Hitler wasn't a very nice guy, and he knew how to organize an invasion. In 1940, it was France's turn to experience the blitzkrieg of the Luftwaffe, the Panzer corps and bratwurst.
For any readers out there who have at some point been alive, you know that the French lost. Badly. The entirety of France was overrun in days and there were over 350,000 casualties between the French and the British. Less than a year into World War II, the Axis were disturbingly close to winning the war. British and French troops retreated until they had no room to retreat any farther, their backs to the English Channel.
But in a remarkable last ditch effort, the British managed to rescue over 300,000 of their troops from the beaches of Nazi-occupied France, frantically enlisting the help of everybody and anybody with a boat. More than 850 fishing boats, lifeboats, canoes, jet skis, anything that floated, worked for a solid week to carry troops to safety in England.
"Last one to the sea gets shot by Nazis!"
The rescue effort would come to be called the Miracle of Dunkirk.
How History Remembers It:
The Daily Express declared in their headline, "Tired, dirty, hungry they came back -- unbeatable." Churchill himself was soon to jump on the Dunkirk bandwagon, delivering his famous "We shall fight them on the beaches" speech. While he was clear that this was no victory, the British public didn't quite see it that way. Across the pond in America, New Yorkers were told, "Between flights, the young pilots of the RAF calmly sipped tea at their home fields."
It's hard to look cool in a fishing boat.
Almost immediately, papers like the New York Times were joining in. The defeat was spun into a tale of Allied heroism, and it quickly became a rallying point across England and France. It spread from person to person, growing in fame until it resulted in a major morale boost, coining the term "Dunkirk Spirit," which held all the connotations of "solidarity in adversity" and the idea of the stiff upper British lip.
Manly hug? MANLY HUG.
Meanwhile, the German newspapers simply declared: "Dunkirk Taken."
"Left behind hats."
Not only had the Germans easily won the battle (only a three-day halt order on their part allowed the escape to happen at all), but also while the ragtag fleet of boats were carrying the soldiers to safety, all of their weapons were left behind. And we're not talking about a pile of rifles and some grenades -- the vast majority of the British army's weaponry was abandoned at Dunkirk, enough to arm eight to 10 divisions. The Germans captured more than 84,000 vehicles -- that's not a typo, 84 thousand, and more than 657,000 tons of ammunition and supplies (or 1.3 billion pounds). In short, a veritable treasure trove of supplies as a nice birthday present to arm the Nazis.
"What's this? An arsenal big enough to conquer all of Europe? You shouldn't have!"
It left the British desperately low on equipment. The whole affair was an absolute disaster from top to bottom, and one of the low points of the war.
The only saving grace is that it could have been much worse. And, when you're looking for a story to boost morale, sometimes that's all you've got.
Captain Robert Falcon Scott set out to reach the South Pole, probably figuring that it would be a crime against nature for a guy with the middle name "Falcon" to not be a global adventurer. Antarctica was, and still is, very cold and inhospitable, so this was certainly no mean feat. Previous expeditions had failed -- even one of his own crew, Ernest Shackleton, had attempted the same only a few years before. The man who could successfully make the trip would be world famous.
At almost exactly the same time as Scott set out, another explorer named Roald Amundsen was making his own effort across Antarctica. Obviously, the race was on.
"First one to the middle of nowhere wins!"
How History Remembers It:
Scott's expedition had been incredibly carefully planned, with drop-off points for supplies arranged. Unfortunately, all the plans disintegrated. Conflicting orders were given, much of the communication got mixed up and transportation arrangements failed.
"Dear diary. Got hungry, ate the dogs. Dimitri pissed."
Yet Scott overcame all of this and made it to the South Pole. But he could not make it back -- he and his team paid with their lives, eventually freezing to death in their tents.
As for how the story was reported back home, well, imagine if Neil Armstrong and the crew had died coming back from the moon. Scott was instantly lionized and celebrated as a British national hero. For 50 years, Britons erected monuments to his name across the country, and over a million pounds were raised for the dependents of the expedition. Celebrities heaped praise upon him by the truckload -- an 8-year-old even wrote a famous poem about him. Though you can't be posthumously knighted, they granted his wife the rank of knight widow.
Who then sculpted this.
Scott had a research institute named after him at Cambridge University, the current U.S. scientific base there bears his name and he was the subject of a film portraying his heroics in 1948. And so on. Yeah, it was kind of a big deal ...
... for the guy who lost the race.
Remember that other team that was also racing toward the pole? Yeah, when Scott arrived, he discovered that Amundsen had beaten him there ... by five freaking weeks.
So now these are more like vacation photos than anything else.
Amundsen returned from his successful expedition, the one that didn't kill him and his crew, to be greeted with utter indifference by the public. At a banquet for Amundsen that was allegedly to honor the winner of the race to the South Pole, the host sarcastically toasted Amundsen's sled dogs.
Culturally, the difference between Scott and Amundsen was the difference between Kurt Cobain and Billy Corgan -- nothing romanticizes a person's accomplishments like dying in their prime. The fact that Amundsen actually did a better job of planning and executing his trip, and as such, actually survived it, meant he had the same reputation the Titanic would have today if it had completed its journey and served a long career as a cruise ship for rich assholes. Which is to say, none at all.
"Well, this feels a bit anticlimactic."
Amundsen, who might have been just a little bitter about the whole thing, later said, "Victory awaits him who has everything in order -- luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck."
Scott never got around to replying to this barbed comment. Because he was dead.
Don't give us that magnificent facial hair, Amundsen. You're still a dick.
For more instances of lies everyone believes, check out 7 Fighters Who Lied Their Way to Legendary and The 5 Most Widely Believed WWII Facts (That Are Bullshit).
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