this miracle and appealed to every boat owner of Britain to come to their nation’s aid. Hundreds of private vessels ranging from yachts to rickety fishing boats responded to this national call, manned by reserves and volunteers, and sailed from Britain to Dunkirk knowing fully well that they were likely to be blown to pieces by the Stuka bombers pounding the beach.
Between 26 May to 4 June 1940, about 850 private boats rescued more than 336,000 British, French and other Allied soldiers who would have most certainly been killed or captured. This operation, code-named Dynamo, went down in history as the most pivotal turnaround of the Second World War. Without those rescued troops, the last bastion of the Allies would have fallen, and the Axis would have seized Europe.
Five years later, using those very troops as the core of a much stronger and formidable army, the Allied went on to win the Second World War.
There are rare occasions in the history of a nation, when its government’s resources are simply not enough. We are in the midst of a World War and this crisis needs our entire national capacity. This is not the time to bicker about differences — of which we have aplenty. There will be time enough for that. Right now, we need all “hands on deck” disciplined approach and realisation that viruses don’t differentiate between any economic class, caste or religion. We need to remember that the world is one family and every citizen needs to take care of those less privileged than them if we have to survive as a nation.
The story of Dunkirk has a postscript from which we may get a sense of fortitude and destiny.
After the troops were rescued against all odds — on 4 June 1940 — Winston Churchill gave the most famous speech of the Second World War, which is commonly known by a line within it: “We shall fight on the beaches…” This speech extolled the fighting spirit and determination of a nation, during its darkest hour.
In the last paragraph of his peroration, Churchill goes on to say that “…if the island of Britan were to be subjugated… then the Empire beyond the seas would carry on the struggle until in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old”.
The ‘old world’ is reeling. It is for us to step forth and battle this common enemy.
The author is former CEO NATGRID and president, Risk & Security Reliance Industries. Views are personal.
This article was first published on Medium.