Little Ships Review: A Courageous Voyage

June 3, 2010 by  
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LITTLE SHIPS: Thursday 3rd June, BBC2, 9.30pm ALERT ME

The evacuation of Dunkirk is arguably the most powerful tale in modern English folklore that continues to resonate some seventy years after its advent. The anniversary of Dunkirk coincides with a recent survey that revealed a fifth of British teenagers believe Winston Churchill to be a fictional invention. One can conclude from this that the same demographic probably have little knowledge of the heroic events of 1940. Anyone who considers the relevancy of this miraculous chapter in history to be of diminishing importance would be wise to heed this statistic.

The numbers speak for themselves: in just under a fortnight 300,000 men were saved from the beaches by a resilient and unimaginably brave flotilla of ‘little ships’ that were hastily assembled in a race against the rapidly advancing, and well equipped, German army. A triumph of logistics and the human spirit, it is an enduring story of David versus Goliath that those who participated in should always be commemorated for.

Little Ships is presented by Dan Snow who has, over the years, begun to stake his claim as the authority figure when it comes to televised naval history. In this latest documentary Snow has assembled a moving programme that serves as both remembrance and historical documentary, flitting backwards and forwards between the two. Snow triumphs in constructing a concise and evocative account of those dreadful days when thousands of men were stranded on beaches contemplating their own deaths.

A select handful of the ships that made the treacherous crossing have survived to this day and make an annual pilgrimage to Dunkirk, a moving sight as they navigate through the waterways retracing the same routes they made over half a century ago. It reinforces the incredible accomplishment of managing to rescue so many men on such comparatively small vessels.

A sad appendage to the Dunkirk story is the men – of many nationalities – who weren’t so lucky, becoming POWs who would later meet their fate on the death marches back to Germany. Little Ships neglects to fully cover this aspect that corresponded with the ‘Miracle of Dunkirk’, probably because it fits uncomfortably with the rest of the narrative. Hopefully one day these stories will also come to prominence.

Whilst Little Ships frequently resorts to the now overly-familiar interviews with veterans as par of the course – as far as the format of remembrance programmes go – they still provide evocative and haunting recollections of a time that later generations will thankfully never have to undergo. It’s a tale that should continue to be told, not out of a false sense of nationalism or self-inflated pride, but as a memorial to one of the greatest sacrifices ever committed that should never be underestimated and, mostly importantly, never forgotten.