meaning and origin of the phrase ‘Dunkirk spirit’

The phrase Dunkirk spirit denotes fortitude and stoicism in a demanding or dangerous situation, especially as displayed by a group of people acting together.

This phrase refers to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.) and other Allied troops from the port and beaches of Dunkirk, in northern France, at the end of May and beginning of June 1940.

After German advances in northern France had reached the English Channel and split Allied forces, around 335,000 Allied troops were evacuated by warships, requisitioned civilian ships and a host of small boats, under constant attack from the air.

Although a defeat from a military point of view, the success of the evacuation raised British morale, which gave rise not only to Dunkirk spirit, but also to spirit of Dunkirk. In the years after the Dunkirk evacuation, both those phrases implied refusal to surrender when Britain was faced with the threat of invasion and was experiencing bombing attacks.

The earliest occurrences of spirit of Dunkirk that I have found date from Wednesday 5th June 1940. One is from A Saga of the Sea, published in The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia):

What the British Admiralty, with unaccustomed eloquence, calls “the most extensive and difficult combined operation in naval history”—the evacuation from Dunkirk of British, French, and Belgian troops, “in numbers which will surprise the world”—is nearly complete. […] The story of the retreat and evacuation, even as it is told in the sober official communiques, illumines the darkness of this bitter hour; it lifts up our hearts in admiration and gratitude; and it bids us be of good courage to meet, in the unconquerable spirit of Dunkirk, whatever ordeals the future may hold.

The other early use of spirit of Dunkirk is from Daring Deeds By The Weirdest, Bravest Armada, published in the North-Eastern Gazette (Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, England) of Wednesday 5th June 1940:

The story of the weirdest and bravest armada that ever sailed the seas was told by a Naval officer in London to-day.
It is the story of the “little boats,” which helped in the evacuation of the B.E.F. from Dunkirk—the tugs, drifters, trawlers, barges and motor launches, and rowing boats. Yes, and there was even a canoe.
This strange assortment was got together in record time by the Small Vessel Pool, an organisation which scoured the seaside places and rivers of Britain for every conceivable type of craft.
The response of owners of vessels everywhere was magnificent. There was no grousing at having to give up boats, indeed their only desire was to give their boats and a little more. In effect it represented the spirit of Dunkirk.

The earliest instance of Dunkirk spirit that I have found is from the Globe Man’s Daily Story, in The Boston Daily Globe (Boston, Massachusetts, USA) of Tuesday 4th February 1941:

Quentin Reynolds expresses the belief, in his new book, “The Wounded Don’t Cry,” that the British won the war at Dunkirk. As an illustration of the Dunkirk spirit he recalls that Wednesday was the worst day there, and then tells of two old soldiers who met afterward.
“’Ow was that Wednesday at Dunkirk?” one asked the other.
“O, it wasn’t too bad,” replied the other, “But it rained the whole bloody day.”

Remark: The phrase does not occur in The Wounded Don’t Cry (E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. – New York, 1941), by the American journalist and war correspondent Quentin James Reynolds (1902-65).

The second-earliest occurrence of Dunkirk spirit that I have found is from an advertisement published in several British newspapers on Friday 14th March 1941—for example in The Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury (Leeds, Yorkshire, England):

'Dunkirk spirit' - advertisement - Yorkshire Post (Leeds) - 14 March 1941

Won on the playing fields again?..

You can drill in discipline, but not the Dunkirk spirit. Hitler Youth may learn to goose-step, but not to play the game; the Parvenu Order has no time for games. The great-grandsons of Waterloo are more fortunate knowing how to value leisure. This shoe by Lotus is ideal for off-duty hours. Of stout zug leather with moulded rubber sole specially suitable for Golf.

By Makers of the famous Lotus
Guaranteed Waterproof Veldtschoen

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