It has been called the miracle at Dunkirk, an utter disaster, pure mythology and one of the most momentous weeks of World War II for Great Britain — and possibly the world.
In May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force lay exposed on the beaches of a French resort town after a humiliating retreat through the countryside just ahead of German forces. Troops were stranded for days, bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe while they awaited rescue by the Royal Navy. Several factors saved the army, and, perhaps, England itself.
First, Hitler halted his army’s advance into Dunkirk, a decision historians have debated for decades. The action provided a window for getting the troops out. And when the shore proved too shallow for massive naval vessels to get near enough, hundreds of civilian small boats answered the British government’s call to help pick up the increasingly desperate men. An estimated 338,000 British and French soldiers were saved by the combined effort of the small boats and the Royal Navy.
At the outset of “Operation Dynamo,” the military had hoped to evacuate 35,000 to 45,000 troops. There were heavy casualties during the retreat and the days at Dunkirk, but the British army survived.
Even though Dunkirk marked a stinging defeat and set the stage for the Blitz of London over the next year, it is remembered in Great Britain as a shining moment. Britain refused to quit, and to this day, the “Dunkirk Spirit” is evoked as shorthand for the English people standing firm and persevering under the worst conditions.
“This random assortment, in a very amateurish, eccentric way, come together in what was understood as a very British triumph,” says Priya Satia, associate professor of modern British history at Stanford University. “They saw it as England at its best.”
Now, the story will be told to a new audience in the ambitious Christopher Nolan movie “Dunkirk,” which opens July 21. It’s clearly intended to show those unfamiliar with Dunkirk’s place in history what the battle was like.
Nolan’s film avoids a reverent or mythic portrayal of Dunkirk in favor of a tightly focused view of what an infantryman, a Royal Air Force pilot and a small boat captain went through during a week, an hour and a day of the battle. All of Nolan’s gifts as a director of big-screen action and scale are used to deliver the immediacy of their experience . “Dunkirk” doesn’t provide a big statement in historical or geopolitical terms. Instead, Nolan seems to say, “this is what they endured. And they still survived.”
The audience will include many in the U.S. who know little about it, as Dunkirk occurred a year and a half before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and four years before the D-day Allied invasion of Normandy.
“When you speak to Americans, they might have heard of it, but as this terrible defeat that happened before America got involved,” says Joshua Levine, author of the 2010 book “Forgotten Voices of Dunkirk” and now “Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture.” He was also the film’s historical adviser.
“It’s a hell of a lot more than that. Had the British army not gotten away, the British would almost certainly be forced to surrender,” he says. “There wouldn’t have been a D-day if the British had not held on. It would have been a totally different world today for all of us.”
British historian Andrew Roberts says Dunkirk was to his countrymen what Pearl Harbor was to the U.S. — a horrifying defeat that galvanized the war effort. “It’s the same trajectory — appalling defeat wakes up the nation, but of course in our case, the Germans had declared war on us.”
Roberts, author of “The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War,” hopes the film gets straight some of the arguments historians have had about Dunkirk for years. Why did Hitler order the Panzers to halt? Why didn’t the RAF better protect the soldiers on the beach? And how could the British army have gotten into this predicament?
Films and literature have drawn on the drama of Dunkirk from “Mrs. Miniver” (1942) — “the best piece of wartime propaganda ever made,” according to Roberts — to a 1958 British retelling, “Dunkirk,” though not as often as American-led offensives such as D-day (“Saving Private Ryan,” “The Longest Day”) or the Battle of the Bulge (the miniseries “Band of Brothers”).
Paul Gallico’s 1941 novella “The Snow Goose” is an enduring fable about a withdrawn fisherman who is ennobled by his death off Dunkirk. A more recent evocation came in Ian McEwan’s 2002 National Book Critics Circle prize-winning novel “Atonement,” and later, in the 2007 movie version directed by Joe Wright.
McEwan wrote a harrowing account of the grunt-level experience of the retreat by the character of Robbie Turner, from the days on foot through a countryside strewn with bodies, regular attacks by German Stukas, overpowering hunger and thirst to his arrival at Dunkirk. McEwan writes that Turner “thought he had no expectations — until he saw the beach.”
“He saw thousands of men, ten, twenty thousand perhaps more, spread across the vastness of the beach. In the distance they were like grains of black sand. But there were no boats apart from an upturned whaler rolling in the distant surf.”
McEwan used soldiers’ letters found in the Imperial War Museums in London to inform his account, but said in an interview at the 2002 Cheltenham Literature Festival, “My emotional relationship with this is that my father was at Dunkirk along with 320,000 other soldiers, making his way to the beach.”
In the run-up to Nolan’s take on Dunkirk, how are the retreat and evacuation seen today by historians? Do generations removed from World War II understand why Dunkirk was so important and why it remains resonant?
“As a matter of historical fact, Dunkirk is a disaster,” says Geoffrey Wawro, a professor of history and director of military history at the University of North Texas in Denton. Wawro formerly hosted “History vs. Hollywood” on the History Channel.
“The need to remove the British army at the last minute and under duress… they were fortunate to escape.” Even so, Wawro says, “It’s one of the things you can point to where this single action had momentous consequences. If the German army had destroyed the British army on the beach and left them with nothing to rebuild the British ground forces, what would they have done? They would have had nothing.”
Even if the particulars of Dunkirk are a bit murky for today’s movie audience, for some, the experience still has power. “There is this expression which almost everyone in Britain knows, which is ‘Dunkirk Spirit,’” Levine said. “It’s the idea the British are at their best when things are difficult. It’s still with us. Even though people really don’t understand what Dunkirk was, they’re still very keen to invoke the Dunkirk Spirit.”
When Satia teaches Dunkirk, she says she begins by setting out the myth of World War II as “a peoples’ war,” in which many of the divisions in society at that time were put aside and “everyone came together and showcased what is best about Great Britain. They found unity from diversity.”
Those who have studied Dunkirk agree that then-new British Prime Minister Winston Churchill artfully portrayed the operation as a testament to the virtues of the people.
Audiences saw how Dunkirk was used in the British war effort earlier this year in the film “Their Finest,” a story about how government propaganda officials commission a movie to boost morale (“Authenticity and optimism!” is the recipe they give the screenwriters) for women’s wartime work, as well as encourage the U.S. to enter the war.
Other British intellectuals, such as George Orwell and J.B. Priestley, also hailed these values, saying “‘this is what we’re good at,’” notes Satia, who adds that historian say the postwar welfare state, including creation of the National Health Service, was derived from the country’s post-Dunkirk sense of itself. So the evacuation lingers in the British consciousness, and like anything held dear, they don’t want to see a bad movie made of it.
Roberts cites Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” as what he hopes Dunkirk won’t be: “Appallingly bad, and historically all over the place.” He recently wrote an article for the website Heat Street in which he pointed out 100 errors in the 2017 movie “Churchill,” with Brian Cox. “I love war films, though my wife says I ruin all war movies for her,” Roberts said. “We’ll see how this one comes out.”