The true 'miracle of Dunkirk'

British leader J John salutes power of prayer during famous WWII battle

Dunkirk remains the most popular movie at Australian cinemas. Strong word of mouth and positive reviews have propelled the epic war drama, that imagines what it might have been like during a large-scale Allied evacuation during World War II.

But writer-director Christopher Nolan’s latest movie does not include at least one memorable aspect of the Dunkirk events. As pointed out by Canon J John, a well-known Christian commentator, the intense military rescue operation in 1940 involved a level of prayer that affected an entire nation. Not only is the amount of prayer notable, so too is the potential effect of it.

“The reality of what happened at Dunkirk is intriguing.” – J John

“Dunkirk is not simply a gripping story; it is also a thought-provoking one because even today the word ‘miracle’ hangs over it,” writes John, a British author, speaker and minister. “Nevertheless, even for the most sceptical, the reality of what happened at Dunkirk is intriguing.

“If you don’t know the story, on 10th May 1940, Hitler unleashed a military onslaught on France and Belgium. Within days the British Army – outmanoeuvred and unprepared – along with soldiers of other Allied nations, found themselves with their backs to the sea and hemmed in by enemies. The German High Command was able to boast with confidence that its troops were ‘proceeding to annihilate the British Army’. That the total destruction of an entire army was imminent was a view shared by many in the military and political leadership of Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill found himself preparing to announce to the public an unprecedented military catastrophe involving the capture or death of a third of a million soldiers.

“On the Sunday, the nation devoted itself to prayer in an unprecedented way.” – J John

“But it didn’t happen. On 23rd May, King George VI requested that the following Sunday should be observed as a National Day of Prayer. Late on the Saturday evening the military decision was taken to evacuate as many as possible of the Allied forces. On the Sunday, the nation devoted itself to prayer in an unprecedented way. Eyewitnesses and photographs confirm overflowing congregations in places of worship across the land. Long queues formed outside cathedrals. The same day an urgent request went out for boats of all sizes and shapes to cross the English Channel to rescue the besieged army, a call ultimately answered by around 800 vessels.”

John also points out that before the National Day of Prayer, events surrounding Dunkirk seemed to conspire against an Allied defeat. Hitler had already told his troops not to advance further against the Allied forces, while weather conditions assisted the unusual yet successful strategy of sending English civilians in boats to rescue soldiers (as depicted on-screen in Dunkirk).

“I think Dunkirk stands as an extraordinary encouragement to pray in faith.” – J John

“Now you could argue it was all a coincidence, but I think not,” continues John about what to make of the Dunkirk events. “It certainly wasn’t considered so at the time. Sunday 9th June was declared a National Day of Thanksgiving and, encouraged by Churchill himself, the phrase ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’ began to circulate.

“We live in a world where people are not simply cautious about miracles but they prefer to rule them out entirely. In much of public culture it is an unchangeable and unbreakable rule of life that the miraculous cannot and does not occur. The view is that while we may pray, there is no one on the other end of the line. It’s curious how we have come a full circle: in the past, few dared argue with the religious faith that saw the hand of God everywhere; now few dare argue against the atheistic faith that sees God’s hand nowhere.

“The events of Dunkirk might make us want to reconsider the elimination of God as an actor from history and politics … Indeed I think Dunkirk stands as an extraordinary encouragement to pray in faith. However great our problems, God is greater than them all.”

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