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Friday, 2 June, 2000, 14:53 GMT 15:53 UK
Dunkirk Spirit gets lost in translation
Armada of
By Paris correspondent Jon Sopel

The Dunkirk Spirit is a phrase probably familiar to every British person, even if some might not know its historical significance.

But what the saying signifies - backs against the wall courage, a never-say-die mentality, defeat with honour - is something nearly all would understand.

But the phrase does not translate across the English Channel.

For in the dark days of 1940, when the British Expeditionary Force - harried and outgunned by the superior German forces - had to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk to await their salvation, the French saw it as betrayal, another example of 'perfidious Albion'.

Liberation

The British had come to help but had not stayed to fight.

Indeed the anti-British feeling that was stirred by the withdrawal from Dunkirk made life a lot easier for the collaborationist Vichy Government in France and its leader Marshall Petain, who, after the war, was put on trial for high treason.

Those sentiments were to change dramatically when, almost exactly four years later in 1944, the British and American forces launched Operation Overlord - the D-Day landings which would lead within weeks to France's liberation from Nazi control.

It is this occasion that the French celebrate with gusto with the British and Americans, not Operation Dynamo which led to the Dunkirk evacuation.

Trough of despair

The French media, therefore, has had precious little coverage of the arrival for the last time of the armada of small ships.

And on the quayside at Dunkirk, there is no shortage of British outside broadcast vehicles relaying the event live back to all quarters of the UK, but it is hard to find one French film crew.

That said, there were many brave French sailors who helped in the evacuation of the allies.

In this corner of northern France, there is pride in what was achieved in Dunkirk - the remarkable evacuation of 340,000 troops under German bombardment.

As one French historian explained to me, 1940 was when the French were in the deepest trough of despair at having been invaded; watching their allies cross the channel back to Britain, however heroic, was no cause for celebration or commemoration.

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15 May 00 | UK
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