What follows is not a review for a movie I haven’t yet seen. It’s more of a preview. What is getting reviewed, however, is one of the most dramatic scenes in the epic saga of world history.
Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Dunkirk, opens this weekend, and you might wonder if your resident PPFA historian is looking forward to it. Cinematic experiences have repeatedly warned us that it can be challenging to satisfactorily convey great historical events. Thankfully, Nolan’s track record — which includes The Dark Knight, Inception, and Interstellar — has provided some of the most thrilling movie theater experiences of this century, so Dunkirk is in capable hands.
That being said, Nolan, however accomplished in action, mystery, and science-fiction, has never tackled history before, and what amazing history this is. Can he actually capture the “spirit of Dunkirk”?
The year was 1940, the month was May, and the bloodiest conflict in history was just getting started. After Germany invaded Poland in September, Poland’s strongest allies, the United Kingdom and France, responded by declaring war on Germany, and the Second World War began.
But just because they declared war does not mean they fought it. In what was called the “Phony War,” the British and French made almost no military response other than preparation. This fecklessness, part of a broader “Western betrayal,” further emboldened Adolf Hitler, who for a few years had steadily annexed surrounding land, aggressions met only by appeasement. For the eight months after Hitler’s successful Polish conquest, the Western powers, still mired in a sort of collective PTSD after World War I, froze in anxiety. The only mainland measure the UK took was to send the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to shore up defenses along the the Belgian-French border.
Hitler’s next move snapped the West out of its petrified state. On May 10, he sent his blitzkrieg west, invading Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. By May 21, Germany’s gains were considerable:
Of note for today’s topic is the yet uncaptured area to the northwest of that advance. Surrounded by the Germans on three sides and the English Channel on the fourth were about a half million Allied soldiers, including Belgians, Frenchmen, Canadians, and the tens of thousands recently deployed British of the BEF, including, as UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it, “the whole root and core and brain of the British Army.”
Emotionally, these were hundreds of thousands of fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers, and to lose them would have devastating psychological implications. Strategically, to lose so many soldiers so quickly might have ended the war’s European theater well before the United States arrived to tip the balance over 18 months later. Indeed, Britain considered a conditional surrender, which not only would have allowed Hitler to run amok across the mainland and, in time, more successfully push east, but it also would have removed the base from which the US would eventually spearhead the Normandy invasion. A miraculous recovery of the stranded men wouldn’t necessarily win the war for the Allies, but their deaths or capture would have likely lost it.
What happened next, therefore, was a pretty big deal.
Closely examine the surrounded part of the above map. At about the midway point of the coast, just south of the Belgian-French border, you’ll see a port town called Dunkirk (French: Dunkerque). After getting almost encircled by German forces, Allied leaders, chief among them General John Vereker of the BEF, determined that an evacuation at Dunkirk’s harbor and beach was the best hope to siphon survivors, however few there might end up being. On May 20, the evacuation order was given.
Vereker’s decision was paired by the first bit of good fortune for the Allies. The general in charge of the overwhelming German charge, Gerd von Rundstedt, held back the ground assault on May 24. His concerns were the steadily marshier terrain and that the German blitzkrieg had operated so smoothly that he wanted to shore up his flanks and allow slower-moving supplies to catch up to their attack. Instead of continuing the incursion, he suggested that the German air force — the fearsome Luftwaffe, which had proven dominant — first soften the cornered Allies before the army came in to more easily finish the job. (For years most people thought this was Hitler’s mistake, but he merely sustained Rundstedt’s dubious decision. Hitler’s blunder on the eastern front one year later, however, was all him.) The ground attack did not recommence for three days. By then, the Dunkirk evacuation, which the British code-named Operation Dynamo, had begun.
It occurred, of course, against a racing clock. Not only did the Luftwaffe barrage the retreating soldiers, but the resumption of the ground attack acted as a tightening noose around the survivors. All of northern France was going to be swallowed up by Nazi Germany, and the Allies wanted to be off the beach before that happened.
Back in England, King George VI held a national day of prayer for the boys of Britain trapped on the other side of the Channel. The Anglican Church’s highest ranking cleric, the Archbishop of Canterbury, asked for all British to pray “for our soldiers in dire peril in France.” These prayers were answered, mainly, by three groups of heroes.
First, the ground forces at the Battle of Dunkirk showed exceptional bravery. British, French, Canadian, and Belgian soldiers (before a Belgian surrender) had the difficult mission of slowing down a ferocious German war machine. Their sobering mission was not to win the battle or push the Germans back east, but to instead slow the unstoppable Nazi charge as much as they could in order to buy time for the evacuees. Every hour saved lives. Thousands died in this desperate defense of their countrymen until the remaining defenders, too, retreated to the last few boats.
Simultaneously there was the heroism of the Royal Air Force (RAF). Its job was to repel, to the best of its ability, the Luftwaffe air raids on the soldiers below. Remember, this was back when war planes looked like this:
Hundreds of such propeller aircraft took to the skies in complex, harrowing dogfights the rest of us probably couldn’t stomach were it safely on the TV screen in the safe comforts of our living rooms. The RAF lost 145 planes in this engagement, but it took down 156 German ones and greatly hindered Nazi plans to slaughter or capture the Allied soldiers on the ground.
Our third and perhaps most famous set of heroes were the “Little Ships of Dunkirk.” Though the Royal Navy was en route to Dunkirk with orders to haul the evacuees across the English Channel, the large-hulled ships that could carry the thousands they were hoping to save could not access Dunkirk beach’s shallow shores. Many soldiers needed to somehow get from the beach of Dunkirk to the out-of-reach ships, but the ships did not carry nearly enough smaller tenders to efficiently do the transfer. Thousands of soldiers queued shoulder-deep into the Channel awaiting transport to ships they might not survive long enough to board.
As a result, the British government sent out a plea to all civilians with boats on the Thames and English coast: can you help us?
Boy, did they ever. Hundreds of volunteer merchants, fishermen, and yacht owners relinquished their boats to the Royal Navy. Many even volunteered to captain their own boat across the English channel and toward the Nazi invasion. When they arrived in France, some boats ferried soldiers to the larger ships, and some made the journey back across the Channel with Allied soldiers on their deck and Nazi warplanes off their stern. And then some did it again. And again.
Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe flew overhead and the Nazi army drew closer — so close, in fact, that German heavy artillery rained shells into Dunkirk. Many died. Fires erupted. People panicked. But the evacuation continued, and with it so did the incredible communal heroism of Operation Dynamo: Allied armies bore down, the Royal Air Force offered cover, and the little ships of Dunkirk pulled away every man they could. The last ships departed the harbor on June 4. Allied soldiers would not return to France’s northwest shore for another four years.
The evacuation of Dunkirk lasted nine days, and it involved 220 war ships assisted by 700 little ones. On the first day (May 27), about 7,500 soldiers were evacuated. On the second day, 18 thousand followed them. On the subsequent days there were 47, 54, 68, 64, 26, 27, and 26 thousand saved. In those nine days, the total number of rescued British, French, and other Allied soldiers numbered an astonishing 338,226. That was 338,226 reunions with sons and fathers, and it was 338,226 more troops to continue the war effort against the Nazi menace. “The Miracle of Dunkirk,” both logistically and psychologically, allowed Britain to survive (much in thanks to continued RAF heroism in the Battle of Britain later that month) long enough for the American entrance into the war after the Pearl Harbor attack. The Allies didn’t win World War II at Dunkirk, but not losing it was good enough for one week’s work.
The “Dunkirk spirit” went on to infect Britain and other Axis antagonists, strengthening a resolve that ultimately led to victory over Hitler’s tyranny. Churchill immediately commemorated the critical operation. As if Britain was not inspired enough after snatching salvation from the clutches of catastrophe, the Prime Minister followed the evacuation with his hallmark June 4 House of Commons speech:
“Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
We shall fight on the beaches, indeed.
So yes, it’s safe to say I’m looking forward to this movie. Now I hope you are, too.