Seventy one years ago, today, May 10, 1940.
William Manchester put it best:
The French had collapsed. The Dutch had been overwhelmed. The Belgians had surrendered. The British army, trapped, fought free and fell back toward the Channel ports, converging on a fishing town whose name was then spelled Dunkerque.
Behind them lay the sea.
It was England's greatest crisis since the Norman conquest....
.....In this new exigency, confronted by the mightiest conqueror Europe had ever known, England looked for another Alfred, a figure cast in a mode which, by the time of the Dunkirk deliverance, seemed to have been forever lost.
England's new leader, were he to prevail, would have to stand for everything England's decent, civilized Establishment had rejected. They viewed Adolf Hitler as the product of complex social and historical forces. Their successor would have to be a passionate Manichean who saw the world as a medieval struggle to the death between the powers of good and the powers of evil, who held that individuals are responsible for their actions and that the German dictator was therefore wicked. A believer in martial glory was required, one who saw splendor in the ancient parades of victorious legions through Persepolis and could rally the nation to brave the coming German fury. An embodiment of fading Victorian standards was wanted: a tribute for honor, loyalty, duty, and the supreme virtue of action; one who would never compromise with iniquity, one who could create a sublime mood and thus give men heroic visions of what they were and might become. Like Adolf Hitler he would have to be a leader of intuitive genius, a born demagogue in the original sense of the word, a believer in the supremacy of his race and his national destiny, an artist who knew how to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends, an embodiment of inflexible resolution who could impose his will and his imagination on his people, a great tragedian who understood the appeal of martyrdom and could tell his followers the worst, hurling it o them like great hunks of bleeding meat, persuading them that the year of Dunkirk would be one in which it was "equally good to live or to die" – who would, if necessary, be just as cruel, just as cunning, and just as ruthless as Hitler but who could win victories without enslaving populations, or preaching supernaturalism, or foisting off myths of his infallibility, or destroying, or even warping, the libertarian institutions he had sworn to preserve. Such a man, if he existed, would be England's last chance.
In London there was such a man.
-- William Manchester, The Last Lion, pp. 3-4.