Was the “Miracle of Dunkirk” Really a Miracle?

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By Paul Asay, Aleteia, (Catholic Education Resource Center)

asayDirector Christopher Nolan is considered one of the best, most innovative directors today.

He inspired us with Interstellar, weirded us out with Inception and created what most people consider the best superhero movie ever in The Dark Knight.

Now the auteur has released a new film, opening this week: Dunkirk.  Some people are saying it’s his best movie yet.

But then again, he had a pretty good story to work with.

Dunkirk is based on a real event near the beginning of World War II: The evacuation of British and other allied forces from the beaches around Dunkirk, France.

Ironically, the event was part of a “colossal military disaster,” in the words of Winston Churchill: Nazi Germany had swept through the Netherlands and Belgium and was quickly gobbling up France, routing Allied troops along the way.  Soon, much of the Allied force — consisting of around 400,000 men — was bottled up near Dunkirk: To the south and east, the Nazis pressed in.  To the north and west stood the sea.  Not an enviable position for any army.  If those men were forced to surrender, Britain would’ve been easy pickings for Germany.  World War II might’ve ended with a swift German victory, and Western Europe would’ve been a massive enclave of Nazi power.

Given the dire situation, the British definition of “success” was much more modest.  Nolan’s film makes it clear that the British command would be happy to evacuate 45,000 troops.  On May 26, 1940, the evacuations began, and King George VI called for a national day of prayer.

What followed has been called, by many, the Miracle of Dunkirk.

Was it actually a miracle?  Remarkable, yes, Nolan’s movie suggests.  More than 300,000 British and other Allied troops made it back to England, allowing Britain to fight on.  And it wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the “little ships” from Britain — hundreds of fishing boats and pleasure yachts, ferries and fireboats that sailed the channel and rescued countless soldiers, shuffling them either home or to British naval vessels in deeper waters.  But a miracle?

There are those who say it was a miracle — an honest-to-goodness intercession from God.  Consider …

The Halt Order

On May 24, with a German Panzer division just 18 miles away from Dunkirk, the German army stopped.  The order, supposedly given by Hitler, lasted for more than 11 hours, and once it was lifted, the German army was slow to move.  The window of opportunity — about 48 hours in all — gave the Allied soldiers time to solidify their defenses and begin evacuation procedures.  Historians still debate why the Halt Order was given.

The storm

Four days after the Halt Order, a huge storm apparently exploded over Flanders, which grounded the fearsome German Luftwaffe and allowed the British some much-needed breathing room.

The Channel

You’d think that those terrible storms would have a pretty big impact on the English Channel’s perpetually choppy waters.  But oddly, the sea around Dunkirk was incredibly calm.  According to Bob Morrison, writing for the Christian Post, the waters were described as being “as smooth as a millpond.” The unusually settled waters allowed all those tiny boats to do their work.

The list goes on, according to some.  Even Churchill — not exactly a regular churchgoer — called Dunkirk a “miracle of deliverance.”

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is less about God and more about man — an inspiring story of human courage, gumption, and dedication.  And indeed, it’s hard to take Dunkirk as incontrovertible proof of a kind, loving God.  Yes, more than 300,000 people were saved during the evacuation, but thousands died, too.  The war went on, leading to the deaths of an estimated 60 million people.  Skeptics will wonder why a loving God would’ve allowed Hitler to take control of Germany in the first place.

But is it a little miracle that so many regular ol’ British boat owners had the courage to fight the power of Nazi Germany?  To risk their lives in the service of an uncertain cause?  I like to think so.

When I watched the movie and read about the “miracle” of Dunkirk, I was reminded of something: That when we really think about our lives, we too might find strange evidence of God’s love and intercession.  I believe that the most special people in my life were gifts from God.  The opportunities I’ve been given were from Him, too.  The world around us is an incredible miracle.  You need only to examine a tree leaf, or hold a drop of water under a microscope, or watch a baby sleep to see that.

God doesn’t do all the heavy lifting.  As we see in Dunkirk, we sometimes help our own little miracles along.  We see the opportunities that God’s given us and we act on them.  But that very act of will … that comes from God, too, doesn’t it?

We may not have been the beneficiaries of a Halt Order or care much about the English Channel’s mysteriously glassy seas, but I think that, if we look hard enough, we can all find little miracles in our lives.



Paul Asay. “Was the “Miracle of Dunkirk” really a miracle?” Aleteia (July 22, 2017).

Reprinted with permission of Aleteia.

The Author

Paul Asay is a movie critic for Plugged In and has written for a variety of websites and publications, including Time, The Washington Post and Beliefnet.com. He’s authored or co-authored several books, including most recently Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet.

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