Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Featured: Dunkirk – Why it matters to the British

Have you seen Dunkirk yet? What did you think?

The story of Dunkirk the film is an interesting one. Christopher Nolan, in a recent interview with the BBC, said that this was a British story told with American money, which makes it extremely unusual. The story of Dunkirk has been told on screen before, most notably in Dunkirk with John Mills, but has also been in the background of other films such as Atonement with James MacAvoy. In all these cases the films are relatively low budget, and the sheer scale of the Dunkirk disaster has not been portrayed before. Chris Nolan said, in the same interview, that Dunkirk is one of the greatest stories that has yet to be told and that his film was his best effort to convey the experience.

The film is a huge success, conveying a sense of tension, dread, fear and sudden death from all directions. The reality of Dunkirk was far far worse.

The story of Dunkirk is woven deep into the social fabric of Britain. My generation (I was born in the 70s) grew up on the story of how a group of gallant civilians saved an army from annihilation by the Nazis; my grandparents all fought in the war, my uncles and aunts all lived that experience, I grew up with a distrust of Germans and Europeans, of the sense that Britain saved the world, that the French were weak and feckless, the Germans were warlike and untrustworthy, a sense of resentment over a perceived lack of thanks for our efforts and sacrifice to liberate these European countries. This sense of moral superiority survives to this day -England soccer fans still taunt their German rivals by shouting “two world wars, one world cup” however incorrect that may be.

Figure 1 :Map of the English Channel

Why does Dunkirk run so deep through our national psyche? Why is this such a big thing? In this article I try to explain how the British view the events of Dunkirk, and why we view them in such a way. I’ll touch on our relationship with the sea and other nations of Europe, and the peculiar mindset that afflicted the British between the wars, and after the Second World War.

The Sea

One thing to remember about Britain is that our nation is shaped by our relationship with the sea. Britain is, and always has been, a nation of seafarers. A trading nation happy to subjugate and trade with the wider world far beyond the horizon and defend that relationship through projection of Naval Power. Not for nothing is the Royal Navy referred to as the Senior Service – it is and always has been the core of the nation’s defence.

Figure 2:Beachy head, Sussex – One of the famous white cliffs

We are an island nation, we have a natural defense in the seas that surround our coasts. The south of England, closest to the continent of Europe, is largely made up of cliffs of chalk and limestone. What low lying land there is on the south coast is salt marsh, what few natural harbors that exist – notably Plymouth and Portsmouth – were largely taken over by the Royal Navy. Our natural defences have deterred the dreams of many Emperors and Kings through the centuries. Even the Romans, who had conquered all of Western Europe by 52 BC, but it was nearly 100 years later, in 43 AD, that the Emperor Claudius finally bringing his legions to Britain. The last time we were successfully invaded was the Norman conquest of 1066- nearly a thousand years ago.

The Foreign Policy

As an Island nation we have long followed the foreign policy of splendid isolation. For centuries we have not involved ourselves with conflicts on the continent (that’s how Brits refer to the mainland Europe – another example of the ‘us-and-them’ mentality we have) unless there was a clear benefit.

For example the assault of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Spain (Catholic) was annoyed with English-sponsored piracy in the Caribbean and the fact that Britain was ruled by a Protestant monarch (Elizabeth I) instead of her older sister Mary (who was a Catholic). The English foreign policy was to harass Spanish treasure galleons in the Caribbean, but otherwise was not fussed about what the Spanish thought – splendid isolation.

When the Armada appeared in the English Channel, things suddenly looked very serious. There was a sudden and very real threat of invasion, especially when the ships anchored of Calais to wait for the arrival of the Spanish army. The Royal Navy attacked with fireships (at Gravelines, about five miles west of Dunkirk), scattering the Spanish fleet, then followed up with a serious battle on the remnants of the fleet, forcing the Spanish north, up between Scandinavia and the East coast of Britain and causing them to round the wild coasts of Scotland. In September. They arrived in the channel with plans of invasion, three months later they were left trying to survive. Many did not. The Armada was destroyed as it rounded Scotland thanks to a series of storms. The British has committed to just two military actions.

The start of the 20th Century

Splendid Isolation, as a policy, began to weaken after the French Revolution and the joint British/Prussian defeat of the French Emperor Napoleon (finally settled at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815). Britain began to ally with many of the continental countries, most notably old enemy France (the Entente Cordiale of 1904). This alliance between Britain and France concerned the new country of Germany (created in 1871) who felt threatened by the new superpower to their West.

Figure 3:Queen Victoria of England(seated middle) and her family including Kaiser Wilhelm (with moustache and peaked hat, seated, to the left of the Queen) and Tsar Alexander of Russia (in hat standing just behind the Kaiser), and the then Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, stand directly behind the Tsar with the beard in the military uniform.

Kaiser Wilhelm, the slightly unstable leader of the new Germany, was a committed Anglophobe. He loved Britain, and celebrated his close relationship with his grandmother Queen Victoria, herself of German extraction. Wilhelm believed and hoped that Britain would not change its centuries old policy of splendid isolation when Germany declared war on France at the start of what became the First World War. His gamble failed, and the moment Britain committed to support France (by sending the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)), the war was guaranteed to grind to a halt along a frontier as two equal armies hit each other face on and stalled. The tragedy of the First World War was that it ground on for five years and wasted thousands of lives.

The rise of the Nazis and the British perception

The rise of nationalism and ultimately the collective insanity of National Socialism (as advocated by the Nazi party) during the 1930s made the British position at the start of the Second World War easier to define: stand up to fascism. Compared to the confusing, irrational, house-of-cards collection of alliances and agreements that drew all the combatants into the horror of the First World War, the rationale behind the British involvement in the Second World War is much easier to understand.

This idea lies at the root of the National belief that the British saved the world. It leads directly to the actions that led to Dunkirk and is still at the core of much of the populace’s beliefs to this day. The vote to leave the European Union in 2016 was undoubtedly coloured by this belief, though I should point out that many many other factors came into play.

It should also be pointed out that in the twenty years between the two wars, Britain was not keen to get involved in another war. It sat on the sidelines during the brutal Spanish Civil War (which installed fascist dictator Franco on the throne) and refused to get involved during the rise of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini in Italy. Hitler was a different issue. Germany sat at the heart of Europe, and was (and still is) the industrial powerhouse of the continent, with huge technological and natural resources (though not oil) and a brilliant populace. Germany had been humiliated by the terms of the armistice that ended the First World War, it was forbidden to have an army or Airforce over a certain size and denied a Navy altogether. It also suffered economically, with rampant inflation of prices and mass unemployment.

Hitler stood before Germany and promised to make it great again. Once elected he began work on a number of capital projects – a huge interstate building program, new ships and planes, new airports and cities. He employed thousands, balanced the economy, and moved Germany back into positive economic growth again. Then he began building up the German military again, against the armistice agreement. To the nations surrounding Germany, this was concerning. Hitler then began aggressive moves. He annexed the country of Austria (which is very close to Germany in language, beliefs as well as geographically and being Hitler’s birthplace), then moved into northern Czechoslovakia claiming it as morally German. In both cases Britain and France, both wary of another war, protested, but did no more.

The scars of the First World War

Why did Britain and France do this? Well, it comes back to another part of the British psyche that stems from the First World War and it is to do with the huge amount of death the country experienced

The wounds of the First World War were still raw in British society, the fear of another round of wasteful stagnant conflict terrified the British. The First World War was the first war to actually be understood by the general population, to be followed in newspapers, to be seen in early newsreels. It was also the first war to impact our national culture, the advent of famous War poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon with their melancholic verses and tragic deaths brought home to the nation the sheer horror of the war. The Victorian era, which ran (very roughly) from the Battle of Waterloo to 1900, was the first social era to celebrate, or even acknowledge, death and set the pattern of mourning their loss.

Figure 4: Dud Corner cemetary, home of the Loos memorial (the walls around the site)

This led, directly, to the First World War being the first major war to maintain records of those who died, and to celebrate and remember their sacrifice. We have a national minute’s silence every year at 11:11a.m. on the 11th November (11/11) – the date and time of the ceasefire that ended the First World War. If you visit Britain in November you will see a lot of people wearing small red flowers. These are poppies, the first flowers to bloom amid the carnage of the trench battlefields, and adopted as the symbol of remembrance. Every soldier who died in the First World War (also known in Britain as ‘The Great War’) has their name recorded somewhere in one of the cemeteries established by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (established in 1917) either as a marked grave, where a body has been recovered and identified, or as a name on a wall where no remains have been found. To visit one of these immense cemeteries in the bleak farmland of Northern France is a humbling experience, and thousands would have done so, to pay homage to lost friends or loved ones. It is a tradition that continues to this day. My Great Uncle Teddy is named on Loos Memorial having been killed in the Battle of Fromelles aged 22. He has no known grave.

Back in Britain, this practice was continued with the thousands of individual war memorials that exist in almost every British village and parish church listing the names of the local men who went to France and never returned.

Make no mistake, the wounds of the First World War run very very deep. The war affected everyone, from the wealthiest Lord to the poorest peasant. The country sent an entire generation away to fight and lost most of them. Advances in battlefield medicine meant that many did come back, wounded and suffering, but alive. Remember in Downton Abbey when they turn the big house into a hospital? That happened all over the country, bringing the horror of war home to the general populace. Wounded soldiers would have been a common sight.

Figure 5:Typical English Villiage War Memorial

Those who returned came back with a variety of wounds and ailments the like of which had never been seen before – wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs were seen for the first time, as were diagnoses of new mental illnesses such as shellshock.

This experience affected the British national soul in an unusual way; our attitude to those with disabilities. Britain is at the forefront of medicine to treat those with disabilities to this day. Our surgeons pioneered plastic surgery and physiotherapy. We devised the first ever Disability games at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1948, something that has gone on to become the Paralympic Games, one of the largest sporting events in the World. In London 2012, the Paralympic Games sold the same number of tickets as the Olympic games held a few weeks before, and Paralympic sport gets coverage on national TV. We have national organisations such as the Royal British legion and Help for Heroes who provide support, care, and rehabilitation for wounded members of our Armed Forces, and more recently HRH Prince Harry has been involved in organising the Invictus Games a multi-sport tournament for wounded servicemen and women from around the world. Arguably Britain leads the world in our attitude to those with disabilities and it all stems from the special horror of the First World War.

The policy of appeasement

Prime Minister at the start of the Second World War was a chap called Neville Chamberlain. He was a highly experienced politician and when he assumed the position of Prime Minister in 1937 nearly all of his time and effort was directed towards handling Hitler’s Germany.

Figure 6: Chamberlain meets Hitler at the Bergof, Sept. 1938. Credit: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-H12478 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Chamberlain had a big problem. Since the First World War, the British Army had reduced spending on its armed forces (as you do in peacetime). However this had meant that all three arms of the military had fallen behind technologically, especially when considering the propaganda videos being issued by Germany showing high-tech tanks, armoured cars and motorbikes.  In the mid-1930s Britain woke up to this deficit and began work on mechanising their own army. However such a project takes a long time to deliver and was still grinding along as the Munich Crisis was happening. Chamberlain adopted a policy of appeasement, an attempt to mollify and diplomatically corral Hitler, which was widely denied once war broke out. However more recent historians believe that Chamberlain was trying delaying tactics, in order to give the British Military as much time as possible to re-arm and re-equip before war broke out.

However the feeling that still pervades the British mentality today was that Chamberlain was hoodwinked and tricked by Hitler, made to look foolish and weak. Then, once war had broken out, it was Britain that swung to the rescue of Europe under the leadership of Winston Churchill. In fact it now appears that Chamberlain thought war was highly probable and was attempting to either find a peaceful solution or to get as much time as possible before war broke out to get his country as prepared as it could be.

The Phoney War

When the Wehrmacht invaded Poland on 1st Sept 1939 no major military power came to their aid, despite their being defensive agreements between the Poles and both Britain and France. The German army overwhelmed the country in a mere six weeks. The legend of the Blitzkrieg or lightning war, was born.

There then came a period of, well, nothing much. Despite a state of war existing between Germany, Britain and France, not much fighting actually occurred: The French moved into the Saarland to help the Poles, but swiftly retreated, a few ships were sunk (including the Graf Spee), a few skirmishes occurred, but in the main war not much. This period of time is called the Phoney War.

Immediately after hostilities commenced, the British sent a new British expeditionary Force (BEF) to France.

The BEF was small, just 13 divisions – about 500,000 men – but this was still half the entire British Army. It was also, arguably, the most modern army in the world. The battledress issued was state of the art, the rifles cutting edge, the tin helmet the envy of the world. It was almost entirely mechanised: unlike the German army the British had eliminated the horse from its ranks, replaced by lorries, tanks and armoured cars. The downside to being this advanced was things hadn’t been produced in enough quantities to fully equip everyone. Just six months before a German military attaché had witness British troops marching with broom handles as they didn’t yet have rifles. Chamberlain knew this and it now seems likely that his policy of appeasement was also playing for time to fully equip the army.

During the Phoney War two major things did happen: Finland was invaded by Russia (who, at the time, were allies with Hitler’s Germany), and the Germans invaded Norway. The Russian invasion caused much consternation in London and Paris, but ultimately by the time they had both mobilised to do something to help the Finns, the offensive was over and Stalin’s Russia had won.

Norway was a different matter. The British, worried that their traditional route to the sea from their Scottish bases would be compromised by having to sail down the North Sea past a hostile shore. The British sent troops to Norway in a number of poorly executed attacks, all of which came to nothing except to undermine confidence in Chamberlain’s government. On the 10th of May 1940, having faced a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, Chamberlain resigned the premiership and the king appointed Winston Churchill, a vocal opponent of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, as Prime Minister.

This is the start of the legend of Churchill: the War Leader. He took his post on 10th May 1940.

On the same day, the Germans attacked France.

The invasion of France and the retreat to the sea

The legend of the invasion of France has it that German tanks and infantry were faster to the field, and were more powerful when they got there. This is only partly true. It is true the Blitzkreig tactics of air assault followed up by swiftly moving armour and soldiers was incredibly successful, but it wouldn’t have been enough to smash the huge French and British armies massed on the border or behind the heavily fortified Maginot line.

Figure 7:The final German assault plan 1940. Army Group A hit the BEF and French head on, Army Group C held the frontier opposite the Maginot line, Army Group B attacked through the Ardennes forest and caused the most damage.

The success of the German army during the battle of France can be attributed primarily to their offensive through the wooded valleys and hills of the Ardennes region of southern Belgium – between the two major allied armies. No army, no matter how strong, can survive attack on their flanks (or sides). Thus the combined French, British, and Belgian armies had no choice but to retreat. The small Dutch army had been utterly bypassed by the Nazi offensive, the Belgians retreated roughly due north to the Belgian coast (and held out around the fortress city of Liege for another three months). The French and British retreated west towards the French border – fighting ferocious rear-guard actions at a number of natural obstacles along the way. These battles, along the Meuse for example, were held over much of the terrain the First World War fought over. Not for nothing is Northern Europe thought of as being bathed in blood.

The effect of the German attack on the British national mentality

To the British, then and now, the thoughts of the events of May 1940 raises dread and fear. Half the army was cut off on a hostile continent, nothing appeared to be able to stop the advance of the Germans, and invasion seemed likely. Invasion. It had been a thousand years since Britain had last been invaded, but here it seemed inevitable. With just half the army available, how could anyone repel such an assault?

Figure 8: Typical Pillbox by a canal

Morale plummeted amongst the British public. Defensive lines were drawn up, defensive structures were built and many still dot the English countryside to this day – concrete pillars to stop tanks, small bunkers called pillboxes on canals and rivers – they were often the playgrounds of my youth. I grew up in the shadow of Dunkirk.

Figure 9: Typical Tank traps defending a bridge

So, encircled, the British and one of the two French armies found themselves on the beach at Dunkirk. A corps of British soldiers and one of the French armies established a perimeter and reinforced it. With their backs to the sea, all the army could hope for was evacuation.

The sea. Backs to the sea. Here is where Dunkirk resonates with the British. The sea had been our nation’s benefactor, or protector, the source of our wealth and our security. Now it was an obstacle, it had turned against us. It was preventing us from continuing our retreat and protecting our nation. The sea was now going to cost the country our army, and make it easier for the seemingly unstoppable German forces, who had taken Czechoslovakia, Austria, Norway, Poland, the Netherlands and Belgium already, from swarming across the channel. Our capital is just thirty miles from the south coast.

Figure 10: German invasion plan for the UK 1940

The battle for Dunkirk was a battle for survival, as the film rightly shows, but what may be missed by viewers from other countries is that it is a metaphor for the survival of our entire country, our entire way of life, of London, of everything that makes us, well, us.

If the evacuation at Dunkirk had not have happened. Britain would have been invaded. An invasion we would probably lose.

The Dunkirk Evacuation – the Sea

Let’s now look at the events of the evacuation itself. It is estimated that 400,000 men were inside the Dunkirk perimeter. To the east of the town were sand dunes behind which were flat marshes. To the west of the town was the port. The perimeter ran from the marshes through the streets of the town and included the docks and was ferociously defended by the French. Immediately the Germans targeted the port and destroyed it (those at the fires seen in the film from the mole) from the air. There was now no deep water dock for larger ships to tie up against. The forty-seven destroyers (the large warship seen in the film) could not get close to take anyone off. All they had were their launches.

By day two it was discovered that the moles were capable of being used as rudimentary docks. The moles were outer breakwaters designed to create a wider sheltered zone outside of the port. Never designed for the loading or unloading of ships, the moles were just long piles of stones and rocks topped with a simple wooden walkway. There were two moles, east and west, with the East mole being a mile long. Small coastal pleasure boats could tie up against the mole, as could larger coasters, ferries and hospital ships. Over 180,000 men were evacuated from the East mole alone, the most successful part of the whole operation.

Figure 11:View of Dunkirk Harbour, 1940

Both moles were, however, cruelly exposed to artillery and air attack. On the 29th May the Destroyers HMS Grenade and HMS Jaguar were tied up, with six trawlers and the passenger ships Fenella, Crested Eagle and Canterbury. The German air assault began at 3pm and ran until 8 in the evening during which all the ships were damaged or sunk, with only the Jaguar and the Canterbury able to limp back to Britain. Off the beaches, at the same time, the Stukas badly damaged the destroyers Gallant, Greyhound, Intrepid and Saladin, as well as the sloop Bideford. The passenger ships Normania and Lorina were sunk, as was the merchantman Clan Macalister and the armed boarding vessel King Orry as well as many smaller craft.

The core of the Dunkirk operation lasted a week. At any point during the operation there were between 20 and 40 Destroyers patrolling the seas off the beach. With the loss of the port at Dunkirk, those ship could do nothing but wait, and watch, and do the best they could to defend the troops on the beach. Imagine how the officers and crews of those ships felt. Occasionally they attempted to shell the Germans army outside of the perimeter but without accurate spotting, they could not be sure they were not killing allied troops. All those warships could really do was defend against air attack and wait to take people off. All the while being attacked by bombers (the twin engine Heinkel in the film) and their defending fighters, but there weren’t just single planes, there were swarms.

Figure 12: German S-boat

There were also the occasional U-boat attack though the shallow water prevented them from doing their worst. Much more threatening was the S-boat (which the allies labelled E-boats), heavily armed speedboats capable of charging through a fleet of capital ships at fifty miles an hour, throwing torpedoes, sowing mines and strafing fragile craft. S-boats are not seen in Nolan’s film, but they were there, frequently attacking at night, and causing chaos. During the battle, nine destroyers were sunk and nineteen damaged.

There were bigger ships at Dunkirk, but the shallow water and narrow confines of the English Channel made it too much of a risk to deploy them (remember there were extensive minefields which restricted operations further). The Dover straits were shortly to become known as Hellfire corner due to the sheer ferocity of the battle that raged on and above the narrow strip of sea for the rest  the year.

The Dunkirk Evacuation – the little ships

Despite the valour and sacrifice of the Royal and Merchant Navy at Dunkirk, the legend in the UK is of the so-called little ships: these are the pleasure cruisers, private yachts, barges and launches of private ownership that were pressed into operation to evacuate troops stuck on the beaches at Dunkirk.

On the 27th May, the second day of the evacuation, the British ministry of shipping telephoned boat builders all around the South Coast and asked them to collect all boats of shallow draft that could navigate shallow waters. In total it is estimated that over 700 vessels took part in the operation and many still exist today.

Figure 13:Collection of ‘little ships’ being towed down the Thames on their way to Dunkirk

The little ships were frequently piloted by their owners and many were killed during the operation. The majority of the 226 ships sunk during the operation came from the ranks of the little ships. No-one knows how many were killed.

However here is something else that resonates with the British about Dunkirk – the bravery of the ‘citizen sailors’ who answered the Navy’s call. There is no doubt of their heroism.

For example, the story of the Royal Daffodil II which evacuated 7,461 people from Dunkirk in five trips despite being hit by a bomb which exploded below the waterline.

Or the Medway Queen a paddle steamer which made seven trips, rescuing over 7,000. It had been requisitioned before the operation by the Navy and equipped with an ancient 12 pounder gun, but on seeing the carnage on the beaches, encouraged the troops to bring their Bren light machine guns and, now armed to the teeth, managed to shoot down three enemy aircraft, penetrated the shattered harbour at Dunkirk at one point, and even took men directly off the beaches.

Or the Sundowner, which was owned and sailed by Charles Lightoller – the most senior officer to survive the Titanic Disaster, who volunteered himself and his son to sail to the coast. The story of the Sundowner appears to be the basis for the Mark Rylance story in Chris Nolan’s film.

At sea, the evacuation was hell.

The Dunkirk Evacuation – the Land

The movie shows us a lot of the mole and some of the wide flat beaches in front of the town. In fact the beaches stretched for some considerable distance beyond the town and were largely backed by sand dunes. It was in these dunes that the majority of troops sheltered as it was marginally more protected than standing on the open flat beach.

However the soldiers did have to stand, in orderly lines, waiting patiently to climb on a boat for salvation. 400,000 men standing in queues on a wide shallow beach, looking across the sea at safety. As they stood on the beach they were subjected to relentless aerial assault, constant Stuka attacks (the screaming aircraft from the film) and strafing runs by Messcherschmidt 109s. No cover. No hiding place. Just fall to the floor and hope for the best. Then, when the attack was over, stand up and re-join your queue. Wait for salvation. Wait for the next attack. Tedium. Terror. Tedium. Terror. Frustration. Fear. Imagine, for a moment, what that was like.

At least you could hear the planes coming, the artillery strikes arrived without warning. The Germans had it easy, all they had to do was shell the beach.

The stoicism of the Dunkirk troops is celebrated in the UK. There is no story of a breakdown in discipline, even though situation in France was very carefully stage managed by the British government, papers were banned from reporting and a tight grip was made on the news, supplanted with stage managed propaganda. It is this propaganda that remains in the British collective memory.

Figure 14: Troops on the beach
Figure 15:Balcony below Dover Castle from where Operation Dynamo was run

Imagine the frustration of those stuck on the beach. Kenneth Branagh, the character used to give you a sense of the overall situation, says at one point “You can almost see it from here.” meaning the South Coast of England. Dunkirk, on a clear summer’s day, you can indeed see the Kent coast as a thin strip on the horizon. Operation Dynamo, as the Dunkirk evacuation was codenamed, was run from some Napoleonic era tunnels under Dover Castle. From the balcony in the cliffs below the medieval walls (and Roman lighthouse) officers equipped with a decent set of binoculars could actually see the beaches at Dunkirk, could see their army, but just couldn’t reach them. Imagine the sense of frustration and impotence those officers felt.

The Dunkirk Evacuation – the Air

Which brings us to the air. The RAF Fighter Command flew over 3,000 sorties during that week, and encountered the much vaunted Luftwaffe. On paper, the Luftwaffe should have won easily – it had many more aircraft, all of which were mounting much heavier guns. The ME109 (the yellow nosed fighter seen in the film) mounted two cannon in the wings and two 7.62mm machine guns in the nose. The British had eight 7.7mm machine guns, the cannon on the German fight fired a bigger shell with an explosive charge, so took fewer hits to down an enemy.

However the British not only had Spitfires and the tougher, but slower Hurricane (not seen in the film), but they also had radar – a new technology that allowed the fighters to be sent accurately to intercept incoming Nazi attacks. The RAF effectively tested its new management system during Dunkirk, and refined it further It was this system, along with the superior fighter aircraft, helped Fighter Command to frustrate the Luftwaffe’s assault during the summer – despite being outnumbered and outgunned.

Towards the end of the film a soldier attacks an airman, saying “Where the hell were you then?” The RAF actually fought most of its battles out over the sea, encountering bombers, dive bombers and fighters attacking ships in the channel. Only a few planes made it to the beaches, leading to much animosity between the army and the Airforce. In fact the RAF fought hard, shooting down three times as many aircraft as the Germans managed.

Also crucial during the Dunkirk operation was the further refinement of RAF Search and Rescue Force, a fleet of high speed launches that sped out into the channel and hauled downed pilots from the sea and returned them home as quickly as possible. During the Battle of Britain it was not unheard of for pilots to be shot down early in the morning and being returned to their squadrons and flying again in the afternoon. The German pilots frequently drowned. This helped preserve the desperately small force of trained fighter pilots.

Fighter Command pilots who fought during the Battle of Britain (which began at Dunkirk and ran until the end of September 1940) are venerated in the UK as “the Few”, taken from Churchill’s second famous speech at the end of the Battle of Britain in September 1940: “Never before in the field of human history has so much been owed by so many, to so few.” Not for nothing is Dunkirk thought of as the start of the Battle of Britain. The invention of radar and its combination with an effective command and control system and robust communication network with the pilots was the key to the defence of Britain during the Second World War.

The combination of these three elements, Command and Control, the Spitfire, the Few is the stuff of legend in Britain. It is the basis of the legend of us standing alone against tyranny, alone against fascism, the saviour of Europe just gathering itself to fight back while defended by heroes. This entire legend, myth or not, began with Dunkirk and still resonates today.


Which brings us to Winston Churchill, the talismanic war time prime minister. A man venerated as a national hero, voted the greatest Briton of all time in a BBC poll, a man whose statue stands alone in Parliament Square, staring at the Palace of Westminster. Dunkirk is the start of the Churchill myth.

It was clear as the Nazi armies rolled through Poland and the ‘Phoney War’ came to an end that Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement had failed and that Britain was at war. The various political parties immediately voted to put aside party politics and established a war cabinet to last for the duration of hostilities. Chamberlain excused himself from leading this new organisation and the cabinet immediately and unanimously voted Churchill, a highly experienced minister, as Prime Minister.

Three days later after accepting the job, Churchill made his first speech to Parliament as Prime Minister. The speech was legendary, known today as the “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech it electrified Parliament and galvanised the British People.  This was a man saying that the country was at the start of a war, a war that was going to be painful, but one that that just. It is worth quoting one passage in full:

“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory. Victory at all costs—Victory in spite of all terror—Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

With that one speech Churchill had the country in the palm of his hand. He held the hopes and fears of everyone, but he also seized their support. He won their trust and their faith, reinforced it over the next few years, and, most importantly, never betrayed the faith the British people put in him.

By the end of Dunkirk, he was a legend.


Dunkirk, the movie, tells just a snapshot of what Dunkirk, the event, means to us Brits. It is the start of our nation’s self-delusion that we are the saviors of Europe, which Europe somehow owes us for coming to their aid.

It is also the most recent point our livelihood felt threatened, that our country might fall, and this was no idle fantasy – it was horrifyingly real. The last time we’d been threatened was the Spanish Armada, which led to the legend of Elizabeth I, Elizabeth Gloriana. The last time anyone had succeeded, we’d been armed with arrows, but this was actually likely to happen.

It was a point that re-defined our relationship with the sea, so long our protector and our provider, the sea at Dunkirk was as much our enemy as the German army.

It was the point that showed that the Nazis could be stopped, or at least slowed. The victories in the air especially, gave Fighter Command faith that they could defeat the Luftwaffe in the air. That summer, they did, and so Dunkirk was the start of the legend of The Few.

It was the point that defensive structures were hurriedly built across England’s green and pleasant land, structures that survive to this day. Ugly, purposeful structures that last as a reminder of how close we came.

It was the nail in the coffin of the policy of splendid isolation. It was the start of Britain as part of the international community, not dictating to it. It was, essentially, the start of Modern Britain on the geopolitical stage.

It was the end of the period of mourning after the First World War, and the start of a renewed, powerful nation. It was the start of a national sense of purpose that hadn’t been seen since the end of the First World War, and hasn’t been seen since the end of the Second.

It was the start (eventually) of a golden age, a time many look back on fondly. My parent’s generation, growing up in the shadow of the war, saw a new Britain evolve, one that was shiny and hopeful, they have experienced prosperity the likes of which had never been seen before.

It was the end of the retreat, as far as the British were concerned, and the start of the fight back.


Hear our full review of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk on Episode 231:

Similar Articles