This year my wife and I recognized a significant milestone in our marriage by taking a cruise of the Baltic Sea and visited such exotic cities, at least to me, as Copenhagen, Tallinn, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Helsinki, and Stockholm.
However, the city of most significance to me may have been the city in England from which we began our cruise and where it ended, Dover. There are several reasons for that. Mention Dover to most people and most people immediately come back with the first lines of a well known World War II song, 'There'll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover.' Let me tell you that those cliffs are white!
There are still a lot of people who know the significance of that song, and most people know that it was made famous by songstress Vera Lynn who, by the way, is still living. It was written, I believe, in 1941, by Walter Kent to uplift the spirits of the Allies at a time when Nazi Germany had conquered most of Europe's area and was bombarding Britain. The songs lyrics looked forward to a time when the war would be over and peace would rule over the iconic cliffs of Dover. This is one of the stanzas of that lyric:
There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see.
There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
When the world is free.
At the time of its writing, and recording by Vera Lynn, the British and German aircraft had been fighting over the cliffs of Dover in the Battle of Britain. It was a beautiful calm evening when our ship, The Norwegian Jewel, set sail from Dover enroute to the North Sea and the Baltic with 3,500 crew and passengers on board. Hundreds and hundreds of us were on the various decks as we set sail. A band was playing some loud modern music and then it ceased. Then a hush, as the beautiful recorded voice of Dame Lynn singing "There'll be bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover" floated over the ship and to those on shore. It brought tears to many, I'm sure.
When I was in Grade 11, the memory of World War II was still fresh in the memories of our parents and teachers. (There were still some among us who had fought in the First World War.)
Dover Beach besides being the setting for a significant event in WWII played a significant part in an English Literature lesson that I still fondly remember. My teacher had introduced and was on commenting (there was no need for explanation) on a poem that I believe was called, but I am not sure nor able to verify, 'The Little Boats of Britain', and the author may have been Sara Carsley. Here briefly is what this poem was about.
In May of 1940, during the Battle of France, the British Expeditionary forces in France aiding the French were cut off from the rest of the French by the German advance. Encircled by the Germans, they retreated to the area around the port of Dunkirk in France. Sir Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister of Great Britain, when aware of this terrible situation, requested any ship or boat available, large or small, in England, to cross the Channel to pick up the stranded soldiers, and the response was, as he termed it, a miracle.
A motley assembly of many different types of private craft such as motor yachts, fishing boats, and sail boats often manned by old men too old for war or boys too young, and some men lame and crippled. Nearly 340,000 British and allied troops would make it to safety and fight another day!
As a fisherman's son I could relate to this scenario. I could visualize trap-skiffs with a punt, even two, in tow, bullies, schooners, and passenger boats taking part in this drama. Dover Beach was where those boats set sail from, and as we sailed out of Dover, and could see the lights on the coast of France, I went over that poem and that lesson in my mind. I am sure that when I was reading that poem more than a half a century before I never dreamed that some day I would be where this actually took place. I must let you read that poem again. There may be some of you still remembering it:
The Little Boats of Britain.
The little motor boats
The little penny steamers
From Land's End to John O'Groats
The Brighton Belle, The Margate Queen
The Vigilant, The Lark
The Saucy Jane, The Gracie Fields
(Even a Noah's Ark)
Picked up their country's message
That its back was to the wall.
There is danger, there is danger,
Will you answer to the call?
Francis Drake, and Collinwood
And Nelson of the Nile
Were on their quarterdecks again.
You should have seen them smile
When all the little boats pushed out
From Dover to Dunkirk
To heed their country's message
That was their job of work.
And yet, there is another poem of my school days that flooded back to my memory, and this one was aptly called 'Dover Beach' written by Mathew Arnold in 1851. It had nothing to do with war but rather challenged the validity of long-standing theological and moral precepts. This is the first stanza of that poem:
The sea is calm tonight.
The tide is full. The moon lies fair
Upon the straits; - on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
When our ship set sail in the early evening of Sept. 9, 2009, this was very much as it was more than a century and a half later. Neither the North Sea nor the Baltic would be ridden with warships or submarines as it was when Vera Lynn sang her song or when 'The Little Boats of Britain' was written. Yet there were many, I am sure, contemplating on events that took place about only a half a century ago. I heard one woman say, "And all because of one man." Rather frightening, don't you think? Is it ever possible that something similar could happen again?