When a Nation Prays Arts & Culture

When a Nation Prays: The prayer story behind the miracles of Dunkirk

by Rose McCormick Brandon

“Photographs show thousands lined up at Westminster Abbey waiting to enter for prayer.”

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:13,14).

Dunkirk, the movie, with its superb acting and riveting scenes, tells of a Second World War military miracle—but fails to include the prayer story behind the miracle.

 In May 1940, the German High Command had the British army encircled and were proceeding to annihilate it. The rapid advance of German forces across France and Belgium isolated British troops, leaving them vulnerable to being killed or captured. Churchill, prime minister of England, feared he’d have to announce the greatest military disaster in British history. This was a time of grave crisis.

British forces called for an evacuation of their soldiers stranded in Belgium. The only port available was Dunkirk. Churchill said, “The whole root and core and brain of the British Army … seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into ignominious and starving captivity.”1

King George VI, in a radio speech delivered on May 24, 1940, called for a National Day of Prayer. “At this fateful hour, we turn, as our fathers before us have turned in all times of trial, to God Most High. Here in the old country, I have asked that Sunday next be observed as a day of national prayer.… Let us with one heart and soul, humbly but confidently, commit our cause to God and ask His aid … With God’s help we shall not fail.”2

Millions in the U.K. flocked to churches. Photographs show thousands lined up at Westminster Abbey waiting to enter for prayer. Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, the King and Queen of Britain, the prime minister and members of cabinet joined lords and ladies and throngs of ordinary people for prayer. 

Miracles followed.

The first miracle was that German forces were only 10 miles from Dunkirk when Hitler ordered them to halt. No one knows why. Churchill surmised in his memoirs that Hitler believed his air power was superior enough to pick off the soldiers as they fled via the English Channel.

The second miracle came in the form of a violent storm that grounded squadrons of German planes. Under the cover of the storm, British troops moved to the coast, readying for evacuation.

Then came the third miracle. A great and unprecedented calm settled over the English Channel. This enabled an armada of ships, ferries and privately owned motor boats to cruise back and forth, rescuing stranded soldiers.

Douglas Bader, a British pilot, describes the scene this way: “The sea from Dunkirk to Dover during these days of the evacuation looked like any coastal road in England on a bank holiday. It was solid with shipping. One felt one could walk across without getting one's feet wet, or that's what it looked like from the air. There were naval escort vessels, sailing dinghies, rowing-boats, paddle-steamers, indeed every floating device known in this country. They were all taking British soldiers from Dunkirk back home.”3

At the outset of the evacuation plan, the British expected to rescue between 20,000 and 30,000 soldiers, leaving the rest stranded. Churchill reported to Parliament that 335,000 men had been “carried out of the jaws of death and shame to their native land” in what could only be called “a miracle of deliverance.”

A day of national thanksgiving was held on Sunday, June 9. In many churches, choirs and congregations sang a psalm that many said was written for such a time as this.

“If the Lord had not been on our side—let Israel say—if the Lord had not been on our side when people attacked us, they would have swallowed us alive when their anger flared against us; the flood would have engulfed us, the torrent would have swept over us, the raging waters would have swept us away. Praise be to the Lord, who has not let us be torn by their teeth. We have escaped like a bird from the fowler’s snare; the snare has been broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 124).

Several times throughout the war, days were set aside for national prayer. Looking back on those times, the Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr. H. A. Wilson, wrote, “If ever a great nation was on the point of supreme and final disaster, and yet was saved and reinstated, it was ourselves … it does not require an exceptionally religious mind to detect in all this the Hand of God.”4

The God who piled up the waters of the Red Sea for the nation of Israel will still perform miracles of redemption for nations who humble themselves and pray.


Rose McCormick Brandon is the author of One Good Word Makes all the Difference and Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children. You can read more of her writing by visiting her website: http://writingfromtheheart.webs.com.

  1. Winston Churchill, “We Shall Fight on the Beaches,” June 4, 1940, The International Churchill Society, accessed August 25, 2017, https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/we-shall-fight-on-the-beaches.
  2. 2King George VI’s Empire Day Address, May 24, 1940, Sound Recording #2173225, National Archives Catalog, accessed August 25, 2017, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/2173225.

  3. Douglas Bader, Fight for the Sky (Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Books Ltd., 2003), 15.

  4. John Willans, “National Day of Prayer at the time of Dunkirk 1940,” Anglican INK, June 8, 2015, accessed August 25, 2017, http://www.anglican.ink/article/national-day-prayer-time-dunkirk-1940.

Image ©istockphoto.com. This article appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of testimony, the bimonthly publication of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada.

This content is provided as a free sample of testimony. Subscribe for full access to the complete magazine.