The miracle at Dunkirk

August 18. France had fallen to the Nazi onslaught. The British escaped by the skin of their teeth in the miraculous evacuation of more than 300,000 from the beaches at Dunkirk.

On August 18 the long-awaited Battle of Britain began as German bombers tried to knock out airfields in the south of England in preparation for their invasion, codenamed Operation Sealion. The odds were on the Germans by sheer weight of numbers. A crucial difference was that British pilots shot down over the UK could be back in action almost at once; Germans went straight into captivity.

Bomb damage in BilstonSuffering huge losses, the Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering attacked the radar stations which were directing RAF formations against his bomber fleets. But his Stuka dive-bombers, the symbol of Nazi terror in Europe, were no match for Britain's legendary Spitfires and Hurricanes. Although many British airfields were pounded, Goering was unable to dominate the skies. On August 25 the first German bombs fell on London.

The following night the RAF bombed Berlin. Hitler was furious and ordered an immediate onslaught on London. The Blitz had begun. The capital blazed by day and night. London and other cities, notably Coventry, were ravaged. Tens of thousands of British civilians died in bombing raids.

March 7. It should have been a splendid occasion but, instead, the maiden voyage of the liner Queen Elizabeth ended quietly as she sailed into New York which was to provide her, literally, with a safe harbour for the duration of the war. Painted in drab grey and fitted with an anti-mine device, the 85,000-ton ship sped across the Atlantic at 24 knots. She was yet to be completed.

July 23. The new Local Defence Volunteers were renamed, at Churchill's suggestion, the Home Guard. An Express & Star reporter observed the first training session of a newly formed unit in a garage yard in a Midland town.

"Their instructor was a soldier of the last war who, if the truth be told, had never handled anything but a short Enfield rifle in the previous spot of bother and who, besides finding the Canadian model slightly unfamiliar, had to confess that he had forgotten some of the finer points of rifle drill himself for the moment.

"The men managed very well for the first try-out, though the squad of half-a-dozen recruits included one man not much taller than the rifle itself, another who was such a lightweight that when he slung it across his body to shoulder it the weight almost knocked him down, and another who simply could not persuade his hand to grasp the weapon the right way round when he canted it up from the 'order' position.

"But the instructor, no doubt only too alive to the rustiness of his own military accomplishments, wisely made no attempt to indulge in the sarcastic pleasantries which he distinctly recalled having been exercised just over 20 years ago at his own early struggles."

March 1. Vivien Leigh won an Academy Award for her memorable performance as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With The Wind, the most sought-after role in movies. Her casting caused waves in Hollywood as she was relatively unknown at the time and was chosen ahead of leading actresses of the day.

May 10. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose father Joseph had been possibly Birmingham's finest Lord Mayor, resigned after Parliament and the people had become disillusioned by his conduct of the war. The hasty withdrawal from Norway had removed his last remaining shred of credit. There was little doubt about his successor. Winston Churchill had been a great success as First Lord of the Admiralty and was a master of public relations. He formed his government the same day.


In brief

January 2. About 200,000 Soviet troops launched a new offensive against Finland.

February 23. Russia presented Finland with peace terms.

March 16. The first British civilian died in an air raid in Scotland.

April 9. Hitler's forces invaded Denmark and Norway. The "phoney war" was over

May 10. Germany invaded Holland and Belgium.

May 27. The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr E. S. Woods, declared that using force to fight Nazism was right and urged Christians to prepare for "the fiery ordeal" of war.

June 4. Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of British and French troops from Dunkirk, was over.

June 17. Rubery Owen of Darlaston voted 500 towards the Express & Star's Spitfire Fund.

July 3. The Royal Navy sank French warships in Algeria to prevent them falling into Germans hands. Some 1,000 French sailors were killed.

August 26. First RAF raid on Berlin. Hitler was furious with his Luftwaffe chief, Goering, who had promised that the RAF could never reach Berlin.

September 2. Midland wool shops reported a sudden surge in demand as local women took to knitting clothes while in the air-raid shelters.

September 15. British forces inflicted heavy losses on Italian troops in North Africa.

September 26. A Brierley Hill man was fined 10s (50p) for breaking blackout regulations by flashing a torch at the sky and threatening to knife anyone who came near him.

October 9. John Lennon, the future Beatle, was born.

October 25. Subject to war censorship, the Express & Star reported how nurses "at a West Midland hospital" formed a chain of buckets to deal with incendiary bombs the night before.